DC’s magical realm has given fans some of their most intriguing concepts, not to mention presenting us with some of the better characters in the company’s roster since it grew to prominence in the ‘70s. From Swamp Thing to John Constantine to Klarion the Witchboy and beyond, these characters give readers a glimpse into the macabre while remaining more or less rooted in the solid foundations of superhero comics.
Among those many great characters and concepts, there is Madame Xanadu, one of DC’s most understated characters. A centuries-old witch with the ability to see the future, Xanadu is as perplexing as she is compelling.
Introduced in Doorway to Nightmare #1, Xanadu was intended as a sort of female counterpoint to the Phantom Stranger, who would walk through stories without interacting much with anything in them. Xanadu specifically ran a small shop in which she would give tarot readings, and most stories would show a random protagonist arriving at her doorstep in search of advice. Using her psychic powers, she would discern that the character’s problems were supernatural in nature and would work with them to rid their lives of ghosts and demons.
At the time, DC was pushing what is now referred to as its Mystery line, with such books as House of Secrets and House of Mystery showing a creepier take on storytelling. Although the self-censoring Comics Code had helped to put the horror-themed EC out of business less than 20 years prior to the Mystery line, the disturbing, anthology-style horror DC was putting out in the late ‘70s went by with relatively little fanfare. A precursor to the eventual Vertigo line, the Mystery titles introduced characters that would go on to play major roles in books like Swamp Thing and Sandman going forward.
The Mystery line enjoyed a lengthy and overall successful run before it faltered and eventually morphed into something else. She became a supporting cast member in The Spectre for a time. She manipulated Spectre for her own agenda before growing attached and carrying on a brief romantic affair with him. The Spectre series are known for their moody, vengeful tales, and Xanadu fit right in with the tone. Still, it wasn’t until much later that we learned about her true origins.
Madame Xanadu eventually got her own ongoing solo book when Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley teamed up for it in 2008, followed by more Wagner stories with artwork by many other equally amazing artists. The series went for 29 issues, exploring key moments in Xanadu’s very long life and centering in on the details of her magical powers more than any story had before. After the first couple arcs, most of the issues revolved around Xanadu’s actions at the margins of DC’s superhero community in the ‘40s, which makes the run a must-read for fans of DC's Golden Age.
In her solo series, we discovered that Xanadu’s given name was Nimue Inwudu, and she was the third sibling after Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake in Celtic mythology. They were descendants of the survivors of the destruction of Atlantis known as the homo magi, and thus all possessed inherent magical skills. After a particularly ill-fated affair with Merlin, she traveled the world and gained her immortality by besting Death in a card game.
One of the more interesting relationships in Xanadu’s life is her ambiguous interactions with the Phantom Stranger, whose path she crosses again and again over the centuries. Initially, the two met when he encouraged her to betray Merlin, an action which didn't exactly do her any favors in life. The two have been generally friendly to one another despite their overall negative influence on one another’s lives. They are mistrustful but inextricably linked, and their interactions are always fascinating.
Besides everything else that is awesome about her, Madame Xanadu is one of DC’s few bisexual characters. Although seldom seen in practice, there was a flashback story to the time of the Spanish Inquisition in which she was involved and in love with another woman, who ultimately suffered for her association with the witchy and therefore blasphemous Xanadu. Centuries later, Xanadu is shown to long for and weep with remorse for her lost love, recalling that it was one of the few times in her incredibly long life that she was truly happy. Although the focus of Xanadu’s stories is very seldom her relationships, she still deserves to be recognized as a member of DC’s LGBTQIA family.
Beginning with the magic-themed crossover Day of Vengeance, Xanadu was blinded by an enraged and out-of-control Spectre, a surprising twist in their highly complicated relationship with one another. She ultimately led the resistance against the power-mad spirit of vengeance, but each time she managed to regenerate her eyes, they would burn away again. She took to wearing a blindfold, and it was a trademark of her appearance for a time until New 52 reintroduced a version of Xanadu that had likely never been blinded.
In the modern age, Xanadu’s appearances have dwindled due to the absence of her series, but she did have a starring role as a cast member of Justice League Dark for a time. Alongside the moody John Constantine and the irreverent Zatanna, Xanadu’s idiosyncratic personality fit in perfectly. It was during this run that she was revealed to be the mother of Doctor Dee, a character infamous for his early appearance in Sandman. Having driven several ordinary people to attack each other and lose their grip on reality until Dream appeared to stop him, Dee's hidden lineage was another dark, unresolved shadow on Xanadu’s story.
Recently it was announced that Madame Xanadu will be appearing on the cast of the upcoming Swamp Thing series through the DC streaming service, portrayed by The Walking Dead alumna Jeryl Prescott. This is incredibly exciting for fans of the highly underrated Xanadu, as well as fans of Prescott's turn as Jacqui on TWD, but it also isn't the first time Xanadu will have appeared on a television series. She was previously a guest star on an episode of Young Justice, that incarnation voiced by Cree Summer. Besides that, it has been rumored that she will be featured in an upcoming film based on the source material of Justice League Dark, so it's a great time to catch up on her many appearances in the DCU.
Although she isn’t always the easiest character to pinpoint or explain, Madame Xanadu has some great stories under her belt and quite a few top-rated creators willing to go to bat for her. Of all DC’s magical characters, she is the one perhaps the most entrenched in magic, unable to separate herself from either her clients or knowledge of the future. Although characterization has varied wildly over the years, her core features show an intensely patient, calm, and intelligent seer who uses her mastery over death to advise and assist others. As witches go, Xanadu might be one of the better role models for how to use one’s gifts for good. Although the focus of her adventures is usually on others rather than on herself, her long life and mysterious air provide the potential for infinite storytelling possibilities.