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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Madame Xanadu

Madame Xanadu #1 (pictured above left) dates from 1981, but I bought my copy much more recently than that. I can’t remember exactly when or where, but it was probably about 10 or 12 years ago. I don’t often buy DC comics, so it was obviously an impulse buy – probably on account of the Tarot cards on the cover, which is a subject I’ve always found fascinating. Quite apart from the Tarot connection, though, it’s a really good story. I was reminded of it last week when I saw a Madame Xanadu trade paperback (pictured above right) in a local shop. It was reduced to £4.99 so I bought that too. The story isn’t quite as perfect as the first one, but it’s still great fun.

The character of Madame Xanadu first appeared in a comic called Doorway to Nightmare in 1978, but the story in Madame Xanadu #1 is pretty self-contained. The setting is Greenwich Village, the same as the early Dr Strange stories (see Master of the Mystic Arts). But there’s little indication at this stage that Madame Xanadu has the same kind of supernatural powers as Dr Strange – the character is basically just a Tarot card reader (albeit one with genuine psychic powers and a rather mysterious background). The story includes a detailed Tarot reading as an integral part of the plot, and there’s a text article on the inside front cover about the history and use of the Tarot.

The story itself isn’t really about Madame Xanadu though, but one of her clients. It’s a variation on my favourite occult cliché – bored teenager starts to dabble in witchcraft for a giggle... gets drawn into a big grown-up world of sex and drugs... ends up summoning timeless demons who don’t give a toss whether she lives or dies. Then enter Madame Xanadu, and cue the happy ending!

The trade paperback, Madame Xanadu: Broken House of Cards, is one of a series collecting issues from a later incarnation of the Madame Xanadu title – the ones in this volume date from 2010. By this time, Madame Xanadu has been retconned as a powerful supernatural being from Arthurian mythology. Personally I feel this is a backward step, because it makes the character harder to believe in and relate to (for me, anyway), and it reduces the title’s Unique Selling Point – the use of Tarot cards – to little more than a cover story to hide the protagonist’s secret identity, instead of her primary talent. But that’s just my opinion – other people may disagree.

Having said that, it’s really a very enjoyable story. It’s set in the late 1950s, which gives it a nice retro feel (even in the 1981 comic, it was implied that Madame Xanadu had occupied the same Greenwich Village premises for several decades without appearing to get any older). There are a number of threads to the story, including one about a cult of devil-worshippers called the Church of the Midnight Dawn. As in the earlier story, the people involved are portrayed as predominantly middle-class and driven by boredom (as you can see in the sample panels below). I imagine that’s true of real-world Satanists, too... although in the real world they probably end up having a promiscuous orgy instead of conjuring up demons from hell. But you can’t have an orgy in a comic book, so you get the demons instead – which is much better!


Kid said...

Demons or orgy? Oh, I just can't make up my mind, Andrew.

Andrew May said...

It's a tough choice, isn't it Kid? I think on balance I'd prefer one in real life and the other in a comic book!