Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #12

Madame Xanadu #12

Writer: Matt Wagner
Artist: Michael Wm. Kaluta
Released: June 24, 2009

While I may not entirely agree with Strunk and White's advice on keeping my writing from being too overwhelmed by my personal voice, I generally do try to not speak too glibly and afford my readers the opportunity to see open-minded thought in my words, not just snark opinion. However, on this occasion I shall break heartily with that to start this review with a simple, irrefutable statement of affection: I love New York.

For many years I lived in New York City - Astoria, Queens, to be exact - and while it is not my hometown, nor the city in which I have spent a majority of my adult life - that would be San Francisco - it is the city which holds my heart with strongest grip. I consider the years spent in New York to be the ones in which I learned the most about myself, how to survive as a bohemian in the concrete wilderness, how to live with responsible temperance whilst surrounded by seemingly easy access to everything. These were years in which I learned how to be an adult, or at least, a close approximate of whatever an adult is. I have always stated that the years I find myself in California, I am doing all I can to try to find a way back to New York, and the years I'm in New York, I am doing all I can to try and make it stick. Inevitably, with thanks to my artistic lifestyle, I am pulled back and forth between the two American coasts, and so am either away from my true love, or in a love affair I know will prove to be only another brief tryst. Such is life, no?

What, pray tell, does this have to do with my thoughts on issue number 12 of Madame Xanadu? Well, the obvious is, of course, that the current locale of the book is New York City, in 1940, no less, a often very romanticized period in the cities history. What this issue does well, is to capture that spirit of romanticism and also simultaneously the ever present feeling of New York being a modern megalopolis of unending possibility, all with subtlety, humor, and grace. When our heroine wishes to gaze upon the stars to divine from their spiritual beauty, where else would she go but the top of the Empire State Building? When spells and recipes from rare tomes of magic are required, where else could such recherché objects be found but in the New York Public Library? When the villain of the piece wishes to eat, drink, sexually carouse with women, and participate in bloodsport, he rightfully, for better and for worse, presumes that he is in the right city to partake in all of these debauched activities. Be it 1940, 1970, or the present day, New York carries with it the well-worn reputation of being the city where anything is possible, available, and easy to procure.

The art of Michael Kaluta is perfectly suited to this story and this time period, and he captures the spirit of the two women, Madame and the City, with such classic panache I found myself completely immersed in the romanticism of this long-ago world. The inked lines of Kaluta's art appear like the etched scratchings of a gifted printmaker; they impart motion and energy without conveying frenzy or agitation. There is both a graceful fragility to the women of these tales and a solidity of emotional presence. These women may appear outwardly delicate in their robes and beribboned hats, but inside they are full of blood and muscle.

There is also a beautiful paradox that writer Matt Wagner plays with in this issue. Madame Xanadu is immortal and so has lived many lifetimes throughout history, and we are privy to one of these moments in flashback in issue #12. It is 1493 and we come upon our heroine in a rural part of Spain. In this scene, she is called upon to midwife for a woman enduring a breech childbirth. The mother in agony asks if she is cursed to which Madame replies simply that no, what is happening is natural. She proceeds to correct the fetus's orientation and to untangle the umbilical cord and the birthing concludes with both mother and child safe and healthy. No magic, no sorcery, no witchcraft employed, simply the calm focus of a woman with an intellectual grounding in the natural workings of female reproduction. For all the magic she is acquainted with, Madame Xanadu understands the greatest power one can have is that of true knowledge, unfettered by unfounded mysticism. A Catholic priest in attendance, however, later reveals he believes sorcery was involved in this resuscitation of the cursed stillborn, revived by midwifery, his implication being that the practice of a midwife is akin to that of a devilish witch. He reports this along with Madame's absence at confession and mass as evidence of her unholiness. Here we clearly see Wagner use this to demonstrate the misogyny inherent in much of religious teachings, the fear the Church has had throughout much of it's history of "the natural and the feminine". The beauty of a saved life and corrected birth is lost when the devil is seen to be behind every female visage.

This parallel drawn not only shows the humorous irony of the sorceress using natural science whilst the supposed intellectual priest uses mysticism and folklore to upright his misguided opinions, but it also further solidifies Madame Xanadu as a strong and intelligent character. We are afforded another opportunity to see her as more than just a tarot card-reading mentalist with a store-front in the Village. She is a full-blooded woman of great intellect, only playing at being the parlour-trick psychic because that's all most people can wrap their minds around. She understands how to survive in the big modern city as a person blessed and cursed with superpowers. Whether that city is Gotham, Metropolis, or New York the rules for superheroes, as well as bohemians, don't waver: whatever your powers are, it's always best to lead with your head.

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