The Return of Madam Xanadu

This review gets personal.

I knew Madam Xanadu intimately, back in the days when she first appeared.  Now that she’s made the big time, I feel like a suitor discarded after a brief fling, peddling what I know to the tabloids.

I co-scripted, with Catherine Barrett Andrews, three Madam Xanadu stories for the original Doorway to Nightmare title back in 1978 and 1979.

The series was conceived after D.C.’s last romance title, Young Love was cancelled.  Each story was to contain a mix of 75% horror and 25% romance.  “Just like real life,” I quipped to Editor Jack C. Harris when I was first offered the assignment.  Writers and interior artists would change issue to issue, or rotate until someone clicked with the readership. 

Michael W. Kaluta devised the visuals for Madam Xanadu, and Joe Orlando, who edited the first two issues, contributed much as well.  There may have been others involved. 

Madam Xanadu is a beautiful Gypsy tarot reader who comes to the aid of young lovers threatened by a variety of monsters, mostly of the B-movie ilk.  The sign on her shop invites the passer-by to “enter freely, unafraid,” though the shop is closed most of the time, and is, in fact, only open to people who have a great deal to fear.

The required story structure for Doorway to Nightmare brought to mind another character associated with Michael W. Kaluta, namely the Shadow, who strode through the periphery of his own magazine, making brief but startling appearances.  Likewise, Madam Xanadu would participate in the plot on an intermittent basis, but more often, the love interests (unique to each issue) would dominate the spotlight while she skulked about her shop, speaking cryptically in fortune-cookie style aphorisms.  She dispensed advice that she, being a fortune teller, should have had the foresight to know would be generally ignored, because young people in love usually only heed the counsel of their hearts, or whatever other organs they might be thinking with at the time.  Additionally, heeding Madam Xanadu’s advice would derail the coming plot complications.  

Nothing was known about Madam Xanadu’s past.  This was by design, and part of the guidance given to series writers.  Madam Xanadu belonged to the category of characters that shouldn’t have origin stories.  The Shadow himself is prime example.  Although Walter Gibson eventually told the Shadow’s origin, the character survived the telling much in the same way Sherlock Holmes survived his famous fall from the cliff.  And Walter Gibson’s origin for the Shadow was greatly superior to the alternate origin that all but ruined the visually stunning Shadow movie.  It brings to mind the statement that Christopher Nolan made when he explained that his Joker in Dark Knight would not have an origin, just as Jaws did not have an “origin.” (No doubt Nolan also wanted to avoid the sins of the film Batman, which proffered ridiculous notion that the Joker had murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents—fundamentally botching two origin stories in one fell swoop.) 

Though created without origin, Madam Xanadu arrived with a long list of required elements and series conventions given that seemed to invest her with a corporate genealogy, a child begotten by a committee.  She was known to be a collector, driven by a compulsion well understood by comic book readers.  Mostly what she collected was damned souls, which she kept imprisoned in mason jars.  Talismanic images shimmered through the mists within these jars: the blood red tear of a vampire, the six fingered mummified hand of a Chinese princess, the intertwined pentagrams of werewolf lovers, and the profane brand of the Ouroborus, twisted into the symbol for infinity, and used to burn out the eyes of a saintly physician who replaced them with zombie eyes.   Only Madam Xanadu and I know about the latter jar, and maybe my co-author if she remembers, for it is from a story sold to D.C. but never published.  There are other mysterious items within the shop in Greenwich Village, tokens and trophies of countless stories.  No doubt within the backrooms and basements, there is a wondrous stash of comic books and pulp magazines.    

She seemed cursed and doomed from the start.  Her preposterous name seemed more suited to an aging stripper than a woman of mystery.  Perhaps her name was selected because the letter X has been known to enhance comic sales.  At least it wasn’t as hopelessly awful as Mr. E., a similar D.C. character from that period.  Doorway to Nightmare quickly began to falter, and was swept up in the series of massive cancellations now generally known as the D.C. Implosion. 

After issue #5, Madam Xanadu was exiled to the back of Tales of the Unexpected, and only every other issue, at that. 

Madam Xanadu briefly enjoyed the spotlight again, when she premiered in one of the earliest direct sale titles under a masthead bearing her own name.  But again, her resurgent career was cut short.    There wasn’t a second issue, for the legendary creative team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers absconded with her and fled to a rival publisher, where they changed her name to Scorpio Rose.

So I was surprised and delighted to see Madam Xanadu featured in a premium quality trade paperback from D.C.’s Vertigo line under the sure authorial hand of Matt Wagner, with interior art by no less a talent than Michael W. Kaluta himself.

If anything remains classic about the early issues of Doorway to Nightmare, it is the Kaluta covers, each one a masterpiece of illustration.  The first time we see Madam Xanadu’s lovely face, it is framed by lustrous black hair with bangs that curl upward like horns over her forehead.  Her silver chandelier earrings seem too ancient and valuable for anything but a display case, and yet they suit her as if she were the original owner, heirlooms handed down over centuries to herself.  Her blue eyed gaze regards with reader with confidence and warning as she leans back against a cushioned chair carved with intricate gargoyles, flashing the Tarot card of Death.  Another cover shows her cradling a horned crystal jar like a baby in her lap.  Smoldering candles and jars full of damned souls surround her.  For all of her sensuality, she is alone, dangerous and unapproachable.   

A Madam Xanadu story with interior Kaluta art was a kind of dream fantasy for me.  Here was  all the meticulous craftsmanship, the moody line work suggestive of classically trained pulp magazine illustrators.  

The story, titled Exodus Noir, told of doomed love.  It was a familiar theme for the character, but this time it was Madam Xanadu herself who was a youthful– though not young– lover threatened by a monster, in this instance, the Spanish Inquisition. 

In New York City, 1940, a woman seeks out the services of Madam Xanadu because none of the detectives she hired had been willing to effectively deal with the supernatural aspects of her problem– as if occult cases constituted a disreputable end of the Private Investigator business, lower than divorce work.  Madam Xanadu finds clues that point toward a family curse dating back to the Spain in the 1400’s.  Over the course of her investigation, she recalls a gay affair she had with a woman in that place, at that time.  Madam Xanadu’s female lover winds up on the auto da fe, the victim of an Inquisitor who persecutes Jews, though he had, himself, been descended from Jews.

The curse began with a different sort of hidden Jewish identity.  There were three men who had outwardly converted to Christianity, but continued to worship as Jews in secret.  As part of their disguise, they betrayed others to the Inquisition.  They made the unfortunate mistake of betraying someone who had a vengeful wizard for an uncle. 

There is a startling scene in which Madam Xanadu steals into a private room where pornography and sex toys are on open display, but sacred items associated with Jewish observance are concealed in a hidden compartment.  The gentleman in question is a closet Jew. 

Matt Wagner draws implicit connections between the Spanish Inquisition and the modern persecution of same sex couples, suggesting that the drive to persecute often stems from self hatred of the persecutor’s own repressed or hidden traits.

Though I read Exodus Noir first, it turned out to be the second trade paperback in the series.

I immediately sought out the first volume, titled Disenchanted, also written by Matt Wagner, but this one featured art by Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend.  The art, nominated for an Eisner Award, was superb, looking something like a cross between Manga and tapestries.  In my estimation, it wasn’t on the same stratospheric level as the Kaluta art, but then, it didn’t have the advantage of gestating as a wish for 30 some odd years. 

I plunged into Disenchanted, and found to my immediate dismay that it was an origin story.  Wagner was violating the taboo about speculating on Madam Xanadu’s past that had been drummed into me 33 years before. 

To make matters worse, a quick thumb through the pages revealed that Madam Xanadu was tripping over various minor D.C. characters who, I guess, had been dusted off and given guest spots to keep the trademarks from lapsing into public domain– like Madam Xanadu herself.

But once I got over my initial reaction, I found the story in Disenchanted to be even better than the one in Exodus Noir.  What emerges is a compelling character study of the woman who graced the original Doorway to Nightmare covers.  It is all here, the sensuality, the timelessness, the restrained impulsiveness, the magic and the melancholy.  There is even a mildly palatable explanation for that ridiculous name, though I would have imagined she acquired her trademark sharing opium dreams with Samuel Taylor Coleridge rather than actually consorting with Kubla Khan himself. 

The story involves a series of encounters between Madam Xanadu and the Phantom Stranger.™   Their complex relationship starts with fascination and yearning on the part of the immortal woman who would later become Madam Xanadu.  We find her as the nymph Nimue, the enchantress of Merlin.  She is beset with a loneliness born out of longing not simply for the company of others, but for the company of her own kind.  She fixates on the Phantom Stranger, even though he had been known to wear a fedora with a sports jacket and a business tie, while decked in gold chains and an opera cape; the most fashion challenged of all the immortals.  Her unrequited longing, frustrated over various encounters, evolves into hatred, but eventually, she settles into an acceptance of their mutual places within the cosmic order.  It is a common story, part of the ordinary life cycle of failed romances, but here it is given mythic weight by spreading it over centuries.  Their exchanges touch upon grand philosophical problems.  They each see the future, but from different perspectives.  Madam Xanadu uses emotional rhetoric; couched in moral terminology, but essentially anchored to the values of whatever civilization she has allied herself in the present.  The Phantom Stranger does not argue, he states his propositions as if they were objective, eternal truths.  She represents energy, youth, and idealism.  He, the cruel nature of the way things are.  At times it seems as if he functions to keep the course of human development free of occult interference, and at other times it seems as if he functions according to compulsions that have no meaning, but must be followed simply because they are part of the immutable laws of the natural order.  She debates, rages, seeks revenge, but eventually comes to cosmic terms with the Phantom Stranger—all this against a backdrop of interwoven historical and mythical monumental events, such as the fall of ancient Camelot, the meeting of Kubla Khan and Marco Polo by the glow of a Green Lantern, the French Revolution, the bloody reign of Jack the Ripper, and the origin of the ghostly superhero known as the Specter.

The final sequence finds Madam Xanadu in yet another doomed love affair, this time with Zatara the Magician, a Mandrake knock-off who casts spells by talking backwards (yet another minor D.C. trademarked character).   Their romance is doomed because the Tarot reveals that Zatara will find true love, though not with Madam Xanadu, and their respective best destinies do not include one another.  Zatara is destined to fall in love with someone else and bear a child.  Madam Xanadu is destined to open a fortune teller’s shop in New York City. 

If Madam Xanadu had read my cards back in the days we knew each other, she would have seen a familiar story, the coming test of whether fledgling artistic ambition can outlive the learning curve it takes to achieve its object, whether enthusiasm can survive the battles that arise from placing dreams into commerce.  She would have seen the way I strived for a niche in the comic book industry, and ended up… well, disenchanted.  The icon of Madam Xanadu brought me face to face with my younger self, and brought back in a rush all the hopes and dreams, all the wild aspirations I poured into three issues of Doorway to Nightmare.  After I read Disenchanted, the exchange that followed between my past and present selves was not unlike the exchanges Madam Xanadu had with the Phantom Stranger over the course of centuries.  That is what great art does; it takes grand ideas and personalizes them for an individual.  But in this instance, it was really personal.

Originally Published in Rain Taxi, online edition, Fall, 2011.