September: Madame Xanadu, by Matt Wagner et al.

Madame Xanadu is an ongoing Vertigo series written by Matt Wagner, who apparently knows quite a lot of my literary kinkshistory, mystery, myth. Art duties have rotated among several fine artists, colourists, and letterers, but this has only increased the series’ charm to me.
It’s a solid throughout, with the first volume (Disenchanted) depicting the origins of Madame Xanadu and her exploits in several time settingsCamelot, the court of Qublai Khan, the retinue of Marie Antoinettewhile showing her bumping into DC characters like the Martian Manhunter in his guise of John Jones. The second volume (Exodus Noir) is a tale of revenge, murder and the Spanish Inquisition. The third volume (Broken House of Cards) not yet in trade is sort of Mad Men meets Body Horror. But it’s the fourth that has captured my interest the most. More on that later.
From a writing perspective, the jumps in time afford an opportunity to show the world changingor not really changing, human nature being what it is. Madame Xanadu is no stranger to violence and betrayal, but for the immortal Madame Xanadu life always goes on anyway, no matter what she loses. Marie Antoinette’s court calls her the Madame de Xanadu for her time in Qublai Khan’s court as ‘the Western seer.’ Both these lives come crashing down, and she must start again. Wagner also has a sense of social context and sexual politics, and so his settings have a particular authenticityand Madame Xanadu, the outsider, stumbles trying to function when she doesn’t understand the rules.
A note: I must credit the top-notch art team. Amy Reeder Hadley’s manga-influenced style in Volume 1 grew on me quickly. It is executed with exceptional skill and professionalism throughouther very manga-inspired style does not rely on clichés or shortcuts, and is very accessible. Her character designs are distinct and quite charming, and her expressions, body language, storytelling, and layouts are superb. Getting your money’s worth, is what I’m sayingnovice comic artists, get a look inside. Richard Friend’s inks work in lively harmony with her lines, having a clean but dynamic and expressive quality. And of course, Guy Major on colours shows his typical skillI only wish the paper stock had been smoother and let his colours pop more.
Volume 2 has the excellent Mike Kaluta on art duties, with Dave Stewart on colours. It’s a credit to Kaluta and Wagner that there isn’t stylistic whiplash between storieswhile Kaluta’s art is completely different from Hadley’s, it is completely capable and effective in its own right. He has a beautiful, spooky quilled style. Stewart is handled the tricky challenge of rendering Kaluta’s linework without losing the linework itselfas Kaluta’s style is quite rendered and old school, Stewart had to be subtle in his use of colour to model, but he performed admirably. And I don’t want to forget the letterer, Jared K. Fletcher. Lettering is an underappreciated part of the process, and Fletcher’s work performs admirably. I especially like how he differentiates Madame Xanadu’s fairy-tongue from regular dialogue.
My greatest interestit’s a buy-on-sight title, but even sohas come about with the current Extra-Sensory storyline. First, it’s an anthology-style take, with Wagner writing around Madame Xanadu herself and focusing more on the problems of people who come to her for help, so there’s no continuity to worry about. Second, art duties are rotating through 5 female guest artists, whose styles are against totally different from Kaluta, Hadley and each other but nonetheless work. Third, it’s awesome. It’s like a marvellous platter of delicious story sashimi, being varied in mood, style, and subject. I have best enjoyed the most recent issue, the third in the chiefly for its art by Chrissie Zulloit reminds me of a mix of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, except spookier and sadder.

Violence: Violence throughout, much of it mystical. Some gore.
Sexualized Violence: Rape is depicted in volume 1, references are made to the Jack the Ripper murders, and threats of rape are uttered by soldiers at a few points. It’s not clear about Marisol’s condition in volume 2.
Gender: Madame Xanadu is the central character, and interacts heavily with both men and women throughout.
Bachdel’s Law: Passes.
Minorities: Fewer than I’d like. Wagner’s multi-setting approach means there aren’t recurring characters of colour. In the Xanadu setting, the bulk of the characters are Chinese but the lens is an outsider position. Volume 2 deals with the Inquisition’s anti-homosexual agenda and displays lesbian characters sympathetically. The first in the Extra-Sensory series examines the experience of an African-American girl in the early Sixties.

  • Review by Winterbourne