With the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series on Cartoon Network, it became commonplace for many members of the DC Universe to interact and co-exist. It even started becoming a thing as early as the 1996 Superman animated series where the Green Lantern and Lobo and people like that would show up on occasion. But in Batman: The Animated Series, finding people not in the direct Bat-verse but in the larger DCU was almost nonexistent. While the odd non-Bat villain like Count Vertigo or Clock King (both of whom are traditionally Green Arrow villains) did rear their head once in awhile, heroes were almost nowhere to be found. Late in the run, there was a flashback episode featuring Jonah Hex (“Showdown.” We’ll get to it.), but he didn’t interact with Batman at all. In fact, only one DCU hero ever crept into Gotham during this series, and she got a whole episode named after her: Zatanna.
I think Paul Dini is not only one of the best writers of Batman ever, he’s also one of the biggest proponents for writing for women. On top of inventing Harley Quinn, he made her one of the most complex villains in the entire series/Batman mythos. (We already saw how well he paired Harley with Poison Ivy and made an episode about women’s empowerment and the need to get out of abusive relationships on a cartoon aimed at pre-teen boys.) This is all to say, it seemed no wonder Dini would be the one to include one of DC’s female heroes in an episode, and while not an obvious choice, Zatanna is a perfect choice.
Zatanna has been around since the late-1960s when she was introduced in, of all books, Hawkman. She was the daughter of the famous magician and Golden Age character Zatara. In the comics, she’s both a stage magician and a real magician, eventually crossing over with books in the Vertigo line’s more occult-based books like Hellblazer and The Books of Magic. While she certainly had encounters with Batman through the years, she was never more than a passing acquaintance. Here, though, she’s portrayed as being yet another of Bruce Wayne’s former lost loves, forsaken on his quest to become Gotham’s greatest defender. It’s a pretty long list, really.
At the beginning of the episode, Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth are sitting in the audience waiting for Zatanna’s magic show at the Gotham Mint to begin. Bruce is nervous since it’s been such a long time since he’s seen her. She begins her show and people are wowed. This leads into a flashback where Bruce is being trained in the art of escapeology by Zatara, having studied with him for the past three months while the master magician and his daughter were on tour. Zatara says he’s taught Bruce, using the brilliant alias “John Smith,” all he can and the young billionaire says it’s time to go to Japan to keep learning. (We can assume that leads to his stealth and ninja training.) Zatanna is sad to see Bruce leave and tries to coax him into staying, even going so far as to cuff him to the wall. He escapes of course, saying he’ll write, which he never does.
Back at the show, Zatanna is about to do her big trick, which is to make a giant pile of money disappear. She has two witnesses on stage with her: Mr. Fauncewater from the mint, and noted magic-debunker Dr. Montague Kane. While she makes the money disappear no problem, the reappear part seems not to be working. Fauncewater immediately accuses Zatanna of stealing it and she’s promptly arrested. Bruce doesn’t believe Zatanna would have stolen it and decides Batman should investigate.
After springing her from the hoosegow, and enduring her confused incredulity about why he would (“What do you care about some leggy dame in nylons? Or did I just answer my own question?”), the pair determine the only one who could have done it is Kane, who knows more than anyone who isn’t a magician about magic. After going to his home, they discover not only had he been expecting them, but he’d set a nasty trap for them. Now he thinks he’s going to get away scott free on his fancy aeroplane, but he doesn’t realize with whom he has messed.
While this episode isn’t particularly innovative from a plot perspective, the fact that we get to see part of Bruce’s past, and a very important person in it, is worth noting. A nervous Bruce Wayne is not something we see very often, and that it’s because of a woman is quite different. Bruce dates women all the time to keep up his playboy guise, but he’s never really cared for too many of them. Zatanna is clearly one who meant a great deal to him and his worry about what she’ll say when they meet again is oddly comforting. Even Batman gets nervous around girls he likes!
Zatanna, for her part, may be the object of Bruce’s affection (in this episode) but she is far from merely that. She’s a successful magician, yes, but she’s also a very confident person and quite adept at getting herself or Batman out of a jam if need be. In the flashback, she wants Bruce to stay and laughs as she cuffs him, but knows it probably won’t work and becomes somber when she sees he’s escaped. She’s not a weepy lovesick girl at all. In the present, she works incredibly well with Batman and even punches out Kane at the episode’s climax. She’s voiced by Julie Brown (of “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” and MTV in the ’80s fame) and she gives the character both a sense of fun and innocence and gravitas. She’s so good, it makes me wish Zatanna had shown up a couple more times in TAS.
“Zatanna” is a bit of an oddball episode, but it’s another feather in Dini’s cap and another example of how great the women were written in Batman: The Animated Series. Between Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Zatanna, and (coming up in a few weeks) Batgirl, this show had some of the most well-rounded females in superhero fiction. All of them could easily go toe-to-toe with Batman, which is pretty refreshing to see, again, especially for a show aimed at young boys.
Next week, it’s another request from a reader: What happens when a mad scientist reads Bruce Wayne’s mind and wants to auction off Batman’s identity to the highest bidder? Well, if Two-Face, the Joker, and the Penguin are involved, nothing good. Next time, it’s “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne.”