Interestingly enough, though I like Madame Xanadu (both the character and the book), much like my issues
with Wonder Woman, she seems a far more appealing character to me in theory than in actual execution thus far.
In theory, I love that she’s a strong female protagonist. I love that she is an epic larger than life character whose roots go back centuries. I love that she is independent and a fiercely powerful witch. And I am fascinated by Arthurian legend, which is where Nimue (aka Madame Xanadu’s) story begins and where her history is rooted. I’ve always been interested in Morgana and Viviane and these are two of Nimue’s sisters – so we’re starting from a really enthralling place that is personally interesting to me – not unlike Diana and her Amazons.
All these facts, combined with Amy Reeder Hadley’s absolutely stunning art, should make this book a home run for me. But it’s just not working for me as I’d imagined it would. I hope my inability to fully connect with Madame Xanadu is not for the same reasons that I had for Diana…because I don’t know what that makes me, but certainly shallow, boring, and predictable come to mind. So let’s explore what exactly is and is not working for me here.
It’s definitely NOT a problem with Amy Reeder Hadley’s phenomenal illustration work. I’d be hard pressed to think of someone I’d like to see more on a regular book. The art is layered and well
researched, particularly the historical elements, which bounce around in this trade from century to century with ease. Hadley’s pages are absolutely gorgeous, but never at the expense of clear well paced storytelling. I honestly cannot rave enough about the art on this series overall. Hadley’s attention to detail, particularly with regard to Madame Xanadu’s costuming through the ages is exquisite and the absolute absence of any hyper sexualization or objectification of our lead is something I’m sure you all know I’m a huge fan of. My only complaint, and this is coming from someone that is largely ignorant when it comes to Manga and Manga influences, is that I’m slightly put off by how young Nimue/Madame Xanadu looks throughout the trade which I attribute mostly to the stylized Manga face. It’s not that I want Madame Xanadu to age, or need her to be less beautiful, but I think I have trouble relating to her because despite all her experience and power and history, she tends to look like a 16 year-old girl for most of the book and on some level it prevents me from easily relating to her. But that is a very small piece of a very beautiful and complicated puzzle, that mostly delights with the turn of every single page.
Nimue/Madame Xanadu herself is a fascinating character – perfectly poised through Matt Wagner’s plotting to draw a reader through millennia of stories. She’s a powerful, single-minded character that technically hits all the right storytelling marks of vulnerability and strength, but something keeps me from really connecting with her. Despite Wagner’s attempts to show various sides of her (love, hate, vengeance, hope, etc.) her emotions seem a bit stiff and even telegraphed to me in these cherry picked stories of her history, and her personal stakes seem somewhat in conflict with her tightly plotted arc. For example I don’t love the idea that despite her power she still finds herself being manipulated by men – first by Merlin, and then by The Phantom Stranger. There are times when it works, but mostly it seems like a contrivance of the plot rather than an emotionally resonant experience for the character. As the book progressed my dislike for Madame Xanadu’s tumultuous relationship with The Phantom Stranger lessened, but really only as that relationship evolved into something that felt more believable to me. Though they are an obvious match in a way – Nimue is a powerful being that I can see responding to another powerful being – the jump to romance seemed forced and unnatural to me – and I didn’t start getting into their relationship until it morphed into the more adversarial one it has at the end of the trade. They seem like a much better fit as potential adversaries than as lovers, given how and when their paths crossed (or at least in what Wagner has chosen to show us here). Not that I don’t want Madame Xanadu to find love, I certainly do, but I just didn’t see how or why her interactions with The Phantom Stranger would lead her toward feeling love.
Wagner sews Madame Xanadu tightly into the tapestry of the DCU and it’s a technique which I suspect really delights a lot of hardcore DC fans, but its coolness is largely lost on me I’m afraid. Because my DC reading is definitively spotty, I suspect I don’t get the same charge as someone else might, when seeing something like…The Spectre being born. To me I’m all, “Hey..is that The Spectre? Okay. Cool.” I’m sure for others, real aficionados of DC history that those moments (and there are a few of them) are really phenomenal and give the book a whole other layer to be enjoyed. For me, they worked more as interesting footnotes. My loss I think. Although, in fairness, for people that know even less about the ins and outs of the DC Universe and characters, I wonder if this could be a frustrating problem in reading the book. For me, I knew enough to get by and understand everything I needed to, but I can easily see how these fun insider elements of the story could be frustrating to someone even less familiar with the DCU than I am.
Although overall Wagner’s writing is strong throughout these first ten issues, I think my biggest complaint is that though he takes us to some very interesting historical and historical fiction moments in time, some of them from the DCU and some of them much bigger than that, I didn’t feel that he showed me anything that new or interesting about those stories. When we visit London in the time of Jack The Ripper I strongly felt like I’d already read the same Ripper story a hundred times before, there was nothing really revolutionary about Wagner’s take. And if you’re going to go to the well again on Jack The Ripper, I feel like you really need to have something important to say, or a unique take on the events. Some of the mini story arcs work better than others however and frankly the book covers a lot of ground in the first ten issues. Perhaps too much? You be the judge:
This first trade follows Madame Xanadu through time, hitting on important moments of her history beginning with Madame Xanadu when she was known as Nimue, sister to Morgana and Viviane and lover of Merlin, during the time of King Arthur. The Phantom Stranger first appears to her here, and encourages Nimue to intervene and stop her sister Morgana and son Mordred from tumbling the reign of King Arthur, and also reveals her lover Merlin as a demon in disguise that she must stop. Nimue is only successful in the latter, trapping Merlin but at a high cost to herself.
The next time we meet up with Nimue it is centuries later and she is living in Mongolia, calling herself Madame Xanadu and acting as high counsel to Kublai Khan. She is poised to strengthen the relationship between The Khan and Marco Polo, and with The Phantom Stranger’s help she not only does that but also puts a powerful artifact (a green lamp!) into the hands of Polo and headed for the West. There’s a great moment for me in this arc, when Madame Xanadu realizes that The Khan’s fourth concubine (his favorite) who she and Marco Polo had saved from murder, but not from rape, has been exiled by the Khan for being unclean. It’s a powerful scene in which Madame Xanadu seems to realize both the privilege of being who she is (a woman with real power) and also the limitation of what she can do in this ever evolving ‘world of men’. This was by far my favorite of Wagner’s arcs, both because it was a story I felt I had not really seen much before and also because there was more emotional resonance in it than in other pieces.
Next we catch up with Madame Xanadu as she lives in France as a guest of Marie Antoinette on the verge of the French Revolution. She tries to warn her friend, the queen, who cannot believe that she and her king are in any real danger. Madame Xanadu leaves before the real trouble begins but is unable to leave her friend to her fate, and so comes to see her in secret and as a result is captured and thrown in prison. Without her magics to keep her young and healthy, Madame Xanadu ages hundreds of years in the matter of a few weeks, and the transformation through Hadley’s art is quite spectacular. Madame Xanadu’s unexpected aging leads to a fantastic cameo by Death (yes, Neil Gaiman’s Death) and the answer to Madame Xanadu’s seeming immortality. Though I loved seeing Death, and it’s a fun insider-y crossover bit of plotting, ultimately I found the way in which Madame Xanadu convinces Death to grant her immortality pretty underwhelming.
After escaping Death and her French prison, we see Madame Xanadu in England. Here she continues in her efforts to protect women as she tries to locate and stop Jack the Ripper. Feeling similarly powerless as she did when learning the fate of The Khan’s concubine, but more determined to succeed in her mission, Madame Xanadu is thwarted in part by The Phantom Stranger who is not above sacrificing a few women to make sure that things go ‘the way they are supposed to’. This is the final disagreement between them as far as Madame Xanadu is concerned and she begins to think of The Phantom Stranger as her enemy instead of her ally and potential lover.
When they meet again in the late 1930’s Madame Xanadu still considers him an enemy and has taken actions (ineffective though they turn out to be) against him. As a result The Spectre, otherwise known as the spirit of vengeance, is born and Madame Xanadu blames herself for its release into the world.
The end of issue #10 actually sets the stage quite nicely for Madame Xanadu to begin doing “good work” in the hopes of atoning for her “crime” of aiding in the creation of The Spectre as she sets up a shop in order to help any and all that may need her assistance. It’s a nearly perfect ending that launches the series in a slightly new direction. A direction that, despite my inability to fall fully in love, I find myself interested in.
As I was writing this article I realized how insanely high my expectations were, and how pathetic my attention span really is. Because while there are certainly comics that I have immediately fallen in love with (and sometimes even stayed in love with) the reality is that this is only ten issues – not even a year – of a comic – and sometimes it just takes more time than that to really fall in love. Certainly if it’s going to be a real and lasting love maybe it SHOULD take more time.
So I’m left with feeling that I like Madame Xanadu just enough. I like the book and I recognize all the wonderful things it brings to the table, and I can easily see that it’s better than the majority of what is being produced and sold today…so why am I in such a hurry to be freaking soul mates with it? Why can’t we just date?
And so I think we will. I’m okay with just dating (so long as I’m allowed to see other comics too) and if I fall in love later, great. If not, well, at least we’ll have a good time.
The Madame Xanadu Vol.1: Disenchanted trade came out in July 2009 and includes issues #1 – 10. And as Greg Burgas points out in the comments, it’s great price for 10 issues, a lot of bang for your buck – which makes it easier to take a risk.
The second trade, Madame Xanadu Vol.2: Exodus Noir which includes issues #11 – 15 was released this past week, February 10, 2010 and features renowned artist Michael WM. Kaluta’s pencils, stepping in for Amy Reeder Hadley.
Madame Xanadu #20 goes on sale February 24th, 2010.
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