Ask Chris #332: The Masterpiece That Is Matt Wagner’s ‘Mage’
A: Like, 26? Maybe 27, but I don’t want to oversell things too much.
But yes: The most exciting piece of news to come out of Emerald City Comic-Con this year by a long shot was Matt Wagner announcing Mage: The Hero Denied, the third and final installment of a creator-owned series that dates back to the black-and-white boom of the ’80s, and stands to this day as the single greatest comic book about magic baseball bats ever printed.
To say that The Hero Denied is a long-awaited project is putting things pretty mildly — the last issue of Mage came out in 1999, and, weirdly enough, that’s how I got into the series. It was that time in my life where I was really starting to branch out from Marvel and DC, and honestly, I owe a lot of that to Wizard magazine. Say what you will — and Lord knows I have — but somebody over there was always making sure to highlight books like Bone and Usagi Yojimbo, and it was the coverage they had in there of the saga’s second series, The Hero Defined, that led me to it.
Of course, it’s not exactly a hard sell for the audience that was picking up Wizard to get all the hot news about the upcoming Batman redesign. Even if it’s not quite a superhero comic — and that’s honestly pretty debatable — it’s certainly superhero-adjacent, especially in terms of the aesthetics in play. Kevin Matchstick might wear a T-shirt, but he’s still got a standard look with a giant white lightning bolt emblazoned on his chest, and that extends to the entire cast of characters, too.
And really, that makes sense. Even at the time, before he’d done books like Trinity or Batman And The Monster Men, he was still probably as well known for his work in superheroes as he was for indie books like Grendel and Mage. By the late ’90s, he’d done The Demon and some considerable work on Batman, and while The Hero Defined was coming out, he was also doing a prestige-format reboot of Doctor Mid-Nite that’s incredibly underrated.
With all that under his belt, it was pretty easy for me to hear, “Hey, here’s that Batman guy you like doing comics about a guy who fights monsters on flying skateboards with friendship and and a baseball bat” and be 100% on board before I even bought an issue.
I mean, honestly, what else do you want in comics?
Plus, it had the benefit of a premise that was easy for a slightly (okay very) pretentious comic-book reading teen to see as being smarter than the average comic.
See, the whole deal with Kevin Matchstick and his retinue is that they’re essentially the modern-day avatars for heroic archetypes drawn from throughout mythology. Kevin and his magic baseball bat are King Arthur and Excalibur, Joe Phat is a super-speedy trickster who’s often mentioned as an incarnation of Coyote, and Kirby Hero is a modern Hercules.
See what I mean about superhero aesthetics? You don’t get much more “superhero” than wearing a blue costume with a red-and-yellow pentagon as a visual shorthand for being very, very strong.
That’s not to undersell it — Mage actually is a really smart comic, with some really solid world-building that comes through in a way that seems almost effortless, built on stories that do a perfect Urban Fantasy blend of modern ideas and fairytale ideas. Like, at one point, Kevin and Joe literally beat a bad guy with a handful of magic beans, and it makes as much sense in context as anything else that happens.
The thing is, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was really able to get the full picture, when Image did new paperback printings of the entire series, including the first volume: Mage: The Hero Discovered, which originally ran from 1984 to 1986.
You may notice that that’s another ten years between Discovered and Defined, and Mage is definitely a series that has a little breathing room between arcs. But as Wagner has said — and it’s really hard to dispute this given the quality of what he does and how busy he stays between them — sometimes it feels right, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Anyway, once I sat down with the original series and read the entire saga (or at least the two-thirds of it that existed at the time) that everything really fell into place. The Hero Defined is, as the title suggests, a story that leans more into the adventure aspect, showing Kevin on a journey, standing against evil in these world-shaking battles that are still structured and influenced around his own personal flaws.
Discovered, on the other hand, is a lot more personal.
Seriously: That is page one.
And that’s the thing about Mage: The characters aren’t just based on myths and legends, they’re also at least partially autobiographical. Not the part about the baseball bat that shoots lightning and descending into hell to battle against monsters — I don’t think so, anyway — but the characters and their flaws? That’s all pulled from life.
I mean, back when that book started, you probably wouldn’t realize this until you went to a convention, but there’s a reason that Kevin Matchstick looks exactly like Matt Wagner. He even loses his hair over the course of the 30 years of this comic. Of course, in Kevin’s case, it’s a little more dramatic, as his baldness is the result of channeling pure magic to revive his dead friend.
I suspect that Matt Wagner’s hair loss was, y’know, a little more gradual.
It’s not just him, either. Joe Phat is based on Joe Matt, Kirby Hero is Bernie Mireault, and John J. Strider the Xth, the modern incarnation of Prester John who joins the team at the end of Defined, is based on — wait for it — John K. Snyder III. Jeph Loeb and Bob Schreck even show up in cameos, too.
Obviously, all of those characters are adapted and changed and combined with their mythological inspirations — I’m not sure Bernie Mireault was sent to accomplish 12 labors by his father as atonement for his sins, and I suspect that he could not lift a car over his head — but it’s hard not to see all of that building the structure to support Kevin Matchstick as Wagner‘s avatar for working things out.
The idea of being loud to cover up your insecurity and isolation, of feeling alone until you fall into this community that feels like destiny — Kevin’s mystical quest and, presumably, Wagner getting into comics — and a tendency to take charge that makes you a good leader but also leads to be controlling to the people you’re working with in a way that makes them resent you? Those are all things that feel personal.
And really, is there anything that says “comics creators” more than meeting up with a colleague in a diner and hearing that someone said you were hard to work with?
That’s, like, 90% of cons.
But rather than feeling like an example of someone working things out about themselves on the page — which, spoiler warning, is honestly what’s happening in almost every comic — Wagner is able to blend it all with the epic storytelling in a way that’s truly beautiful to read. Kevin Matchstick’s exploits are superheroic, but his flaws are human. They feel real because in many ways, they are real, and that gives Mage a heart that’s very difficult not to be drawn to.
It helps that everything around it — the pacing, the art, the dialogue, the pure craft on display — is also extremely good, but it’s that heart that makes the series what it is, and makes it one that people were still asking Wagner about almost 20 years after the most recent installment.
So yeah, I’m pretty excited about The Hero Denied. Especially because I think it’s going to answer the one question that’s been lingering since the whole thing started: If Kevin Matchstick was nWo in 1987…
…does that mean he’s still nWo 4-Life?