Mage III: The Hero Denied, issue 15 of 15. The end of the series but, more importantly, the 45th issue of Mage and the culmination of Matt Wagner’s 3-volume saga, 35 years in the telling.
Looking at the final issue of a 15-issue series is rather a pointless thing, more so when it’s issue 45 of 45. So, instead, I’ll look back over the series as a whole, but, for those not familiar with the series, a little spoiler-free recap…
That is Kevin Matchstick, the hero of this saga. We first met Kevin back in 1984 in Mage: The Hero Discovered. He looked a little different, more hair for a start. But it’s his character that’s changed most over the years.
At first, he was this sulky young man, thoroughly disenchanted with the world. Into his gloom comes Mirth, a wizard, and his life transforms completely.
Add in villains of a very fantastical, fantasy style, slowly gather about the hero a cast of acolytes and other heroes to join this modern-day Camelot and yes, we have a version of the King Arthur tale, complete with Merlin, Excalibur (in the form of a green, glowing baseball bat), and the Knights of the Round Table. All with Kevin Matchstick at its centre, refusing to accept his new role in the world.
Over the three series, Matchstick has aged, just as Wagner has aged, losing his hair, gaining a wife and family, and a more grounded set of views of the world and his own self.
With Matchstick, Wagner really did put himself on the comics page, with all his personality and features there, as well as many family members, comic friends, and it’s become, over time, more a tale of the growth of the person than the Arthurian legend it was, superficially, first seen as.
I’ve been with Matt Wagner’s Mage since that first series, The Hero Discovered, first picking it up around issue 10, devouring all the back issues and falling in love with this comic. I loved it for the lack of super-tights and capes, loved it for the clever mix of reality and the day-to-day with Arthurian legend, loved it as a wonderfully put together action fantasy series, and really, really loved it for the artwork.
Which is why it’s been such a difficult thing to write about the disappointment I felt with the long-awaited sequel from the late 90s, Mage II: The Hero Defined and now, with the final issue of Mage III: The Hero Denied, I’m feeling like I’m meeting an old friend and telling them that they really have let themselves go. Because, although there’s so much incredible joy in Mage, it’s mostly confined to the first volume, with subsequent volumes of the trilogy just never really getting to the heights promised.
Mage was always planned as a three-volume saga; The Hero Discovered, The Hero Defined, and The Hero Denied. But, after the conclusion of The Hero Discovered in 1986, there was no way we expected the wait between volumes to be quite so long. Publisher bankruptcies and trademark issues delayed The Hero Defined until 1997, and for various other reasons, The Hero Denied took another 16 years to get out.
And although there’s obvious change and development very visible in the artwork from volumes I to III, I can’t get over the sense that there isn’t the same evolution in writing going on. It always feels, to me, that Wagner wrote all three volumes young and never came back to rewrite with the benefit of ageing himself. Which, seeing as Mage is, at it’s heart, a tale of one man’s growth and change through the years, just isn’t how it should be.
When Mage II first came out in 97, I was as excited as any fan. It had been a good decade since any Mage comics and I eagerly opened up the new issue 1, only to be almost immediately disappointed. Something was off. Something in both writing and artwork. And that something is the thing that’s dogged my enjoyment of the book from that day to this, up to the final ever Mage.
Artistically, there’s a huge change between the rougher, looser art from The Hero Discovered and the more polished, mature artwork of The Hero Defined and The Hero Denied. Some of that difference is due to Wagner being inked in later issues of The Hero Discovered by Sam Kieth and we, certainly, can’t ignore the colourists contributions of Jeremy Cox on The Hero Defined and Wagner’s son Brennan on The Hero Denied.
But there’s a big difference here, certainly for me, between the technical and the aesthetic. For me, the increasing technical craftsmanship of Wagner as his art develops has stripped something of the simple joy I felt when seeing the art for the first time.
There’s a huge development in terms of the much better colour palette, and Wagner himself does a lot more in terms of detail, in terms of backgrounds, but the simple joy of the first series seems lost. I’m not saying it’s anything but good artwork, that much should be obvious, but it’s just a touch too-polished, too honed for me. Yes, there’s a roughness to parts of the artwork in Hero Discovered, but I’ll always take that over something that, to me, just looks overly-polished and tweaked. And Wagner’s not the only one of my favourite artists I’ll throw this accusation at either, I feel just the same way about Alan Davis’ artwork. I’m sure you could find many more examples yourselves.
However, if I had to identify some ‘sweet spot’ for Matt Wagner’s Mage, it would have to be the first interlude, published back in 86 as the back-up strip to Grendel issues 16-19.
And, as with the art, so with the storyline and storytelling. From The Hero Defined and through the Hero Denied, everything just seems overly done, resulting in a read that felt just dull, dull and stale. I read the first handful of issues of The Hero Defined and couldn’t believe it was the same writer. That was it for me, I only came back and read it all with the nostalgic news that the very last issue of the saga was due out.
A lot is made of Mage’s character development, the character growth of Wagner’s hero, Kevin Matchstick, very much the author dropping himself into his own story, from selfish, sulky loner through to protective family man. But, that development, much like the artistic development, doesn’t have that much soul to it.
The strokes are just too broad, too simple. There’s no subtlety to this, it’s character development done the way of bad sit-coms. And the broad strokes accusation can, easily, be applied to every character in the series. The women are, all too often, the nagging love interest, powerful in terms of witchcraft perhaps, but still more two than three-dimensional. And then there’s the structural build of the heroic tale. It’s not the first hero saga to be cyclical, of course, but it still feels so repetitious here. Hero meets supporting cast of other heroic/mythological types, hero meets mage/wizard, there are fallings out, there are reconciliations. And there are villainous villains, but always the same villain and never, in all honesty, feeling quite powerful enough, or, indeed, interesting enough.
Having read the whole series, it does seem somewhat lost in time, writing that belongs to the 80s and 90s. Looking back on The Hero Discovered as I was writing this, I’m aware that it has faults, that it’s nowhere near the highpoint of comics writing, but there’s a real power in that rawness that overcomes the lack of finesse, a sense of fun and excitement that powers the series through.
The Hero Discovered may have been something exciting and great to the 15-year old me. And it’s a 15-issue series that still, for all its rawness, perhaps because of it, resonates as a great, fun, fantasy adventure with that Arthurian twist. But with the two volumes following it, the fun seemed more forced, the polish overdone, the thrills all but gone.
Now, with issue 15 of Mage III: The Hero Denied, we bid farewell to a series that shone ever so bright in its youth yet, perhaps ironically given the subject matter of a man growing older, seemed to lose that initial spark to become a pale reflection of the joy, the raw energy, the excitement of what it had been. I wish, so much, that it could have been otherwise. But Mage III: The Hero Defined just left me sadly disappointed. Life, eh?
Mage: The Hero Denied issue 15 is out now – by Matt Wagner, colors by Brennan Wagner, letters by Dave Lanphear, published by Image Comics.
Image Comics has also collected together the entire series, Mage I: The Hero Discovered, Mage II: The Hero Defined, and will, no doubt, complete this with Mage III: The Hero Denied.