Change of Pace 2: MADAME XANADU: Magical for All Readers

Amy Reeder Hadley on Madame Xanadu

It might seem strange to do an installment of Change of Pace on a book with a buzzed-about creative team and four Eisner nominations.  Then again, we’ve all seen the state of comic sales in the past several months.  Madame Xanadu may have received much positive ink and worth of mouth, but it was only at #177 on the sales charts in June.  So, to mainstream readers that may have given this Vertigo title a miss, here are a few reasons that you should heed the acclaim and check it out.

The First Trade Drops:  Depending on your local outlet, you may have seen the trade already in the last week or so.  It’s officially listed again with Vertigo shipping on their website yesterday.  Titled Disenchanted, volume one of the series contains 10 full-color issues for a shockingly low price of $12.99.  Overall, the 240-page collection is a very satisfying reading experience, but it’s just plain hard to argue with the economy of it.  

Why It’s Great:  The book works so well for two primary reasons: Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley.  Wagner, of course, has a lengthy pedigree in the biz, hailing from classics like Grendel and Mage and boasting of a number of solid projects at DC.  Hadley’s a more recent addition to the field, but you couldn’t tell that from her amazingly detailed art.

In terms of the plot, Wagner pulls a bit from one of his favorites (the Arthurian cycle), smoothly marries it to DC’s version of same, and gives us a Madame Xanadu that is a reinterpretation of a crucial figure from that mythos.  He also brings in Phantom Stranger as an aid/adversary, a maddening mentor that pushes events for his own ends even as he himself seems helpless to prevent what destiny has in store for him and the woman that will become Madame Xanadu.

For her part, Hadley is a find and a half.  Her line work is smooth and intricate, and she renders near-perfect facial expressions.  She’s readily conversant in the depiction of mind-bending magical landscapes, half-a-dozen historical eras, monsters, and action.  It’s hard to pin down exactly what her influences are (an amazing thing in this day and age), but you can perceive the slight overlay of manga dynamic over a more conventional American-style structure.  We also can’t discount Richard Friend, inker on eight of the issues, who helps lend the later chapters greater depth and complexity.  And of course, there’s colorist Guy Major, doing a champion job with different palettes for every age.

A Vertigo Book for the DC Faithful?:  On a more personal note, it’s always bothered me to see the separation between DC and Vertigo afflict characters that came of the DCU originally.  While I totally understand (and would want to) keeping 100 Bullets apart from, say, Batman, I like the idea of knowing that maybe Swamp Thing could still see characters he’s interacted with before.

Therefore, I was pleased to see several subtleties emerge as pieces of the overall plot that told me, yeah, Madame Xanadu does appear to have an impact on the DCU, or at least a tenuous link to it.  No one’s going to expect her to put on a costume and fight crime, but it’s hugely satisfying as a long-time reader to see things that this character is doing in the ancient and recent past having an impact on a particular, let’s say “society”, of heroes that will one day appear.  Let me be clear though: this is a strong book with its own identity, and it exists perfectly well in its own sphere.  You don’t have to read (or even like) the DCU to love this book, and you don’t have to have any prejudice against it based on other Vertigo titles.  It is totally its own thing, and worth the read.

Where do I get in?: As I noted, the first trade is out now, and issue #13 hit streets yesterday as well.  The art on issues 11 thru 15 is by original Madame Xanadu character designer Michael Wm. Kaluta, the legendary artist who made his mark with DC on The Shadow and other supernatural realms in the day.  He’s still a remarkably assured artist, and his stuff still drips with atmosphere.  Hadley will return with issue #16.

The (DC) Bullet?:  As a series, Madame Xanadu combines supernatural historical adventure, romance, a subtle taste of the history of the DCU, and tremendous characterization.  It’s made for women and men that enjoy smart plotting, well-realized leads, and outstanding art.  The inexpensive trade makes a great introduction, and there’s a lot to love here.  Madame Xanadu is a perfect change of pace.

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