Fashion Disasters: Zatanna
Some comic book characters who have been around for decades have iconic costumes that have stood the test of time. Some have progressed through a series of stylish ensembles to reflect their ever-changing time periods.
And some, apparently, get dressed in the dark.
Here on Fashion Disasters, we’ll showcase those poor slobs who just can’t seem to get it right. Today: Zatanna!
Now look, before you say anything, I know this one’s going to be controversial. Believe me, I was torn on putting her on the list. But I think we all need to face facts where our girl Zatanna is concerned, and there’s no time like the present. So set your indignation aside for a moment and let’s discuss, okay? Okay.
Zatanna Zatarra first appeared in Hawkman #4 (October 1964), the daughter of the very old Golden Age character Giovanni “John” Zatarra. Like her father, she’s a stage magician who also has legitimate magical powers, which she primarily manifests by speaking backwards. Uoy wnok, ekil siht.
As a stage magician, she echoed her father’s classic top hat and tails—but as a woman in the ’60s, she did it with the pinup-y twist of fishnets and heels.
Over the next 14 years, she appeared in a number of cameos and backup features, always in her distinctly recognizable threads:
This remains her most iconic costume, and she has returned to variations on it again and again. But more on that in a minute.
In 1978, Zatanna joined the Justice League and celebrated the occasion with a new look:
Oh boy. Oh kid. Oh no.
I mean, it’s definitely more superhero-y, I’ll give her that—spandex and a cape does wonders for capturing that aesthetic. And the vampiric collar, massive ruby choker, and dramatic widow’s peak (and, uh, goofy little elf shoes) keep it firmly in magical territory. (FYI, those shoes are red, when not illuminated by magic.)
It’s just, you know, butt-ugly. It also smacks of a desperate attempt to make her sexy again, which seems weird to say about someone whose original costume is straight-up fetish role play, but by the late ’70s, costume trends would have made Zatanna’s original look stale and too “good girl-y” to really appeal. In 1978, “naughty jazzercise vampire” beats “naughty Fred Astaire” every time.
It also didn’t last. Just a few years later, Zee switched to this hot little number:
Don’t let the fabulous George Perez art fool you: this thing is a mess. I admit to being charmed by the Blair Waldorf-esque Oxford collar and broach, but if I never see thigh-high boots with a bikini-cut bottom again it’ll be too soon. Also, pick impractically enormous monogrammed earrings or weird cheek buttresses, not both. (Or pick neither! Neither works!)
Worst of all, though, there is a giant red caterpillar on her head, for…magical reasons, I guess??? It’s no good, Zee, no good at all.
Zatanna must have agreed, because upon leaving the Justice League, she returned to her iconic magician look—though she did trot out something a bit more rugged for the Zatanna: Come Together miniseries:
I mean, this is fine if it’s 1994 and you’re fighting for the honor of Greyskull, I guess. Otherwise idk, man, idk.
Aside from this it was Classic Look all the way until 2011’s Flashpoint. Now, this is an alternate universe Zatanna, but I need to share it with you guys, because…just look at it:
Honestly, I’m so deeply embarrassed for whoever designed and drew this and thought it was cool and sexy that I can barely look at it. Do you know why she’s standing with her legs that far apart? Because if she moves a fraction of an inch, her entire pant-thong rigging will just fall straight off her legs.
I mean, can you imagine what it looks like from behind? It’s so bad below the waist you almost miss how hideous the top half is. Seriously, this may be the stupidest costume I’ve ever seen, and I’ve read a lot of ’90s comics.
Once Flashpoint resolved itself, it was time for the New 52. Zatanna, as a charter member of Justice League Dark, started out with less of a “costume” and more of a “random selection of black and white clothes from Hot Topic.” Voila:
I don’t normally dig superheroes in street clothes, but Zatanna is one of the few I could totally get behind doing it, since her “costume” is actually a stage outfit, and it never made any sense that she would wear that to fight crime, as those two parts of her life are supposed to be separate.
It’s just that all of this stuff looks like what a goth 15-year-old would wear to shock her high school principal. It’s supposed to be badass, but it just looks sort of immature and silly, not to mention profoundly uncomfortable to sweat in.
Eventually she switched to a more superheroic costume, though keeping the same color palette:
(The art’s distorted on this one on purpose, but it was the best shot of the costume I could find!)
This costume isn’t terrible, but it’s deeply, deeply generic. Black and white, yawn. Cape, yawn. Thigh highs and stupid heels and plunging neckline, yawn. Even the trademark fishnets don’t seem to have their heart in it.
Look, say what you will about my girl Zee’s fashion sense, but she is a weirdo. This is a woman who wears a top hat out and about, except for when she replaces it with a giant bug. You think she’s gonna settle for some lackluster off-the-rack nothing costume? Yletulosba ton!
The years passed and Zatanna defaulted back into her regular duds…at least up until last year’s No Justice event, where a whole mess of characters from across the DCU were pulled in to fight a cosmic menace, and were magically bequeathed with monochromatic versions of their costumes color-coded by what team they were on. Zatanna was on Team Purple and, well…
It’s like someone at DC said, “Okay, we need to finally put Zatanna in pants for real” and someone else said “But don’t lose the iconic fishnets!” and the artist’s hand attempted to reconcile that and just spilled ink all over the page. What on earth is happening below the waist there, girl? And why?
No Justice lead into a splintering of Justice League teams, and Zatanna is now back on Justice League Dark:
There’s legitimately a lot to like here. The trench coat is a power move and gives her that “itinerant magical badass with A Past” aesthetic rocked so effectively by Constantine and so boringly by the Phantom Stranger. The braid is cute and sensible; the necklace adds the requisite touch of the sorcerous. The pants look super weird in this sketch but are just normal pants in the comic, so we’ll let that one slide.
But is that a vest? A weird corset? Why won’t anyone just let Zatanna wear a regular shirt??? And the fishnet fingerless gloves are frankly embarrassing.
…Which brings me back to the classic costume, or at least the modern renditions of it. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I’m torn about including Zatanna as a Fashion Disaster, because so often her classic costume is so cute, or rendered in ways that are so effective and striking:
But the rest of the time, it’s mostly just fan service:
I’m not opposed to cheesecake, and Adam Hughes and Amanda Conner (left and right, above) are among the best in that category. But why on earth is she wearing a corset instead of a vest in that first image? And it’s not just Hughes—the vest has often been swapped out for a corset since the ’90s (the row of images above this one has another example on the left). Because nothing says “ready for aerobic crimefighting” than compressing your ribcage with whalebone! Sometimes it’s even just a corset and no shirt at all.
The rest of the time, the vest serves less as, like, a vest and more as a weird boob-slingshot, as with the image on the right. Like, that’s simply not how vests fit, and looks profoundly uncomfortable to boot.
And speaking of boots, why is Zatanna so often given thigh-high leather boots? They have absolutely nothing to do with her 1960s cocktail-waitress-in-a-gentleman’s-club aesthetic.
Finally, the less said about whatever is happening to her pelvis in the middle image, the better.
Look. I like retro, and I love anything that makes it look like a character’s about to break out into a tap number, which Zatanna does 80% of the time. I’m very fond of this costume. It’s entirely dependent on the artist whether Zatanna looks playful or like she’s about three seconds away from doing a striptease. If this was only her stage costume, I really wouldn’t care.
But because so many artists go the objectification route, and because she fights, like, world-conquering interdimensional demons in it—I know she’s not a physical fighter, but she still has to run sometimes, and high heels and fishnets are not the gear to do that in—I think we can do better by her. A few artists have tried in recent years to do so by giving her pants, but they’ve always kept the corset or similar, and they’ve always kept the fishnets.
But it’s not the fishnets that make Zatanna instantly recognizable and iconic; it’s the magician outfit. The tails and top hat tell you immediately that not only does this lady have magic, but that she’s super fun. The solution isn’t to make yourself crazy trying to put fishnets where fishnets should not be put. Just give her pants! What’s good for the Zatarra gander is good for the Zatanna goose, and it’s not like women haven’t been rocking full tuxedos and looking amazing in them for like 100 years now:
Zatanna’s classic look is adorable, but it’s the kitsch that makes it that way, not the fitsch…nets. (Please pretend that worked.) Keep her kitschy! Just, like, also let the girl live, you know?
As a bonus, here’s a couple alternate universe takes on Zee! First, the Bombshells universe:
Adorable, as most of the Bombshells costumes are, but I think the fact that her costume in the Sexy Pinup Underwear universe is almost identical to her regular costume kind of proves my point. Bonus points for John Constanbunny down there.
I can’t believe the new DC Super Hero Girls show is riffing on the caterpillar head costume, but as usual, Lauren Faust absolutely nailed it. The sparkly purple hair is even better than a chain smoking magic rabbit, and this universe’s Zatanna’s love of the spotlight is delightful. Love you, Zee!
What do you think of the classic costume? Should Janelle Monae play Zatanna in the inevitable movie? Ssucsid!
Previously in this series: