Wagner Saws Madame Xanadu in Half with Vertigo

The last time Madame Xanadu was spotted in the DC Universe was “Countdown” #50, and she was doing her darndest, hocus-pocusing the whereabouts of Captain Marvel Jr. for Mary Marvel. The mystic was also blind, still suffering from The Spectre’s attack in “Infinite Crisis.” But you don’t need to worry about that.

In June, Vertigo launches a new “Madame Xanadu” ongoing series written by Matt Wagner (“Mage,” “Grendel”) with art and covers by Amy Reeder Hadley (“Fool’s Gold”). And she’ll have her sight back too, to begin with anyway.

Making her debut in “Doorway to Nightmare” #1 in 1978, Madame Xanadu was originally introduced as a reincarnation of the Lady of the Lake from Arthurian legend. Over the years, the character settled into a role as fortune-teller and resident occult advisor to the DCU.

Wagner’s Madame Xanadu’s story also opens centuries ago in a medieval kingdom ripe with intrigue and “foul sorcery.” “This is her origin story and it’s a long one,” Wagner told CBR News. “The narrative begins quite a ways in the past but it progresses through both time and various, fairly famous locales until we ultimately end up in Greenwich Village. Again, the whole point is to bring Madame X, through narrative, to the beginning of her contemporary self.”

Wagner said readers need no previous knowledge of Madame Xanadu and her back-story, and called his take on the card-reading character a re-imagining. “Even though there are various elements of her continuity in the DCU, I don’t think anyone is particularly stuck on them,” explained Wagner. “She’s a fairly blank slate of a character and that’s part of what attracted me to this project in the first place. In fact, based on my own private polling, all anyone seems to know about the character is that she had a spate of beautiful covers by Mike Kaluta back in the’70s and’80s and that she’s recently been blinded.”

Wagner continued, “Whenever I’m working within the scope of DC’s existing continuity, I tend to cherry-pick the parts of a character’s previously published adventures that I like and just ignore the parts that don’t have any resonance for me. I don’t feel any responsibility to honor the convoluted history of a character that might have been handled by dozens and dozens of creators over the years. Now, I do try to stay true to the spirit and essence of that existing continuity but I feel that getting too obsessive about the finer details can just sap any freshness out of any new approach to that character.

“So, that said, I feel like almost any audience for a Madame Xanadu comic is a new audience. I found some pieces of her backlog that I liked and I ran with those in my own particular vision and voice.”

With the book kicking off with a new origin in June, Wagner wants readers to come in uninhibited for #1, but he did share a few details about the opening arc. “This isn’t an action story. Instead of her actually battling some super villain, she instead continually interacts with another familiar character over nearly a millennium’s worth of time,” Wagner explained. “When I mentioned that there were several of her existing continuity points that I found interesting, the most significant one was the fact that she bears a certain distrust, if not outright enmity with The Phantom Stranger.

“I loved that bit and so I used that as the spring board for the entire series. This origin arc is, in fact, a long and lingering Gothic Romance between Madame Xanadu and The Phantom Stranger. When the story first opens, she’s not the character that readers might immediately recognize and the following bulk of the tale explains how she and the Stranger became so estranged from each other over the years.”

Over the years, the Phantom Stranger has led a team of magical DCU heroes called the Sentinels of Magic -- a de facto precursor to Shadowpact -- and Madame Xanadu is the lone homo magi who has never chose to serve alongside.

Wagner added, “We progress through time, encountering our two star-crossed main characters in various time periods and cultures. For instance, the second chapter of the story, not the second issue, takes place in the court of Kubla Khan. This is largely due to the fact that I had to find some way for her to bear the name of her eventual identity. 'Xanadu’ was the name of Kubla Khan’s summer palace, as made famous in the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

Having admitted he doesn’t feel any responsibility to honor the convoluted history of a character, Wagner certainly doesn’t let a universe -- or imprint -- shift get in the way of good storytelling. “I’ve always found this dilemma over whether things are DCU or Vertigo kind of pointless and confusing,” said Wagner. “I understand that the reasoning behind this conundrum is that Vertigo books are more 'adult’ and that, therefore, any sort of crossover might raise concerns over the younger readers of the DCU but, truthfully, I find very little of the DCU is even remotely aimed at a younger audience these days anyway.

“When you look at the DCU books, they’re all pretty damn dark in both content and intent. Everybody in the DCU seems to be either angry, emotionally tortured, physically injured or just plain mean, all the time. I mean, crap, even Superman is almost always depicted glowering and seemingly pissed off at something or anything. His eyes glow and are ready to just burn someone to cinders with his heat vision. And that’s not how I envision the character. So if that’s the case, I don’t really see why this is such a big controversy. Nor do I really care. I prefer to leave this question for others to debate. I’m just hoping to tell a good story.

“And I’m not really going out of my way to make this a Vertigo book either,” the writer continued, “much in the same way I'm not really going out of my way to worry how it fits into the DCU. If I said this was an 'adult’ book, it wouldn’t be because it’s rife with sex or violence. It’s just the sort of story that wouldn’t appeal to say, a 10-year-old. That said, we do feature an appearance by a certain character that’s quite popular in the Vertigo side of things, but I’ afraid I’ve got to keep that one secret for now.”

Madame Xanadu presents a challenge for Wagner as a creator even though his own character, Mage, had mythical ties to King Arthur and Merlin as well. “This is an entirely new and different sort of project for me,” he said. “It’s the first extended narrative I’ve done wherein the main character was female since the second 'Grendel’ story arc, 'Devil’s Legacy.’ And Madame Xanadu isn’t anywhere near the same sort of character as Christine Spar. It’s also been a really neat challenge to deal with a character that isn’t so action-oriented. Her main activity is fortune-telling and predicting the future, so she’s a character who’s constantly looking for better ways to do that. She searches for pattern in all things because she feels that the events of the future are written in the constructs of the present and the past.”

Wagner continued, “It’s a whole different vibe to writing a story that’s not full of fights and feats of daring-do. There’s a need to internalize the conflicts and struggles that would, in another sort of story, be more obvious and external. Still, I feel that the story is pretty intriguing and should bring readers back, wanting to know more about our title character and how she ends becoming the more familiar version that they remember from those Kaluta covers.”

Beyond his titular character’s spellbinding story, Wagner said another thing that makes Madame Xanadu so magical is the art and style of Amy Reeder Hadley. “I rave about Amy’s artwork on this series,” said Wagner. “One of the stranger elements of this series for me is that I didn’t really come up with the project on my own. Since my earliest days in the indie wing of this biz, I’ve always worked on projects that I concocted myself. Even my more mainstream work has always been an example of me coming up with an idea, pitching the series or storyline to the editorial powers-that-be and then pretty much executing on my own terms as well.

“In this case, the pairing of both Amy and Madame X with me came about as a result of one of my oldest and dearest pals in comics, [editor] Bob Schreck. Bob and I go way back together and had already worked together on a variety of things. He had just made the editorial move to Vertigo side of DC and was looking to line up new projects. He approached me about doing a re-vamp of Madame Xanadu’s origin and already had an artist in mind that he wanted me to work with, another first for me.”

Some readers will certainly recognize Hadley’s work from “Fool’s Gold,” athe title she created for TOKYOPOP. “I've got to confess that, at first, I didn’t quite see the connection,” Wagner remarked. “I didn’t immediately think that all three of those elements -- Amy, Madame X and me -- would add up to a perfect fit. In retrospect, I’ve got to hand it to Bob’s canny sense of combination here because it’s just been working out great. If you’ve ever seen Amy’s earlier work, you’ll know that’s it’s firmly rooted in the anime traditions. In fact, I said to Bob at an early stage, 'I don’t know, man, this might not work. Her book’s all about pretty boys and cool girls and it has a very contemporary setting. Everything I’ve got planned for 'Madame Xanadu’ is definitely not that. And, again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Amy has stepped up to the plate with this challenge and is just knocking the artwork straight out of the goddamn park. Really, her work on this book is just beautiful and perfectly fits the mood and atmosphere of the narrative, all while providing a firm mise-en-scène that wonderfully captures each of the time period’s depicted. She’s managed to retain her own personal voice in the drawing while elevated her game to something completely outside the trappings of her earlier work. Believe me, I think this project is going to make her an artist that is highly in demand.”

Moving away from “Madame Xanadu” in closing, Wagner said he already has plans for the next evolution of his creator-owned character, Grendel, at Dark Horse Comics. “I’ve been finished with the final work on 'Behold the Devil’ for quite some time,“ said Wagner. “The fifth issue is out and it’s a total of eight issues altogether. I have some ideas for a Grendel Prime series that will hopefully begin production soon but I'll just be writing that one.”

Wagner is also writing an eight-issue opening arc on “Zorro” for Dynamite. “After that, who knows? I have some ideas for future storylines, but that all depends on the rest of my seemingly always busy schedule,” laughed Wagner. “At this point, I definitely want to continue my work on 'Zorro’ for some time to come.”

The popular writer also teased one more forthcoming project. “I’ve always got something brewing on my creative stove. There’s actually a pretty big, very commercial project that’s sitting in the pipline, awaiting approval at this point,” said Wagner, who has previously worked heavily with Batman for DC. “It might, in fact, prove to be one of the biggest things I’ve ever worked on but, alas, I can’t talk about it quite yet.”

“Madame Xanadu” #1 is on sale in June.

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