Thursday, July 23, 2009

Madame Xanadu -- Review

I have said so before: “getting into” many of the better (ie, more intelligent) comic books is very difficult; you really have to start at the first issue. Even subsidiary arcs within a greater saga can be hard to break into. Take Madame Xanadu (Vertigo $12.99) for instance. Quite a few months ago I bought a couple of issues of the monthly comic. I liked what I saw, but could make little sense of it. So I waited for the graphic novel version instead. This I have now read and I must say: Wow!

Madame Xanadu is a tour de force of magic and history – from the time of Merlin, when Nimue is cursed by the old codger until mid-20th Century USA. Nimue is a nymph, a creature of good, in contrast to her sister of Morgana, mother of Arthur’s son. We know the story of Camelot – and it isn’t important if you don’t because there are so many interpretations. Arthur’s kingdom is destroyed. Merlin releases a demon into the world. And Nimue, as said, is cursed.

Time moves on and Nimue, now Madame Xanadu, is in Xanadu, the court of the Kublai Khan. There’s palace intrigue and Marco Polo. And Madame Xanadu flees for her life. And again, time passes and at the court of Marie Antoinette and King Louis she is once more at the centre of events. In Victorian London she is powerless to stop Jack the Ripper. And so on to 1940s USA, the time just before the age of superheros…

All her long life Madame Xanadu struggles to do what is right. Yet she is also fixated on a figure that appears at important junctures in her history: the mysterious Phantom Stranger. She thinks him callous and uncaring. In the end she entraps him, to force him to act for good. But Xanadu blunders in ignorance.

Interspersed in the book are references to other DC characters: the Green Lantern; the Spectre; Zatara… Maybe others. But it doesn’t matter if you know nothing of these.

Madame Xanadu is a DC character who’s been around for a long time. She was/is a mystic, someone with magical abilities. I don’t know anything of her earlier incarnation and adventures. And it just doesn’t matter. This is because Matt Wagner (writer) and Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend (artists) have created a story that is self contained, that works within its own context. The writing is intelligent and passionate. Wagner makes you believe in Madame Xanadu. Couple with the beautiful artwork, which has an air of innocence about it, it is so easy to feel sympathy and empathy for our heroine. The stories are engrossing and at times edgy – especially the Ripper chapters. This collection is highly recommended, and I’m sure will appeal to fans of Fables, Books of Magic, Lucifer…

© Peter Coleborn, July 2009

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