You know this? Wagner’s Parsifal. A young man is brought to the site of the Holy Grail, but he doesn’t quite get it. So he wanders around acquiring wisdom and experience until he becomes king of the knights. I hear this every night before I go to bed. Well, parts of it. The damn thing’s five hours long or somethin’. Ain’t it beautiful? But even so, for me, it’s tarnished. When Adolf Hitler made a personal pilgrimage to Wagner’s grave, emotional, he believed he could make a religion out of Parsifal… and unfortunately, he did… My family were wealthy Poles. I was smuggled out of Europe and sent here. My mother and father came to me at the moment Rudolph Axman had them gassed at Auschwitz… I’ve seen the end of the world.
— The Old Man, Millennium episode “Roosters”
You may never understand how the stranger is inspired / But he isn’t always evil and he is not always wrong / Though you drown in good intentions, you will never quench the fire / You’ll give in to your desire when the stranger comes along.
— Billy Joel, “The Stranger”
The story is as old as story itself. A cocky, brash, impulsive youth makes decisions that help alter the fate of nations and the course of history, thinking they know all there is to know about the world, only to learn at a very old age that there is still so much more to learn. Clearly, Richard Wagner conveyed his take on that tale in Parsifal. Bob Dylan’s classic song “My Back Pages” seems to have certain commonalities, at least in sentiment. Kurt Vonnegut told the story in Mother Night, writing the fictional memoirs of a Nazi operative who claimed to have been an American spy all along. Even characters like Jack Kirby’s Etrigan, Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus and Alan Moore’s unique interpretation of the already-established Swamp Thing character can be said to be figures in similar tales, and interestingly enough oftentimes intersect in each other’s stories (Etrigan’s story, for example, briefly intersects with the similarly-sourced Morpheus and Swamp Thing; additionally, Mother Night’s protagonist Howard W. Campbell, Jr., meets time-tripping everyman Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five .
In the grand tradition of Kirby and Gaiman, Matt Wagner offers up his reimagining of Arthurian linchpin Nimue, whom longtime DC fans will know eventually takes on the mystical nom-de-plume of Madame Xanadu. The first volume, Disenchanted, collects the first ten-issue storyline, following the sorceress through the ages from Camelot through the mid-twentieth century. Now acknowledged as the sibling of the Lady of the Lake and Morgan Le Fay (and by extension, probably King Arthur as well), Nimue’s betrayal of the sorcerer Merlin helps bring about the downfall of Camelot and the end of an era (a tragedy that, of course, Etrigan’s future host Jason Blood has a hand in). Tortured and scarred by the burning crucible of history, Nimue, now calling herself Madame Xanadu, begins a centuries-long educational quest with her frightening, well-traveled instructor, the Phantom Stranger. Whether she is entertaining ancient rulers as a court seer or attempting to track down the Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper, she can rest assured knowing that the Stranger, an odd figure in his own right, will choose to visit her at crucial moments both personal and historical, imparting even stranger lessons it will take her longer to understand.
Like Frank Wirtanen in Mother Night and Death in Gaiman’s The Sandman, The Phantom Stranger is another stock character in this fascinating, timeless story. He is the constant observer, the outsider, yet the only person the protagonist knows they can let in and truly allow full knowledge of their most private, intimate self. This observer will always be around even beyond the alleged hero’s end — even if the protagonist is a functioning immortal, like Madame Xanadu and others. A late chapter in this opening arc has Xanadu asking the Stranger, quite frankly, how he can stand to look at himself in the mirror in the morning knowing full well he will do nothing but watch, observe and even contribute in his own subtle ways to massacres, betrayals and other tragedies. He answers, quite simply, honestly and without a hint of sarcasm, “I cast no discernible reflection.” Calling to mind the end of the film adaptation of Mother Night, wherein Wirtanen’s cigarette smoke can be seen blowing through the bars of Campbell’s Haifa prison cell, this one action of the Stranger’s, this one sentence, tells the reader why the titular heroine has continued to accept and sometimes even request the Phantom Stranger’s presence in her life: as cold and unfeeling as he may appear to be, he is brutally honest, but not to a fault.
His honesty passes all human notions of good, evil and morality, and for someone like Madame Xanadu, he is exactly what is needed: a life companion, another half, even if that other half is more of a sparring partner than a sexual one. This unspoken vow, their promise to one another to undergo this journey through their immortal lives together, is an essential part of fiction, one that makes such classic pairings as Batman and the Joker, Holmes and Moriarty, Spock and McCoy and others such a joy to revisit whenever possible. Throughout the bickering, fighting and antagonism, there is an unbreakable bond of respect and the knowledge that no matter what, the other will always be there to compliment and, if need be, challenge the other’s way of life and very existence.
All this is not to say that that the story fits a predictable cookie-cutter mold; far from it. Matt Wagner’s refreshing, heartfelt chronicle of the origin of Madame Xanadu finds amazing new ways to surprise the reader almost every page, even in subtle background details or historical references, thanks, in no small part, to the series’ regular artist, Amy Reeder Hadley, whose pencils inject the story with a sense of both urgency and timelessness, conveying fluidity and emotion with the ease and grace of a true master of the form. All of these details, in some way or another, go towards somehow rewarding the reader in new and delightful ways whenever and however they are eventually unveiled in their entirety, be it through crafty re-writing of actual history through a modern political lens or with a simple wink and a nod to the early superheroes of the DC Universe, including Alan Scott and Jim Corrigan.
With all this in mind, it’s impossible to deny that Wagner and Hadley’s take on Madame Xanadu is a top-tier series, one that should be at the top of every real comic fan’s pile whenever a new installment hits. A classic re-interpretation of an archetypal story filled with astonishing artwork filled with unique characters and serving as a fascinating deconstruction of one of the world’s most beloved shared universes, this series demands to be read by anyone who appreciates fine storytelling in any form.