Jan 21 2011 4:36pm

Family Feuds: A review of Madame Xanadu: Broken House of Cards from Vertigo Comics

Madame Xanadu: Broken House of CardsAgainst the unsettled backdrop of 1950s America, placid and compliant housewife Betty Reynolds has her life turned upside down. Afflicted by a series of bizarre incidents and undergoing impossible physical changes, she is unable to sleep, eat or fulfill any of her duties as a homemaker, caring mother, and wife. On the verge of a nervous breakdown and with nowhere else to turn, Betty seeks out the mysterious Madame Xanadu. This marks the beginning of a story that has its roots more than a thousand years in the past as Madame Xanadu, once Nimue of the Elder folk, must look far back into her history to identify the culprit behind the magical attack.

This is the third volume of the ongoing series about Madame Xanadu from Vertigo comics, DC’s mature line. The story charts the life of Madame Xanadu and the first two volumes start with her origin and then move forward through time over the centuries. Through her magic she is immortal, but not invulnerable, and has been a mystical advisor to some of the most significant figures in history. Fact and fiction merge together in the very capable hands of the writer, Matt Wagner, and Amy Reeder, the artist, brings a real elfin quality to the characters which is very refreshing. The result is a vivacious and bright comic that is a real joy to read.

As with any Vertigo comic Madame Xanadu stands apart from other DC series and it can be read without prior knowledge of anything else. However if you are a DC fan then there are some hidden Easter eggs, as a few familiar faces pop up from time to time in the course of the series.

In this third volume Madame Xanadu realises that housewife Betty is being targeted by someone using magic and as she looks into finding those responsible, she comes across a group of social Satanists. These are middle class people more interested in meeting up as a social outing than delving into the realms of dark magic, and yet Madame Xanadu is drawn to them. There is some flicker of real magic, something familiar that niggles at her and so trusting her instincts she follows the leaders of the cult to a business meeting. While there she encounters a mysterious stranger, Mr. Jones, who has unusual and inhuman powers and he too is seeking answers about the cult. When their paths cross again the pair team up and work together to battle the growing number of enemies that are stacking up against them.

What follows is an intriguing and well thought out mystery where, surprisingly, the villain is revealed in the middle of the story, but we still don’t know what this person wants or what their endgame is. As in the previous two volumes the story delves into the past to help reveal answers about the present and Wagner reveals another fascinating and startling fact about Madame Xanadu. We’ve always known that she is creature of magic, one that has always tried to live in harmony with nature and the world. Madame Xanadu aids those who seek her council, but she doesn’t manipulate history and events for her own amusement or personal gain. But, of course, not everyone is like that and she’s not the only immortal.

Matt Wagner is an accomplished writer and for a story that is mostly set in the 1950s there are lots of nods to current affairs from the decade, such as women’s rights and their role in society, racial segregation, communists, and even fashion and how it defined the genders. The story is an exciting action and mystery adventure with heaps of magic, but there is also a lot more going on if you look a little closer.

Madame Xanadu is one of my favourite new Vertigo series from the last few years as it has so much going for it; good stories, great art and an interesting and layered female character in the lead.

Stephen Aryan is a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction and fantasy. He co-hosts the Comic Book Outsiders podcast and writes fantasy and comic book reviews at Walker of Worlds.

Teresa Jusino
1. TeresaJusino
I, too, love this series! Not just a brilliant story, but Amy Reeder has become one of my absolute favorite comic artists!

It's such a shame that Issue #39 was its last issue. Especially considering that the story arc after Broken House of Cards was so amazing. :( But you will definitely enjoy that one, too (if you haven't read it already). Very different in structure, but really powerful & with some great guest artists, too!
Chris Greenland
2. greenland
Yeah, this sounds really cool! Madame Xanadu is a title I kept almost picking up for the Wednesday Pull-List reviews, but could never figure a good jump-on point. Then it got cancelled! I like the sound of the premise, though, so I'm gonna hunt down the first trade.
Sean McGuire
5. Exorian
Wait, they cancelled this series? Just goes to show there's no justice, I suppose; I picked up a bunch of the floppies a while back, up to around the end of the point where she's in Revolution-Era France. It was an all around wonderful series, in my opinion, very well written, well paced, and well drawn. Though the people at the comic store I go to always gave me weird looks for buying it. Come to think of it, I suppose that it why it is getting cancelled; it seems all too much of the comics-buying populace don't want stories with realistically drawn, strong female leads. Which is a pity.
Stephen Aryan
6. StephenAryan
Sadly the series has been cancelled, but I think part of the reason is because it was creatively hamstrung. DC called all its wayward children home, so characters that had previously featured in Vertigo and even Wildstorm series (which is completely gone now anyway) were not allowed to play there anymore, such as The Spectre, Phantom Stranger, Sandman's Death, Constantine even. I'm still not sure why since they all still belonged to DC and not another company, which I could understand. I won't spoil it, but in this volume there is a good bit of avoiding anyone asking and answering the question - Who is Mr Jones? It's a real shame because typically, not always, magical based comics at DC and Marvel (Fate, Phantom Stranger, Doctor Fate, Shadowpact etc) don't do well in the mainstream universe and are better suited to a more mature audience that you get with Vertigo. At the moment Zatanna written by Paul Dini seems to be doing well, and I hope it continues for a long time, but I do worry.

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