Amy Reeder Hadley Talks "Madame Xanadu"

When it was announced that Matt Wagner would be returning to Vertigo to resurrect and revamp the character of Madame Xanadu with artist Amy Reeder Hadley, many comics fans were unfamiliar with the young illustrator. One of the many creators who came to TOKYOPOP through its Rising Stars of Manga contest, Hadley wrote and illustrated two volumes of "Fool's Gold" for the publisher before the title was canceled. TOKYOPOP's loss is clearly DC Comics' gain, as only five issues into the series, Hadley's made an indelible mark on he character and the publisher's mature readers imprint, giving Vertigo a new hit.

"Madame Xanadu" follows the adventures of the youthful, wide-eyed sorceress from her auspicious beginnings as a forest elemental in the days of Camelot and through the ages as she rubs elbows with real-life historical figures including Kublai Khan, Marie Antoinette as well as mythical mainstays Merlin, King Arthur and DC's own Etrigan the Demon and of course The Phantom Stranger, with whom Xanadu enjoys (or suffers) an on-again, off-again centuries-spanning romance.

In anticipation of this week's "Madame Xanadu" #6, which guest-stars everyone's favorite Vertigo character, Death, Hadley took time out of her busy schedule to talk to CBR News about how the series has been going and to give us a preview of what to expect in the stories to come.

CBR: This week's "Madame Xanadu" #6 picks up with Xandu in jail in revolutionary France and Death shows up. Did you do a lot of research into the character?

Amy Reeder Hadley: Not in any other series besides "The Sandman." I had read all of "The Sandman" and after I read that, I didn't feel like I needed to work too hard at it. I felt like I understood what type of a person she was and how to capture her on the page. That said, it was incredibly difficult to actually do, but I just remembered her attitude in "The Sandman." I think the toughest thing was capturing her attitude, along with her looks, because you want her to have some poignancy as far as emotion in the story but she's also sort of aloof -- or perhaps she only tries to show her aloofness, if you know what I mean? She's kind of comical in a way. That was a difficult thing to handle, especially since I knew that there's so many people who are fans of the character that I would have to get stuff approved by [creator] Neil Gaiman. It was a little bit stressful but it was so much fun to do.

You mentioned that Neil Gaiman approved this issue. Was it just the story he approved or was it also your portrayal of Death?

I believe he okayed the story with Matt. I wasn't involved with that so I don't know the details. He didn't have to approve the design but I definitely showed the design to my editors and Matt Wagner for them to have input on, and once all the pages were done they sent them to Neil Gaiman as well as a few others to make sure that everything was alright. It was kind of stressful, but I know that Neil has a lot of faith in Matt. Matt definitely cares about the characters and I think he wrote her really well, too. You'll have to see but he did a great job.

The ongoing story is about Madame Xanadu and her relationship with the Phantom Stranger, and he's very aloof. Death is also aloof, but much more empathetic in a way the Stranger is definitely not, wouldn't you say?

It's almost like he acts like he cares but then he doesn't. But yeah, that's really how I tried to capture Death. I tried to make her seem like everything's casual, this is her job, she's done it a billion times and yet, there's something about Madame Xanadu that touches her heart. And she tries to shake it off, but she cares enough about her and her problems. I think it was just something that would be appropriate for the story as well, because the focus is in fact on Madame Xanadu and we all want to care about her. I can't wait for people to see what I did with it because I'm talking cryptically now because you haven't gotten a chance to read it.

When "Madame Xanadu" was first proposed, were you sold on the idea from the get-go?

I think I was pretty sold on it at first. Each set of issues that Matt would send me plots for -- because the historical period changes every couple of issues, so he would send me two plots each time -- I liked. Each time he would send me a new set of plots, I ended up liking it more. It just started to fit together even more and get me excited and by issue ten, which is the end of this story arc, it's just the most beautiful thing. I was just so happy once I read that and wanted to go tell everybody but of course then that would spoil it. [laughs]

I think my favorite thing when I read Matt's script or plot is when I see crazy visual things that he wants me to try out that I've never done before. That's the cool thing about Matt, he's just so visual, he's an artist, and so he comes out with the most outlandish ideas for magical things we can do. There's a lot of things that have not yet been released, as far as the comics that have come out, but in issue three where Phantom Stranger is appearing through the moon. He just comes up with these crazy things. A lot of that happens later on. It's just the coolest thing ever. Every single time I read stuff like that I think, "Wow, I need to make this the best it can be. I have to make this awesome because he wrote it awesome." So I definitely get very excited about it.

Matt Wagner is known for working differently with different artists. Take us through your process for "Madame Xanadu."

He sends me what he calls plot; basically, he says what's happening and occasionally he'll write a little bit of dialogue but very rarely. And never any panel numbers. I take that and lay it out and panel it. He sees the thumbnails so he can approve them, but usually he's pretty happy with what I come up with. And when the pencils are done then he adds dialogue to match. It's pretty fun. He definitely gives his artists a lot more say in the story than most writers do, I believe.

Do you enjoy having some say in the layout and the storytelling?

Matt definitely leaves that pretty much up to me. Every once in a while he'll have an idea of something in his head and he'll make it more explicit. I like having some power as to how the storytelling goes. I believe that's why my editors, as well as Matt, wanted me in the first place, because they liked my storytelling, so the point was to kind of allow that to come through. For me, I have a really tough time realizing other people's visions. Working with Matt, I'm a much slower artist than I ever was on my own stuff because suddenly it's someone else's vision and you want to stay loyal to it.

Is speed part of why Richard Friend took over inking with the third issue of "Madame Xanadu?"

It was completely a question of speed, actually. If I was working really hard, I used to be able to draw a full page a day -- pencils, inks and screen toning, because I worked in black and white. So I thought with just pencils and inks, well, piece of cake. [laughs] But it turns out to be a lot tougher than I realized. I guess I was throwing in a lot of detail. I think it was just the nature of the story being more atmospheric so I put a lot of care into the backgrounds. So yeah, eventually I just wasn't fast enough.

The cool part was that we got Rick on it because I think that the assistant editor on the book, Brandon Montclare, just threw it out there to find out if he'd be interested and he was. I mean, I'm not sure most people would even try that to even think that Rick would be interested, but I'm just so happy that he's on the book. He's saved me in a lot of ways.

Had you read Matt Wagner's work before you started to work with him?

Actually no, I didn't. Before I started working for Vertigo, I hadn't read many comics form the U.S. unless they were from friends of mine who worked for TOKYOPOP. I remember my editor Brandon [Montclare] was like, "You have no idea how lucky you are and how many artists want to work with this guy." So I was like, "I really need to read up." [laughs] I read "Mage," I read some of "Grendel," "Trinity" and both of the recent Batman graphic novels ["The Mad Monk" and "Batman and the Monster Men"]. I loved those. I think "Trinity" was probably my favorite that I've read so far. So yeah, I wasn't familiar with him at all. [laughs]

"Madame Xanadu" sees you playing up design elements, fashion, emotional scenes and conveying people's body language, but in completely different historical periods. The book really gives you an opportunity to show what you can do as an artist. How much of this was you and how much was Wagner?

What's funny is that I graduated college and I didn't go to school for art. I got a degree in social science teaching, and was supposed to go teach history. They didn't even know that I had an interest in this. I had actually wanted to get a grad degree in something like the history of fashion. And so this ended up being something that I was completely excited about researching for and I think that's probably why it's come through. I'm not sure that Matt originally wrote it for the purpose of me showcasing clothing. [laughs]

He definitely did write it so that it would play up emotions, because that's something that he noticed, as far as "Fool's Gold," as my strength and he's been pretty happy with the poignant moments between people. I've noticed he'll write things in that are way up my alley. He'll write in a cute kid in the story because he knows that I like drawing kids. So yeah, he definitely plays to it but if he wants something in there that he knows I haven't done before, he's brave enough to have me try it out and have me learn, which I appreciate as well. Sometimes I don't do so great and sometimes it works out well, but I'm learning and hoping that I can do even better than he expects.

Even for those who knew your work from "Fool's Gold," readers are really struck by the lushness of the art in "Madame Xanadu."

I think that's one of the cool parts about working under somebody else's vision. Suddenly there's a lot more pressure because you have to try to discover what sorts of things will make it look great. Like, I probably wouldn't imagine a bunch of scenes in forests. I was never very good at trees, actually. [laughs] And suddenly I thought, you know what, I want to learn how to draw trees well enough that it looks like I've been doing it all my life to really give it some atmosphere. I guess I just really wanted to wow people.

Also, whenever I start a new project, I mean I'm always trying to improve as much as I can, but especially I look at myself and say, "What am I going to do this time to make a huge jump and to really force myself to grow?" And it makes it pretty difficult, but it's so rewarding. It's totally worth it.

Going from "Fool's Gold" to "Madame Xanadu," you're working with a larger page and working in color. Has that changed how you work?

It definitely changes how I work, especially in color as opposed to black and white. I think that you can leave a lot more up to the imagination in black and white. You can leave things a lot more open. I've been slowly realizing what doesn't really work in color. I've learned places where I need more detail and places where I might need less detail and things that I can leave to just special effects and color. I think I've made a lot of adjustments as far as that goes. As well as making adjustments to the art so it will match Matt's style of writing and also just the format.

I don't think that the size of the page has changed how I work too much, but the fact that the story is in smaller increments [has]. Comic books are twenty-two pages. You can see all the way into the gutter and a lot of times the even pages aren't on the left side because of ads, whereas with a graphic novel, you always know which side of the page each page will go on. I used to plan everything so that there was no art going into the gutters, for instance; plan more in terms of the spread even though it wasn't a double-page spread. I'd think how things were laid out that way. Now I try to see the pages more singularly to make them work well with the new format.

Do you relate to Madame Xanadu?

Definitely. I don't think that I could even draw her as the main character unless I did relate to her. I think that was the biggest goal when I was originally formulating her in my mind and drawing designs, because the Madame Xanadu that I had read in different books, to be quite frank, I couldn't relate to. She seemed to me as this Elvira-esque type of woman and she cared about people, but was very mysterious and almost too perfect. And so I wanted to add some human elements into her, to make her somebody that I could identify with. She has problems and makes mistakes but she always means well.

Tell us about your design for Madame Xanadu, particularly her wood-sprite look in the first issue.

Matt wanted her to be a creature of the forest because basically it's her and her two other sisters, the Lady of the Lake and then Morgan Le Fay, who was a creature of the air. So since I had a lot of time at the beginning, I really wanted the book to look really iconic and original, again because I'm not a huge fan of fantasy overall, so what always attracts me is something new you haven't seen before. So I thought, I want her to be sort of wild but noble at the same time, and the best animal to compare that with would be a deer, I think. So I just tried to figure out some fashion ideas I could use and thought, they're probably going to say no to this because she's going to have deer hoof shoes and wearing antlers. So they'll probably say no, but this is my new series and I want to put all of my heart into it and take the chance of being shot down. So I showed it to them and luckily they were cool with it. And I'm glad that they were because it kind of established that whole attitude from there on out that I could make things mine and for the most part they'll be happy with it.

Can you see yourself writing "Madame Xanadu?"

I can see myself doing a one-shot, but I would feel uncomfortable going farther than that. Maybe in the future when I'm more experienced as a writer I could, but I find it rather intimidating starting up with a character that is from the DC Universe and there are things that I need to know about -- not even just her, but the whole world around her and what I can include and everything. It makes me slightly nervous. I think it would be so much to have to research both for the story and for the art. I've thought of scenarios that could happen in the story and that's probably why I think that maybe I could handle a one shot but past that it's just a little intimidating to me to start on something that's not my own character, I suppose.

The first arc of "Madame Xanadu" is ten issues long, and then Michael Kaluta is drawing five issues. After that, are you and Wagner sticking around?

That's the plan so far, yeah. I don't really know what he's got planned, although I believe it's still going to be stuff that takes place in the past. But that's all I know about that. I know that Kaluta's run is coming and I'm pretty excited about that. I've always been interested in period pieces.

Are you a fantasy fan?

Not really. I definitely like various fantasies out there, but I've always been into drama and period dramas. I like fantasies that give you a new thing to think about, a new aspect of fantasy that you haven't seen before. That's what I like about Matt's stories and being able to draw those, it's always something really new. I mean, really, I don't care much about fantasy unless the characters are a big part of it as well, whether I like the characters or not and the struggle that they go through and is the plot involved with that. I mean, ideally, my favorite genre is romance but unfortunately there's not a lot of good romance out there, which is kind of sad but it's usually too corny or unrealistic, so I don't know.

You're said to be big "Pride and Prejudice" fan.

Yeah. I'm a total "Pride and Prejudice" nut. And see, that's one that's not too mushy. Okay, a couple moments where I'm like, eh, they could've made that a little more awkward like real life would've been and stuff, but it's genuine. And I like how it's two characters who have real struggles with each other, they're worst enemies and then best friends and then fall in love. You contrast that with "Romeo and Juliet" -- and I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of flak for going against Shakespeare -- but I've never considered that story much of a romance because the people themselves are in love - Romeo and Juliet - but it's always outside elements that stop them and so then it doesn't interest me anymore. It seems boring and the interest of the story is the politics rather than the romance.

TOKYOPOP released the first two volumes of "Fool's Gold." Was it canceled? What exactly is the status?

TOKYOPOP has canceled the series, so unless they suddenly decide that they'd like it and even then it'd have to be if I make it myself and have the opportunity to, but yeah, I do wish that I could finish it because I definitely had a lot planned. I was thinking that if I ever do get any sort of break it would be great to at least put the next chapter online of what I would have done, because that has a lot of big reveals in it that I wanted the fans to find out about. The part that hurts the most is just the people who were really looking forward to book three that I have to let down, and I was just so happy that they read it at all. It's not like I had the greatest sales in the world so you want to reward these people for all following you through book two, which came out a year-and-a-half after book one.

But sadly, yeah, it's cancelled. Maybe one day I'll put it up there because that would be fun. And maybe I'll do it in color because I would love to learn how to color comics because I don't really know the first thing about coloring comics right now, so it would fun to experiment on my own time with that.

You have five months off when Kaluta draws "Madame Xanadu."

I'll have a lot of time to make up and I definitely want to get ahead, but it still gives me a few months. It's been a while since I've just made an illustration for the heck of it. I'm finding that covers are very hard for me to come up with, so I would love to do some illustrations here and there to get better at that and just relax. I'm loving the opportunity I have right now. But yeah, I could definitely use a little bit of relaxation so I'm looking forward to finishing issue ten.

Is that one of the problems of drawing for a living, that you're doing it constantly it ceases to be a way to decompress?

Yeah. It's really interesting. I find that, at least with me and I'm hoping this will change as I get older, but I find that sometimes you can lose your focus and you just have so much that you're dealing with and so much that you need to catch up on that you just wish that you had the time to step away and look at the big picture and figure out who you are and what you want. It's a really interesting life because you're doing what you love, but you're doing it so much that you have to keep reminding yourself that you love it. [laughs]

Sometimes it's a lot easier than others. Sometimes I'm just so immersed in it and sometimes, to be honest, it's really tough. I just run out of inspiration and so I think that's something that can still be a muscle that can be strengthened. It's not just magic. But yeah, I am definitely looking forward to a time when I can figure out who I am again and just draw things for the heck of it because I think that can help you improve as well and it's something that I'm hoping I'll have more time to do with the next set of issues, because then I'll start earlier and have more time for myself so that I can improve both through doing a lot of comic work and also just through experimenting and not worrying about the outcome. It's been stressful, but I just want to make everything right and do it right next time and be on time.

You have two YouTube channels with tutorials and other things. Why?

Two reasons. First of all, I love to teach. It really is one of my favorite things ever. But also, I learned kind of late how to draw. I mean, when I was young I could draw, but it was all just copying photos. I never could do anything out of my own head, so this all really started after college. I started learning how to draw characters and draw in perspective and all sorts of stuff. I pretty much was trying to give myself a crash course in art and each time that I learned something, I'm like, "So that's what's going on" and "I wish somebody had told me this." And so then I wanted to share it. I don't just do YouTube videos but that's kind of been my latest thing. I also do a lot of online tutorials. It's really all for me because I enjoy it so much. Comics is such a lonely profession, so it's so much fun for other people to experience the same thing you are and to have the same discoveries that you have. And so yeah whenever I get free time I love putting stuff up like that.

I think maybe my next thing might be something related to drawing clothing folds, because I feel like I'm finally starting to get that. It took me a few years. We'll see. When I get time I'm definitely going to be doing more tutorials and more online demonstrations for sure.

So next year sometime?

Yeah. Basically, not for a little while. It's sad because the YouTube thing has actually been really successful and it surprised me. Even to this day, I constantly get new subscribers and I feel so bad because I have a lot of people who are saying, "when's the next one?" and I really can't make any right now. But I'm hearing them and I will as soon as I can because, gosh, they're so popular. I wish I had more time to do it because I think it would help me with getting my name out there as well so everybody wins.

What was it that brought you to comics?

My sister-in-law likes manga. I'd been hanging out at my in-laws' and she'd be reading stuff and I just started to read some of the manga she had around. She happens to have terribly good taste, so I lucked out, and read probably my favorite comic as one of the first ones I ever read, which is called "Paradise Kiss." It's a horrible title but it was something that involved fashion, which of course I love, and just had some really honest romance story where people are complicated and they weren't all that good or bad. I just really sympathized with the characters and I just thought that it was so cool and I wanted more of that. So when you want more of something then, sometimes you just have to make it yourself. [laughs]

It wasn't even that I disliked comics before. It's just that when you're from the outside, it's like, how do you even start? I remember one time in college, I was looking for a job, and I went to this one comic book store, seeing if they were hiring. They weren't and they were just so rude about it, like they didn't even want me to be there and I just felt so uncomfortable. So I just never really got into it, which is so sad. I think that there are so many people out there who would love comics but the problem is where do you start and how do you get rid of the preconceptions about comics that people have? I'm still trying to discover that and I'm hoping that at least with my perspective of coming in late that I can find ways to bring new people in, because it needs to be done. It needs to be as common as the movies. You don't ask somebody if they watch movies because of course they do, and that'd be great if comics were the same.

"Madame Xanadu" #6 goes on sale November 26 from Vertigo.

CBR Staff Writers Kiel Phegley and Andy Khouri contributed to this story.

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