It’s February 2, 1993, the day after “The Man Who Killed Batman,” so see that post for charts and news.
“Zatanna” is another episode that gives us a window into Batman’s past, as he meets a student of the master from whom he learned some of his skills. As in “Day of the Samurai,” that student is a young woman attracted to him, but where Kairi served little role in her story except to be imperiled, Zatanna is a far more active agent, even being the one to actually take down the villain while Batman deals with his henchmen.
Indeed, by her next major appearance (in the 2000 Gotham Girls webseries) Zatanna will be fighting crime in her own right and using genuine magic to do so, a change which is never explained. Given the seven-year gap, however, no explanation is really needed; the blur of memory can easily permit one to forget that the last time she showed up, her magic wasn’t real.
This is, after all, an episode about memory more than anything else. Batman flashes back to his time training under Zatanna’s father, Zatara, learning escape artistry as part of his travels to acquire the skills he needs to fight crime. (He later leaves them to go to Japan, where presumably he studies martial arts under Master Yoru, from “Day of the Samurai.”) The relative ages of Batman and Zatanna are unclear, but the gap between them is unlikely to be more than a year or two; at least, Zatara appears to be fully aware of young Zatanna’s attraction to “John Smith” and deliberately gives them time alone.
It’s unclear, but probable, that “John” shares this attraction; they may even have been lovers. Regardless, it is clearly a time that both remember fondly, and Zatanna is sorry to see him go. She even teasingly tries to keep him from leaving, but he breaks out of the handcuffs she uses, neatly tying his escape artist training to his ability to slip away from human contact.
Because, as Zatanna learns when she tries to predict the future of “John,” his destiny is not, as she was hoping, two hearts (one hers and one his, naturally); it’s the Joker. His destiny is to fight crime forever, alone (always alone, no matter how many teammates and wards he accumulates), proving the forces of order and justice to be inadequate with his every victory. He continues to dwell in that “painful memory” that made him put on the mask, continues to pursue the promise he made when he put it on.
And what is that promise but to never let go, never move on, never heal? He returns to that alley over and over again–even here, Zatanna’s father’s death is a reflection of the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne: a child without parents, who becomes a hero.
Such is the nature of traumatic memories. We are drawn back to them, again and again. They repeat endlessly, called forth by even the slightest glimmers of similarity in our present experience. Much as seeing Zatanna calls, unbidden, the good memories of his time with her and Zatara, so does every “punk with a gun” call forth the memories of Batman’s parents’ death. And he does what he wishes he could have done then: unleash his protector, his totem, the Bat, to punish them.
But it doesn’t help. The painful memory lingers, because the promise demands it, and because a Batman who hangs up his cowl for good is fundamentally less interesting than one who fights the futile fight forever. Unless, of course, someone else were to take up the cowl for him, someone he could train. That could be interesting, for a time.
And here we have a glimmer of a possibility. Zatanna does well in the fight on the airplane, working with Batman to free themselves, then taking advantage of his fight with the henchmen on the wing to sneak into the cockpit and take out Kane, the episode’s villain. The road to her becoming a hero in her own right is clear–she even pulls Batman’s own trick on him, vanishing when he isn’t looking. She can’t be Batman’s protege–she’s too close to his age to be the young sidekick, too flashy and performative to fit well with Batman’s strike-from-the-shadows style. But she’s clearly a model for what he needs in an ally and counterpart, more so than Robin, whose growing need for independence will take him away from Batman and into a new role of his own.
But it’s clear that he needs someone like Zatanna. Someone intelligent, assertive, resourceful; but unlike Zatanna, to partner with the Bat one needs to also be sneaky and a skilled martial artist. Zatanna’s got a mean fist, but she’s not quite to the level of a Robin.
Besides, Zatanna’s already been a protege, to Zatara. She doesn’t need a leader or a mentor; she performs her shows alone. In the end, they have to go their separate ways.
And she most likely knows, even as she leaves behind her message, that it doesn’t matter. He isn’t going to write.
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