This is the secret origin of Madame Xanadu, and the basic premise of the series seems to be this: Madame Xanadu, contemporary mystic and reader of the Tarot, was once upon a time an innocent young nymph of the forest. (Well, young-looking, although even by the time of this opening story she is hundreds of years old — still innocent, though.) Not only is she a forest nymph when the story begins, with magical spells and forecasting runes, but she is also the sister of Morgana the sweet, Morgana the fair, a.k.a. Morgan le Fay. And bad stuff is about to happen, if Nimue (Madame Xanadu, under her nymph name) is to believe her runes, and of course she does. Plus, a stranger appears. A kind of Phantom Stranger, with shadowy eyes and a medallion, and reminds her that all empires must come to an end, so she just move on with her life. And Nimue goes to an old wizard for help — an unnamed wizard of great power.
Part of the problem is that Wagner’s script plays cute and clever with the reveal that this is all taking place in Camelot. The notion of a besieged king with a wizard compatriot is hinted at on page seven, and Morgan’s bastard child is mentioned on page thirteen, and it’s like Wagner is going out of his way not to make the setting explicit. To slowly unveil that this story is a King Arthur story, so that when you get to the final two pages, and the Phantom Stranger says “the final battle of Camelot has begun,” you’re supposed to be. . . I don’t know. . . surprised? Pleased that you figured it out before the final scene? Underwhelmed?
I just don’t think the slow reveal is helpful to the story, especially because the entire first issue is predominantly about the reveal. It’s all subtle hints that become more and more overt until the final declaration, and too much energy is wasted playing coy about the Arthur stuff (for example, Merlin is never mentioned by name — he’s just called “the Wizard”) and it doesn’t accomplish much. There are far too many hints and obvious parallels for the Camelot reveal to be a surprise, and far too little character development to make us care about Nimue as a protagonist. And based on the solicits for the upcoming issues, Nimue (or whatever she will call herself in future issues) won’t be sticking around England for very long. It looks like this comic will be Madame Xanadu’s greatest hits throughout myths and legends. Kind of a “Forrest Gump” but with more fairies and genies. So if it’s about Nimue’s adventures out in the world (in a typical Joseph Campbell manner — with the Phantom Stranger as her mentor, and a crossing of the threshold to happen soon, and tests and trials in the unknown world, etc.) then this first issue wasn’t a very effective set up.
The art’s very nice, at least. Amy Reeder Hadley brings a beautiful mixture of classic elegance and Manga-influence to her linework, and Guy Major provides graceful colors. The book looks good. But it sounds like a bunch of tourists playing at a Renaissance fair. Nimue says stuff like, “War has ravaged this land for centuries but, finally, peace has held sway for many years now.” And, “The lunar Queen guards her silvery secrets.” Neil Gaiman can pull of dialogue of that sort, but it doesn’t look like Matt Wagner can. It drifts into pseudo-Shakespearean cliche, and it lacks the verve, the edge, that’s needed to give this comic some life.
I hope there’s more to this series than just the fairytale world tour. In the current DC Universe, Madame Xanadu seems to have some dark secrets, and that would imply that this series is headed in that direction. It could use a little more darkness. Even the violence and beheadings on the final pages are too light and airy to have any real impact. Nimue is just a spectator in her own life still, and unless she becomes something more, quickly, “Madame Xanadu” might become another unfortunate casualty of the Vertigo line, and that would be too bad.