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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 125: Madame Xanadu #13

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from Madama Xanadu #13, which was published by DC/Vertigo and is cover dated September 2009. Enjoy!

What the heck?

Michael Kaluta, who’s one of those guys people seem to forget when “greatest comic book artists” discussions get started but should probably be in them, drew a five-issue arc of Madame Xanadu back in 2009, and this is the third part of that story. Matt Wagner, who wrote the series, doesn’t really want to get in the way of Kaluta too much, so he keeps the verbiage to a minimum, and even that’s almost superfluous. Madame Xanadu is narrating about the size of New York and how death is somewhat mundane in a city of such size, which, if you know anything about comics (or fiction in general), is leading to a point where she actually investigates one such death, and why is that special? So the narration doesn’t give us much, although there’s nothing wrong with it. The dialogue, too, doesn’t do much, except establish “Jonesy” as a world-weary medical examiner.

Kaluta’s art, although not his best, is the reason to buy this arc (Amy Reeder was the regular artist on this comic, and she did a decent job, but she’s not Kaluta). He quickly establishes the time period as the 1930s with the establishing panel (if New York’s population numbers didn’t clue you in). The pouring rain in Panel 1 blends in with the lines on the walls and floors inside, which give us some visual continuity. Kaluta curves the floor and walls in Panel 2 to establish a skewed perspective, which makes Madame Xanadu’s dramatic entrance less surprising. Wagner deliberately put the caption box about the “glitter of streetlights” in the panel with the sparkling green lights, linking the words to the image even though they’re different things. The use of the two brights blobs makes us think of eyes, which is important as in Panel 4, Xanadu doesn’t have them. All of this leads up to that last panel, where Xanadu lifts the skirt of the scene and slips into the morgue. It’s a tremendous image, because it establishes that she herself is magical, which is handy, and it also links her to light while the morgue is plunged in darkness – you’ll notice the floor is lighter when she lifts up the edge. Kaluta bends the walls and floor just enough to highlight the feeling of unreality – this can’t be happening, of course, but because he has already bent the surroundings in Panel 2, we’re ready for its fluidity in the final panel. It’s pretty neat that he foregoes putting eyes on the heroine – eyes are usually the focus of a panel that includes them, but by covering them, Kaluta focuses us on Xanadu’s sensual lips … and as this is a story partly about lost love, it’s somewhat appropriate. Finally, the floor bisected by Jonesy’s shadow looks eerily like eyes, making the picture both less and more freaky – she has eyes, but what weird ones they are! She’s also slightly off-center, more to the right, leading us that way to the splash page that comes next.

This is a well-designed page, and Wagner is a writer who usually allows his artists to do their thing (probably because he’s an artist himself). This arc isn’t the best story in the world, but it’s always nice to see a master like Kaluta in action.

Next: Back to the Bronze Age! You know you love it! There aren’t many of these comics in the archives, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving them a look!

6 Comments

“El Train”? That’s a bizarre bizarre piece of writing there.

First of all, if you want to say the name of a Subway, you just use the Letter (In this case, it’d be the “L Train.”). Second, why would you choose the L, which is essentially a crosstown shuttle along 14th street in Manhattan into Queens?

Just a lack of research here.

garik: I’m fairly certain it refers to an “elevated” train, but I could be wrong. I don’t know if Manhattan had elevated trains in the 1930s, because I wasn’t alive then!

This really was an awesome series. I loved the “Exodus Noir” arc.

Daniel O' Dreams

May 4, 2012 at 10:55 pm

The qoutes around “EL” led me to read it as short for “elevated” too. Also why would The L-Train be any noisier than any other.
There’s an elevated train in King Kong. Pretty sure They were in The Godfather also. Hell some of the elevated trestles look like they haven’t been updated since the 1930’s.

Yeah, it is a reference to an elevated subway train. It’s a really well done reference, I think, as the El train does have that sort of fascinating regularity of noise. Sort of like people who live near an airport.

Also, they’re called “El”s a lot. The film the Fugitive had a whole bit about them. The film 12 Angry Men also has an “El” factor into the plot in a big way (okay, I can’t say for sure that 12 Angry Men calls it an “El” The Fugitive definitely does, though).

Travis Pelkie

May 5, 2012 at 12:03 am

I would wager that based on his work on Sandman Mystery Theatre, Wagner might just know a bit about the subway trains in 1930s NYC.

Plus, “els” is often an answer in crossword puzzles for clues involving subway trains.

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