Reviving Madame Xanadu from obscurity couldn’t have been easy. Although the Madame had her own title under the DC Comics banner in the 1970s, her origins and exploits were strictly C-list at best – that is, until Vertigo’s revival of the title hit shelves in 2008. Written by the prolific Matt Wagner (“Sandman Mystery Theater,” “Green Hornet: Year One”), “Madame Xanadu” has enjoyed both success and critical acclaim in its relatively short lifespan. Hitting issue #21 this month and beginning a brand new story-arc entitled “House of Cards,” “Madame Xanadu” has already explored some of the most obscure corners of the DCU in some of the most creative ways possible. From the Madame’s romantic liaison with magician John Zatara (father of JLA mainstay magician Zatanna) to her involvement with the awakening of the Spectre, Madame Xanadu has seen it all. Now, with a veritable cavalcade of artists, Wagner is shaking up the very status quo he created for his next story-arc.
CBR News had a chance to speak with Matt Wagner about his newest installment in Madame Xanadu’s exploits through the DCU, his opinions on the many cameos of the DC magical and mystical periphery, how he first got involved in writing the book and exactly how he feels the Madame has become so popular under his careful watch. Plus, a little tease on whether Wagner will be making a return to his creator-owned “Mage.”
CBR News: Matt, you’ve taken Madame Xanadu through a plethora of situations in the DCU, effectively making it one of the few books to crossover from Vertigo to the DCU. You’ve taken her from her humble beginnings in King Arthur’s court to her beginnings in the 1970s DCU while jumping around and filling in some of those gaps. What’s next for the Madame?
Matt Wagner: I’m actually very excited about our next story arc on “Madame Xanadu!” It’s a six-issue storyline, entitled “Extra-Sensory,” and features the work of six different female cartoonists! Each of the first five chapters will be a stand-alone story that focuses on one of the five primary senses. This quintet of tales will feature Mdm. X in a somewhat peripheral, but still vital, role and have a “Twilight Zone” sort of vibe. The sixth and final chapter then deals with our title heroine more directly and concerns itself with her clairvoyance; her “extra” sense. And I couldn’t be happier with our selection of guest artists, who comprise a wonderfully wide range of styles from the feminine side of our art form. In progressive order, these talented ladies are; Marley Zarcone, Laurenn McCubbin, Chrissie Zullo, Celia Calle and Marian Churchland. Those are the first five and, like I said, their stories will each deal with one of the five senses; sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Then the series’ original artist, Amy Reeder, returns for the anchor slot on the sixth chapter. I’ve kind of made it part of my artistic mojo over the years to continually try and shake things up on any sort of continuing project with which I’m involved and that’s true here as well. This arc won’t resemble any of the first three storylines we’ve done and that’s just the way I like it!
You’ve had a few story-arcs to get your stride in terms of telling stories with this character, how do you feel the character has grown under your watch?
Well, she’s finally grown up and integrated into the human world. In a sense, you could say that Mdm. X had a very protracted adolescence over the span of a millennium. Now, she’s a much more proactive character and yet she knows that, generally, she must exercise a certain amount of restraint. Her role is that of an advisor who sometimes finds herself having to directly interfere in the course of what she has foreseen. In an upcoming issue she explains that, although she can see and read certain patterns in the world around her, her predictions are just that…estimates of what will likely occur. The future is always unwritten and she recognizes that it occasionally needs a nudge in the right direction.
You’ve covered quite a few of the periphery of the DCU, such as Etrigan, the Phantom Stranger, the Spectre, and the Golden Age Sandman. Who else will you be adding to the Madame Xanadu cameo cast? Is there anybody you hope to include at some point that there are currently no plans to include?
Well, yeah, I’ve done a lot of that so far but I don’t want to make the inclusion of other characters the absolute hallmark of the book. This isn’t “Madame Xanadu’s Mystical Team-Up!” I made the decision to include a bunch of DCU references around the edges of our first story arc just to establish Mdm. X as a significant presence; she’s been around and witnessed a lot of the shadowy corners of the DCU continuity over the years. Then, during the second arc, we had the wonderful Michael Kaluta on board as the artist and, since DC didn’t have the rights to the Shadow at the time, I decided to include the next best thing, a character that not only had a lot of physical characteristics in common but also one with which I’ve had a lengthy history as well. The third (current) arc was going to be set in the 1950s so I thought I’d reach outside the realm of DC’s mystical characters just a bit. There really aren’t any such guest appearances in the upcoming “Extra-Sensory” storyline…at least none that I know of yet!
Why do you feel that telling Madame Xanadu’s story is important?
This is definitely the most fem-centric storyline I’ve ever done and so, on a personal creative level, I find that to be a nice challenge and very rewarding. And, god knows, we need more strong female characters in comics. It’s nice that this particular gal isn’t also wearing spandex and sporting an outlandish physique. Plus, with a mystical character, the doors are really wide open in regards to the kinds of stories we can tell…especially considering her longevity and her worldly travels across the centuries. Upcoming storylines will continue to delve into historical settings and exotic locales.
What are some of the biggest challenges for you in terms of doing a book like “Madame Xanadu” and reviving this character to the popularity it currently enjoys?
Well, truthfully, at first…I didn’t think I could do it. When Bob Schreck, the original editor on the book, approached me about revamping the character, I’ve gotta confess that I wasn’t much interested. Nor did I really know much about the character. But, in many ways, that can be a creative strength. You’re not going up against hundreds of issues worth of continuity and generations of people’s opinions on the character. So, she was a bit of a blank slate and, ultimately, that appealed to me; I saw a chance to leave my own stamp on this narrative. Plus, when I started to do some research on the Mdm. X, I discovered that DC’s current continuity portrayed her with a fairly contentious stance in regards to the Phantom Stranger, a deep seated distrust that verged on enmity. So, I thought…perfect! That was the human hook on which I could base her origin arc-a relationship gone awry.
Why do you think this character has become as popular as she has? What appeals to you about this character?
As I said, she was a bit of a blank slate when I started but I feel that we’ve now established a very distinct character that retains a certain mystery but also seems very accessible as well. She’s an intriguing concept that’s really grown on me over the course of this series. Madame Xanadu presents a certain, palpable humanity that is spiced with the always-fun aspects of sorcery and magic. I think she definitely appeals to female readers but I think a lot of guys are reading the book as well. I like to think we’ve provided a variety of evocative storylines and that’s always a big selling point. And, trust me, there’s more to come! There’s no end to the type of stories waiting to be told in this book!
Matt, you’ve done so many creator-owned books as well as many properties that are revivals and revamps of older, more classic characters. What, for you, is most rewarding about writing a book like “Madame Xanadu?”
I’m in a fairly unique position in this industry. I started out as an indie creator and, while I still retain that sort of cred, I also get a chance to play with the big boys and girls’ toys as well from time-to-time. I have a lot of fun doing that, mainly secure in the knowledge that I’ve always got my own titles to rely upon when I so desire. I always equate my work on company-owned properties to a band doing cover versions of the songs that inspired them over the years. It’s just good fun and there ain’t nothing wrong with that!
Are there any elements from the original 1970s series that you have yet to draw from? Will you be drawing from them at all in the future?
There really weren’t that many appearances of the character back in 1970s-a dozen or so. And, yeah, I’ve tried to incorporate many of the aspects laid down in the original stories into our book. By the end of the first ten-issue arc-“Disenchanted”-she’s pretty much set up in her recognizable status in the DCU.
Is there any chance we’ll see any of your creator-owned characters show up as cameos in “Madame Xanadu?”
HA! Highly unlikely. In the first place, “Mage” will never have a cross-over of any kind. It’s just not that kind of narrative. And “Grendel” just doesn’t seem like a good fit with the sort of narrative we’ve already established on “Madame Xanadu.” I’ve been approached about doing various team-ups with Grendel over the years but, hey…I’ve already done two very successful Grendel crossovers with BATMAN, fer-cryin’-out-loud! Kinda hard to top that, y’know?
Speaking of your creator-owned properties, “Mage” and “Grendel,” are there any plans for you to return to those series at any point in the future?
Hmmm…yeah, there’re plans. As I said, I’ve always got my own titles to which I can return. Let me just say that I think the time when I feel the need to return to the world of “Mage” is getting closer and closer!