Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Amy Reeder Hadley
Collects Madame Xanadu #1-10
The short answer is yes, they do maintain the quality I found in the first four issues of the series. In fact, the trade gets better as it goes on. The reason for this is that, in the early issues, the series seems kind of aimless, but, as the series goes on, the story coalesces into an exceptional whole and works as a great, if lengthy, introduction and set up for the series.
As the title of the series says, it stars the lesser known DCU mystic, Madame Xanadu, who, in this Vertigo series, was originally a forest nymph named Nimue Inwudu and a sister to Morgana le Fey. The stories center around her encounters with the Phantom Stranger during several key points in history, from the time of Camelot up to the beginning of the Golden Age of the DCU.
That's the odd thing about this series, it could work well as a DCU series, but, at the same time, it really isn't since a lot of the characters it uses are minor ones, with Etrigan and The Spectre being the biggest, and it doesn't really have anything to do with the DCU outside of the character names, so you don't have to actually have to have any knowledge of the DCU in order to get everything Wagner does. Yeah, you'll miss a couple of Easter eggs, but that's about it. Another odd thing is that Death of The Endless shows up and I think it is the first time, or one of the very rare times, the character has shown up in a non-Sandman related title. All of this kind of hearkens back to when Vertigo was just the mature imprint for DCU characters.
As mentioned before, Madame Xanadu is about Nimue's various encounters with the Phantom Stranger during key moments in history, starting with the fall of Camelot. This time period is also Nimue's point of origin, so Wagner spends a good amount of time setting up both her personality and the basic story structure that is used in the other four chapters. Now, having each chapter, which makes up two issues, repeat the same basic story may get repetitive, but Wagner makes it work.
The basic structure is that the Phantom Stranger shows up to ensure an important historical event happens and Nimue is some how involved, for good or for ill. What makes this work is that Nimue herself changes as time progresses. In their first encounter in Camelot, Nimue acts as, basically, a naive child, but, by their final encounter, she has goals and agendas of her own. This adds new layers to each new chapter of the story and makes the book a little more interesting since the relationship between the two characters becomes more complex as time goes on. Wagner also mixes the basic story formula up a bit in some chapters just to keep things fresh. For example, their second encounter, during the time of the Mongols, is on pretty good terms and is something of a contrast to their later, hostile relationship.
Each time they meet, the Phantom Stranger is trying to make sure an important historical event happens as he believes it should, but it is an event that Nimue has a personal connection to and does not always believe the Phantom Stranger is acting with the best intentions in mind, hence their escalating conflict. The basic dynamic of their conflict is the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few.
The Phantom Stranger advocates the need for the greater good while Nimue, do to her personal involvement, tends to see his actions as, not evil, but ill considered. Wagner does a good job of making bother characters be right and wrong at the same time. Nimue tends to come off as noble yet misguided and the Phantom Stranger as a know-it-all jerk. Both make mistakes or missteps and both do good things. In fact, Nimue herself takes some actions in their last encounter that she later regrets. What makes it all work is that neither side is completely right or completely wrong and that Nimue grows as a character throughout the story.
One theme that drives a lot of the events is destiny/fate. Wagner never does anything overly elaborate with it, but it does provide a nice backdrop to a lot of the events and conflicts in the book. Wagner also uses it to add some complexity to events by bringing up past actions of Nimue in ways that relate to or affect her current dilemmas.
What got me interested in the series in the first place was the wonderful art by Amy Reeder Hadley. The best way to describer her style is a perfect blend of your average, standard American comic book style art and your average, standard Japanese manga art. To me, she blends the styles well enough that it could appeal to fans of both styles without being off putting to people that are not a fan of one style or the other. There is also a lot of detail to be found in her work which helps to bring the individual time periods alive. Her character designs are fantastic, which is something that is seen in her other work, Fool's Gold, and help to make the various time periods and characters feel real and different from each other. Her ability to impart the proper mood and tone helps as well. Finally, her art has a lot of expressiveness and vibrancy that I've been in enjoying various manga that I've read recently.
Verdict - Must Read. A book that can appeal to both DC and Vertigo fans, Madame Xanadu Vol 1, Disenchanted is as interesting collection with some great lead characters and compelling story.
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