In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree …
The cover is electrifying. Sinuous, sensuous, enticing, entrancing…seemingly created by the same magic the story’s about.
In actuality, it was created by that mercurial genius Michael William Kaluta, one of the greatest graphic artists to come of age in the 1970s, and the cover in question is that of DC Comic’s Doorway to Nightmare #1—the debut of the inimitable Madame Xanadu.
I picked up that issue when it was on the rack. Comic books were purchased from racks in those days, and they were returnable, just like pulp paperbacks and magazines with Donny Osmond on the cover. In this case, the rack was in a bus stop store in a very tiny town in rural northern California.
I was very lucky that their distributor supplied them with DC’s last great foray into ‘70s supernatural weirdness.
The title didn’t last long—only five issues before it was subsumed by The Unexpected.
The “DC Implosion” of 1978 was a cataclysm of canceled comic books (the only death that really counts), outdone only by the debacle of Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985/1986 (yes, I’m very old school). Madame Xanadu lingered however (DC never allows one of its characters to lapse into public domain), and she made a total of 13 appearances (coincidence?) before the Crisis. After Crisis, she enjoyed a run in the late 1980s version of The Spectre, a stint in the “New 52,” her own Vertigo series, and is currently involved in Justice League Dark.
Frankly, though, I don’t read the new stuff. As a life-long DC collector, former Overstreet Guide advisor, and comic book store retailer, I prefer the magic of the pre-Crisis Xanadu I plucked from the newsstand.
Xanadu was, like the Phantom Stranger, more a provocateur than a protagonist. She owned and operated a shop in Greenwich Village—surely the epicenter of strange, funky, New York weirdness in the ‘70s—and read tarot cards for people seeking advice. The cards were always right.
The stories were about normal people (well, as normal as comic books get) who needed help of some kind—much like those who became involved with the Stranger. Xanadu would show up in the middle of their narrative, at a particularly opportune moment, to help them resolve their difficulties…sometimes when they weren’t even aware of it. In Doorway, the agents causing these difficulties were supernatural in origin—think demons—and they inevitably wound up trapped in a chemist jar back at Xanadu’s shop by the end of the story.
The art and storylines were unusually creative, with Kaluta’s art, as always, the highpoint. Xanadu, in Kaluta’s definitive depiction, was an ageless, exotic, indefinably beautiful creature in the guise of a mortal. It’s small wonder that later writers injected an Arthurian origin for her.
What drew me to the book and the character—in addition to those breathtaking covers—was precisely that element of the unusual and magical in everyday circumstances. It’s the charm of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, the idea that the boundaries between the impossible and possible, the real and imagined, are much more permeable than we like to think. Madame Xanadu, though, was always a force for good, even romance—so the stories used a métier of the fantastic and even the horrific, but were shaped by values with which I could identify.
In other words, she was one of the good guys.
Xanadu—and, before her, the Phantom Stranger—actually had roots in an early Golden Age strip that remains one of my all-time favorites: “Just a Story.”
Created by Howard Purcell, this back-up feature in All-American’s Comic Cavalcade (a Golden Age superhero anthology featuring Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern) featured stories of average people caught in a web of supernatural fate. Sometimes this resulted in a noir-ish tale of death and redemption, sometimes in a happy ending, sometimes in a near-miss brush with death.
My favorite of these tales is “Detour” from Comic Cavalcade 18 (1946). It’s reprinted in Justice League of America 114 (1974), one of the great “100 Page Super Spectaculars” of the mid 1970s, and, as the title suggests, is a Will Eisner-influenced noir story that exerted tremendous influence on me as a kid. If you can afford a copy, don’t miss it.
“Just a Story” used a framing device similar to what we find with Madame Xanadu: a mysterious figure in a fedora who seems to be on hand when fate (good or bad) intervenes. This character eventually developed a name—Johnny Peril—and he enjoyed a relatively long run as a backup feature in Atomic Age runs of Sensation and All-Star Comics. He remains one of DC’s most underutilized assets, probably because he was essentially the grandfather of the Phantom Stranger and Madame Xanadu.
So that’s the story of how I walked through the Doorway to Nightmare into Madame Xanadu’s shop. She’s held me under a spell ever since. And for those of you who’d like to join me, I recommend picking up some inexpensive back issues of her pre-Crisis appearances (she starred in her own special—Madame Xanadu 1, one of the first direct sale comics—and even appeared in a couple of issues of Wonder Woman (292-293) and teamed with Superman in DC Comics Presents 65.
For the true “weird 70s” connoisseur, however, the five issues of Doorway can’t be beat. And neither can the even more obscure DC Special Series 21, a “Super-Star Holiday Special” Christmas anthology—noteworthy these days for containing Frank Miller’s first work on Batman. I treasure it for other reasons: Madame Xanadu and Phantom Stranger show up together in a brief “House of Mystery” story, bearing gifts!
It doesn’t get much weirder than that!
Kelli Stanley is the author of three previous Miranda Corbie mysteries, most recently the critically-acclamed City of Ghosts. The first in her highly acclaimed series, City of Dragons, won the Macavity for best historical mystery and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Bruce Alexander and Shamus Awards. She lives in San Francisco, California.