This second collection in Matt Wagner’s back story of Madame Xanadu has a more intimate focus than the first, which spanned a number of centuries and exotic locales. Here the primary story spans a few days — possibly weeks — in 1940, with the action confined to Manhattan (save a flashback sequence) and Madame Xanadu’s new business venture. The secondary story, set in Spain in 1493, has a similarly short time frame and focuses on Madame Xanadu’s private life, set against the backdrop of the Spanish inquisition. Wagner lays out the story with short chapters that alternate between the two time lines, building the tension in parallel, while Michael Wm. Kaluta’s superb art brings both settings to life.
In 1940, Madame Xanadu has been hired to investigate the unusual death of a rich man burned alive in his own home, a supposed case of spontaneous human combustion. The threads of mystery she uncovers draw her deeper into a web of intrigue that threaten to devour several prominent New York families. Can she unravel the threads in time to prevent everyone involved from dying? To do so, she must discover the dark secret that binds the families together in tragedy — and pinpoint the fiery power hell-bent on revenge.
The 15th-century plot line revolves around Madame Xanadu and her young lover, Marisol, and focuses on the former’s arrogance and indifference (to their precarious situation vis a vis the Inquisition — she does seem to genuinely love Marisol). This time line is clearly intended to heighten the emotional drama for the modern day Madame Xanadu, presumably giving her added impetus to solve the mystery before there are more deaths.
The main story line is riveting, fraught with tension and pulls in a couple of characters familiar to Vertigo readers: Sandman Wesley Dodds and his lady love, Dian Belmont. Unfortunately, the flashback to 1493 comes across as filler material more than anything else. The stakes in the present-day story are sufficiently high and emotionally compelling that it would be hard to imagine Madame Xanadu being anything other than sympathetic and desperate to prevent further tragedy. The overall plot could have been powerful enough on its own, and makes this collection worth picking up on its own merits.