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Vertigo Book Club: Madame Xanadu Unites a Universe

Vertigo Book Club: Madame Xanadu Unites a Universe

By Melinda-Catherine Gross Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Welcome to the Vertigo Book Club, a recurring feature where readers share their thoughts on a Vertigo classic that they’ve just read for the first time…or the first time in a while.

I was first introduced to Madame Xanadu as a character through her appearance in the New 52’s JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK. I, like many before me, came for some good ol’ John Constantine; being a weirdo, fighting a house full of enchanted teeth, and participating in tantric sex magic. (Bet I just got a lot of you WAY more interested in that first volume.)

But the stand-out character in the series had definitely been the resident divination master, Madame Xanadu, who brings the team together to thwart a mystical world-shattering crisis. A character who carried such a breadth of burden and knowledge was fascinating to me. She provided a really interesting dynamic to the team, while still holding her own against the more recognizable characters.

So, with Madame Xanadu’s appearance last week in the first issue of HAWKMAN, I found myself thinking about my favorite fraughted witch and wondered what she was up to. Madame Xanadu has been around since the 70s, heading up the last of that era’s “Mystery” titles. She also has popped up as a pivotal character in other magic users’ books, such as THE SPECTRE. Always an important player, but never the lead, this resulted in me poking around for some origin books.

And boy did I find a great one.

MADAME XANADU: DISENCHANTED is the story of a young magical creature who is abandoned by fate to wander her way throughout time. But the story overall acts as two specific parts of exploration in the DC Universe that I found really fascinating.

For starters, it is the connective tissue between a whole heck of a lot of magical history. For many pages, you feel like a hidden entity, peaking from behind the curtain at the connective webbing of events between characters you have grown to know and love. From there, you are showered with well-placed cameos throughout history and the magical world, most specifically, about the history of Camelot. There are so many great heroes and villains that have been born out of the fall of that mystical city, and this book provides some really great context between the famous events that happened there.

The second thing that really caught me was the use of a lyrical love narrative to bind the whole story together. Much like old Arthurian lore itself and the old noir-y comics of Madame Xanadu’s original incarnation, the needle that sews the tapestry of all of these elements together is romance. The book dips and dives between multiple points in history following the Madame’s ill-fated and one-sided love affair with the Phantom Stranger. He is the reason she is accidentally stripped of her ancient demi-god powers, and as she follows him throughout time, she is able to forge herself a new fate as a seer to those in need.

It’s like you’re getting a one-two punch of special treats, a genuine romance comic book as well as this big magical map throughout the DC Universe!

Arthurian lore has always been one of my favorite additions into the DC Universe, and this book delivers that with full force. You’ve probably heard of the Lady of the Lake and Morgana, but Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted begins with Nimue Inwudu, (later to become Madame Xanadu), who some folk may recognize from Sir Thomas Malory’s famous book, Le Morte d’Arthur. Youngest sister of Vivienne (The Lady of the Lake) and Morgana (later known as Morgaine Le Fay), Nimue is the enchanting, albeit naive, sylvan nymph of the forest with whom the druids of Camelot come to for aid. So, from chapter one of this adventure, we’re seeped into the real lore of Camelot; a feat which is vividly brought to life not just through its story and dialogue, but also through the decadently fun art of Amy Reeder, known for her work on BATWOMAN.

As Nimue tries to navigate a positive solution to negate the impending doom of the city, we are given some great exchanges with her sister, famed super-villain Morgaine Le Fey. Morgaine is shown as a great beauty, doted on by her faerie servants, magically floating above her throne as she chastises Nimue for her attentions on the woods and the much older lover who she feels is taking advantage of her young sister (Merlin). In the moment, the villainess seems more human that we have previously seen her. But of course, she is still cruel and her intents are still set on destruction and vengeance, to strike back at Arthur, her half-brother and also lover.

Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted actually shows us a glimpse from the fall of Camelot.  As Nimue surveys the destruction, we are shown not only how devastating the destruction of the city is, but the grotesque nature of the corrupted mortals who have helped overthrow it. As Camelot falls, Nimue’s god-like powers are stripped due to the influence of a man who calls himself the Stranger, who implies that Merlin should be stopped before his power lust becomes too great, leading to a curse that leaves the nymph bereft and alone.

But what starts as a dramatic gallop through Camelot becomes a magical time-traveling adventure throughout both world history and the history of the DC Universe. Nimue sheds her former life in the fabled fallen city, opting to travel far and wide as the Seer of Xanadu and eventually, Madame Xanadu, to find her place within the world, acting as a diviner to powerful monarchs across time. But while she is driven from place to place, an unrequited mystery follows.

Retaining just enough of her power to act as a sorcerous, and staying young by drinking various concoctions, the young Madame comes into the company of Kublai Khan’s court at the arrival of Marco Polo’s party. As the Seer of Xanadu, she is once again approached by the Stranger, who informs her of a plot to frame Marco Polo and his fellow travelers for the rape of the Khan’s favorite concubine. She attempts to convince the Stranger that they are destined, since he is the observer and she is the one who takes action in his stead. The Madame once again intervenes on the Stranger’s behalf, thwarting the plot, but not the rape. She is finally able to see herself in the role of pawn rather than action taker of fate as she and the Stranger share a moment in the desert, before he once again leaves her to fate.

The Madame moves on to France, where she is Marie Antoinette’s favorite diviner, playing cards and bearing witness to the decadency of the court on the eve of revolution. Now fully Madame Xanadu, she finds herself once again intertwined with the Stranger in her attempts to flee France, berating him for never actually intervening in the horrors he seems to inadvertently put into motion. He tries to convince her that she is not meant to intervene the way he sometimes does, but she no longer wishes to be like the man she still craves to be with. Unfortunately, in an attempt to save her friend, Madame Xanadu arrives too late to help Marie from losing her head.

On to England, Madame Xanadu is a key player with the police in the hopeful capture of Jack the Ripper. Since prodding fate and avoiding it did not work, she now actively tries to thwart it head on, coming up against the fabled murderer himself as well as more interference by the Stranger. Finally, she admits that some cities must fall to see the rise of greater things, but that the abhorrent murder of women by a human monster is too much for her to stand by and watch. The Stranger actively interferes with a magical conjuring for her to divine the name of the killer, leaving another dear friend of Madame Xanadu’s dead as a result. Unbeknownst to her, however, the Stranger finally responds with affection towards her by killing the man who claims to be the Ripper.

Finally landing in New York City, the eventual site of her famous shop, Madame Xanadu has one more encounter with the Stranger, leading to the eventual creation of another famous superhero. Who am I to spoil the surprise? She is able to finally find peace in what she was fated to do in this world; fight against fate itself, helping others of magical tendencies who have the strength to do more.

With so much going on all over the world throughout history in the DCU, fans can look for plenty of Easter eggs, including glimpses of the Starheart, mentions of the Helmet of Fate, as well as appearances by great magicians such as John Zatara at the moment he learns he will have a great love and eventually a daughter. By providing a lens to these areas, we are also shown how small actions can shape greater destinies, whether it’s that of a nation, superhero or historical figure.

So, if you’re looking for a cool DCU connector book, as well as some great romantic intrigue, this is the book for you. An interesting take on an already established universe, you would think that it would feel like they are shoehorning a character into its midst. In reality, you are being given texture to so much that has come before, in between, and will be in the future. Vertigo’s Madame Xanadu series uses tarot imagery throughout it, which is fitting—the series is a tarot deck for its own universe.
 

MADAME XANADU: DISENCHANTED collects the first ten issues of the Madame Xanadu Vertigo series, which are available digitally. Look for Madame Xanadu in the first issue of HAWKMAN, now available in print and as a digital download.