Magic on the cards: DC's Madame Xanadu turns 40


  • Books
  • Tuesday, 27 Feb 2018

In DC's New 52, Xanadu became part of the mystical Justice League Dark. Photo: DC Comics

Some characters seem destined to languish in mediocrity, but somehow still manage to carve out a niche for themselves. Such is the case of Madame Xanadu, a DC Comics mystic who has been on the sidelines for 40 years, but still manages to stay relevant within the DC universe. And no, she has nothing to do with that hit Olivia Newton-John song from the 1980s.

Xanadu was created in 1978 by cover artist Michael William Kaluta for Doorway To Nightmare #1, which had an original story by David Michelinie (writer) and Val Mayerik (artist). The series may have only lasted five issues, but it opened the doors to DC and arguably one of comics’ most thought-provoking imprints: Vertigo.

While Zatanna casts spells by saying them backwards, literally, Xanadu is an “occult-and-mystic magnet” who uses Tarot cards to interpret what she senses as well as predict the future of others. As her character developed further, she was gradually granted more abilities like telekinesis, teleportation, and banishing as well as collecting demons in jars!

Adding more intrigue is the fact that Xanadu is actually an immortal and she doesn’t age. She gained her immortality when she beat Death (the Endless one from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series) in a card game.

Madame Xanadu uses tarot cards to interpret what she senses as well as predict the future of others. Photo: DC Comics
Madame Xanadu uses tarot cards to interpret what she senses as well as predict the future of others. Photo: DC Comics

Pre-Vertigo

As a series, Doorway To Nightmare had very little direction, with its constant and predictable scripting of Xanadu’s passive mystical advisory approach. The standard story involved someone having a mystical or occult-related issue visiting Xanadu’s shop on Christy Street (aka “The Village”). Then Xanadu senses something supernatural, which the client refuses to believe until something spooks him, and Xanadu shows up to save the day.

Sadly, this type of plot plagued Xanadu’s early years and not even the involvement of other mystical characters like Phantom Stranger and the Spectre could elevate her stature. And then Vertigo was created.

Madame Xanadu made her debut in 1978's Doorway To Nightmare #1. Photo: DC Comics
It was only in Matt Wagner's 2008 Vertigo series that Madame Xanadu's origin story was fleshed out properly. Photo: Vertigo Comics

Origin story

Xanadu finally got a proper origin story with her 2008 Vertigo series, written by Matt Wagner with art by Amy Reeder Hadley. It was revealed that Xanadu has her roots in Arthurian mythology – her real name is Nimue Inwudu and she is the youngest sister of Morgana (Morgaine Le Fay) and Vivienne (the Lady of the Lake), and the sisters are descendants of the Elder Folk, who were also survivors of Atlantis.

Highlights from Xanadu’s Camelot days include her relationship with Merlin, which eventually led to a bitter breakup. Xanadu attempted to imprison him, only to have him retaliate by stripping her of magic. Another notable (on-off) relationship she had was with the Phantom Stranger, who continues to drift through the sands of time with her.

In Matt Wagners series, it was revealed that Madame Xanadus real name was Nimue. Photo: Vertigo Comics
In Matt Wagner's series, it was revealed that Madame Xanadu's real name was Nimue Inwudu. Photo: Vertigo Comics

To further help her establish more “Vertigo roots”, MX is presumed to be the mother of Kon-Sten-Tyne, an ancestor of ... John Constantine! She also almost became Zatanna’s mum, after a failed relationship with John Zatara where she saw his future and Zatanna’s future existence, which prompted Xanadu to withdraw from the relationship on grounds that she is unable to compete with such love.

Xanadu earned her immortality by besting Death in a card game. Photo: Vertigo Comics
Xanadu earned her immortality by besting Death in a card game. Photo: Vertigo Comics

Spiritual advisor

Through the years, Xanadu’s CV has included stints in Kublai Khan’s court at Xanadu (where she coined her Madame Xanadu name) and during the French Revolution, when she advised Marie Antoinette. However, centuries of failed relationships and misjudgment have taken its toll on her, hence her decision to seek solitude in an inconspicuous fortune-telling parlour.

Having lost a significant portion of her powers at past battles, she is only able to advise and contain the supernatural forces in her jar – which is her form of payment (makes me wonder how she manages her overheads).

Xanadu's fate will always be intertwined with that of the Phantom Stranger. Photo: Vertigo Comics
Xanadu's fate will always be intertwined with that of the Phantom Stranger. Photo: Vertigo Comics

Eventually, she ventured beyond “The Village” and took a few earth-shattering cases, such as becoming the Spectre’s spiritual adviser after resurrecting him (he was destroyed by the Anti-Monitor!). Xanadu’s ties with the Spectre’s soul, aka Jim Corrigan, marked another turbulent relationship for her. The couple had a good thing going, until Corrigan’s soul was accepted into Heaven.

Her other clients included the Suicide Squad (she helped them neutralise the Enchantress) and Timothy Hunter (guided him on his quest to become a sorcerer).

Xanadu eventually ventures out of her shop and becomes more proactive in taking on cases. Photo: Vertigo Comics
Xanadu eventually ventures out of her shop and becomes more proactive in taking on cases. Photo: Vertigo Comics

Obviously, the advisory role has its limitations and to “power up”, Xanadu bartered her soul to the demon Neron in return for three “loyal” demons – Bathopet, Maw and Atopeh. However, this advantage was somewhat nullified when she lost her eyesight as a result of the Spectre’s attack, and has to rely on an adept, Daena, to read her tarot cards.

The New 52

During DC’s New 52 universe-wide reboot, Xanadu is no longer blind, though her history remained intact. What has drastically changed is the transformation of her advisory role to a more active stance, as evident by her direct involvement in several milestone events. DC also included her in the Justice League Dark series alongside the likes of Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman and Swamp Thing; in the series, she plays an instrumental role within the magical community.

In DCs New 52, Xanadu became part of the mystical Justice League Dark. Photo: DC Comics


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