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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Madame Xanadu

Today's review comes courtesy of Alexander Lyons.  Alex is a UK-based feminist theorist with a speciality in identity politics and poststructuralism in comics. He's got a weak-spot for Greg Rucka, Wonder Woman, and the obscure ramblings of Helene Cixous. You can find his own ramblings on Twitter. He has very curly hair.

Writer: Matt Wagner
Pencils: Amy Reeder Hadley, Michael Wm Kaluta, Joelle Jones, Marley Zarcone, Lauren McCubbin, Chrissie Zullo, Celia Calle and Marian Churchland
Inkers: Amy Reeder Hadley, Richard Friend, David Hahn
Colorists: Guy Major, Dave Stewart, Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Jared K Fletcher
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)

What’s it about?
“There is a pattern in everything. Even the humblest speck of dust was once a mighty mountain. Seeing unlocks the patterns. And the tools of seeing are many…”

Madame Xanadu tells the story of Nimue; ancient and immortal daughter of the homo magi - a magical race of fairy living alongside mankind. She is the youngest of three sisters, and rival to her middle sister, Morgana, with whom she develops a conflict that spans centuries. Nimue is blessed with, among other things, the magical gift of divination, and uses her skills to predict and intervene in the fate of mankind. As the series proceeds, Nimue learns to use her powers to aid people in need, becoming a sort of supernatural heroine for people with extraordinary problems.

Beginning during the time of Arthurian legend, Nimue’s tale brings her from Ancient Camelot as Merlin’s lover, to her role as seer in the court of Xanadu (from where she gets her name), and then weaving in and out of human history – Revolutionary France, Jack the Ripper’s London, and eventually New York in the 60s. Throughout the ages Nimue/Madame Xanadu must wrestle with her skills as a seer, and the ethical decision of whether or not to intervene in the affairs of humans, or let them guide themselves.

What’s good about it?
If you like magic, and you like your heroines with depth and idiosyncrasy, then you may just love Madame Xanadu. This is a series that is beautiful without being trite, raising interesting human questions but steeping them in adventure and magical lore.

Refreshingly, this series takes the time to weave a tale of considerable depth, but in the form of neat, episodic narrative arcs that on their own are self-contained, but in sequence describe a wider morality play. The episodic nature of the story is punctuated by historical breaks – each arc takes place within a specific era of history, and finds its resolution within that period (apart from a wider plot about Nimue’s conflict with her sister Morgana). The structure allows you to read the story as a series of vignettes, and makes each one ripe for re-reading.

As a protagonist and heroine, Nimue is wonderfully nuanced - starting off naïve and at times willful, perhaps even petulant and sometimes arrogant, but also reflective and optimistic. Throughout the series she wrestles with the consequences of her decisions to live among humankind, and struggles with the limitations of her own mystical sight when it fails to convey to her the full extent of goings on around her. Her character flaws make her identifiable inspite of her ‘otherworldly’ status.

Her moralistic righteousness, and belief that she might be able to use her otherworldy gifts to aid those in need are played against the seeming indifference of recurring co-star and the sometimes antagonistic ‘Stranger’ (who more seasoned readers will know from other DC titles, more on that in a moment), and the downright sadistic manipulations of her sister Morgana. That it is possible to play a part in the world when you have the ability to divine the future is the central point of discussion in the series, and in many ways it refuses to give you an answer as the characters struggle to fulfill, or avoid, what they see to be inscribed as fate.

But even without these deeper questions, Madame Xanadu is still an incredibly entertaining and varied series, utilizing its different historical settings to mix genres – sword and sorcery, fantasy, gritty noir, superheroics, horror and mystery. At times comedic and farcical, at others skirting the darkness as Vertigo titles have the privilege to do, it retains a sense of adventure, suspense and fun throughout, and Nimue quickly becomes a heroine to root for and care about.

It is also interesting to note that, in a comic universe still predominantly male and superhero-oriented, Madame Xanadu is a series with a female protagonist that stands apart from other titles with female leads. Unlike her superheroic counterparts, Nimue is not an ‘action’ heroine – her magical abilities not necessarily suited to typical ‘cracking heads’ stuff. Instead she manages to defeat her enemies through battles of will and wits, redefining the concept of ‘kick-ass’ as something that might incorporate a sort of intellectual grace, and putting her in a similar territory to characters like Promethea.

What’s bad about it?
That Madame Xanadu does so well to tell its story in neat and clearly described ‘vignettes’ of time would suggest it is the perfect material for the new, and even casual, reader. You can come to Madame Xanadu with no prior knowledge, and leave it feeling richly sated.

But the seasoned reader might argue the contrary. You see, Madame Xanadu is peppered with references to events and characters recognizable from the mainstream world of DC Comics. As is usual with many Vertigo titles, Madame Xanadu flirts with the continuity of the DC Universe, including cameos and guest appearances from popular characters such as Martian Manhunter, Zatara, or the Demon Etrigan. Even Neil Gaiman’s popular Vertigo creation Death makes an appearance.

Still, Matt Wagner clearly takes great care to ensure that each of these characters is written into the story on new terms, without reference to a past or existence outside the series. However, one could argue that the narrative clout of some of the series ‘big moments’, specifically where they pertain to moral conundrums for Nimue, gain their depth from prior knowledge of DC comics. The Phantom ‘Stranger’ (left), Nimue’s foil throughout the series, is a prime example of this, where the tragedy of his time-travelling wanderings might mean more to those who have seen the character before.

However, in the end I am willing to allow that Madame Xanadu is enough of an original work to tantalize, rather than bewilder, unfamiliar readers with its glimpses of a world outside its pages. I would add that the clarity of Wagner’s beautiful prose in this series does everything for ensuring that nothing is left to unnecessary confusion, and Reeder Hadley’s artwork does much to support him in leading you to the necessary emotional reactions.

What’s the art like?
As a title rich in characterization and depth, Madame Xanadu needs an artist capable of rendering a vast range of complex human emotions. Thankfully the series’ main artist, Amy Reeder Hadley, doesn’t disappoint.

At times, her line-work is breathtakingly elegant – gaining its beauty from simple, clear outlines, rather than any sense of photorealism. Her expression work is, quite simply, the absolute highlight of the series, and she very quickly defines a look for Nimue that makes it hard to accept the other artistic renditions that take over for the occasional story-arc.

The biggest challenges for any artist in a series like this would be the magical themes, and the constantly shifting historical setting. But in these aspects Reeder Hadley’s work really shines. In every era she pays attention to the tiniest details, modifying Nimue’s dress and hairstyle to incorporate her surroundings, and yet still define her ‘otherness’ to the world around her, both as a traveler, and as a supernatural being. As Nimue moves from place to place, the reader is fully immersed in the vision of a new time, a new continent. Even Nimue’s face, which doesn’t age due to her immortality (apart from during one specific story), alters over time – not with added wrinkles, but with new expressions, cynicism gained from centuries of learning.

Magic is an integral part of the series, and once again Reeder Hadley doesn’t disappoint – using everyday objects and textures to create absurd and sometimes frightening images when things start to get out of hand. All of these elements come together beautifully in the story ‘House of Broken Cards’, where a 50s housewife begins to lose her identity to mystical forces. Her scenes in front of the mirror as she observes strange and unexplainable changes in herself are my favourite of the series.
In addition to Amy Reeder Hadley, the series includes artwork from Michael Wm  Kaluta, Joelle Jones, Marley Zarcone, Laurenn McCubbin, Chrissie Zullo, Celia Calle, and Marian Churchland. While each can feel like quite a radical departure from the regular artwork, and indeed, Nimue never really feels like herself unless Reeder Hadley is drawing her, there are still some wonderful interpretations in their work. The final narrative arc, ‘Extra Sensory’, uses a different artist with each issue, playing to the individual artist’s strengths when portraying one of the 5 human senses.
Other information
There are four Madame Xanadu trades available, these are as follows:

All are priced between 10 and 14 pounds.

If you like this I'd recommend Promethea by Alan Moore, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, or Lucifer by Mike Carey. 
For more of Madame Xanadu, but as a guest star, try the Books of Magic series by Neil Gaiman.
More from Matt Wagner, but altogether different, try Trinity, a team-up story between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.  If you ask for this in a bookstore or searching online, be sure to specify that it is the Matt Wagner one you want.  DC has recently released another set of books called Trinity, also about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but these are unrelated to Wagner's book.
More from the superb Amy Reeder Hadley, there's Fool's Gold, a manga, or the upcoming Batwoman series.
For another magical heroine from DC comics, try Zatanna, Volume 1: Mistress of Magic.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I've run into this.

    I started reading it and loved it. For some reason I stopped and now I know I must go back!

    Thank you for this amazing review. I'll be looking forward to many more.