In Madame Xanadu, Matt Wagner delves into the (until now) unknown back story of longtime DC Universe character Madame Xanadu. Created in the 1970’s, Madame Xanadu has served as something of a fortune teller to DC characters, but little has been revealed about her. In this series, Wagner dives back in time — all the way back to the days of King Arthur — to show readers her journey to her present day circumstances. It’s not necessary to have read any of the DC comics involving Madame Xanadu to enjoy Wagner’s reimagining of her.
Madame Xanadu is, in fact, Nimue, Arthurian enchantress and Merlin’s captor. When readers first meet her, it’s in the waning days of Camelot, as Mordred’s machinations begin to unravel Arthur’s dreams. Everyone knows the outcome of that particular tragedy, but Nimue’s own role is misunderstood, it would seem (few have questioned why she would bind her master; Wagner posits that she had good reason to). With Camelot fallen, and her powers bound by Merlin as assuredly as he’s now bound in a tree, Nimue must make her way in the world on her own.
Although unable to tap into her magical powers, Nimue is still clever and quite talented with cards, potions and the like. As she travels through history — with stops in Kublai Kahn’s court, revolutionary France, Whitechapel and finally, New York City in the mid-1900s — Nimue always finds herself caught up in important events or intrigue. Perhaps power, even tamped down, calls to power. The one constant in her life, though she sees him only on the cusp of important events or changes, is the Phantom Stranger. He first comes to her in Camelot, warning her of Merlin’s treachery, but taking no action of his own. Nimue’s feelings towards him vacillate between confusion, love, frustration and finally settle on hate. Her fury at his perceived inaction in the face of horrors drives her ever onwards and to take actions that may have deadly repercussions.
Wagner’s narrative is fast-paced, covering centuries in a few issues, yet the story doesn’t feel rushed at all. Though her appearance and circumstances change, Nimue’s basic self does not. She strives to maintain her appearance of youth, regain her powers, and thwart the Phantom Stranger — and do a little good along the way (though she proves powerless to change the course of history in both Paris and London). She’s strong-willed, capable and intelligent, but not above emotional foibles. This combination makes her compelling and entertaining. And yes, the Phantom Stranger is frustrating, but he makes for a good foil for Nimue.
Hadley and Friend’s art are an excellent complement to Wagner’s writing. It’s beautiful and vibrant and tackles the different eras Nimue travels through with style. Kudos as well to those responsible for the comic’s layout, which eschews any pattern of four to six panels a page and creates a visual feast with layering, tilted panels, full page spreads and art that escapes the borders of panels. Rather than chaos, this breathes further life into the narrative, helping it to flow and dance across the pages.
As far as character re-imaginings go, Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted is a lively, lovely read and more is definitely something to look forward to!