When it comes to wielding powerful magic, it seems that even Harry Potter himself is no match for Zatanna Zatara, DC’s most magical superhero. With a simple yet challenging-to-formulate incantation, Zatanna can bend reality to her will and use illusions to defeat her enemies. But every superhero has to start somewhere. That’s where Matthew Cody and Yoshi Yoshitani‘s new middle-grade DC graphic novel Zatanna and the House of Secrets comes in. A thoughtful, fun, and engaging book from DC’s expanding foray into middle-grade comics, Zatanna and the House of Secrets is an adventure that not only allows new readers to discover the magic of Zatanna, but also where Zatanna discovers herself. Yllear nuf ffuts!
I’m not just talking backward here! I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Matthew and Yoshi about their new book, the opportunity to introduce one of DC’s most esoteric characters to a new audience, and how to give a character with a seemingly silly gimmick pathos and depth.
AJ FROST: Matthew, Yoshi, it’s so nice talking to you today. I wanted to start by saying how charmed (ha!) I was with Zatanna and the House of Secrets. I feel that Zatanna is one of the trickier (ha, again!) DC characters to write for because, in some ways, her gimmick is a little silly. How did you approach crafting a story in a way that would appeal to modern middle-grade readers?
MATTHEW CODY: Her gimmick is VERY silly, which is what makes it so great for this story. Casting spells by speaking backward is actually a lot harder than it sounds (try it!) and we tackle that head-on in this story. I think Zatanna deals with her newfound powers in the way any modern young person would — her first reaction is amazement, but soon afterward she’s left wondering ‘Can’t I just wave a wand, instead?’
YOSHI YOSHITANI: I loved the opportunity to design a young Zatanna’s outfit. Something that looked like it could evolve into her final grown-up form, but would still be something worn by a young girl who is still trying to figure herself out. She’s very close to her father Zatara, so I liked the idea that maybe she wears some of his old shirts. I also love that comics allow you to play with visual gags, like the top hat that doesn’t fit her in the beginning.
FROST: In this book, we see a Zatanna who hasn’t quite developed all of her powers yet. What were the challenges in presenting Zatanna in this way? What were the opportunities from your respective narrative and artistic perspectives?
YOSHITANI: I just loved drawing a Zatanna that is just as delighted and surprised as the reader with her magic. No one is ever quite sure what turns her magic will take.
CODY: I think the challenge of writing Zatanna at this age is that she’s not yet a superhero, and it’s important that she reacts to experiences in a relatable way. But that’s also the storytelling opportunity, because our Zatanna is so new to magic that she’s forced to be clever and not rely on her powers to always save the day. In fact, magic can make things much worse if you’re not careful.
FROST: Was it fun also including Zatanna’s father Zatara (whose history goes back all the way to Action Comics #1) in this book? What are your feelings with regard to writing for characters whose histories go back decades?
CODY: Oh, definitely! It was so much fun to assemble the supporting cast from existing characters, like Zatara and Klarion, but also to create new ones like Pocus the Rabbit. When writing established characters, you feel a sense of responsibility to get them right, but you can’t get bogged down in decades of continuity. They have to feel fresh, especially if we’re introducing them to a new audience of young readers. Yoshi’s character designs, I think, are a perfect blend of homage and modern flair.
FROST: This is one of the first (or if not the first) times we’ve seen Zatanna be the central focus in a modern middle-grade story. What excited you about the possibility of exploring her character in a way where she doesn’t quite have control of all her magical abilities?
CODY: Origin stories are exciting. Part of the fun in reading superhero stories is how super-capable these superheroes are, but the origin story is more vulnerable, and therefore more relatable, I think. Zatanna is as clueless about all this magic as we are, so it’s fun to learn about it together.
FROST: Who did you look to for inspiration while creating this graphic novel? Did you look at previous Zatanna runs? Or were influenced by other middle-grade books out on the shelves?
CODY: I pitched Zatanna because she was already one of my favorite characters. I’d read Paul Dini’s run, and really liked what Grant Morrison did with her [in Seven Soldiers], but those were both definitely aimed at older readers. So, I did try to capture the spirit of the middle grade “young wizard” story. There’s whimsy in early Harry Potter novels, for example, that works so well.
YOSHITANI: I went back and looked at some of the comics I read when I was in middle school. Mostly Japanese manga. I was a huge fan of Ranma ½, Cardcapters Sakura, and Fushigi Yugi. One of the big takeaways for me was that these comics are never afraid to exaggerate an expression for humor. And of course the backgrounds. Because the House of Secrets can be anything on the inside, I went looking for all the places I wanted to visit around the world and drew them in. I think the multicultural look really helps create a magical feel.
FROST: In your opinions, what makes Zatanna a compelling character? What makes her unique in the DC canon of superheroes?
CODY: She’s this very silly concept — a stage magician who can cast spells by speaking backward — who is actually one of the most powerful beings in the world. Our Zatanna is nowhere near that yet, but we do hint at her special place in the DC Universe. By the time she takes center stage, she’s earned it.
YOSHITANI: Zatanna is great because her power is basically only limited to how clever and creative she is! And she’s always portrayed as someone who is three steps ahead of everyone, marching to her own beat. She’s just so cool! And I like getting to see her in this book as still being awkward — but you get hints of what she’ll grow up to be.
FROST: What do you want your readers to walk away with after reading this book?
CODY: A sense of wonder, of joy. There are very deep themes about loss, about family and friendship, and how secrets can affect our lives. But it’s also a celebration of magic. It’s okay to dream big, or should I say, it’s okay to maerd gib!
YOSHITANI: Make your own path! And keep exploring!
FROST: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat!
CODY: Thank you!