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Guest Post by Penny Kenny: Xanadu –

Guest Post by Penny Kenny: Xanadu

Saturday , 29, April 2017 10 Comments

THE FANTASY AND FURRY-IOUS: Xanadu, the comic book series

Back in the long ago days of the late 1980s, a black-and-white comic book series appeared on comic shop shelves. Xanadu, written and illustrated by Vicky Wyman, was a cross between Rafael Sabatini-type adventure and romance and Ray Harryhausen-style fantasy and magic. The plot was both simple and complex: a dashing and daring thief breaches the walls of the Empress’s palace; falls in love with a beautiful lady-in-waiting; earns the enmity of the captain of the guard, who happens to be his love’s other suitor; and becomes involved in the sultry, yet naive, young Empress’s intrigues. Oh, and it stars a cast of “furries.” In Xanadu, the noble rulers are creatures of magic: unicorns, dragons, griffins, and the like. The Freeborn are foxes, bears, wolves, etc., and the despised Domestique are cats, dogs, rats, and so on.

The hero of Xanadu is Tabbe, a cat and thief who seems to enjoy the thrill of his profession as much as its financial rewards. It isn’t until he falls in love with the beautiful and higher born Fatima, that he begins to have higher aspirations:

“I love you. I’d take you with me but I’ve nothing to offer you…yet. Fate is not kind to a Domestique, but I feel a cat of courage can carve his own destiny. I’ll return for you one day. I promise. Wait for me.”

In carving out his destiny, Tabbe crosses paths with the Empress Alicia, a young, flirtatious unicorn, who nonetheless has a core of steel:

“I may do whatever is necessary when I feel the Empire is at risk.”

She is loyal to her friends, fierce toward her enemies, courageous, fallible, and definitely feminine.

The villain of the piece is the griffin Reginald Plume, whose over-whelming pride, arrogance, and jealousy make him deserving of every bit of comeuppance he gets. Yet Wyman gives him moments when you can almost – almost – pity him, as he sees where he is headed. But he simply can’t stop himself.

The supporting cast are all delightful. There’s Jonathan, Tabbe’s donkey sidekick, who is the voice of reason seldom listened to; Octavius, Alicia’s crusty dragon adviser; Kinomon, the impetuous Golden Dragon who comes to serve in Alicia’s household guard, and Firepetal, Kinomon’s delicate betrothed, who has more courage than anyone.

As they say in The Princess Bride, Xanadu has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, chases, escapes, true love” and kissing. Definitely kissing. And more. This is a sensual, sexy, and sexual comic book. The characters indulge their natures, but it’s never crude or cheap. Wyman is tasteful. She knows when to use heavy shadow or fade to black to allow her characters privacy and her readers a chance to use their imagination.

Wyman can draw. Man, can she draw! Her lines are expressive, organic, and flowing. They create a sense of movement on the page that the newer generation of comic book artists doesn’t always achieve.

The only time Wyman’s pen fails her – in my opinion – is in the big set fight scenes. There seems to almost be too much detail, which can make it difficult to follow the action. But that’s a minor quibble.

Following the completion of the original series, the full-color one-shot Xanadu: Phelia’s Tale was published by Eclipse in 1988. Scripted and drawn by Wyman from a plot by Steve Gallacci, Phelia is a story of palace intrigue and forbidden love told on a winter’s night. Within the context of the story, Wyman touches on duty; romantic love; what the relationship between the classes should be; and immortality – all without being heavy-handed. She also makes sure to end it on a note of hope. Colorist Sam Parsons gave the book a bright appearance that enhanced, rather than overpowered, Wyman’s art.

In 1993, Mu Press collected Xanadu’s five issues into a graphic novel entitled Xanadu: Thief of Hearts. The following year, a new series appeared, Across Diamond Seas. This storyline has the majority of the cast sailing for the Golden Realm and encountering a pair of young, headstrong magical kyryn. More a coming-of-age tale than Thief of Hearts was, the story focuses on the Empress Alicia and leaves her a changed unicorn. Wyman’s art seems more assured here. There is less use of heavy blacks and the pages have an open, inviting look. The action scenes are also easier to follow. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable production.

Two chapters of a third series, Into Golden Skies, appeared in the Xanadu: The Ever-Changing Palace fanzine in ‘95 and ‘96. As far as I can tell, it’s never been completed; which is a shame because the opening chapters promised an epic story featuring guileless kitsune and dragon assassins.

Xanadu in all its forms is a tribute and throwback to hopeful, imaginative fantasy where heroes are heroes, reckless youths can mature, and romance is romantic. If you ever get a chance, you should check it out.

  • john silence says:

    Not much a comic book reader myself, but I’m sort of reminded of Blacksad. Mostly due to anthropomorphic animal cast and feline protagonist. And I guess it doesn’t shy away from sexuality.

    Though, that one is basically baseline noir that uses animals instead of humans just for the sake of it.

  • Ardashir says:

    This was and is one of my favorite comics of all time. I’ve loved anthropomorphic AKA ‘furry’ characters ever since a youth of Disney, forgotten writers like Walter R. Brooks’ ‘Freddy the Pig’, and Andre Norton and Poul Anderson’s often animal-like aliens.

    I WILL say that I never, ever, expected to see this get reviewed here!

  • Ardashir says:

    But much as I love this comic, there’s one scene that would never fly today. In the start, Fatima is writing a letter to mother when Tabbe sneaks in to rob the palace. He makes a noise, she hears him, and he grabs her to silence her. Then Tabbe kisses her and it ends with (tastefully implied) sex. I remember some ladies who got very irate over that scene!

    • Penny Kenny says:

      Ardashir, I thought of mentioning that scene and its problematic aspects, then decided to just ignore it. One reading could be that these characters, despite the fact that they act human, aren’t. They’re furries in a fantasy land – their sexual mores are different. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😉

      • Ardashir says:

        Okay, I agree. They’re not modern Americans They’re not even /human/. They won’t have our mores. And the scene never bugged me very much.

      • Jake Shinn says:

        Even so, I don’t think that excuses what Tabbe, Fatima and Alicia did to Plume, especially since this takes place in a world where the animals all act exactly like humans, so, I don’t agree that it makes that scene more tolerable in my opinion.

  • Alan Loewen says:

    I am delighted to see such a fascinating piece of artwork and storytelling reviewed and complimented. Unfortunately, being out of print, I hope that renewed interest might encourage Ms. Wyman to submit it for reprint.

  • Vicky Wyman says:

    Thank you. You’ve been very kind. I will, however, mention that Jonathan is not a donkey, but a mule, which gives him the added angst of being both Freeborn (horse) and Domestique (donkey).

    And, you’re right. The fight scenes tank, but it ain’t easy directing a cast of thousands.

  • Jake Shinn says:

    Yeah, I think I’m one of the only people who doesn’t like Xanadu. The way Tabbe forced himself on Fatima, who was Captain Plume’s lover by the way, and Alicia is somehow chill with it, and gets angry with Plume for getting emotional on Tabbe and demotes him just rubs me the wrong way.

    Worst yet, the story treated it as if they were nothing. Plus, Tabbe was too perfect as a character. Sure, there was an instance where he almost got defeated by Plume, but nothing in this story actually challenges him.

    Not saying that any of Tabbe, Fatima or Alicia’s actions excuse what Plume did in the comic, but if some stranger broke into the palace you’re responsible of protecting and he stole your lover, and you have an empress who doesn’t really care and even demotes you when you respond naturally, you’d be upset too.

  • Jake Shinn says:

    It’s sad because the theme about Xanadu was supposed to be how unjust the caste system was.

    Yet, the story barely touched on that. There some dialogue like how Tabbe said that fate is ”not kind to a Domestique” but that’s really about it.

    We didn’t get to see how the Domestiques were mistreated. We were just told that they were. Besides, given Tabbe’s fit body and how happy he was, and how pretty much everybody, including the empress herself, treats him favorably, I find Tabbe’s quote pretty hard to believe.

    If Vicky wanted to make a story about the caste system, well, make a story about the caste system. But if you don’t, and want to make a story about some villain that got angry at some empress and turns evil, then just make that story.

    From what I understand, Vicky got inspired by Lupin the 3rd, but I don’t think she knew what she wants her story to be, and I think that’s what makes the change in focus of the story that bad for me.

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