Friday, November 27, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #17

Madame Xanadu #17

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
DC/Vertigo
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.
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