The Origin of Tarot? Madame Xanadu by Matt Wagner

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMadame Xanadu (Vol 1): Disenchanted by Matt Wagner (author) and Amy Reeder Hadley (artist)

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsA few months back, we had a discussion here at Fanlit about Tarot cards and literature. We tried to come up with a list of books in which the use of Tarot cards was prominent. Well, I’ve got another book to add to that list: Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted by Matt Wagner.

Madame Xanadu is a DC character who is one of DC’s magical and mystical figures, along with such characters as Zatara, Zatanna, The Spectre, The Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, The Demon, Sandman, Death (from Sandman) and others. You don’t need to be familiar with any of these characters to read Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted. In fact, this volume is a wonderful introduction not only to Madame Xanadu, but also to The Phantom Stranger, one of my favorite mystical characters in DC. His appearance, shows that he is bound to mx 3Madame Xanadu, and their run-ins mark the major sections of the book. Along the way, you will also meet The Demon, Neil Gaiman’s version of Death (a charming, young, Goth-looking woman), Zatara, and The Spectre.

This comic book also introduces the familiar mage Merlin to give Madame Xanadu’s character a sense of history. Matt Wagner gives us the origin story of Madame Xanadu as an ancient sylvan nymph, or wood spirit: Nimue, Mistress of the Sacred Grove. She casts runes and is a caretaker of the forest. Wagner opens the story with Nimue’s being present in England right at the fall of Camelot. As an occasional lover of Merlin, she must betray him for his calling forth The Demon from Hell: Wagner gives Nimue the credit for binding Merlin to the tree!

Another bit of rewritten myth I love here has to do with the Tarot: throughout the book, Wagner shows Madame Xanadu — initially as Nimue — first creating and casting runes and then slowly evolving divinatory cards of her own creations. Over the course of the book, these cards turn into the familiar-looking Tarot based loosely on the Tarot of Marseilles, as best as I can tell (The most popular Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck of 1909 mx 2is based on the Tarot of Marseilles and most Tarot decks after 1909 are based on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck). So, in case you wondered who created the basic divinatory runes and the tarot, now you know: it was all done by a single wood nymph/person working on both runes and tarot decks over time!

The structure of the book is perfect: There are ten issues included, but they divide into five sections based on specific places and times in history. First, as I already mentioned, she is at the fall of Camelot. Next, she gets her name from serving the great Khan in the court of Xanadu. She orchestrates the meeting between Khan and a young Marco Polo. Next, she is at the Palace of Versailles, attending Marie Antoinettte. This section has my favorite scene in the book — her encounter with Death from Gaiman’s Sandman! From there, we jump to England as Madame Xanadu tries to deal with Jack the Ripper. mx 4Finally, we are taken to 1930s New York for a meeting with Zatarra and a wonderful conclusion to the first arc in the Madame Xanadu series (Wagner wrote four voumes total).

I really can’t imagine anybody here at Fanlit not enjoying this book. It’s well told, the magical elements are incorporated smoothly, you don’t need to have any previous knowledge of any of the DC characters to read it, and the art is stunning. And if you’ve never read Sandman before, you even get a solid introduction to Death, the best character in the Sandman series after Sandman himself. In fact, some readers PREFER Death to her brother Sandman.

I love comics of all kinds and am reviewing a large variety here on Fanlit by cheating and including some non-SFF or Horror comics, but I’m trying to focus primarily on comics that do fit into the expected genres. And if you’ve never read comics, or only read a few that didn’t appeal to you, please give some of these newer comics that I’ve mx 8been reviewing a chance. Madame Xanadu would make an excellent introduction into the world of comics. And even though there are three more volumes in the series, it works as a perfect stand-alone “novel.”


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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