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Matt Wagner interview: Madame Xanadu

 height=(WoW APR 08)

Matt Wagner is the popular creator of Grendel and Mage, and has also worked on books such as DC's Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman: Trinity and Sandman Mystery Theatre. He's now writing DC/Vertigo's Madame Xanadu. Westfield's Roger Ash spoke with Matt to find out more about this new project.

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Westfield: How did you become involved with the Madame Xanadu book?

 height=Matt Wagner: Kicking and screaming. [laughter] This project was very unusual for me because normally I'm used to concocting my own brew either via Grendel or the various things I've done for the big companies. It's usually me getting an idea or inspiration and going to them and saying, "Let me do this." Or if it's my own thing, just going ahead and doing it. In this case, the editor, Bob Schreck, contacted me. I'd worked with Bob for many, many years and he had just made the move over to Vertigo. He had in mind that he'd like me to try revamping the origin of, I think, a pretty obscure character - Madame Xanadu. As a matter of fact, whenever I tell people there's going to be a Madame Xanadu book, all anybody ever remembers are a couple of cool Kaluta covers. That was one of the things that attracted me to it; she was kind of a blank slate I could play with. Additionally, Bob had in mind an artist he wanted me to work with. That too was unusual for me. Normally I don't get hooked up with people, I choose who I want to work with. Amy Hadley, the artist on the book, is unlike any other artist I've ever worked with, and the story's unlike any other story I've ever done. All that quite appealed to me, so I took on the challenge.

Westfield: Had you known much about the character before taking on the project?

Wagner: Only a couple of cool Kaluta covers. [laughter] I knew she was a Seer. I didn't know that there was a bunch of continuity already in place for her. In regards to continuity, I treated this the way I tend to treat DC continuity, which is I look and see what's there. I pick what I like, and discard what I don't like. There's just too much of it to ever consider it sancrosanct. How can you even begin to keep track of all of it? There were a couple of plot beats that I really liked about her character. I took those and ran with it from there. One of the biggest being the fact that, in their current continuity, she has a certain distrust, almost enmity, with the Phantom Stranger, which I had no idea about. Basically, this is her origin starting way back in her mystical past and coming forward to the modern era. It's basically one big gothic romance between her and the Phantom Stranger. We find out why they've become just shy of enemies.

Westfield: What can people look forward to in the book?

Wagner: One neat thing is that the book covers a little over a thousand years in time. So we hop between time periods and locales. That's been a lot of fun, too. It's been fun for me to do the research and to write stories set in these various time periods. Amy has also considered it quite a challenge to try and draw all these time periods. Most of her published work has been for TokyoPop and it was all set in the contemporary world with mainly teenage characters. At the beginning of this project, I said to Bob, "Boy, I hope this works because I'm going to give her a lot of stuff to draw that she's never drawn before." She's really stepped up to the plate and delivered. It looks absolutely terrific.

Westfield: Who are some of the other characters that will appear in the book?

Wagner: I don't want to give too much away. Each chapter is two issues, so we have two issues in one time period and locale and then jump forward to another time period and locale. The second one is set at the court of Kublai Kahn because I have to get her named "Xanadu" somehow. Xanadu was the name of Kublai Kahn's summer palace which is where he was first visited by Marco Polo. So there's a little taste of what people can expect.

Westfield: Since you didn't really know her before, what caught you about Madame Xanadu as you've been working on the book?

 height=Wagner: She's a Seer, so the way I portray her is she's constantly looking for patterns. She's looking for patterns that will predict what happens. She's looking for a way to see the future. And she's dealing with a character who lives all over the place in time. The Phantom Stranger moves throughout time fluidly. There are other characters who have seeing powers as well in the story and so, as a result, she's a character who's often met with a certain amount of personal confusion. If you're constantly looking to predict what happens, you're stuck in a questioning state that doesn't resolve itself until all the events come to fruition. Or don't.

In the modern continuity, she's basically Seer to the Super-heroes. She's the go-to girl if you want a prediction about what's going to happen in the magical end of the DC Universe. This storyline basically gets her to that point.

Westfield: Since this takes place over a number of years, will you be explaining how she can be around that long?

Wagner: Yeah. It's not quite as complicated as you might think but it does have a dramatic turning point about halfway thru the series.

Westfield: I've seen Amy Hadley's cover and it's stunning. How has it been working with her?

Wagner: It's been great. With very few exceptions, I've tended to write "plot-and-dialog" fashion throughout my career. I don't write what are known in the biz as "full scripts." I write a plot, then the artist draws it, it comes back to me and I fill in the dialog and the captions. She was a little worried about that at first, as she'd never worked with a writer before. Luckily, the reason that works out so well is that I'm a writer who's also an artist, so I know how to describe things to an artist that I know they'll be able to understand visually. So it's worked out very, very smoothly I think. She's really taken it upon herself to not only make it period-accurate but also put a certain personal flavor in there. Sometimes if you do a period book, it can end up just boring because you've stuck too much to the period details. She's definitely infusing her own sensibilities into things and I think it's given us a very rich result.

Westfield: Are there any other projects you're working on that you'd like to mention?

Wagner: I'm currently writing Zorro for Dynamite Entertainment. I'm the cover artist and art director on that as well. The Grendel series that we've been publishing through Dark Horse, Behold the Devil, is in the process of wrapping up. I'm finished on my end with that. I have a few more things in the pipeline that aren't approved yet, so I can't really yak about them right now.

Westfield: Any closing comments you'd like to make?

Wagner: This is an unusual project for me. It seems obvious that I would do a Zorro book. That's my shtick. I love those dark, cloaked heroes running around in the night like Batman and Sandman from Sandman Mystery Theatre and even Grendel to some degree, although he's on the other side of the good/bad equation. This is a different approach for me; a different voice. It's been fun to work in these different time periods. I think people will get a big kick out of it. It will give them a different look at Madame Xanadu and also the Phantom Stranger. I'm trying to define him a little more as to what the hell it is that he actually does. In the comics, he always just seems to show up and say, "I'm the Phantom Stranger," and then he disappears. I'm trying to show that he's, in fact, quite a behind-the-scenes manipulator. He's always stated that he's forbidden to interfere in the course of events. Is that necessarily true, or does he push and pull at the edges of things to guide things in the way that he thinks are correct - a way that maintains the eternal balance of good vs evil?

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