I've been noticing an unfortunate trend in Paul Dini's comics lately, and it can best be summed up in three words: "Surprise backup feature." I hope everything's all right at his end but between the shifts and delays on both "Zatanna" and "Batman: Streets of Gotham" there's definitely been a large decrease in Dini-written comics as of late.
With only 12 pages continuing the story from last month, it feels like the main feature in "Zatanna" #9 doesn't so much come to a cliffhanger this month as it just stops instead. We get a large amount of back story about Zatanna and her past encounters with a killer marionette, but aside from a two-page scuffle early on, that's really about it. It's frustrating because I loved the first chapter last month, but here the comic feels like it's barely started moving before you turn the page and discover that it'll continue next issue.
Pacing problems aside, it also feels a little too easy this month. Maybe it has to do with a shortened script, but the book shifts from Zatanna fighting for her life to being all chummy in the blink of an eye, and it's less than entertaining in that regard. There doesn't seem to be any real driving force here, no looming issue that makes you want to see what happens next. It's a curiously lackluster script.
Fortunately, Cliff Chiang's art looks great, although anyone familiar with his work won't be surprised. I like that he's able to make both the marionette and the human-flashback versions of Oscar look recognizably the same, and yet have the human version seem unassuming while the marionette version is just short of terrifying. Chiang's people in general always look great, though; from Zatanna's cheekbones to the balding boss in the flashback, everyone is distinctive and different from one another, but all are just like people you'd see walking down the street.
Picking up the remaining eight pages this month are Adam Beechen, Jamal Igle, and Robin Riggs in a "Zatanna, Junior Sorceress" story, the idea of which is cracking me up. The story itself isn't bad either, with Beechen having a young Zatanna have to figure out how to stop a bad guy right after she's had braces put on and her regular speaking voice might as well sound backwards. It's a funny little sequence of events, from Zatanna noting that this new situation "blows chunks" to her attempts to try and eat a hard-shelled taco. Igle is in on the fun too, complete with a wardrobe that looks like Zatanna just raided the dressing room of "Blossom." And when the braced-Zatanna grins, realizing just how she's going to stop the bad guy? Perfect.
I hate to say it, but in some ways I enjoyed the backup more than the main story this month. Chiang's art is still drop-dead gorgeous, but it feels like the wind has slightly gone out of the main story's sails. Fortunately, the backup is a solid, strong enough feature to make the book still end on a positive note. I'd rather have more full Dini and Chiang stories (or for that matter, a return of original artist Stephane Roux who is still MIA on interiors after his first three issues), but if we need more backup stories down the line, the return of Beechen and Igle would be welcomed.