Writer: Matt Wagner
Artist: Amy Reeder Hadley
Colors: Guy Major
Publisher: DC Vertigo
Madame Xanadu, by Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley, is the latest book in a long Vertigo tradition of revising and reimagining overlooked DC characters in a new context. Already possessing ties to both DC’s supernatural contingent and to characters like John Constantine and Timothy Hunter who have been consigned to the opposite side of the Vertigo Wall, Xanadu’s a natural choice for a Vertigo series, and as one of the more complicated, if underutilized, characters in the DC pantheon, she certainly merits it.
The first issue throws itself deep into her origins as a wood nymph named Nimue– and sister to Morgaine le Fay, notably – during the Arthurian era. It’s a straightforward setup: Nimue uses her powers of divination to find that something tumultuous will soon occur in Arthur’s kingdom, seeks aid from Morgaine, and finds that the encroaching chaos is her fault, a scheme to supplant Arthur with their bastard son Mordred. Along the way the Phantom Stranger makes a couple of appearances with a fatalistic attitude and hints towards previous encounters with Nimue that she doesn’t remember, while Nimue keeps Merlin under her enchantment in order to gain his favor. As the book closes, Mordred’s forces storm the land with a quick, brutal scene of chaos that’s undermined by the principal characters’ distance from its reality, as well as by the sprightly, pastoral artwork.
The events in the book aren’t really the reason for it. We’ve seen all of this before, and there’s not much to surprise in another recounting of Arthur’s fall, with the minor exception of seeing longtime DC characters involved. The two main points of interest in the book are these: that Nimue as a character is very much unlike the Madame Xanadu we’ve come to know, and that the atmosphere of the work is constructed meticulously and with absolute certainty.
We’ll start with Nimue first, as the character has the potential to develop into every bit the complex figure that Madame Xanadu has always been, when used properly. Wagner takes pains to force her into a fraught position in the center of the work’s action and various realms. Although solitary, she’s not as hermetic or aloof as one would expect a sylvan figure, instead taking an active interest in the mortal realm, even if she remains naturally separate from it. And much is made of the contrast between her youthful looks and advanced age and wisdom, a division embraced by Hadley’s artwork, which is a nice balance of the spry and serene. The distinction also supplies a creepy moment in which would-be lover Merlin lecherously comments on her “sixteen-year old” appearance masking her mystical powers and knowledge, a moment that seems to conflate physical lust with a desire for power that’s no less salacious in the form of the decrepit wizard. Unfortunately, not enough is done with this scene, as its focus on Nimue as an avatar of feminist power viewed through pagan terms is an idea that’s been explored thoroughly enough since The Mists of Avalon. It does, however, provide for an interesting parallel between her and her sister Morgaine, and her indignation at Morgaine for mentioning the situation suggests that it’s going to be looked at in more depth as the series goes on. That’s a lesson for writers in itself: if you’re going to bother with expressing a worn-out idea through a character, contrast it with another character with a similar basis but a far different disposition and motivations, and you might find something new in it.
Where the book succeeds most clearly is in the atmosphere it evokes and the world it creates. The elevated narration is understated enough to not appear ridiculous, and it’s echoed well enough in the dialogue to convince the reader that it’s a natural feature of the title’s world. Wagner also has a strong enough ear to bend this formality to different tones without it seeming awkward; Morgaine and Merlin’s voices sound appropriate for the characters’ respective arrogance and lust, even if the dialogue has a tendency to hit upon fantasy genre clichés at times. There’s also a tendency towards exposition, but that might just be the curse of the first issue in comic books. Hadley’s art is quite wonderous, with the opening sequence being notable for its barrage of different angles and its sense of torential motion. Her forest backgrounds, much like her depiction of Nimue, convey a cascading, barely concealed power beneath an outward calm, and Guy Major’s vivid color work asserts this even further. Her Phantom Stranger design is also fantastic, retaining the dignity of his typical portrayals but lacking the rigidity with which many artists depict him. My only concern are the slight moments of what feels like a manga influence creeping in – many of the characters are depicted with wide, bright eyes, and while this works very well for Nimue, it makes less sense for a far more cynical character like Morgaine or a self-involved one like Merlin.
Overall, it’s a well-crafted book that has the potential to give a lot of insight into Madame Xanadu – by telling her story from her origin onward, it’s possible that Wagner can redefinine and emphasize her role in the DC canon. The contrast between her personality in this issue and in other other DC appearances, as well as the hints towards her future development, are also intriguing, and the artwork is as superb as you’re going to find in a fantasy comic. The only problem that threatens to unravel all this good work is that the book decides to run with a very straightforward depiction of a setting and mythology that’s been examined for hundreds of years, and this sometimes drags on what’s otherwise an enjoyable read. Given what’s presented here, though, it’s hopeful that Wagner can find enough depth of characterization in Xanadu for readers to dismiss this concern outright.