In this modern age of comic-influenced pop culture we’re neck deep in shared universes and, increasingly, shared multiverses. It can be hard to imagine a time when that wasn’t the case. It can be even more difficult to believe we didn’t see the first true comic book shared universe until the mid-1960s. That’s when the daughter of the third most important character to debut in Action Comics #1 arrived on the scene in a quest to find her father. Zatanna’s search would take her on a winding path through six DC titles. As a result, it impacted several heroes and had repercussions on the DC Universe as a whole.
Characters with their own titles crossing over with other characters is a common occurrence going all the way back to the birth of superhero titles. It’s difficult to pinpoint who can lay claim to the first ever superhero crossover.
The honor could possibly go to Lev Gleason Publications in 1940. That publisher teamed up the characters Silver Streak and Daredevil (not that Daredevil). It just barely preceded the first known team up of Marvel characters. Marvel Mystery Comics #8 featured Namor and Human Torch going head-to-head for the first time. For DC characters, the first crossover medal goes to All-Star Comics #3 which saw the first appearance of the Justice Society of America. At the time, it was likely the biggest crossover in terms of number of characters featuring Flash (Jay Garrick), Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Hawkman (Carter Hall), Spectre (Jim Corrigan), Hourman (Rex Tyler), Sandman (Wesley Dodds), Doctor Fate, and Atom (Al Pratt).
Of course, a crossover does not a shared universe make. Often in those early days of comics, there wouldn’t be notable repercussions throughout the Universe when characters teamed up. You’d rarely see a storyline hop from one character’s title to the other character’s title and so on. It kept the heroes isolated on their own islands with little regard for maintaining canon.
The Legacy of Giovanni Zatara in DC Continuity
Before we can get to Zatanna Zatara we need to first discuss her father, Giovanni Zatara. The heroic magician, created by artist and writer Fred Guardineer, made his debut as a backup story in Action Comics #1. These days, Superman gets all of the credit for the success of that series, but Zatara wasn’t simply the second fiddle. The character was so popular he had a story in the first 132 issues of Action Comics and the first 51 issues of World’s Finest Comics. Zatara is often forgotten but should be considered one of the key ingredients for building the foundation, along with Superman and Batman, that DC would eventually stand upon.
The Master Magician’s final appearance was in 1951’s World’s Finest Comics #51. It would be 16 years before Zatanna’s Search returned Zatara to comic book pages.
Jim Shooter typically and understandably receives the most credit when it comes to building shared universes. However, the concept was originally pioneered by the prolific mid-60s DC writer Gardner Fox. The writer, who additionally wrote the first shared multiverse in the classic “Flash of Two Worlds,” cleverly weaves the story of Zatara’s return through five different series over three years. Somehow, nothing like it had been done before.
The story introduced Zatara’s daughter, Zatanna, in the appropriately titled storyline “Zatanna’s Search.” The Mistress of Magic first mysteriously turned up in 1964’s Hawkman #4. The winged Thanagarian had to rescue Zatanna who had managed to split herself in two. Hawkman and Hawkgirl, reunited the two halves. Once Zatanna was whole again we learned about the quest to find her missing father.
Zatanna’s Search would take her through Green Lantern #42, The Atom #19, and the Detective Comics #355 Elongated Man backup story. Finally, Zatanna brings the heroes together in Justice League of America #51.
The heroes work together to help Zatanna defeat the entity Allura. She’s reunited with her long-lost father and they live happily ever after (narrator voice: they don’t).
Fox even tapped what’s become a common shared universe trope. He retconned a previously not connected storyline of Detective Comics to fit the overall Zatanna’s Search story. In an effort to bring Batman into the mix, the writer alleged Zatanna fought Batman and Robin in issue #336. According to Zatanna’s explanation, she was brainwashed to think she was a stereotypical witch by a mysterious villain known only as “Outsider” (spoiler: Outsider was an insane Alfred).
Why is “Zatanna’s Search” more than a crossover?
One thing that sets universe bridging storylines apart from simple crossovers is the addition of a unifying element. Zatanna, who didn’t have her own title and was only introduced in Hawkman, was that element. The heroes felt like they had failed the lost girl as she sought out her father. They weren’t able to redeem themselves until she brought the heroes together in the Justice League. For the first time, we saw heroes referencing occurrences that happened in another hero’s title.
Giovanni Zatara was brought back to the DC Universe after more than a decade away. Zatanna was introduced and she’d become one of DC’s most popular magic characters. However, the fact that Zatanna would become the magician we all know and love today is in itself a rarity.
Zatara’s reintroduction to DC didn’t didn’t have an impact on the universe as a whole. Zatanna, however, would become a semi-regular member of the Justice League of America. Zatanna was an interesting twist on DC mining Golden Age heroes and bringing them into the Silver Age. DC didn’t simply shift Giovanni Zatara to Earth-2 and design a new male version on Earth-Prime with the same name (ex. Hal Jordan as Green Lantern instead of Alan Scott). Instead, they preserved the magician in Earth-Prime continuity while introducing his replacement in the form of a daughter.
So there you have it. DC was the first major publisher to firmly establish a shared universe. It was all thanks to “Zatanna’s Search” for her father. Am I wrong? Set me straight in the comments.