Book Club #4: Madame Xanadu

Anika: It’s a funny story, really. And like many stories being told these days, it’s founded in the poor economy. My comic book budget has been hit hard lately. There are so many books I would like to read. Ongoing series, out of print origin stories, upcoming issues, and a backlog of trades I decided to wait for — and have yet to purchase. Kind of like our fourth Book Club book, Madame Xanadu, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend. Yes, that’s the funny part (also, as happens so often in literature and life, the sad part). I haven’t read, or in fact purchased, the book club book I chose. There are many reasons and no excuses but since you’ve already heard the funny part, I’m going to tell a different story.

It took us days to decide on Madame Xanadu. Every title I came up with had some kind of problem: it was out of print, it wasn’t yet in print, too many of us had read it, there was little interest in it, it was too close to what we’d already read. It was too much of this, not enough of that, or just generally uninspiring. At my wits end I Googled “Marie Antoinette Comic Book” (you may recall my desire to dress like Marie and my assertion that revolutionary France would be even more awesome with superheroes). The result of my Google search: Madame Xanadu. So that’s where I would like to start the discussion — when I finally do read this book, will I find Marie Antoinette? Is it at all similar to Sofia Coppola’s brilliant film? Because that is the other funny (also sad) part of the story: I knew and know absolutely nothing about this book. And while it was not my expectation for Madame Xanadu to be similar in style, form, function, or story to Marie Antoinette the film . . . it was my secret hope. Not that it be about Marie Antoinette but that it be, well — Roger Ebert called the movie “Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you.” Is there any of that in this comic or is it maybe better I avoided disappointment? Or is there something else in this book just as good or even better?

Sigrid: I think that quotation reflects a lot of Madame Xanadu. “The loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you.” I had been meaning to say that I thought Madame Xanadu’s position as a magician, a magic-user, in the DC Universe made a decent analogy for other sorts of marginalized identities. Such as being a woman, in some of the times and places during which the stories take place.

I did read this as more a collection of interrelated short stories than as one longer work. Which isn’t a criticism, merely a remark. And the art by Amy Reed Hadley was gorgeous throughout, which I don’t want to let go unnoticed.

Caroline: Anika, if you knew that Marie Antoinette appeared in this book, you knew more than I did when I picked it up last week. I read a few reviews when it was nominated for some Eisners last year, but I’d forgotten all the specifics. I didn’t even realize it was a DC Universe book (a detail I want to touch on later, but not right off.)

I agree with Sigrid that the “loneliness” quotation is relevant, although, oddly, Marie Antoinette herself is only a peripheral character in the book. “Peripheral” doesn’t mean unimportant, though. In a way Madame Xanadu is populated by peripheral women. There are all these characters who are attached to famous stories without exactly being the stories themselves: Marie, Kublai Khan’s consorts, the women killed by Jack the Ripper, the Lady of the Lake and Morganna Le Fay and Madame Xanadu herself. . .

I feel like I should back up. Before we talk more about the book, it’s worth focusing on how it’s put together. This is, as Sigrid says, a collection of five stories — two issues each — loosely threaded together through different times in history. They’re held together by the main character, who is eventually called Madame Xanadu but starts out as Nimue, Morganna’s sister and Merlin’s lover. Because she’s involved with such strong magic, the heroine — what do we want to call her? Madame? Nimue? something else? — is able to live for several millenia and move in and out of many different identities and societies. She’s part of these societies, but also apart from them. It works a little like a time travel story, but of course she is going through it the long way. Unlike some other characters I could mention, but I’ll hold that off a little.

I liked the overarching idea of what Matt Wagner was doing with her story very much. I like it better, I think, as a whole, than on a close-up level to any of the stories or relationships. If I’d pick the first issue of this up, honestly, I don’t know if I would have stayed with it. But once I got the overall rhythm, I was pulled in, and for a 10-issue trade this went really fast.

Besides the big concept of the story, the other thing I loved was the art. This didn’t look like any other comic I’d read before. Does it make any sense to say this reminded me of a grown-up Disney movie, more than a comic book? I mean that as a compliment. It was like the best Disney designs being used to tell a complex, adult story. Maybe it’s those great big eyes. . .

Jennifer: I didn’t think the art was all that different from what I’ve seen before — it felt like a standard superhero style with manga influences — but it was lovely, with some excellent layouts and gorgeous figures, and I was very excited to read a book with a female artist in the first place. Nimue’s various period outfits were especially stunning (though her little hoof-shoes in the first story freaked me out!).

Like Anika and Caroline, I had no idea what this book was about going into it. I have a pretty good track record with enjoying Vertigo books, so I went in hopeful, but I actually liked it even more than I expected to. I loved the glimpses into different historical moments especially, and while at first I was a bit leery of the mixture of comic book fantasy magic with real Pagan beliefs and methods of divination, the story actually won me over on that point. This is probably the most accurate representation of, for instance, Tarot that I have ever seen in a comic, and its authenticity made me more comfortable with the supernatural aspects. This felt no different than a comic with a Christian or Jewish character who also happens to use fantasy magic — the two systems aren’t particularly conflated, and that pleased me greatly.

And I have to admit, I was a total geek for all the DCU moments here, and I’m not even a DC person. When they found the green lantern in that chest, I squealed, and I thought the introduction of Jim Corrigan was especially brilliant. This still felt like a Vertigo book — you can enjoy it without knowing anything about the DCU, or knowing that Madame Xanadu/Nimue is a part of it. I know there are probably some things I missed, or only half understood the significance of, and I still loved it. But for DC readers, the constant nods to that universe and its origins are especially thrilling.

The only conflict I have in my enjoyment of the book is the way it tells stories about women. On the one hand, this is a powerfully feminist text — that quote from Anika at the beginning describes Nimue’s arc quite well, and the secondary women in each story all have compelling narratives that really deconstruct the societal pressures they’re under. On the other hand, I found it frustrating, after awhile, that almost every single story was about sexual manipulation and prostitution and harems, including one pretty graphic rape scene. Am I crazy, or did anyone else have trouble with that?

Sigrid: I …. didn’t notice that, about all the stories being about sex in some way. I don’t know if that deducts points from my feminist card, or what. But it does bring up the point, the oft-debated point, about what it means to be a female hero.

I mean, a typical male hero story has a Hero’s Journey. It has been argued, or at least put forth, that a female character’s Hero’s Journey differs from a male’s in the nature of the conflicts overcome. I.e., that there is some sort of “girl” version of a Hero’s Journey that involves sexual threats, conflicts over having children, and protecting one’s family. I rather think this is hogwash. Yet, in the “Can’t win for losing” conundrum many creators run into when trying to create good stories about women, if a writer doesn’t include sexual awakening or rape or prostitution or childbirth or maternal instinct in a story, there will always be some person critiquing the character for being Secretly Just a Man.

Clearly there’s got to be a middle ground. And I … I actually thought that Nimue’s story trod that ground. Nimue herself ends up taking on the role of a protector and avenger. And if she chooses as her flock, her area of ward, women who have been badly treated by men? It’s not original, certainly, but it’s not improbable or unlikely.

Caroline: I think maybe it was the blending of manga-style faces with the basically representational style we see in most superhero comics that made me think of animation. But, yeah, it’s perhaps not all that innovative but it is very well done. Beautifully colored by Guy Major, too — I always like to try and mention colorists when they do a good job, and I think the paper stock Vertigo uses works well with these deep, rich colors.

Talking about the art leads me toward the gender representation, too, and it’s odd. I definitely did notice the focus on women who were consorts, concubines and sex workers. I read this as very intentional, though, and I liked the way it worked in the story. The focus didn’t say to me, “These are the only roles women can have” or even, “These are the most interesting roles women can have.” It said to me, “These are the women Nimue is drawn to, the ones she feels a connection with.” I thought this was particularly clear in the Jack the Ripper story, because, unlike the concubines in Xanadu or the courtesans in France, these women didn’t have any status. Nimue just wanted to protect them, which has the potential to be condescending and paternalistic — perhaps in a sense it was — but I also felt she was there because she felt a kinship.

I’m not sure why, exactly, that kinship was there. Was it her way of acting out or making up for what happened with her and Merlin, who she unintentionally manipulated? I’m not sure, and I like that I’m not sure. It feeds into my sense of Nimue’s complexity. But the main reason these overtones in the story didn’t bother me is that they felt very accepting of the humanity of these women. The working girls of London are just that; professionals. When Nimue sees a woman selling herself for money, she doesn’t judge, but takes her hand and gives her gold.

As for the rape scene in the Xanadu story, I actually admired the way that was handled. The rape had to be there for the story; the point was to show that Kublai Khan punished his concubine for being a victim, and that this was upsetting to Nimue. The scene itself was disturbing, as it needed to be, without, I thought, being exploitative. I thought of the statement that “rape is violence, not sex,” and I definitely got that from the way the scene was drawn, emphasizing that she was being attacked. That’s a very subjective judgment, and there are certainly other ways it could have been done, but for me, it served the story.

It’s hard to transition from that discussion to anything else, but are there any other incidents or characters that stood out to you? I’ve mentioned the concubine’s story, and Jack the Ripper, and Merlin. Jennifer touched on some of the DCU elements. What did you think about the way Death, for instance, shows up? And then there’s the elephant in the room, the Phantom Stranger.

Jennifer: Thanks for those points, ladies. I know I used the word “frustrating” above, but what I think I really meant was “puzzling.” The prevalence of these types of women and stories didn’t strike me as instantly problematic as it would have in other stories, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the way they WERE handled. I like the idea that Nimue’s kinship with these women was intentional, and while I’m not a big fan of ambiguity in fiction, well — that’s idiosyncratic, and not very good literary criticism to boot. Mystery and subtlety are important. And there’s definitely much more going on here with these topics than you’d see in, say, a Frank Miller story about prostitutes.

Now, as for the DCU stuff — I LOVED the Death appearance, despite having only read a few issues of Sandman. Her bright personality was a great contrast with Nimue’s, and as I said before, the Tarot was very effectively used — particularly as a narrative device. I can’t point to specific stories, but I know there’s a history of clever men beating the Grim Reaper at his own game, and seeing a more congenial, female-focused version of that story was a highlight of the book.

As for the Phantom Stranger, I’m really curious what others have to say. I know I’ve heard his name before, but I honestly don’t know a thing about him, besides what we saw in this book. I’m intrigued by omnipotent but “can’t interfere” observational characters, like Marvel’s Watcher or the Animorphs’ Ellimist, and I thought he was well-used here, but I’d love to hear thoughts from those who have encountered him before. (My only shallow comment is that his changing visual design over the eras was AWESOME.)

Sigrid: I don’t know anything about the Phantom Stranger in the DCU. I read his relationships with Nimue as complex, but I didn’t get much more out of it than “she thinks he’s a villain, mostly, or at least some of the time.” Anybody else have more to say on that? I rather skimmed the bits with him in it, wanting to read more about Nimue and her actions.

Caroline: I wasn’t sure what to make of the Phantom Stranger parts, either, which is why I was hoping someone else would! He seemed to be there as a way to tie the story more to the DCU, or whatever you call it when DC characters show up in Vertigo. I loved Death’s appearance because, like Jennifer said, it tied into a lot of folklore elements about cheating death. . .and also for the shallow reason that I love Death’s character design. She was basically invented to give dark-haired, pale girls somebody to cosplay, you know? And she’s really suited to Reeder’s art style.

Overall, though, I found the DC tie-ins distracting. Not too distracting, I guess, because I didn’t even realize the Green Lantern connection until Jennifer mentioned it. (In retrospect, duh.) I guess it’s a reality that it’s hard to launch a series like this without tying it into a pre-existing universe, but I really felt like the mythical elements were enough without having to figure out how everything tied in to comic-universe canon. The Jim Corrigan/Spectre story, particularly, I happened to be familiar with but if I was just picking up this book, I’d be baffled. (Also, full disclosure, I hate the Spectre a lot.)

For the most part, it’s easy enough to ignore those tie-ins. The Phantom Stranger, though, is a big part of this book, even if you ignore the fact that he’s a DCU character altogether. He exists more as a plot catalyst than an actual character. He keeps showing up to manipulate Nimue, and she gets angrier and angrier, but at the same time is strangely drawn to him. . .blah-de-blah, I could have done without that part. I saw what Matt Wagner was doing with this, posing the whole series as a philosophical debate about the way that history unfolds. There are some Doctor Who elements to him (note the way that he and Nimue keep meeting in the wrong order), but he doesn’t have the Doctor’s charming (or exasperating, depending on your viewpoint) interest in the lives of individual humans. I didn’t really think he worked as a character, anyway, but he and Nimue had a lot of dramatic scenes as though we were supposed to see him as a character. I found that a bit frustrating.

That leads to some thoughts on the writing overall. I know Matt Wagner is something of a comics legend, but this was the first time I encountered his work. I have no idea how representative this volume is, but based on this, I’m not sure his approach is for me. I was drawn to the overall arc of the book, and I loved the art, but in terms of scene-by-scene execution, there was a lot more philosophizing (often in captioned narration) than dramatized storytelling. Nimue spends more time musing than interacting with people, and while in some ways that fit the character, I generally like stories that are more about characters relating to each other than what we got here. I’ve heard that the series improves in the second volume, but I’m not sure if what I read here is enough to make me want more.

Thoughts?

Jennifer: It may just come down to personal taste. I really like (and, in the interest of full disclosure, tend to write) internal, philosophical stories, and that approach really worked for me in this book. In fact, I’ve heard almost the opposite about future volumes — that they become more plot-based, and thus aren’t as good as this initial origin story. I might check out more, but only because I want more of this, and if it changes drastically I might not care as much.

I agree that the Stranger was a weak point (I never really understood Nimue’s relationship to him, particularly her attraction, and their interactions just felt like the same argument repeated ad nauseum, with nothing new added.) But I didn’t feel like he was terribly distracting, and Nimue was SO awesome that it made up for those weak points.

Basically, Wagner’s storytelling fit my sensibilities quite well, and the DCU and historical aspects kept me interested when purer fantasy probably would have made me fall asleep. I, too, have never read any of his work before this, but I’m now quite curious to read more, and I’m glad this book club gave me the chance to encounter him.

Sigrid: I’m happy to have read this, but I think I’m not likely to pick up future volumes. Something in the story — despite Nimue’s awesomeness — just didn’t engage me. It may have been the “telling” instead of “showing” aspects of Wagner’s writing, or it may have been the Phantom Stranger, I’m not sure. But I am VERY glad to have read this for Hadley’s art. I am not a huge fan of comic art, mostly — mostly I just accept it and read the story — but this really blew me away.

Anika: I have to read this before I can answer if I want to read more. I’m now a little wary of what you all said about the writing style but then again, knowing about it going in might make it easier to read. And I’m happy to be warned about the DCU synergies because I expect they would have annoyed me (but knowing they’re there, they won’t). I want to read it, certainly, even though I don’t “have” to anymore — to be entirely honest Jennifer’s comment about hoof-shoes is what sold me — and I am (still) intrigued, if also, as I said, wary. But something Caroline said toward the beginning ”There are all these characters who are attached to famous stories without exactly being the stories themselves” — that is a very strong selling point (almost as strong as “hoof-shoes”) because that is what Sofia Coppola explores in her movies, that is why I love her movies. So.

I’ll let you know if I like the Phantom Stranger.

The Fantastic Fangrls Book Club will resume in January, 2011; title to be announced. Thanks!

  • Caroline

    This is a great discussion! It’s funny, at some times when I was writing it I found myself thinking, “I must have liked this book more than I thought I did!” and at others “I must have hated this book more than I thought!” I’m still not sure where I stand. . .so, Anika, I think ‘intrigued but skeptical’ is a good place to be with it.

    I want to know if ANYBODY likes the Phantom Stranger. I’m still not clear what he was doing there. I finally went to WIkipedia AFTER doing the discussion (I vowed that I wasn’t going to rely on Wiki for any of the reading or discussion because a book like this ought to stand on its own) and I thought I would find that Madame was a supporting character to the Phantom Stranger’s comics, but that wasn’t really true. So I don’t know why he was emphasized so much…

    It looks like the Spectre is in more of the subsequent issues, though, I can’t decide if that’s a draw or not. (I might have mentioned I hate the Spectre, but I’m curious if this story makes him interesting. . .)

  • I enjoyed this conversation immensely! Thanks for letting me be the primary cheerleader here, too — after our first two book clubs, I was convinced I was going to be the Debbie Downer all the time.

    Anika, the hoof shoes FREAK ME OUT. She just has… hooves. Horse hooves, strapped to the balls of her feet, nothing on her heels, and somehow she can run like this. It is BIZARRE but also fascinating.

    And Caroline, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Spectre. I know you don’t hate him when he’s Hal and is going to baseball games with his friends!

  • Caroline

    Jennifer — that is the only good use of the Spectre.

  • The only thing I will add (since I haven’t read Madame Xanadu yet) is that I know Madame mostly as a supporting character in the John Ostrander era Spectre series when he was still Jim Corrigan. I’m not aware of any prior connection to Phantom Stranger.

    Also about the DCU references, the story I’ve heard is that Matt Wagner included them anyway without getting editorial consent, rather than get hung up in the DCU vs Vertigo thing. It may be a moot point now that Vertigo is being allowed more in mainstream DCU. Whether that story is completely true, I have no idea.

  • I enjoyed this story quite a bit despite a few reservations – most of which were covered in your discussion. I do plan on reading more, especially because I think I’ve heard that Nimue is established as bisexual later on..? (I hope I’m not confusing her with another character.)

    I found the Stranger frustrating in that I felt Nimue should have been able to call him on his hypocricy more clearly, but I understood her attraction to him. The way I saw it, she was Jack Harkness and he was the Doctor. She is isolated by her immortality, and he represents an end to that isolation, either through companionship or through answers as to her role in history.

    (If the Stranger owned a TARDIS, Nimue would totally tackle it to prevent the Stranger from rudely leaving her behind in Cardiff.)

    The ending frustrated me because Nimue seemed to feel she needed to atone, while I was left wondering what misdeed she had done. She felt she hadn’t helped people, but she certainly tried, especially in the Jack the Ripper arc. I suppose the ending left her somewhat empowered by her percieved failures, which was nice, but I wished she could have owned her awesomeness a bit more. I kinda hate the Stranger for his manipulation and his blows against her confidence.

  • Caroline

    Julia — oh, interesting! I was confused about whether that version of the Spectre story was in post-Crisis continuity or not, so I guess the answer is that in the context of this book, it doesn’t matter. Still, there are plot points in each story that rely on a knowledge of DC, so it’s a little bit ‘not enough either way’ for me. That does make me more interested to read how the Spectre comes in.

    Monica — great points! I was thinking of them more in terms of the doctor/companion dynamic (I particularly thought of the Girl in the Fireplace at a few points, with Nimue experiencing slow time as opposed to the Stranger flitting back and forth, though that didn’t apply anymore when she stopped aging). I think we were SUPPOSED to side with her against the Stranger but I wasn’t really sure what his point was in the narrative — i realize there is more to come in the series so that might make it clearer. He did do a few unexpected things, like murdering the Ripper even though it completely went against his claim not to interfere. I couldn’t decide if that made him better or worse — ETA: like, if the point was to leave Jack alive long enough to keep Etrigan from being born, was this really any better than killing Etrigan’s mother himself?

  • Caroline –
    Well, Jack and the Doctor have a Doctor/companion dynamic, just a less rosy one than most companions. I do like the Girl in the Fireplace parallel you made though. For all I know the Stranger has as little control over time as the Doctor did in that episode.

    Yes, the Stranger killing Jack the Ripper as soon as Jack had killed the mother was frustrating. The Stranger allowed Jack to kill several women before that point, and he did his best to confuse the police and misdirect in ways that hurt minorities. Obviously he was ruthless in not allowing the demon-child to be born, so why not just kill the mother?

    While Nimue called the Stranger a hypocrit, I wish she’d been able to lay out those points and demand an answer. By that point in the story I was getting increasingly frustrated with their encounters, even though it was interesting to watch Nimue’s opinion of the Stranger slowly deteriorate. By the time Nimue and the Stranger had their final show-down, it did feel climatic.

    Anyway, I agree we were supposed to side with Nimue, but I wish she could have found an upper ground rather than come away from the climax feeling like she needed to atone.