2017 was a banner year for comic book series inspired by the Arthurian legend. The last twelve months saw the debuts of intriguing new works such as The Once and Future Queen from Dark Horse, an assertively progressive treatment of the theme of King Arthur’s promised return; Unholy Grail, Aftershock’s dark, twisted retelling of the familiar story of Camelot’s rise and fall; and IDW’s Sword of Ages, an imaginative interpretation of Arthurian motifs in an otherworldly science fantasy setting. And, last but certainly not least, it also saw the welcome return of Matt Wagner’s Mage — a title that first raised its own Pendragon banner more than thirty years ago, in 1984.
Mage may be unique in American comics — a single story, told in the form of a trilogy, with intervals of over a decade between each of its 15-issue volumes. As a whole, the trilogy chronicles the heroic career of Kevin Matchstick (an admitted fictional analogue of creator/writer/artist Wagner), a seemingly ordinary guy who just happens to be the Pendragon (aka King Arthur), reborn in the present day. The first volume, Mage: The Hero Discovered (1984-1986), describes how a reluctant Kevin discovers his destiny and defeats the supernatural menace of the Umbra Sprite, gaining (and sometimes losing) friends and allies along the way — among them Mirth (aka Merlin), the “mage” of the title (well, one of them, anyway).
The second installment, Mage: The Hero Defined (1997-1999), finds an older and more confident (actually, a bit overconfident) Kevin taking a leadership role among other “reborn” heroes, including modern avatars of Hercules and Coyote. Over the course of this middle volume, Kevin gets a tough lesson in humility, and also discovers that the question of his identity isn’t quite as settled as he’d assumed — as it turns out, not only is he the modern embodiment of the Pendragon, but of the ancient Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, as well. And of course, there’s also a second mage to meet, and (eventually) to learn from.
Which brings us, at last, to volume three–Mage: The Hero Denied. Time has passed for our hero since we last saw him, in 1999–hardly unexpected, considering the quasi-autobiographical nature of this project. (Although it’s not necessarily the same amount of time that’s passed in the real world–for, while Kevin Matchstick is now married with two children, the oldest of those children appears to be about eight; Matt Wagner, on the other hand, has a grown son, Brannon, who also happens to be the new series’ colorist.) Also like the two previous Mage series, the third volume is structured as a fifteen-issue run (technically sixteen, as The Hero Denied, like The Hero Defined before it, was launched with an extra, “0” issue serving as a prologue/teaser to the main storyline), with the story broken into three parts of four issues each (following the example of the previous series, the final issue will be double-sized and count as two).
The current issue, #5, is thus a new beginning of sorts, as it’s the first chapter of the second third of the story.
In the first four issues, Kevin Matchstick–who’s mostly just been enjoying a quiet life with his family for the last several years–has to take up the role of heroic champion once again in the wake of being “outed” by his enemies, led by the returned Umbra Sprite. The last issue ended at an apparent low point, with Kevin momentarily triumphant over his latest foe (the death goddess Erishkigal, a foe hearkening back to his Sumerian heritage), but alone, far from his loved ones, and frustrated by his inability to locate and seek counsel from the promised third incarnation of the World-Mage.
A considerable amount of time has passed between the end of issue #4 and the beginning of #5–although that’s not immediately apparent, since the issue actually opens with a flashback–way back, in fact, to a time just after the conclusion of The Hero Discovered.
Along with the verbal callbacks to a couple of Kevin’s long-lost friends (as seen in the last panel above), the flashback scene also features an actual appearance by another of these friends. It’s an especially welcome and gratifying moment for readers who’ve followed the story since its beginning in 1984 (such as yours truly).
The scene ends rather abruptly, just as the action is about to start, and we find ourselves back in the present–where Kevin has been relating a tale of past events to his son Hugo.
As I mentioned earlier, issue #4 had ended on a down note, with Kevin separated from his family. So it’s a bit of a surprise, although a pleasant one, to see him reunited with the wife and kids here.
Not that everything is once again as right as rain. Kevin’s family is still in danger, so while his witchy wife Magda searches for a more secure sanctuary for them, Mr. Matchstick lies low and helps watch over their offspring. But an impromptu visit to his local bookstore results in our hero having yet another encounter with his past–this time, in the dual form of both an unexpected visit from one of his heroic allies from The Hero Defined, and the sad tidings brought by that hero regarding still another of their friends.
Meanwhile, the Umbra Sprite and her lieutenants, the Gracklethorns–who, like Kevin, have been largely dormant for over a year–are once again on the move.
The mystery of the Fisher King is one of the most overtly Arthurian elements in Mage–one that’s been around since the title’s Eighties beginnings. And since this issue concludes with the introduction of yet another Arthurian entity, it appears that these legendary themes may play an even greater role as the saga moves towards its conclusion.
The fifth issue of Mage: The Hero Denied is a quiet, even elegiac chapter of the story, which largely foregoes action in favor of taking a look back to the past, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) setting things up for the future. As such, it will probably be better appreciated by those fans who’ve followed the series to date than by a prospective new reader–but that’s no reflection on the talents of either the elder Wagner, whose writing and drawing have never been better, or the younger, whose deft and sympathetic coloring beautifully enhances his father’s work. No, it’s not a great “jumping on” point–but that just means that if you haven’t started reading Mage yet, it’s way past time for you to catch up.
After all, there’s still a lot of the story of Kevin Matchstick left to tell. What will happen when the Fisher King at last is found? Will Kevin Matchstick get a happy ending, or will his story end in tragedy, like Arthur Pendragon’s? And where, pray tell, is the third mage?
Mage: The Hero Denied #5 is currently available from Image Comics.