Sunday, January 30, 2011

Madame Xanadu, alas

The parade of the late lamented continues this week with a viewing of Madame Xanadu, Vertigo’s wonderful series penned by Matt Wagner and predominantly drawn by Amy Reeder Hadley. Like Image’s Astounding Wolf-Man, this one met its end in an untimely fashion. Unlike Wolf-Man, I have low hopes of future appearances that I’ll want to read. Madame Xanadu not being creator owned, who knows who will end up writing the character next.

Not surprisingly, my foray with this book was not based on any love of the character. In fact, I don’t think I read a single story with Madame Xanadu until this series. Beautiful as her work is, Reeder wasn’t the draw, either. Matt Wagner was the sole reason I took a flier on this, and it was well worth the coin.

Obviously, not enough people felt the same way. Here’s what you missed.

In the first ten issues Wagner established the character, taking her from Camelot days when she was involved in a calculated, intimate affair with Merlin, and was known at that time by her given name of Nimue, through 1930s NYC when she was engaged in a more affectionate affair with Zatara. There were five stops in this journey, each getting two issues. In truth, the entire series could have ended at the 10th and been one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had. Wagner succinctly told the five stories and brought out the character’s development over the centuries brilliantly.

Nimue, despite the calculated nature of her relationship with Merlin, was something of a naïf during the Camelot days. She didn’t see the inevitable conflict coming between her sister, Morganna aka Morgaine le Fay, and Merlin. The third sister, Vivienne aka the Lady of the Lake, remains a mostly neutral figure in the conflict. Nimue also didn’t forsee Merlin’s betrayal that ended in her losing her longevity that was natural to her species, homo magi, causing her to use tinctures to prolong her life and her youthful appearance.

Her next stop is in the court of Kublai Khan, where she’s a seer to the Khan. Here she plays a part in preventing a plot by courtiers to discredit the Polo family expedition to the court. The plot is defeated but not without cost. The Khan’s favorite consort is raped by the thugs, resulting in her banishment due to no longer being fit for the Khan’s attentions.

The waning days of Louis XVI are when she’s next seen. Although she befriends Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen causes significant difficulties for Nimue when she denounces her presence in the queen’s jail cell. Nimue is unable to obtain her draught she needs to preserve her life and vitality. Death shows up to take her, but instead reaches a deal that, like Hob Gadling in The Sandman, Death won’t take her until she is ready to go. As expected, there’s nary a finer depiction of Death than Reeder’s work here.

Our next highlight of history is Victorian London, where Jack the Ripper is slicing his way through the slums of White Chapel. The Jack in this tale ends up being some unknown who falls down a manhole and is attacked by rats, presumably to his end. Nimue has to come to terms with how her own actions may have lead to the deaths of more prostitutes.

Finally, in 1930s NYC, she reaches the momentary end of what’s gone through the four previous stories – her dispute with the Phantom Stranger. Nimue cannot abide the Stranger’s foreknowledge of events comingled with his inactivity in preventing outcomes she deems ill. She has some affection for him initially because he warned her of Camelot’s impending doom, but his presence in the courts of the Khan and Louis XVI did not prevent ill outcomes for people she didn’t think were deserving of such outcomes. This was only exacerbated with Jack the Ripper, and made worse by her own feelings of guilt when the Stranger tells her that her attempts to save prostitutes only prolonged Jack’s spree, which had to result in the death of one particular prostitute for history to progress in the preferred direction.

By the 1930s Nimue has devised a plan to capture the Stranger, which she does. They then have a long discussion in another dimension, leading to her realization that the issue is her, not the Stranger. She can also foresee the future, but without the clarity of the Stranger. The Stranger, largely removed from human emotion as he is, is actually allowing himself to be captured by her so that he can seek to recruit her to join in the age of heroes, as Zatara will do. She does not, and her relationship with Zatara comes to an end.

The next arc is five issues and penciled by Michael Wm. Kaluta to beautiful effect. In this line Wagner tells a very Sandman Mystery Theatre story, fittingly enough because Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds play roles. This is also set in 1930s NYC and involves the spontaneous combustion of two men who emmigrated many years previously, attained some status in their chosen professions and each had a daughter. Each had a wife who either died young or ran away while the daughter was young, so each of these women is much like Dian Belmont, a young woman living with her single father.

Wagner also flashes back to Inquisition era Spain and the terror of Torquemada. During that time Nimue was trying to live under the radar, but made the mistake of not attending church and having a lesbian relationship with a beautiful young red head. The lust of Torquemada for the read head helped lead to the eventual condemnation of the pair as witches. Nimue was away when the troops came for them, so only the red head was captured and tortured. She’s to be burned at the stake and Nimue is present, having returned home and realized what happened (with the help of a condemning neighbor who’s not into the sapphic), but is too late to save her love. The executioner breaks the woman’s neck, as an empathetic gesture to ease her pain, before setting her on fire.

This ties into the main tale with the Sandman in that the two men who die and a third who is in danger are the heirs of three men who were conversos, Jews who ostensibly converted during the Inquisition but continued to practice their faith in secret. These three were caught with their families performing Sabbath services. Upon threat of tortured death to their loved ones, the three became informers on other conversos, both Jewish and Muslim. One of the Muslim’s turned in had an uncle who was a wizard. He summons a demon to pursue the betrayers through all time until they and all their descendants are eliminated. The original three flee through Europe, continually moving on when the demon arrives behind them, as do their descendants, until the three men emigrate to NYC. Nimue, Dian and the Sandman defeat the demon, saving the one remaining émigré and the two daughters of the deceased émigrés.

As with Reeder, Kaluta’s work is beautiful, especially the interior art. In fact, my one complaint is the cover art. Nimue looks downright anorexic, especially on the cover of issue 14. On the other hand, I really like the use of the Tarot cards on the covers of these five issues. Kaluta provides much detail on each cover, fully using the space to its best effect (except for the emaciation).

Issues 16-23 take on a long arc and feature the return of Reeder to penciling duties, except for issues 19 and 20 wherein Joelle Jones is the penciller. I think that interruption was calculated and not a break for Reeder to catch up. Here’s why. The story, in 16-18, is about a stereotypical woman of 1957 NYC. She’s married, has one teen daughter, and spends her days idly shopping or hanging out with friends when she’s not doing the expected domestic duties of the era, including appointment sex with her husband 3 days a week. It’s as dull as dull can get. Over the course of a week or so she starts undergoing unfathomable changes. At first her skirt blows upward of its own accord. Then her hair does the same. Then she starts floating. She’s trying to hide all this from her family while trying to find a doctor to figure out what’s going on. The symptoms aren’t consistent, though. Eventually her nails lengthen and become hard like diamonds, she becomes a brunette instead of a blonde, she becomes taller and thinner, and her boobs get larger, overwhelming her bra. She finds her way to Nimue, who’s been known as Madame Xanadu since her time in the Khan’s court, for help.

Nimue begins tracking down the origin of the woman’s problems, which leads to a group of similarly middle class blasé Satanists who are seeking 3 mystical items, with payments to mobsters to acquire them. This leads her to a partnership with a detective, John Jones. In issue 18 we learn that the client is being taken over by Nimue’s sister, Morgana, which becomes obvious when Morgana does take over. After Morgana collapses the interior of Nimue’s brownstone on her, we flash back for 2 issues into the origin of Nimue, Morgana and Vivienne’s relationship and their history from the first arrival of homo magi in Britain until Camelot (including why Nimue appeared to have cloven feet in the initial two issues). This is when Jones is the artist. I think she does an excellent job, too. The mystical, fairy elements are predominant in this back story tale. I do question its placement in the midst of the story of the return of Morgana, though. It takes the reader right out of what was going on in 1957. It works well when the issues are all read at once, but in single issues, it meant a three month gap between the stories in 1957. That’s hard to maintain.

When we do return to 1957, Jones and Nimue manage to defeat Morgana, who wants nothing more than to destroy the entire world, enraged and insane as she still is over the death of her son, Mordred, at the hands of Arthur a thousand years previously. I particularly like the use of Jones in this story. Martian Manhunter never appears in his hero guise. He’s entirely in his human detective mode, fedora and all. His ability to withstand things a human should not and his strength are befuddling to Nimue, who senses no mystic ability about him and believes he’s a human. Only when he saves her from drowning in the East River is there a hint of his otherworldly aspect, when an alien hand reaches for her to save her, but that hand is unseen by her and only felt as something not human.

In fact, throughout the book to this point I enjoyed the use of greater DCU characters. Unlike most current Vertigo books, Madame Xanadu was clearly in the DCU. I suppose that might have been an element in its demise, but I enjoyed seeing that sort of interaction, which hadn’t been used since Swamp Thing, Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theatre era Vertigo. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a Vertigo book has to be entirely within its own universe, no matter how well that works for Scalped, DMZ, or Unwritten. Both sorts of stories should be equally viable, but that requires both a readership and a publisher willing to cross those boundaries.

The final issues of the series involved a 5 issue arc of stand alone stories and a final issue that tied into the last of those 5 issues and the Morgana arc of 1957. Each of the five issues dealt with one of the five senses, thus the arc’s title, Extra-sensory.

I like the first the best. It was one dealing with sight and is narrated by a black woman who’s become an educator but is telling her own story about her life in 1963 when she was a high school graduate working as a sales clerk. She lived with her mother and younger sister and was content with helping her family get by, though her mother had greater ambition for her. She starts seeing everyday people in horribly mutilated conditions that no one else sees, including the mutilated. She eventually follows one and sees him step out in front of a bus, where he’s hit and mutilated into the form she was seeing before it happened. Even that knowledge doesn’t prevent her from having horrified reactions that cause her to lose her job. She eventually tells her mother, who takes her to a voodoo priestess. That is ineffectual, so her mother then takes her to Madame Xanadu, who tells her that she’s seeing possible futures. When the girl returns home she sees her mother and sister horribly burned. She convinces them to go stay with a relative and takes them to the bus stop. When she returns home, the apartment has caught on fire due to a smoker falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Several people have died. After this, she has no more such visions. She decides to go to college and becomes an educator.

It’s nice self contained story and features a black woman with freckles, which isn’t something you see very often in comics. To some degree I like that because my wife is a black woman with freckles, though not so pronounced. The artist for the issue was Marley Zarcone. Another aspect of authenticity I liked was the dialogue of the black characters in the story. There was dialect that reflected individual manners of speaking. The young girl spoke more proper English than her poorly educated mother, but spoke more vernacular at home and in her neighborhood than she did at her department store job where she was a token. Guys hanging out in the neighborhood employed slightly different vernacular based on the age of the speaker. None of it came across as someone trying too hard to be hip, like the old Luke Cage dialog back in the ‘70s.

In fact, that’s an important point throughout Wagner’s writing. He takes the story through many time periods and many cultures. People are always speaking English, of course, but Wagner chooses phrasing that reflects the culture of the speakers, as well as the era. The formality of the speech of the courts of Khan and Louis XVI have a different cadence than the cockney of the Jack the Ripper story. They have a different cadence from one another, actually, even though they’re both courts. Different classes and times in NYC have different speech patterns, too. It showcases a writer with a good ear for language.

The next issue addressed hearing and featured art by Laurenn McCubbin. A demon spoke in the ear of an ad exec who’s as shallow as any Mad Man. McCubbin’s art does a fine job of bringing out the plastic nature of the man’s life. I’m not as wild about her depiction of Madame Xanadu in this one, and the character is almost entirely ignored in the issue, both by its protagonist and the story itself. Not one of the stronger efforts, and a bit predictable in the end.

Smell comes along in issue 26. Chrissie Zullo does the art in a very cute manner. The story is of an early elementary age boy who wanders the city. He has limited memory and is constantly under threat of being attacked by packs of dogs. He smells terribly and sleeps in a coal cellar with no parent. He has dreams of being a space hero whose constant enemy is a space witch who tries to capture him in her black hole. (Really, I didn’t write that. The center of the space witch is a black hole. I think it supposed to be an imagery reference to the swirling that Nimue does when she disapparates, but the sexual and return to the womb allusions are hard to escape, too.) Nimue saves the boy from being torn apart by dogs and helps him to the expected ending that leads him to peace. It was a nice little tale. The smell aspect is the boy himself, who exudes a distasteful odor.

Touch was a very interesting issue. The central character is called Neon Blue and the milieu is a riff on Andy Warhol’s work shop and the shallow celebrity culture that it epitomized. Neon Blue is a model and band lead singer. She’s also an ancient succubus who is bored with her existence. She seldom feeds but in the course of this does wind up being the death of Jim Morrison, a reporter, and several other people, as well as the reason that Andy Warhol gets shot. Of course, the names are Randy Warsau, The Portals and the like instead of the actual, and the whole thing is set in 1964, which seems a bit off, chronologically. Nimue ends up killing the succubus, for which the latter is grateful. The whole Andy Warhol bit was kind of distracting, but it was also amusing, so I’m on the fence on this issue.

Finally, in this arc, we have taste. Med student Carly drops acid for the first time in 1966. An unforeseen result is that she sees the history of anything she tastes, be it food or even another person she’s kissing. This causes her to stop eating, getting so weak as to needing to take a cab to go 4 blocks to see Madame Xanadu. Turns out the acid unlocked a talent for being a seer, but she’s only seeing the history of things tasted. She ends up dropping out of school and becoming the student of Madame Xanadu. Marian Churchland’s art for this issue reminded me of a more European style. It sort of fits in for the acid trip nature of the story, as far as the surreal elements of it, but I didn’t get the feeling of despair it created in Carly.

Thus we end up in the final issue, number 29, where Carly helps Madame Xanadu see the future for Betty, the woman who was possessed by Morgana. Nimue has a block when it comes to seeing the future of members of her family so Morgana’s possession of the woman has created a block for her. Betty’s husband and daughter abandoned her after the incident with Morgana. Betty’s hair was turned white, too. She’s been working in a church to scrape by in a pitiful apartment, as she had job skills. She cleans the church, mostly because the pastor felt sorry for her. Carly is able to see that Betty will meet a man from California. The two will marry and live on his vineyard. Betty’s not terribly receptive when Nimue tries to tell her to keep an open mind and heart for this man, but the implication is that it will occur and things will turn out well for Betty.

We end with the Phantom Stranger returning to again invite Madame Xanadu to join a new age of heroes. We’re in the late ‘60s at this point, so we’re looking at the arrival of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in this particular telling of the DCU history. She again rejects the offer, still being somewhat peeved at the Stranger, and continues to operate her business as a seer for anyone who wishes to come to her place in Greenwich Village. Carly is her student and assistant. Reeder was the artist for this last issue, which was a fitting conclusion at least.

In all this history told, I only noticed one thing that seemed wrong, aside from the 1964 setting of the Andy Warhol story. At one point a character talks about the Yankees playing in Shea. This was in the era prior to interleague play, and I’m not even sure the Mets existed at the point the statement was made, but Shea is the stadium for the Mets, not the Yankees.

In the end it feels like a stepping off point for more stories. I wish there were more, but I don’t see it being too likely, and probably wouldn’t bother to read any if they weren’t written by Wagner. A collection of all 29 issues would be well worth the while of anyone who wants a high quality read with equally high quality art.


  1. Nice review of the series. I think overall it was a good run. The opening issues were really some of the best (especially Camelot and Nimue as wood nymph), along with the last issues (the Senses). I did think the Kaluta arc was the weakest by a fair bit.

    My biggest problem with the series is that I never really understood what motivated Nimue...she was a bit of a bore, to tell the truth, her sister was much more interesting. Why did she want to help people? I think this could have been explained a lot better by Wagner. I also thought that making her always look (and often think) like a teenager goes against her seems comics can be as bad as the movies, heaven forbid that a middle-aged woman play the part of Madame (not Mademoiselle) Xanadu. I always thought MX should look and act like she's in her late thirties/early forties.

  2. Interesting how perceptions vary. I didn't see Nimue as a teen in the book except in some limited circumstances. The only times she appeared to be a teen to me were when the story flashed back to pre-Camelot times. From the Khan's court onward she appeared to be at least in her 20's. By the time the story reached the '30s I thought she looked to be closer to 40, especially in Kaluta's rendering.

    As far as her motivation, I suspect Wagner would have gone into that more with more issues. I didn't think that made Nimue a bore, though. More of a cypher. The simplest explanation for her helping people is simply empathy, which she had in spades and was the core of her conflict with the Phantom Stranger. It was a contrast between her and Morganna, as well as Vivienne, who seemed to just sit on the sidelines.

    My memory's not what it ought to be, but I don't recall Cordelia's motivation being all that clear in King Lear, but that didn't detract from the strength of the play. Of course, she was not the central character, so that might make a big difference to a reader.

  3. I agree with your comment about Kaluta...he drew a much more mature MX, I liked that. My problems with that arc was more that if felt like a retread of the Sandman Mystery Theatre storyline...the art also had a cramped feeling to it (always hard to describe art)

    Cordelia wasn't the main character, King Lear was. His motivations were clear.

    Listen, I love Matt Wagner. A lot of my favorite comics are Matt Wagner comics including his brilliant Demon mini-series, his crossovers between Batman and Grendel, Mage, the old-style Batman 6 issue minis (Monster Men, etc). If I'm picking at Wagner a bit, it's just that I have such incredibly high respect for him and his work...I wouldn't have bought all 29 issues if he wasn't delivering consistently excellent stories. He was.

    Madame Xanadu was a great series, as your review pointed out so very well. And of course, Amy's art and the majority of the art in the series was also fantastic...Amy was a revelation, wasn't she?! Wow, really awesome stuff...those first few issues in her wood nymph outfit were gorgeous, and Amy always did a great job with jewelry and costume.

  4. Reeder was definitely the big discovery of the series. One of the few artists who might induce me to buy into a series when I don't know the writer.