Matt Wagner on the Madame Xanadu-Over

Wagner on Madame Xanadu

Matt Wagner knows how to build. With both his creator owned projects, Grendel and Mage, Wagner is adept at constructing lasting character mythos. Further, with his DC work, Sandman Mystery Theatre, the Batman: Dark Moon Rising books, set in Batman's earliest days, and Trinity, where the three leading characters of the DCU meet for the first time, Wagner has proven to be capable of figuring out exactly what makes characters besides his own tick.

Wagner brings those same chops as writer for the Madame Xanadu revival series for Vertigo. Stripping the character of the DCU trappings of her history, Wagner's new take on the character, and her complex relationship with the Phantom Stranger, has breathed new life into the sometimes one dimensional character, and created a new book of magic for the Vertigo line. This series combines Wagner's sense of fantasy and scope with artist Amy Reeder Hadley's natural sense of intimacy and sequential clarity.

The story began before she was Madame Xanadu, and was merely the forest nymph Nimue, living as peacefully as she can in Arthur's Camelot. With the third issue, though, time takes a leap forward, and the far reach of Xanadu and her maddeningly mysterious counterpart the Phantom Stranger's tapestry is revealed.

Newsarama: Just so we're all on the same page, let's play catch-up. The second issue closes with the Fall of Camelot, where does the third issue pick up?

Matt Wagner:The story is moving in two issue chunks. This issue we go forward through time, so the third and fourth issue take place in China, during the summer court of Kublai Khan. This was for the sheer fact that I have to get her name change to“Xanadu,” in there somehow, and Kublai Khan's summer palace was called Xanadu. So it coincides with the visit of Marco Polo, and as we find as we move throughout history she tends to find herself at very significant places in very significant times.

NRAMA: What made the fall of Camelot the right starting point for this story?

MW: Well, that was existing canon. Continuity said she once was the nymph Nimue, who locked Merlin away. So that was already there. The whole point is, I really didn't know much about the character when the editor, Bob Schreck, tried get me involved in the project. And that’s also one of the things I liked about this project- not many people knew much about her. I have a fairly blank slate with which to work.

When I explored a bit, there was already some continuity there, so I basically just cherry picked the continuity points I liked--the biggest one being that, in current continuity, she has this kind of thorny distrust for the Phantom Stranger. So I thought, well that’s perfect. I'm always looking for some kind of emotional reality to build a story around, and that was it. I thought, well lets find out how they came to mistrust each other. So that’s how we started in Camelot, and everything from there on was kind of my own arrangements of events.

NRAMA: By the end of the second issue, and moving forward, how much is she thinking of the Stranger? Who does she think he is?

MW: Well, I keep describing it as a Gothic romance because, when you read the third issue you see, there are already those seeds of distrust growing there. And then, like any Gothic romance, there’s always the aspect of somebody being attracted to the wrong person. So, she feels connected to him, and in those moments in the woods--in the second issue--she sort of talks about how she understands his loneliness.

That’s one of the themes in the story; man has kind of taken over the world, and as one of the elder folk, there's not much room for her kind anymore. So the connection is that she recognizes some kind of unique solitary quality in him. And again, as in gothic romances, these things tend to not work out.

NRAMA: So we start in Camelot, move on to Kublai Khan's court, and also manage to include the Demon Etrigan. Just how far reaching is the tapestry of Xanadu's influence?

MW: Well I bring us up to 1930s Manhattan. I basically get her to the point that is recognizable to the DC character we know. As a result…y'know, there is always this question, is it Vertigo, is it DCU, and really I just try and ignore that problem. Of course, I throw in these little references to the DCU, and its not huge, its more window dressing than the actual point of the story.

The point of the story, again, is her relationship with Phantom Stranger. At the very beginning of this, when I came up with this idea, I sat down and did this really quick sketch, that hopefully will be included in the eventual trade paperback, as reference for Amy, the artist, of the Phantom Stranger in all these different time periods.

Basically, he looks the same, except for different clothes. He always has that medallion, he always has his face hidden in shadows, but its a different kind of hat every time, and a different cloak every time. So that was a lot of fun.

NRAMA: One of the noticeable things throughout the story, both with her relationship with the Stranger, and with Merlin, is that there is much more manipulation than straightforward confrontation.

MW: Yeah, if you had to describe it as a Vertigo book, that's the “Vertigo-ness,” of it. So far as Vertigo books go, it isn't particularly rife with sex and violence, or what you'd think of as “adult material,” but as you point out, it's more about head games. So as far is it being Vertigo, or “adult material,” I think of it as something a ten year old wouldn't have much interest in. Y'know, when you're in a relationship with somebody, there can be a lot of head games involved.

Additionally, I’m trying to give the Phantom Stranger some sort of…a more proactive role. One of the frustrating things about that character is, he seems so cool, but he doesn't DO anything. Y'know? Usually in the DCU…he shows up, acts spooky for a little bit, and disappears. So…you mentioned the manipulation; in his efforts to maintain balance, we find that he's really a lot more manipulative than he lets on. He supposedly won't interfere, but there's interfering and there's “Interfering.” So yeah, there's a lot of manipulating going on.

NRAMA: Do you think that magic makes for better manipulation stories?

MW: Sure, it makes it a little easier, doesn't it? Because then it's all taking place somewhere else, so to speak. You're casting an effect, as opposed to causing an effect. It does make it easier, because a Batman story about head games isn't going to be anywhere near as interesting, right?

NRAMA: We start in Camelot, and see that Nimue, Morgana, and Merlin are all instrumental in the Fall of Camelot. Now we're in China, working with Kublai Khan, informing him of the ways of the West. How much of the story is about her impact on everywhere she goes?

MW: It's a good question. If you're a forecaster, or a seer, or an oracle, how much do your efforts affect whats going on? I try to make it clear that she sees patterns that she interprets in her mystical readings. She doesn’t just see the future all laid out like a television show, where she can tell you exactly what's going to happen. It's always going to be somewhat cloudy.

But yeah…either her actions, or inactions, will often lead to consequences. And that’s something she's going to have to deal with forever.

And it's worth pointing out- that's something that bothers her. But it doesn't bother the Phantom Stranger at all.

NRAMA: The second issue ends with her dealing with the loss of her magics. In terms of the character, is that something she's pining for, and actively wants to reclaim?

MW: In the third issue we see that she has had to go to appalling measures just to maintain her vitality and life. Sure, she'd like to have her powers back, but four hundred years have passed, you get set in your ways and accept that this is how things are now.

I’ve gotta remain deliberately vague about how that all works out.

I will say that one of the things she likes about being in the court of Kublai Khan is that the Chinese value her mysticism. In Europe at this point, mysticism has become frowned upon, and the whole Catholic movement has driven it all underground. So she's found something that she feels is a safe haven in the East. She felt driven out of Europe.

Also, with regards to her changing powers; when she was in the forest she was using runes for her forecastings. Now, in China, she's using the stars to guide her. That evolution is a motif we run with, until we bring her up to current times, and she's an expert in pretty much every form of divination.

NRAMA: The book remains occupying this somewhat vague nether-region where the book is very clearly a Vertigo one, but she and the Stranger are also historical DC characters, and even Etrigan. Any plans to do the reverse and include some historicly Vertigo characters?

MW: Yes, in issue 6 we do have an appearance by a really big Vertigo character. One of the biggest, in fact.

NRAMA: Getting to the artist, Amy Hadley, what do you feel she's brought to the book that wouldn't have been there otherwise?

MW: Well she's brought an incredibly distinct feminine mystique that I think is really, really important to the book. I've told the story before in our last conversation, but the book came about because Bob Schreck, who—well, he and I go way back-- but he had just moved to Vertigo and he called me to outline this idea he had of me trying to do a revamp of Madame Xanadu, and he already had this artist in mind that he wanted me to work with.

Now I wasn't familiar with Amy's work, and this all was highly unusual for me, because normally I'm pretty much entirely self-generated. Everything I've ever done for DC has been a result of me going to them and saying, hey, I have an idea for a story, here, let me do it. And of course, with my own stuff, with Mage or Grendel, it's completely up to me.

So this was completely out of left field as far as someone coming to me and saying, here's an idea we want you to do. At first I wasn't that into it. I looked at her stuff, and I thought it was good but didn't immediately feel a connection to it, and then, Bob really just kept pestering me and I finally came up with an idea that I thought was a cool one to take her all the way through the ages.

And again, the fact that the character was pretty much a blank slate…I liked that. I don't like working through all that thick, thick continuity. If you look at anything I've done for DC in the past, it is usually set fairly early in a character's career; Sandman Mystery Theater, the Batman stuff I did was that, Trinity was that, just 'cause I don't like having to keep track of all that crap. And if I'm starting early in a character's career, it's pretty much an open playing field. That said, there were still a few continuity pieces I thought I could have fun with. And others…I came up with on my own.

So I had the idea, and they were really sold on Amy, and I was willing to give it a shot but, when I looked at her stuff at Tokyopop…I said to Bob, “She's a very talented gal, again with this great feminine mystique, but boy with the story I've got in mind I'm going to provide her with a whole lot of stuff she's never drawn before!”

And boyoboyoboy has she totally stepped up to the plate and delivered really on all fronts! She admits that a lot of this is stuff she's really had to learn how to draw on the spot and she's done a really fabulous job with it. She brings a real unique sense of character to the character. She has a very distinct flavor. Amy herself has a real love for costumes and costuming, and by that I don't mean superhero costumes. She also brings a really distinctive sense of dress and appearance to the book.

For an example, in those first two issues there, Amy's the one who came up with that sort of antler tiara, and the funny little hoof shoes. And those are really fabulous! They give a unique sense of what a forest nymph would be that we've never really seen before. So yeah, Amy's brought a ton to the table, and I couldn't be any more pleased.

NRAMA: The hoof feet were so subtle but really added a lot.

MW: Exactly. They didn't really hit you over the head, but then you notice them and you're like “Oh my god, she's wearing hooves.” Really cool.

NRAMA: As a writer/artist, do you feel you're a bit easier of a bridge?

MW: Well yes, and that was one of the reasons Bob wanted me to work with her on this. His thinking was that- Amy had only ever worked on her own stuff for Tokyopop, and I don't know if you ever saw Fool's Gold, but it has a pretty typical Manga flavor in that it is about relationships between boys and girls during and after high school. Bob knew that for her first foray into the “Big Leagues,” he was going to have to team her up with someone who was very familiar in collaborating with artists.

Well, over my many years on Grendel, I've worked with so many different kinds of artists. I'm really used to working with artists whose work looks like mine, and with ones whose work doesn't look like mine. So I think it's worked out pretty perfectly in that sense, and I think she'd agree. I traditionally work with a plot/dialogue style method, instead of full scripting, and when I first described that to her she was a bit trepidatious about the whole process. But she has since found it much easier to work with than she initially imagined. You mention I'm a writer/ artist, I think that fact makes it a little easier for me to get them to see what I want them to see.

Now, that said, I always write the plot, and I kind of have in my mind an idea of what that’s going to look like and, especially with her, it's always something totally different. And boy, her storytelling has really gotten unique and progressive. She's said, 'Anything I seem to try, Matt likes it.”

Moving down the line, I don't know if you heard this announcement, but initially I was only planning on staying on the book for the first ten issue story arc. Again, before the project started, I wasn't overwhelmed by a burning desire to do Madame Xanadu or anything, it was more of a challenge from an old buddy that I wanted to take. I'd get to the end of the ten issue storyline, it gets her to the character we would recognize and then I felt like I would have achieved what I set out to accomplish. But Schreck was really putting the hard screws on me to stay on the book, and I was fairly resistant, and then he says to me, “Well what if I get Mike Kaluta to draw the next storyline?” And I just go “Awww, damn you!” (Laughs). He called me back and says, “Talked to Mike, he's ready to go!” So it looks like I'm on for the next arc at least, he's already turned in the first issue and it looks fabulous; really beautiful work! His story line is five issues, and I think I’ll also end up writing at least one more arc, because I feel like I owe it to Amy to give her one more collaboration, and really establish her as the definitive artist on the book. In the future, they might want to have artists like Mike come in now and again, but I really want to make this Amy's book.

NRAMA: Want to finish up with a tease for the Kaluta story?

MW: Well it would be the first story of Madame Xanadu as we recognize her, behaving in the ways we're used to. It's not so much a developmental storyline, as kind of her first real adventure as “Madame Xanadu.” And I just filled it with a bunch of cool shit I want to see Mike draw! It’s setting is split between 1940, and…well, since we've had her go through the centuries, I figured we want to keep that rolling. The first ten issue story shows us the times over the centuries that she meets the Phantom Stranger, but of course that leaves a lot of unaccounted time. So we'll just pop back and forth occasionally to earlier centuries and see what she's doing in the interim. Part of it is set in 1940, and then part is set in 1493 during the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

NRAMA: Y’know, when we first spoke about this project, I didn't quite see the angle, or how it would work. Seeing the collaboration on the page though, it has come together really well.

MW: Believe me…no one’s more surprised that I am!

Madame Xanadu #3 is currently in stores. Issue #4 is due in stores on September 24th.

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