Review: Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted


Some origins stories happen within the flight of a bullet,  pearls cascading over pavement, the ignition of an escape pod, a spider’s bite. Other origins, as is the case with Madame Xanadu, take centuries.

Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley’s Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted is the story of one woman’s loss of innocence and discovery of purpose. It’s the kind of revelation only possible through time and experience. Who am I and what am I capable of doing? Of all the options available to me, what course of action makes the most sense for me? For the world? It’s a complex and cosmic bit of soul searching. But at the center of it all is one vital truth. The Phantom Stranger is an asshole. 

For anyone who enjoys tales of the supernatural or adventures in time travel, the concept of fate is a constant presence. It’s that idea of predestination or inevitability. No matter what our protagonist does or doesn’t do, destiny will win out, prophecies will come to fruition, estates will crumble, new mantles will be assumed. This all lends itself to great drama, but it can also be a huge drag. In this story, the pure-hearted nymph Nimue witnesses the downfall of several great nations and societies during her long an eventful life as the eternally beautiful (so long as she takes her meds) Madame Xanadu. At times she is an agent of fate, stepping in to position the pawns in their proper squares.

But in many cases Nimue is barred from meddling with the gears and pendulums and fuses of time. Which is really frustrating when you have a knack for precognition and a desire to help people. The spokesman for the Powers-That-Be is the aforementioned Phantom Stranger, a Tuxedo Mask-lookin’ cosmic figure who thwarts Nimue’s many attempts to limit the collateral damage left in the wake of progress. He might just be the messenger, but his stubborn refusal to combat tragedy and his stoic detachment from the fallout is downright infuriating. Especially since he’s seemingly capable of the type of power that could save countless lives.

I initially found myself struggling with this volume for a few reasons. The inevitability of fate in any story can feel ambiguous or insubstantial. Suggesting that “this is the way it’s supposed to be” can often feel like an easy out, a deus ex machina. Rather than offering a dynamic story where characters think and act to solve a complex problem, a fate story tends to feel like a passive waste. Camelot burns as the hero frowns. It was also frustrating because it seemed as though this pattern would never end. Nimue’s reaction to the Stranger is, at first, fearful curiosity. This transitions to melodramatic fawning.

It’s not until Nimue’s epiphany, the decision to question and oppose the Stranger, that the story becomes truly compelling. This is that rare situation where I feel that the destination, and not the journey itself, is the true reward. It’s not an uninteresting story. I do think Wagner made some excellent connections between Xanadu’s ongoing struggle with power and powerlessness and historical incidents where female power or control was in flux. I only wish Nimue could’ve taken part in more organic exploits where her actions resulted in true consequences.  But perhaps this frustration is Wagner’s thesis. A frustrating means of showcasing a frustrating reality.

That’s not to say that the book is at all a chore. Hadley’s pencils elevate every story. There’s an obvious manga influence at play, but whatever inspiration she’s drawing from totally lends itself toward an exotic elegance. The earlier chapters, set in the mystical forests around Camelot, are lush with fragile detail. She handles natural beauty, the arcane, period costumes, and large scale destruction with equal prowess. She’s quickly rocketing up my list of favorite artists.

This one’s a tricky recommendation. If you’re interested in these themes or the character of Madame Xanadu, it’s definitely worth reading. I’m honestly more excited about  trying the current storyline, where I presume Xanadu has a better sense of who she is and what her mission might be in an age of heroes. I think she and the book’s audience have both earned a bit of adventure.


Paul Montgomery says let them eat fruit AND cake. Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com

Comments

  1. This is something I’ve been looking at trying. You’re the first person I’ve heard throw some negativity it’s way. This almost makes me more inclined to try it out. I tend not to enjoy the universally recommended titles (like Secret Six) so seeing that there are some cracks in this one’s armor (arcane or not) is interesting. Might be worth a read. Interesting themes going on too.

  2. I finished this last night and absolutely loved it. I love The Phantom Stranger and his role in all of this, which is essentially to make sure that events unfold so that the DCU exists as it should. I love that kind of pre-destination stuff.

    Also, I guess Vertigo loosened its "we have noting to do with the DCU" rule.

  3. @conor. Did you like Sandman’s first arc where it was very tied to the DC Universe or did you think it needed to exist on it’s own like it does in the later arcs (not counting the funeral where Apololips is in the crowd shot among others)

  4. @Anson17: I liked it fine.

  5. I’m not sure this is my cup of tea.  I’ll see if I can interlibrary loan it.  If not, I’ll probably pass.

  6. I think Hellboy’s complete disregard for the decorum of destiny makes the Phantom Stranger’s bullshit all the more tedious. It’s interesting stuff, but he’s such a drag. I like Xanada a lot, so I’m excited to read stories where she’s no longer hung up on the jerk. 

  7. Very interesting.  I’ve wanted to try this out ever since the Eisner nominees were announced.  Glad to hear your take on it and the very well thought out criticisms.  I have heard that these 10 issues are essentially an origin story.  Is that about true?  If so, did it ever feel too drawn out?  Pacing-wise, did everything feel natural smooth?

    I can always use more Vertigo in my diet.  I pick this up at the end of the month in my book order.

  8. @PaulMontgomery: It’s easy for Hellboy to not care about Destiny because his story can go wherever it wants. Here The phantom Stranger is tasked with protecting the DCU and without his actions we’d have no Alan Scott, Dr. Fate or The Spectre. It’s not easy being the one who bares the responsibility of protecting the future, which is also something that isn’t Hellboy’s primary responsibility (as far as I know).

  9. @Conor – I understand all that. That doesn’t make it fun to read all the time. For me, at least. It’s an interesting character in small doses, and I understand why he has to do what he does, but after a few encounters I got a little tired of him. Can’t mess with destiny. Got it. Let’s move on to another kind of supernatural story. 

    @drake – There’s enough variety that I remained interested. Every to issues or so the status quo shifts and Xanadu ends up in a new time and place. My only frustration is with the continuous appearances of the Stranger, who feels like rain on a very cool series of parades.   

  10. I somehow missed all these great themes, and read this whole series as an attempt for Vertigo to get into the Twilight market with Madame and Phantom Stranger in the roles of the tortured, unrequited lovers.  To me it read like fiction simply aimed at that audience, which isn’t bad, just not for me.  Based on the above, I’ll give it another look.  

  11. I read this and thought it was pretty good.  I don’t think the story, overall, was my cup o’ tea, but I thought the art was spectacular.  It’s definitely an enjoyable read.

  12. Nice review, Paul. I’ve been reading this in issues, so I’m not sure exactly how far the first volume goes, but it definitely took me a little while to really "get" the series. The little DC mythology details made it a lot of fun, but that alone wouldn’t hook me. It took me until she really got pissed of at the Phantom Stranger to really dig the series.

    And I have to say that the current storyline is really a lot of fun. she’s more sure of herself, and she’s playing occult detective, while still remembering her storied history. It’s a good balance and I hope it continues.

    Phantom Stranger has yet to play a role in the current storyline.

  13. @daccampo: The first volume is the first ten issues. It encompasses the entire "origin" arc.

  14. @conor. Nice. Yeah, that’s a good chunk. I’m glad they did all ten issues, as I think the pace requires you read all of that as a single volume, so you really get the frustration and then the confrontation that Paul discusses above. 

    I hope you guys jump on the current Kaluta arc. If you liked Sandman Mystery Theatre and where this volume ends, then you should definitely give it a shot!

     

     

  15. I will definitely be reading more.  

  16. @Paul – It looks like the next volume comes out in February.

    This first volume is being sent to me, so I’m looking forward to checking it out when it arrives. 

  17. @Paul: You only have to like Phantom Stranger for one reason. His badass 70’s medallion.

    Great review man; this is a series I want to try. Especially if the people for the Eisners went ga-ga for it. I’m a little surprised you didn’t like it as much. You are, at least I thought anyways, a big fan of the supernatural/magical side of comic books. This seems so up your alley.

    Also, why are you thankful for not lobbing the Holy Hand Grenade? That is a royal privilage! 🙂

  18. I do love the supernatural and I do love those elements in the story. It’s the execution that bugged me a little here. It’s hard to get stories about fate and destiny right. When they’re good, they’re great. When they’re not, they’re problematic. I liked it, just didn’t love it. The writing at least. The art is a 5 star affair. 

  19. @Paul: Oh but the medallion man, the medallion!

  20. It’s a nice piece of bling, not gonna lie. 

  21. @Paul – Your review actually made me want to read this even more.  Those themes DO appeal to me. 

  22. I absolutely love Amy Reeder Hadley’s art.  Her panels are imbued with a feminine sensibility that is uncommon to see in male-dominated comic book art.  Her details on period clothes are meticulous and beautiful.

  23. It’s worth mentioning that the trade is 10 issues for only $12.99.  It’s like stealing Vertigo’s candy if it were a poor, defenseless baby.

  24. Definitely. An awesome value.  

  25. @Neb: Not only that, but it’s $10 on Amazon, which is where I got it. A dollar an issue!

  26. I mostly agree. Wagner’s done a lot of great stuff as far as I’m concerned and while I liked this first arc I’m glad he stayed on for another because I felt like he could have done better. Sad Hadley left art duties though, because she did some truly insane stuff in this. Though at times it’s a little hard to see (or care) if there will be a more conventional conflict or if she’ll just whine and whine endlessly >< Still, I liked it enough. 

  27. I’m not reading any Vertigo books because there just "not my cup of tea" type of stories. But this sounds like a series I would read because it ties into the DCU.

  28. @shaunR – There’s a lot of variety in Vertigo. Consider approaching their titles on more of a book by book basis. Otherwise you might miss out on some good stuff. 

  29. @Paul – I get what your telling me, but I only read superhero comics. (personal preference)

  30. Thanks for this interesting review.  I’ve been curious about this title, but this article makes me think I should maybe wait for the second arc, then go back and read the origin later if I like it. 

  31. XD! Paul it seems Vince just beat you to the punch. He convinced me to give the Madame Xanadu series a try in their previous podcast (11 o’clock comics).

  32. Tempted to give this a shot based on this review.  Perhaps if I have a slow week and am caught up on my other seris I read in trade.  I read plenty of Vertigo, and am usually open to giving their titles a shot.  The preview the originally appeared 11-12 months ago (maybe more) didn’t really hook me though.

  33. This was a nice volume and an absolute bargain.  In many ways it seemed like it would have been a little more at home in the DCU proper, but it certainly intrigued me and I am a fan of these immortal characters who kind of trip through various familiar time periods.  You are correct though in your assertion… I love the Stranger, great ambivalent watcher type character with a groovy look that’s all his own…but the man is still, fundamentally, an arse.

  34. Having just finished this morning, I thought I’d jump in the conversation two weeks late.  But, whatever.

    Now, I don’t feel that the Phantom Stranger was really that bad of a guy during the story.  He told Nimue many, many times exactly what he’s all about.  He observes and comments, but rarely actually does anything.  No matter how much Nimue wants him to be otherwise, this function is not going to change.  When he says that something is going to happen, Nimue should have learned after Camelot that getting pissed and taking things personally isn’t going to change matters.

    From a total DC-geek perspective, I enjoyed the brief cameos of Alan Scott’s lantern, Etrigan, and the single mention of Dr. Fate.  Having this book tied into the DCU history was surprising, but done well.  They were nice MacGuffins that gave the Phantom Stranger some excuses to be obtuse and preachy.  They weren’t particularly necessary, but it gave me something to smile about.

    In all of this, I suppose I enjoyed it more than you did, Paul.  Just like you though, I found the art to be amazing.  So beautiful.  Can’t wait for the next volume for sure.