Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case Files #28: Madame Xanadu

Look!  It's an iconic hero!
Look! It’s an iconic hero!  No, it’s not Wonder Woman!

Once upon a time, many moons ago, the Gabbing Geeks held their first Watercooler discussion to talk about iconic characters who hadn’t gotten a movie yet or had one in development.  Jenny, for some reason, chose Madame Xanadu.

Now, I don’t know how Jenny defines “iconic”.  I would define it as a character that is so recognizable that even people outside the fan group recognize the character.  Superman is an iconic hero.  So is Batman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman.  Iron Man probably is thanks to Robert Downey Jr.  Other characters may be recognizable to people who are fans of comics in general, but not necessarily of the character itself.  Aquaman, the Flash, and Captain America probably all fit that group.

But Madame Xanadu?  Well, Jenny had offered to fill in a Misplaced Hero file during my vacation for this character, so Jenny believed that Madame Xanadu is somehow both misplaced and iconic…

Which is she?  Check after the cut.

She’s definitely misplaced.

Madame Xanadu started off as a character that was fairly common in the 1970s.  DC had various horror comics at the time that often featured revolving creative teams and characters.  Aside from a host character, reoccurring characters just weren’t something that happened in those series.  Madame Xanadu was basically one of those characters.  Her series was called Doorway to Nightmare and various characters would stumble through her door looking for help, often of a romantic nature, and she’d toss out a couple tarot cards and offer some advice.  Unlike many of her contemporary hosts, Madame Xanadu often got indirectly involved in the stories, whereas the others would set things up, appearing in the beginning and the end of a given tale, and that would be it.

Oh, some of those other host characters would look familiar to fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  Caine hosted House of Mystery, Abel was next door in the House of Secrets, Eve was hanging out with a raven in Secrets of Sinister House, and even Lucien the librarian bounced around hosting this and that.  Knowing a little bit about some of these old characters can really show the depth of Gaiman’s work connecting to other titles from DC’s past.

Madame Xanadu, hinted at having powers, was basically a gypsy fortuneteller stereotype.  She’s one of those characters that always shows up when DC needed a bunch of magic types, though since her powers seemed to rest on her ability to read tarot cards, she often did what she did while sitting down.

Madame Xanadu, seen here in various iconic poses, none of which include standing up.
Madame Xanadu, seen here in various iconic poses, none of which include standing up.

While she has been given her own series here and there, she’s mostly been relegated to the role of mystical all-purpose supporting character.  She’s mostly been connected to either the Jim Corrigan version of the Spectre or the Phantom Stranger, acting as a spiritual adviser for the former and a maybe ally/maybe antagonist depending on the day of the week for the latter.

What does Madame Xanadu have going for her?  Well, she’s immortal.  That’s something.  Matt Wagner in a Vertigo series gave her backstory as being sister to Morgan Le Fey and the Lady in the Lake, Nimue, the one who seduced Merlin in some old Arthurian legends.  The new 52 made her a member of two teams:  the Demon Knights in the medieval period and Justice League Dark in modern times.

She can't help.  She's too iconic to help.
She can’t help. She’s too iconic to help.

Really, this is no knock on the character, but I am really at a loss how Jenny quacked out Madame Xanadu as her choice of an iconic character.  I’m not even sure if Jenny knew much about her at the time aside from some stuff she looked up.  As a character, there’s plenty of room for growth, and as I am a fan of the Spectre, I am well aware how much characters like the Spectre or Madame Xanadu often change in accordance to whoever is writing the book.  Mystical characters that are second or third stringers in a superhero universe often become little better than devices as needed for the plot, moreso than non-magical ones because of the unwritten rule that magic can fix most things and doesn’t need rules like other superpowers (both of which are false).  It’s how the Spectre can go from a ghost killing street-level criminals or arm-wrestling cosmic powers from one book to the next, or Madame Xanadu can go from the one organizing putting the Spectre back together after the Anti-Monitor did a number on him or just some woman tossing cards and artifacts around.  Characters like that deserve better.

They rarely get it.

That’s a Misplaced Hero if ever I saw one.

But Batman makes tea for her when she's wiped.  That's iconic power!
But Batman makes tea for her when she’s wiped. That’s iconic power!

4 thoughts on “Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case Files #28: Madame Xanadu”

  1. I’d like to add the following. Madam Xanadu did have powers. They were weakened, but they were there. When she was Nimue she called upon the woodland sprites and could manipulate the earth, air, wind, trees, etc. It wasn’t until she was visited by a dark stranger that told her that her love for Merlin would eventually destroy Camelot. Nimue seeing into the future with the help of the dark stranger made a choice to turn her back on Merlin, and ultimately trap/destroy the wizard so that the future would not come to be. But – unfortunately for Nimue, Merlin’s last attempt to escape was a blast from his staff that hit Nimue square in the back – draining all of her original powers to nearly nothing.

    Nimue, powers drained, was forced to roam the earth searching for a way to instill her original powers. Her first stop was to be a see’er for Kublai Khhan where she used tea leaves to help forecast the future. The tea is important, because the leaves themselves would respond to Nimue’s old remnants of power and thus there was a part of her that could still communicate with the heart/soul of the earth but it could only be done in small doses. So she started with tea leaves, then eventually grew stronger over time and one thing lead to another and you get Tarot cards.

    Interestingly enough, she changed her name to Madam Xanadu after 100’s of years of existing on earth to finally show up in Britain to (the mystic home of her ancestors, “the Elder Folk.”) where she took up the name Madame Xanadu. 🙂

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    1. See, I did read part of that series (had to quit a lot of stuff for financial reasons), and you are correct on all of that. But when I do these columns, I try to focus on the character’s history, not just their best known period. For a long time, Madame Xanadu has had inconsistent powers and background. The immortality thing and reading tarot cards are the only consistent things she’s had over the entire history of the character. Matt Wagner did a great job giving her a definitive origin story, no question. But she’d been around for a few decades by then. She’s really a cypher character like the Spectre, and I love the Spectre done right. It’s one of the downsides to mystic characters that have different levels of power and purpose depending on the creative team.

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