Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
The kookiness kontinues! Zatanna has problems, bad guys are everywhere, and a cat speaks in hieroglyphics! And, of course, I will SPOIL everything I can, past, present, and future! Read on – if you dare!
The first page of this book is one of those testaments to how nicely comic book art can accompany comic book writing to tell a great story. In raindrops, then in the ocean, then on the faces of fish, then on the rocks, we see an evil face coming closer and closer to San Francisco. We guess that it’s Gwydion, coming to wreak awful havoc on Zatanna and her world, and Sook does a wonderful job blending the face into the elements, something he’ll do again throughout the issue. It’s really very nice. In the last panel of the first page, Zatanna’s voiceover to Misty is “I’m not saying you can’t be anything you want to be,” which fits in perfectly with Gwydion’s changeability – he is, literally, anything he wants to be (Gimmix was molested by “shape-shifting monsters” – was it Gwydion?). Comics, I’ve mentioned before, do this kind of thing – words and pictures overlapping – better than any medium, including movies, and Morrison does it really well. Just a re-affirmation of why comics are cool.
Zatanna and Misty are on the Golden Gate Bridge, talking about different things. Zatanna is explaining being a superhero to Misty, telling her it’s more than wearing a cape and being famous. That seems to work for Zatanna! She also says she has to take Misty home to her mother, and Misty tells her she ran away from home. This is interesting, given that Misty’s stepmother is, in actuality, the Queen of the Sheeda, Gloriana Tenebrae herself! Misty didn’t exactly run away, but she did get away from her wicked stepmother, so she’s kind of telling the truth. It’s not her fault Zatanna didn’t investigate a bit more! Misty says she ended in the self-esteem workshop because she asked her magic die to fine Zatanna, and it did. This is the first time we learn that nobody else could see her at the workshop, too. The die is painted with Roman numerals, but it seems wrong – the VI side is adjacent to the I side, which is incorrect, because they would have to be opposite from each other. Unless that’s not a I. But it looks like one. Zatanna, meanwhile, easily drops into the role of mentor, telling Misty the First Rule of Magic: “Nothing is what it seems.” Oh, the irony!
They enter (illegally, I might add) Cassandra Craft’s shop, which is “the place for magical weaponry, spells, potions, and armor.” Cassandra is apparently an old friend of the Phantom Stranger’s, but more importantly, perhaps, is her name. The last name is self-explanatory, and whenever someone is named “Cassandra” in popular fiction, I can’t imagine the creator (and Morrison did NOT create her) wasn’t thinking of Cassandra, the prophet of Troy, who was cursed to never be believed. Anyway, there’s a Sheeda in a jar in the shop (the one that took control of Mo Colley the boxer in The Manhattan Guardian #4), and a copy of the Qabbalah, the books of Jewish mysticism, which is based on a Tree of Life. We’ve already seen a Tree of (perhaps) Death in Zatanna – the tree from which Gwydion springs. Cassandra, who is blind (like Tiresias, who was – wow! – transsexual?), confronts them with a crossbow that holds a talking bolt and speaks of a “shapeless one” – presumably Gwydion, but how would Cassandra know about him? Could she be a prophet? As she closes the shop, we see Gwydion appear in water droplets on the front door. In the back room, Cassandra explains that the “shapeless one” showed up after Ibis and Taia were incinerated. Ibis and Taia, unsurprisingly, were popular in San Francisco. The question is: how long ago was Zatanna’s seance, and what has she been doing since then? When is the seventh day of Arachne in relation to when she shows up at Cassandra’s shop? And why did it take so long for her to get going? Is it just because she felt so guilty about killing friends of hers, and Misty managed to get her out of the funk? Zatanna tells Misty that there’s more to being a hero than putting on a cape and being famous, but she herself has not been acting like a hero, letting Gwydion wander around terrorizing people and fish.
Cassandra tells Zatanna that Gwydion is an early form of Merlin, and it also refers to a royal were-dragon from Welsh mythology. It’s also, as I pointed out last time, the birth name of Arthur, if you believe Marion Zimmer Bradley. Of course, this ties back into Avalon and lost Camelot and Sir Justin. While Zatanna explains her plan to trap Gwydion, Misty meets Prowley, Cassandra’s cat, who speaks in hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, it’s just “meow.” Prowley, of course, is a play on “Crowley,” as in Aleister Crowley, the “wickedest man in the world,” who seems like a bit of a tool to me. I like to think that Morrison was giving a shout-out to John Crowley, but that’s probably not where he was going. Although John Crowley is probably weird enough for The God of All Comics. We also learn that Misty’s last name is Kilgore. I have no idea if that’s significant or not. Cassandra also tells them that the Phantom Stranger came by two years ago, and Cassandra asked him to pick up a loaf of bread at the corner deli and he never came back. What a deadbeat! Her explanation, “He certainly loves to wander,” refers to the idea that the Stranger is the WanderingÂ Jew. Zatanna came to Cassandra, we learn, to find her powers, because Cassandra is good at that. Cassandra tells her she sold a few dyna-mite rings last month, probably to poor, doomed Dan in Seven Soldiers #0, and those were fakes. I wonder if Cassandra would be so flippant if she knew Dan was killedÂ using those rings! We do hear more about the rings later, so we’ll get back to them. Cassandra’s confession about selling fakes leads to Zatanna’s Second Rule of Magic: “Learn to fool the experts.” Is it me, or is Morrison making fun of people like me (a comic book “expert”) who is going over his texts with a fine-toothed comb? He wouldn’t be that evil, would he?
Zatanna finds a top hat (top hats, interestingly, are pretty important in the saga – Giovanni wore one, obviously, and so does Ali Ka-Zoom) and asks if Cassandra’s visitor left this when he showed up. Cassandra tells them about it – the man says, “Tell her I came back for the books.” We assume this is Gwydion, but it’s not – it’s Zor (although his hands are those of a black man – what’s up with that????). He’ll show up again, looking for Giovanni’s books. But Cassandra moves on quickly to show Zatanna Ali Ka-Zoom’s cabinet, which is a “roach motel for spirits.” Zatanna thought it had been destroyed, and tells Cassandra that Ali Ka-Zoom used to be called the “Merlin of the ghetto” and says that after the Newsboy Army murder case, Ali cracked up a little. We will, of course, find out more about this incident later. She says “he wound up wandering homeless in Los Angeles haunting Sunset Boulevard in his tattered tailcoat and trick top hat.” This lets us know the identity of the man in Shining Knight #2 and why he knew so much about Justin. Zatanna looks at a copy of her book on which Cassandra forged her signature. We see Gwydion’s face pass over the books, and if you notice the next page (page 12), Zatanna’s signature has changed to Gwydion’s. Nice touch there. Misty opens Zatanna’s autobiography, which inexplicably contains a section from a sixth-century Welsh poem, the Cad Goddeu. The poem features Gwydion (of course) and as Misty watches, Gwydion himself appears as part of the book. She freaks out, drops the book, and Gwydion becomes the letter “g” and leaps into Prowley’s ear. Cassandra senses him in the room, and Misty spots a doppelgänger cat – oh dear. Zatanna orders them all out of the room, and Cassandra says she doesn’t “like the look of this at all,” a joke about her blindness, but it turns out that she can, like Matt Murdock, “see” the room, or at least the energy in the room. Is she seeing it, or is Prowley? Or is she seeing it through Prowley’s eyes, as if he were her familiar, not unlike Teekl is Klarion’s? Ali Ka-Zoom’s cabinet glows white, as does Gwydion, and according the annotations (linked to below!), our evil guy resembles a nucleotide. Maybe, although I have no idea what the significance of that would be. The confrontation does allow Zatanna to enunciate the Third Rule of Magic: “If you can’t keep it down, don’t bring it up.” This could also refer to a night of drunken revelry, but I wonder if Morrison is referring to Zatanna’s ill-fated screwing with Doctor Light and Batman. Could it be?
Zatanna throws the cat into some beakers, which sets him on fire, so he’s come full circle. Cassandra tells Misty that Zatanna is “an air-sign,” which is probably good considering that she’s fighting fire, and she’ll break the mirror of reality first (because, you know, she’s a prophet!). Zatanna zaps Gwydion with a fire extinguisher, then asks who sent him. He says, “I serve the new architect of the universe whose name is yet hidden.” Apparently, according to the annotations, Morrison wanted to make the DC Universe sentient, so this could refer to that. But couldn’t it refer to the Sheeda? I don’t know. It’s definitely Masonic, as the Freemasons are big on secret architects. Misty realizes that Zatanna is simply distracting Gwydion away from her (which makes the fact that the Sheeda sent Gwydion tenable, because Misty is connected to them, but Gloriana doesn’t know she’s alive – or does she?), and she makes her pursuer solid, which allows Zatanna to force him into the mirror of reality. I’m a bit confused about Cassandra telling Misty that Zatanna will break the mirror, because every time we see it in this issue, it’s broken. Zatanna certainly didn’t do it! Zatanna traps him there and shoots the mirror with the crossbow, shattering it. Oh, that’s what Cassandra meant! Again, she uses the term “ideal man” to describe Gwydion, which, as Douglas pointed out in the comments about the first issue, is NOT what she asked for – she wanted “the man of her dreams,” which is something quite different. The shards of glass embed themselves in Ali Ka-Zoom’s cabinet, where Gwydion is now trapped. But not for long! Later, they get Gwydion into a jar (not unlike the one in which the Sheeda is trapped) and he sits under, yes, a tree, meditating. Zatanna is not quite sure what to do with him, but apparently she’s now the boss of him! Good job, Z! Cassandra mentions the word “stranger,” which means the Phantom Stranger is about to show up! He walks through the door with his usual cheery proclamations: “Storm clouds of doom gather overhead, as if a parliament of dour executioners were called to judgment on frail humanity in these final, ember hours of all we hold dear.” Jeez, PS, chill! He does get a nice ending line: “Was it wheat or was it sourdough?” He refers, of course, to the loaf of bread he was supposed to bring back two years ago.
This issue falls into the “second issue” syndrome, unfortunately, in that it doesn’t do much to move the plot forward, and it doesn’t even do much to move the entire epic forward. Morrison does a nice job bringing in more connections, such as the tie to Shining Knight with Ali Ka-Zoom, as well as the Newsboy Army in The Manhattan Guardian (and, although we don’t know it yet, to Klarion, through Misty’s die), but all in all, despite Zatanna’s triumph over Gwydion, this feels like a treading water issue. Gwydion becomes important in later issues, of course, but we don’t really learn much more about him or Misty, two important players in the drama. Furthermore, Zatanna does not do much on her journey back to being a good hero. Like Justin, she is presented with a threat, but it’s a threat that she herself brought about, so even though we’re proud of her for cleaning up the mess, we should never forget that it’s her mess, and she ought to clean it up! Gwydion doesn’t even turn out to be that big a problem – Zatanna dispatches him with minimal fuss, and so even though she solved her small problem, her big problem – low self-esteem brought about by serious issues with her father (Gwydion resembles Giovanni, after all, and since he’s the man of her dreams, what does that say about her feelings toward her father?) – is still present, because she hasn’t done anything to solve it. Even her relationship with Misty, which will present her with the opportunity to redeem herself and return to being a hero, isn’t all that important in this book. There’s the foreshadowing about Misty’s family situation and her importance to the grand scheme, but not much else. The themes I have been tracking throughout – the need to overcome emotions that cripple people in order to be a hero, the idea of legends and myths being woven into the fabric of the world – are not really present here. Sure, there are plenty of legendary things, and hints of Zatanna becoming a hero once more, but it’s not much.
That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable issue. Looked at as the second issue of a four-issue mini-series, it works fine. There is the confusion over who the visitor to Cassandra’s is, because Morrison really doesn’t make it clear that it’s NOT Gwydion, and implies that it is, so we’re left wondering where he could possibly go with this series. In issue #1, Zatanna called up a threat to the world. In issue #2, she defeated it. What to do now?
Of course, there is plenty to do, but the point is, it doesn’t feel like anything has really been accomplished in these two issues. In The Manhattan Guardian, which also had a two-issue story making up the first two issues of the series, Jake actually does something useful (rescues Carla) that was not cleaning up his own mess. And he has begun to learn what it means to be a hero. Zatanna, apparently, has not gone very far on her own journey, although we do see that she’s at least started it.
So this is a tad disappointing, but really only based on the standard that has been set in this series. The mini-series picks up again, and becomes rather more interesting in the final two issues. So fret not!
Of course, you can check out the annotations if you’re so inclined. They are actually pretty good for this issue.
Next: Klarion discovers something deep underground!
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