Friday, November 27, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #17

Madame Xanadu #17

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: November 25, 2009

Magical heroes, whether they be sorcerers, wizards, or immortals bestowed with other-dimensional powers seem to exist on the fringes of modern comics universes, never playing major roles nor showing much compunction to do so. That is, unless, their magics are such that they turn them into muscular super-types with capes and tights, flying into action with fists blazing, like a certain Marvel family. But, what if one is just a spell-caster, a fortune-teller, a tarot card reader, off in the panel background wearing fishnet stockings or bow-ties, pulling rabbits out of top-hats? What then? Seemingly, their role then is to tag along with the big guns of the marquee and be at the ready with a binding spell or a portal when called upon to through out some faerie dust. When big events, uh, I mean, crises strike upon the land, count on the magicians to make a cameo in a panel or two, locked arm-in-arm in seance. Don't look for them to do much else, though. They are, apparently, too busy polishing their crystal balls.

Shame, really, when one considers the potential of these characters. They wield magic, after all. MAGIC! M-A-G-I-C. The possibilities should be endless. That is where the beauty of Madame Xanadu lay. The real magic on display here is the three-dimensionality of the character and the clever and seamless melding of the mystical and the modern.

Madame Xanadu, as written by Matt Wagner and brought to life by the art of Amy Reeder Hadley and inker Richard Friend, has shown herself to be quite the pro-active hero, never one to rest on her red velvet divan stroking delicate feline whilst lazily flipping through endless stacks of tarot cards whilst wearing the pathetic visage of disinterest. No. Never. This woman is no store-front charlatan nor two-bit parlour trickster, playing with the lives of mortals out of her own sense of immortal ennui. When she turns over a tarot card she wears an expression wrought of both worried anticipation and fevered vigilance. When she gazes into her crystal ball it is with eyes that penetrate with a pained intensity. When she mixes a potion or a tincture it is with assured meticulousness and measured urgency. Madame Xanadu is not just a mage, one gifted with mystical powers, but a woman of deep passion rooted in genuine integrity and selflessness. She is, in short, a superhero.

What is striking about this current arc of her eponymous book is how it shows the full-fledged potential of a magical hero, and how it balances the mystical aspects of the character with the modernity of the world she exists in, all through the use of so little magic, itself. Nary a spell is cast in this entire issue, and the little Latin thrown about is mostly done so, and done so humorously and pompously, by a group of well-heeled Manhattanites dabbling in the dark arts. What we are presented with is a woman who is a sly combination of private investigator, scientist, detective and spy, who also happens to possess control over magics. The perfect amalgam of this comes in a scene midway through issue #17. This scene finds our heroine perched upon rooftop, cloaked in the shadows of an urban evening, using mystical surveillance equipment, to monitor the clandestine proceedings of a satanic cult operating in the heart of the big bustling industrial city. The type of spy equipment utilized being the only real difference here between Madame Xanadu and a certain other dark knight detective I'm sure is not mere coincidence. It is all quite clever and lends the book elements of noir mystery and cold-war era spookery. The scene even ends with our heroine uttering the time-honored phrase spoken by every gumshoe worth their fedora and trench-coat: "Time to follow that money."

And follow that money she does, and there she finds the Chicago mob, stolen antiquities, and a sorceress from her past resurrected anew through the body of a besieged Upper East Side housewife, the one Betty Reynolds she was tasked with healing. It is a reunion that can only foreshadow much chaos to come. The diversity of these obstacles, the seeming unwieldy nature of the tasks before her, the questions posed that lead only to further more complex questions, all speak to the great power with which Madame Xanadu is truly endowed. For it is truly the great heroes who find themselves facing such apparent insurmountable odds. They are the ones to place themselves in positions and in roles that invite peril, all in the pursuit of truth, justice, peace, and freedom. Madame Xanadu wears no cowl, no uniform; carries with her no recognizable symbol of her abilities or powers, no icon readily available for screen-printing on t-shirts; has not the marketing department of a major conglomerate bending over backwards to place her in front of every reader or viewer; but make no mistake, she shares with her more famous super-powered brethren the exact elements that make them all superheroes. Save the magic act for children's birthday parties, and take the bow-ties and top hats to the second-hand store, because this woman is on the frontline, and she has no time for tricks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Batman and Robin #6

Batman and Robin #6

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Released: November 11, 2009

Should there be a time for me to start a piece with such a harsh straightforward statement as I will begin this one, this is that time, and here is that statement: the art in this issue is an absolute mess. How utterly heartbreaking it was for me to turn each page and see another class-act Grant Morrison script turned into a collection of incongruous inking, confusing compositions, and befuddling characterization. To ponder a time when this title will find itself in a nicely bound hardcover collected edition, and to know that this atrocity of 22 pages will sit smack in the middle of such, makes me ludicrously angry, but mostly, unbelievably sad. It also makes me sincerely question if the editors and publishers truly care about putting out a great "book" or just serviceable "product". This issue is barely the latter, and only saved by the grace of the story.

This issue begins to bring many disparate pieces from the last few years of Morrison's Batman into a clearer focus, and we start to see that all of them will eventually converge, though how and to what effect are left tantalizingly broadly open. We are once again reminded of Morrison's inventive nature. There is no need for the endless revolving door of the old rogues gallery, not when Grant can give us new characters and concepts such as El Penitente, the flamboyant and seemingly indestructible matador assassin The Flamingo, and the mysteriously sensual enigma of Oberon Sexton. He even manages to make Jason Todd, a character killed years ago who should have stayed dead, matter in a way that resonates more deeply than him just being the one failed Robin in Bruce Wayne's past.

We also see how divergent Morrison can be from the status quo continuity of the greater DC Universe. This issue ends with the reveal that Bruce Wayne's body, believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave near his parents, is actually in secreted storage in the depths of Wayne Tower. This flies in the face of the current mega-event Blackest Night, which uses the desecration of Bruce's grave as the jumping off point for the story, the Black Hand using Bruce's skull as some talisman from which the Black Lantern rings are birthed. Are we to now understand that the body buried there is NOT Bruce's and that Dick Grayson fooled everyone? If so, Dick has done a masterful job of concealing this from every single hero in the DCU, including his own Robin. The issue ends with this teaser for next issue: "Next in Batman and Robin: Blackest Knight" Will this be where these seeming incongruities will start to be explained? Is this just Morrison's clever jab at a mega-event, one that seems to be supplanting his own Final Crisis of last year in importance in DC mythology? Is it both of these things and more??? Most likely, the answer to all of these questions is YES! with exclamation point. This is why people read his work. This is what makes Morrison a stand out writer in a murky superhero genre. He is fearless and the best thing for all involved is to get out of his way.

All of this richness of story is what makes the terrible failings of the art that much more unbearable. From one page to the next, and even from panel to panel on the same page, the art appears amorphous. Certain pages appear to be inked by nib, as they show clearly defined edges and fine line detail, whilst other pages seem a rushed mash-up of brushed ink and digital wash. Only one inker is credited, that being Jonathan Glapion, but the hodge-podge on display seems the work of multiple people working on several different sections madly scrambling against impending deadline. Blame should be shared by Philip Tan, as well, as often, bad inking is the result of poor pencils, as inkers attempt to cover up gaffes in proportion and perspective, or to fill-in areas not completed. That seems the case in many panels where the backgrounds appear to be inked in loosely, as though there were only the barest of pencil to define the space. The climactic fight scene appears to take place in a rock quarry or condemned construction zone, but it is never clearly defined and spatial relations are murky. Many panels deteriorate into blobs of thickly applied swathes and hashmarks. It seems much shading on many pages was left to colorist Alex Sinclair to suss out and provide, further solidifying the pretense of multiple hands on rickety deck. This is a thankless task, indeed, for the normally top-notch colorist, and I free him from all blame. Doubtless, he did what he could with the mess he was given.

What has become apparent to me over the course of the last two years is that Philip Tan is a talented penciller who is incapable of consistency, especially, it would seem, when the task at hand is a monthly book. This three issue arc is yet another example of Tan starting out strong, but then ending in a blurred mess. His first issue, if not perfect, was solid and muscular with a clear focus. The same can be said of his first issue of Final Crisis: Revelations and Green Lantern: Agent Orange. Like those works, by the end of his run, the issues had broken down, characters had become disproportioned, perspective unbalanced, the inking taken on the air of being rushed. The shocking thing to try and understand is that this should not have been an issue, considering the short nature of this arc. If over the course of only THREE issues his work breaks down this much, then perhaps his talent is best suited for one-shots and limited projects. The ability to pump out consistently solid work on a monthly basis seems to elude Tan. No shame there, as speed is not every artist's forte. The powers that be need to assign him more properly, is all.

As a reader and a fan of this title, of Grant Morrison's work, and of the characters of Batman and Robin, I would have gladly waited another month to see this issue hit stands in a far cleaner and coherent form than what made it to store shelves. Hitting shipping deadlines is, of course, of utmost importance, and no one wants late books, especially if the story beats involved are important to other books and story lines going on at the same time. This, of course, is the inherent problem with the over-reliance on continuity. It becomes more important that the books are released on time than that they be released when they are ready. This one, unfortunately, just doesn't feel ready.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #16

Madame Xanadu #16

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: October 28, 2009

This is the tale of two women.

The first is a stay-at-home mom living in the Upper East Side of New York City with her daughter and upwardly mobile sales executive husband. The year is 1957, so Betty Reynolds isn't really a stay-at-home mom, as would be her politically-correct denomination of a later era, but simply a housewife in the vernacular of her day. Her husband, too, is not yet a yuppie, but simply just a white-shirt-and-tie middle manager in Manhattan, living out the daily rituals of the so-called man's life as it played itself out in mid-century. The wives spend their days shopping beyond their means as a passive-aggressive way of one-upping husbands who spend their time consumed by careers and a new breed of lad magazine that teach them how to objectify everything in their lives, including their own wives. It is a sad world of pathetic routine filled by people who take advantage of each other all while taking each other completely for granted. The wives are not happy, the husbands only think they are happy, and everyone involved is lying and keeping secrets.

Betty Reynolds recognizes much of this, though. Over afternoon coffee with a fellow housewife-in-the-trenches, she worries that she has lost her own sense of identity outside of being some man's wife and some child's mother. She sees the monotonous and ever-deepening groove the circumstances of her life have carved out as her existence. Though it is never given voice, no doubt, she frets over missed opportunities and regrets, paths and choices not taken or made. She is caught at an odd crossroads of being possessed by the adult trappings of motherhood and wifehood, but she lives out the juvenile pleasures of shopping for high-end ultra-feminine fashion and paying for it with someone else's money. There is no identity in dependance and yet she freely surrenders her independence when it allows her to momentarily cast off the adult world responsibilities she feels trapped by. This is the foreshadowing of greater ironies to come.

As all seems a never-ending pattern of deadening monotony, Betty Reynolds' life is taken over by strange supernatural forces. She begins to experience unexplained phenomena, her body morphs in size, her facial features adjust, she begins to defy the very laws of gravity, and most disturbing and grotesque of all, she begins to spew forth various insects from her mouth, fully formed and very much alive. When her weight drastically drops and her hair begins to change color and break, and her husband and doctors deem her to need psychiatric help, she feels lost to them as well as too herself. Where to turn when everything is falling apart and no one seems to care enough to want to help? Where does one go for help with issues that cannot be explained logically and rationally? Why, you go downtown, of course.

The downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan New York have always borne the identity of being the more bohemian quarters of the city. Largely inhabited by immigrants and artists, the areas below 14th street were communities of cast-offs and fringe dwellers, bohos and beatniks, poets and painters, scuffling their way around Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Village. While today's downtown resembles a designer label strip-mall, the area in 1957 was very much the bastion of the city's avant-garde. Storefronts, tenements, and lofts were plentiful and inexpensive, and the mystique of the area kept out the well-heeled Upper Manhattanites. One of these such storefronts belongs to our heroine, Madame Xanadu, and the well-heeled Upper East Sider Betty Reynolds finds herself stood before it, a stranger in a strange land.

Madame Xanadu is the flip-side to Betty. She sits in her plush red and gold parlour surrounded by fringed drapes, shelves filled with massive leather-bound books, and the various accoutrements of the pseudosciences; crystal balls, urns and decanters filled with roots and herbs, globes and telescopes. She herself is dressed in flowing layers of black and jeweled netting, with full raven hair piled high atop her head wrapped in a headdress off of which dangle baubles and beads. Her wrists are a-jangle of bracelets and her fingers are adorned with chunky rings. Madame Xanadu is a bohemian princess on a red velvet throne ensconced in the lower kingdom of Greenwich Village.

The issue is all about these stark contrasts. The slight Asian features and jet black hair of Madame Xanadu stand in direct opposition to the WASP blondness of Betty. The crisp and clean sheen of Betty's world on the Upper East Side is diametrically opposite to the cracked pavement and ragged density of downtown. It is a segregated world, bordered by streets and subway lines, marked by differing demographics of money and ethnicity. The great humor of this situation is of course, the wonderful irony of it, that with her tarot cards and tinctures Madame Xanadu will help Betty Reynolds regain her normal, monotonous, boring rut of a life.

There is a third women involved in this tale, however, that of artist Amy Reeder Hadley. Issue #16 is brought to exuberant life by the deft hand of Ms. Hadley, back on the book after a five issue hiatus. She captures the contrasts between worlds and our two female protagonists and does so with meticulous detail and subtle humor. Nothing is missed, no period detail left wrong. We are afforded a view into a time and place that no longer exists wholly in this form, a New York only the facades of which remain today. The fashions, hairstyles, and home decor feel right and not staged, and they take their proper place as support to the characters and story. The art serves the story and the overall purpose of world-building, without overwhelming the reader by becoming a catalogue of mid-century references. Her characters are complete beings, as well, not simply types, and over the course of 11 issues, Ms. Hadley has forged a consistently solid woman in the form of Madame Xanadu, giving the titular heroine a strength sheathed in elegance and poised compassion.

Magical heroes tend not to find themselves embroiled in stories that break down into fisticuffs, their fighting spirit must show forth in other ways, and both Hadley and series writer Matt Wagner have created a character whose strength lay in guile, perseverance, and intelligence. She plies her trade to help those who are being besieged by forces beyond their control, of which there are seemingly no sensical explanations. The bohemian dressings and charlatan storefront facade downplay what is really being presented quite cleverly here, that of a woman ahead of her time. Madame Xanadu is deeply educated, fiercely independent, a small-business owner, and an immigrant success story, all wrapped in magical wears. She is the next step beyond the submissive and tread-upon housewife represented here by Betty Reynolds, who acquiesces her desires and needs to those of her husband, a man so caught up in his narcissism he fails to even recognize when his wife is changing shape and coughing up insects. Perhaps the real victory here, then, will not be for Madame Xanadu to restore Betty's life back to what it was, but to cure her and strengthen her in preparation for a new world order for women that is to come? If so, then the real story here, that of the immigrant artist, the cast-off storefront psychic rescuing the prim and conservative housewife, is not steeped in irony, but in poetic justice.