I was so thrilled to pick up a copy of this and have it signed by Alys Arden at the recent American Library Association’s Annual Conference 2022! I’d never read any Zatanna before, despite being both fascinated by the character and curiously reluctant to read any of her solo books. I figured that a modern YA retelling of her origin story might be the best way to ease me into learning more about a character who seems ripe for misogynistic exploitation and, frankly, whose idea of spellcasting always seemed vaguely clever-for-the-early-1900s-but-otherwise-extremely-obvious for me.
Ofc, YA retellings of iconic characters are not without their pitfalls. I have spent far too much of my reading life quietly seething at what well-meaning authors have done to (ruin) the origins of Wonder Woman and Catwoman, so I figured that not knowing anything about Zatanna’s background would actually serve me well here. So while I can’t speak to how closely this book hews to the accepted canon — in deed or even, and perhaps more importantly, in spirit; see the first X-Men movie for an excellent example of capturing the spirit of a story without necessarily keeping to the often tricky and contradictory minutiae of decades of background detail — I can say that it was a very entertaining graphic novel that perfectly introduces a rebellious, stage-shy Zatanna who will eventually grow up to be the confident mystic and magician long-time readers are more familiar with.
Zatanna Starr is looking forward to spending a summer away from the snooty kids at the school her wealthy parents insist she attends. While her snobby classmates talk about traveling to Europe and the Hamptons, Zatanna is more than content to lounge on the beach of her Coney Island home, hanging out with her real friends and, especially, with the boy she’s been inseparable from for almost a decade now, Alexei Volkov. Sure, it’s a little weird that his dad is the Russian mobster in charge of running the casinos in the basement of her own family’s legendary hotel, but their parents are mostly cool with them being together, even if Alexei’s mom is constantly fussing at him to work out with a slew of personal trainers she brings in from all over the world.
A freak accident while visiting a new mermaid-themed circus, however, sets into motion a deadly chain of events that will not only force Zatanna to confront her stage fright but also to question everything she ever thought she knew about herself. Her parents are master illusionists and entertainers, so the thought has never crossed her mind that magic could possibly be real. But what if it is, and what if she can wield it? And worse, what if the impossibility of real magic isn’t the only lie she’s spent her entire life believing?
Keeping in mind that I knew little of Zatanna’s actual background, I found this story solidly entertaining, and even cried near the end. Ms Arden is a terrific writer, deftly infusing what little I do know of the classic character with wonderfully modern details. The best thing about this story, I thought, was how it neatly evaded tired tropes to tell its tender tale. The love between Zatanna and Alexei was so lovely, and there was never any stupidity introduced between them for the sake of plot tension.
And can I say how much I loved what the creative team did with the magic system used here? The fact that the mirror-script lettering was so different from the rest of the text made it really feel like something just on the edge of human knowledge, with flowing, glowy purple-tinged letters. Which leads to yet another strength of the book: its gorgeous colors and overall solid art. There was a bit of an unfinished quality to the linework in some of the full-body panels, but the close-ups were great, with rich colors and textures throughout.
I hope this is only the first in a series, as it sets up for a sequel really nicely. I’d love to follow along as teen Zatanna discovers more about her past and heritage. Tho there was one thing that confused me: what’s the deal with the physical manifestation of the jewel? It was never really explained in this volume but will, I’m hoping, be addressed in any sequels.
Zatanna: The Jewel of Gravesend by Alys Arden & Jacquelin De Leon was published July 26 2022 by DC Comics and is available from all good booksellers, including