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.

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