Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted

July 21, 2009

Xanadu 1

Who has been following Matt Wagner? Still known for his creation of Grendel and Mage in the 1980s, Wagner’s growing body of work for DC has made him controversial in a distinct sense. He doesn’t exactly introduce bold transformations or write crazy mind-bending plots the way cashable writers these days do. His very human and flawed Batman plods along the path of subtle but notably steady characterisation. His Trinity — which depicts the first meeting of DC’s Big 3, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — is full of nostalgic political incorrectness. Then, there is his lengthy grippingly operatic Sandman Mystery Theatre series, which Vertigo has been criminally slow to release fully in trade paperbacks. In short — and the DC people know this — Wagner is acquired taste: either you get him or you totally don’t.

Meanwhile, magic (or the proper DC word is mystery) remains perhaps the most under-tapped major area in the DC universe. Considering how many of its alluring superheroes are really magicians or magical creatures, it’s scandalous that more and better resources are consistently given to crime-fighting the normal super-powered way. Stop tempting us with the possibilities of Dr Fate already, a character that still mystifies (corniness unintended) me even after the various JSA-related adventures and that Countdown tie-in (what was that about?). The Shadowpact series began well, descended into an incomprehensible mess, and made a quick exit. And tell me you won’t follow a long series with Zatara and Zatanna or, heck, just Zatanna! And, come on, Tales of the Unexpected — everyone knows that Crispus Allen hasn’t been treated well since he died!

I’m sorry that you have to hear me gripe so much before you hear me say that putting Wagner and magic/mystery together is just about the most surprising good DC thing in a while. I don’t simply mean how the choice is, of all people, currently blind all-knowing gypsy Madame Xanadu: you might have seen her at work impressively in Day of Vengeance and wondered “Xana-who? Isn’t that a place (or a disco)?” It’s also Wagner telling Xanadu’s story in this first volume in an untypically Wagnerian way and showing that he can do fast-pace drama as well as The-Batman-who-lumbers stories. This reads like the now-famous Morpheus-Hob Gadling relationship stretched across a whole book, with Xanadu, or Nimue Inwudu at first, and the Phantom Stranger meeting once every century, or few centuries, to change the course of history.

Madame Xanadu is also romance in high fashion: Female Stranger and Male Stranger meet under circumstances which you might read happily to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening” — except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. We begin in the last days of Camelot and are given some idea of the origin of Estragon the demon and the fate of Merlin, Nimue’s lover (eww). If the first chapter explores gullibility in relationship, the second — setting her in the court of Kublai Khan (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…,” get it?) to save a favourite consort and Marco Polo — explores gullibility about justice. Chapter 3 takes us into Revolutionary France, and we meet, finally after so long (ironically), Death of the Endless, with whom Xanadu wagers her life in a game of tarot cards and wins. In Victorian London, Xanadu struggles to prevent the crimes of Jack the Ripper only to learn the truth that everything perversely happens for a reason. In the climactic chapter set in 1930s New York, Xanadu works with Zatara himself, and we know that the pace must now slow down to land softly in our time and in the world of modern comics.

Indeed, by the time this volume ends, the on-off love affair with the Phantom Stranger (who is like that jerk who won’t tell his real name after 10 dates) is resolutely over (or is it?). But in comes a new creature of magic — that Spirit of Vengeance, the Spectre — who is more properly created by Xanadu’s magic itself! One can almost sense how Wagner’s mind is clicking in terms of narrative framing: the next arc is going to follow the relationship between Xanadu and the Spectre, with certainly a few more guest appearances thrown in, I bet.

It’s a clever and even amusing way to tie up the world of magic in DC by using Xanadu, an ageless girl who has to struggle with the unknown and overcome her own desire to understand. But what may also hit you strongly is the drawing style of Amy Reeder Hadley, who will, at least for the first 50 pages, make you wonder whether this is still comics or over-sized manga with colours. Do give this generous volume a try to imagine oh! the possibilities — this does read like the next Fables — and enjoy the new Matt Wagner, swift, exacting, devastating, but still operatic.

Gweek casts 8 magical spells on this volume.

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