Reviving an obscure character can be a dicey proposition in comics. From satisfying what loyal readers that may have followed the character's previous iterations to introducing new readers to the as yet unproven concept, comebacks often present a balancing act few creators can survive.
Luckily for Vertigo's latest success story, "Madame Xanadu," the mind at the helm of the fantasy tale has proven experience in the field of reinvention. Matt Wagner ("Sandman Mystery Theater," "Zorro") has taken the C-list 1970s fortune teller remembered primarily for being depicted on DC Comics covers by Michael Kaluta and turned her into the star of Vertigo's newest hit; an epic fantasy story that spans eons and sees moments in history through the eyes of a youthful, wide-eyed sorceress with a fondness for humanity.
Wagner of course made his name the business of constant reinvention by presenting to comics readers his signature character Grendel in multiple time periods and incarnations. In the opening ten-issue arc of "Madame Xanadu" (the fifth part of which is on sale now), the writer has already delivered a raft of historical characters both real (Kublai Khan, Marie Antoinette) and imagined (King Arthur, The Demon Etrigan), but the heart of the Amy Reeder Hadley-drawn monthly remains the contentious pseudo-romance between the title heroine and the similarly immortal magical character The Phantom Stranger.
"When I started looking through [old Madame Xanadu stories], the big thing that stood out to me was that she had this real animosity towards the Phantom Stranger," Wagner told CBR. "I said, 'Perfect. There's another character that lives forever. I can weave a whole romance tale on how they grew to be on such opposite sides of the spectrum from each other.'"
The writer noted that while the connection may not jump out to many readers of the book, unearthing unknown elements was exactly his point. Just as he was unfamiliar with Xanadu before taking the Wagner believes "Nobody is! That's why I like the job. It's a blank slate. I hate having to pay too much attention to continuity," he laughed. "I'm not saying I won't [pay attention to continuity]. I like taking bits and pieces of it and playing with them, but if you look at everything I've done for DC, it's always been very early in a character's career. I would hate to get on the Batman book right now and have to deal with Nightwing and Spoiler and the fourth or fifth or sixth Robin - just all these characters that I just don't care about, whereas if it's a character like Madame Xanadu that nobody cares about, I can pick and chose what continuity points I want to care about."
As the "Madame Xanadu" series progresses, the mixture of historical fiction, fantasy and contentious romance allows Wagner to keep that selective continuity focused on character, with the Stranger offering a cold-hearted counterpoint to Madame Xanadu's somewhat childlike and affectionate view of humanity. Of course, the characters do share common bonds as well.
"It's more recognizing a like kind," said Wagner. "[Xanadu] talks about how she understands [The Stranger's] loneliness, and the great thing about this romance is that it's a simmering passion that never manages to creep to the surface. And that makes for exciting emotional tÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes."
As such, Wagner confirmed, "After the origin arc, we will not be seeing the Phantom Stranger every single issue."
The writer also noted that part of the inspiration for the long opening arc -- which he promised will end with Madame Xanadu finding a form closer to her original 1970s incarnation - that focuses on Xanadu's coming-of-age throughout the centuries came from Hadley's art style. "Amy's art has a certain naivete to it," he said. "I don't mean it's not complex. It just has a pure innocence to it, and I wanted to keep that as long as I could. Ultimately, she's going to turn into something not quite as wide-eyed as she is in the beginning. And I also didn't want to make it just a girly book fantasy."
By that, Wagner specifically meant not shying away from more adult concerns that can be carried by a Vertigo book rather than adolescent wish fulfillment. "If you notice in the first few issues there, she's Merlin's lover. And she sleeps with him to get information out of him there," Wagner said. "Later, when she talks about having to flee Europe, she's some Viking captain's wench to get passage over to Germany. So I don't want to make it too naive and innocent but not too hard-bitten and cynical at the same time.
"I tend to think that a character who lives that long doesn't have the moralistically uptight attitudes about sex. Sex is what it is - sometimes you use it to manipulate people. Sometimes you use it for your own pleasure. It's not any great mystery, and it certainly isn't original sin to a character that predates Christianity."
"Madame Xanadu" has earned high praise across the spectrum for Hadley's expressive art, and many mainstream comics fans were unaware of the artist's earlier work on TOKYOPOP's "Fool's Gold" - including Matt Wagner himself. "This was kind of unique in that she was presented to me as the artist by Bob Schreck, the editor," Wagner recalled. "He called me up and said, 'I want you to try your hand at Madame Xanadu, and I want you to work with this artist.' I'm so used to plowing my own road that I was a bit taken aback by the suggestion, and when I looked at her stuff, I liked it but I thought, 'I don't know if this is the right project.' Because 'Fool's Gold' is very different than 'Madame Xanadu' and I've given her so many different things to draw in so many different time periods, which she admits has been a challenge, but oh my God has she really, really delivered."
The series has kept Wagner's creative attention by way of balancing working with a new talent in Hadley with an established master who joins the series in issue #11: Michael Kaluta. "After #10 I was really not planning on hanging around on the book," he revealed. "I was going to get the storyline set up, and Schreck was giving me a hard time about sticking on so he said, 'Look, what if I get Mike Kaluta to draw the second storyline?' I just saw, 'Aww, shit! All right, we'll see.' He called me back in an hour and was like, 'I talked to Mike, we're ready to go!'"
Kaluta, of course, defined the original look of Madame Xanadu during her earliest appearances, and his involvement has energized Wagner moving forward. "There's a great dichotomy there of working with a young, fresh talent and then working with somebody who's really well established and had a history with the character - anybody who knows anything about that character is because of those covers he did back in the '70s. And so that's been a blast to switch back and forth between the two."
But before he reaches the phase of scripting for Kaluta, Matt Wagner will continue to develop the young Xanadu in the next five issues of her origin arc. The secret, the writer explained, comes in keeping the focus away from the better known guest stars and setups whenever possible. "I come at it from the side. If you look at the first issue again, I distinctly never name anyone but the female characters. I talk about the kingdom, but I never call it Camelot until the last page. I never name the king. I never name the wizard," he said. "That's because those factors are all so iconic and familiar that you kind of fill that stuff in your own mind. And yet I wanted this to be distinctly her story and not Arthur's story or Merlin's story."
Of course, that doesn't mean that more famed characters won't be working their way into "Madame Xanadu," with announced appearances by real life villains like Jack the Ripper and even Neil Gaiman's celebrated take on Death from "The Sandman." "In [DC] continuity, Madame Xanadu makes a deal with Death for her immortality. And in the original version, it was Death, the Grim Reaper - big hooded skeletal guy. I thought, 'Since we're doing this at Vertigo and updated, we should just use Gaiman's Death, right?' And it fit like a glove," Wagner remarked. "It fit Amy like a glove too - she just draws her beautifully."
Wagner wouldn't say who else would be popping up as the origin rockets towards its completion, but to him, nobody is off the table. "DC has this internal conflict as to who's allowed to venture where character-wise, so it all depends on what I'm allowed to get away with," he said. "But to my mind, I don't worry about it. I'll let them worry about it. But I intend on integrating other characters into the series. It's not going to be a guest star of the month thing, but there will be recognizable characters in there. And a lot of new characters too."
"Madame Xanadu" #6, featuring Death, will be in comic shops November 26 from Vertigo.