Review: Madame Xanadu #19

Madame Xanadu 19 cover by Hadley and Friend.

Caution: Huffing Aqua Net may cause uncontrollable spells of nymphs and pixies.

“Broken House of Cards, Chapter Four: Squabbles and Spells”

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciler: Joëlle Jones
Inker: David Hahn
Colorist: Lee Loughbridge
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover: Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend

Slim pickings this week on my end; I handed Fantastic Four off to Chad when we got home, which left me with New Avengers and this book. I don’t feel like I have enough backplot to tackle New Avengers, so that leaves me with Madame X. (I also have the omnibus Losers TPB, but I’ve got to get to bed sometime tonight.)

Over the last few years, Matt Wagner’s fallen into the role of secret chronicler of the DC Universe. He filled in Bruce Wayne’s early adventuring career with Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk, both of which occur in the space of time before the introduction of the Joker and the further solidification of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont had their pre-JSA adventures enumerated in Sandman Mystery Theatre. If there’s a space of a year, or a few years, where Wagner can think of a good spate of adventures for someone, chances are he’ll run with it.

Madame Xanadu takes the chronicler concept a step further, giving Nimue free reign to aid and abet heroes across the entire span of DC history. Sure, there’s a romantic subplot with the Phantom Stranger every couple hundred years, but Nimue’s primary arc is about how she copes with being one of the last ageless survivors of the Arthurian tragedy.

Of course, the book wouldn’t work if all Nimue ever faced were borrowed adversaries and her own problems with the Stranger, and this issue digs into the Madame’s own history with her siblings. Morganna is Nimue’s archfoe, her shadow sister, and their rivalry sets the backdrop for the entire book. They’re an epic-level Goofus and Gallant; if Nimue had an orange, she’d share it with you, but Morganna would always steal the last apple. Where Nimue gravitates to the wise-woman/ shamaness role, Morganna tends to work woe in the more active tradition of Old English and Norse spae-craft, causing mayhem and capriciously striking people dead.

Plot-wise, this issue isn’t anything we didn’t see in the first arc of Madame Xanadu; it recaps Nimue and Morganna’s early adolescence in Avalon and their constant conflicts. However, it does so beautifully. Joëlle Jones (also known for her work on Dr. Horrible at Dark Horse) handles the art deftly, lending the story a Classical touch. Inker David Hahn (Murderland, Fables) never overwhelms the linework, keeping everything crisp and well-defined. The color palette from Lee Loughridge (who doesn’t seem to have a central website of his own, more’s the pity) is sylvan and restrained, a striking contrast to the bright colors of the ongoing 1950s plot from last issue. Jared Fletcher busts out the proper medieval feel for the lettering, which just makes the issue seem like an actual tattered codex from the DCU’s past. Really nice work all around by the art team, and, well, Wagner writing high fantasy is Wagner writing high fantasy– you either love it, like I do, or you find it a bit on the purple-prose side of things. For the first part of a recap two-parter, this book is pretty solid in design and concept.