If anything were to happen to him tonight, which we fervently hope it won’t, artist/writer Matt Wagner would undoubtedly be best known for his character Grendel: monster, crimelord, force of evil.
Indeed, Grendel was Wagner’s first creation, a very primitive and sloppy version of him appearing in black and white in an anthology published by the long-gone independent publishers, Comico. But this Grendel was poor and primitive, and Wagner turned to another character for his first series, Mage, a fifteen part colour series which began with art and story-telling that, whilst a cut above the Comico Primer was still that of an artist feeling his way, but which, over the full series, grew increasingly polished and attractive.
Partway through the series, Wagner reintroduced Grendel as a back-up: a gorgeous, stylish, art-deco influenced illustrated story as opposed to an orthodox comic, laying out Grendel – Hunter Rose, novelist, Olympic Fencing Champion, philanthropist, ruthless and implacable crime-lord – in his prime and until his death.
After Mage finished, Wagner returned to Grendel as a concept and a series, primarily as writer for other artists, occasionally drawing stories, as Grendel developed as a force, possessing others, destroying their lives with the attraction of its evil. By the end, Wagner had established a long continuity extending all the way to the fortieth century and the robotic Grendel Prime.
Yet Hunter Rose still exercised the greatest fascination, and Wagner has returned time and again to his prime Grendel, in stories that precede and sometimes foreshadow that too-early established death, including a memorable and excellent two-part team-up with Batman.
But thirty years ago, when Mage was eagerly awaited every other month, that would have seemed unlikely. Grendel was only its back-up, not even a comic as I’ve already said. It was Mage that would be the masterpiece of Matt Wagner’s career.
That series from Comico was subtitled The Hero Discovered, and it was published between 1984 and 1986. It was to be the first of three limited series, each of fifteen issues duration, set to tell the complete story of Kevin Matchstick – visually Wagner himself – and Mirth, the Worldmage. After its completion, it was republished in three Graphic Novels by Starblaze, the then book publisher of the collected Elfquest, in the same format.
If you want to read Mage – The Hero Discovered now, you need to find those rare volumes.
Because the reason Mage is not going to be the primary work of Matt Wagner’s career is that thirty years later it remains Uncompleted.
In the beginning, the story seemed to be as crude as the artwork: Kevin Matchstick, an everyman, isolated figure, without ties or relationships, encounters a punky, perky street tramp who, we soon learn is a Mage: not just any Mage, but the Worldmage. Kevin resists believing, though he is quickly forced to accept that magic exists given Mirth’s display of it.
It also takes him some time to believe what Mirth has said about power being awoken in him: Kevin has great strength and is practically invulnerable, although this latter functions only when he is in serious danger. Indeed, despite the ever-increasing evidence, Kevin doesn’t merely have difficulties in believing that he now has a destiny, he actively resists believing, the more so the longer Mirth refuses to tell him all he needs to know.
There is, of course, an adversary, an incarnation of evil, the Umbra Sprite, with his five identical sons, the Grackleflints. They are in search of the Fisher King, which gave many people a great big stonking clue as to where exactly Wagner was going: that Kevin has started to come into his power gives them increasing problems and requires ever more serious menaces, drawn from Celtic myth, to try to overcome him.
But Kevin has servitors: the teenage girl, Edsel, who takes her own name from her favourite car, and who wields a mean baseball bat, and Sean Knight (another clue), the ghost of a Public Defender: they recognise Kevin for what he is and work for him, and sacrifice themselves when the time comes, for his defence.
At the end of issue 5, Wagner’s art took a leap in sophistication, and his control of the airbrush meant an increasing subtlety in colouring. Mage grew ever more complex and intriguing, until the final revelation that stuns Kevin into near inertia.
For Mirth is Myrthin, or Merlin, Edsel’s baseball bat is the current form of Excalibur and Kevin is the leader, the Pendragon, heir to the legend of Arthur.
Having accepted his role, Kevin mounts an attack on the home base of the Umbra Sprite, only to find him dead, killed by his son Emil, whose distinguishing characteristic among the Grackleflints is initiative. Kevin confronts the Wild Hunter, the horned God of the Pack, with antlered forehead, mounted on a motorbike and surrounded by dogs that bear the faces of those who have died for Kevin and the Pendragon. He brings down the house, literally, ending this phase of the menace.
The sequel was promised ‘soon’.
Apart from the Starblaze reprints, Wagner put Mage aside in favour of Grendel at that time. He did write and draw a short, four-part backup in Grendel 16-19 as a bridge to the second series, but plans along those lines were disrupted when the struggling Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990, leaving Wagner struggling for several years to regain the publishing rights to his two characters.
Because of this, it was 1997 before Wagner was able to publish Mage II – The Hero Defined, which appeared from Image Comics both as a fifteen part series and, subsequently, a four-part republication in Graphic Novel format, in comic book size.
Mage II was met by a mixed response from its audience, which flocked eagerly to the long-awaited sequel but recoiled from it when they found it radically different from The Hero Discovered. I admit to finding it hard to accept: thin, conventional, shallow in comparison to its predecessor. This was a purely emotional response, and an objective analysis counselled patience until Wagner had what he was doing. Which was giving his readers something different.
What disappointed people at the outset were changes in both art and story. Despite the evidence we had of Wagner’s range as an artist, his experimentation on giving the reader something unexpected, and intriguing, Mage II was drawn in a very straight, comicbook cartoon realistic style. Wagner used flat lines, black outlines, and a plain colour palette. The airbrush colours of The Hero Discovered were not to be seen. Stylistically, it was very conventional, and far from being in tune with contemporary approaches.
And it was fully in keeping with the story which seemed to offer no more than a more funky, less rigid form of superhero action. Kevin is teamed up with Joe Phatt (who can run incredibly fast) and soon meets Kirby Hero (now there’s a symbolic name for you) who is incredibly strong and invulnerable.
They, like him, are incarnations of mythic figures, Coyote and Hercules respectively. Kevin and Joe are on the ‘Nasty Hunt’, tracking down nasty predator creatures and despatching them, with no greater or ulterior purpose: Kirby is doing much the same in an interval from carrying out these Twelve Labours imposed on him by his Dad.
There;’s a certain amount of jostling for command between Kevin and Kirby: Kevin’s the Pendragon, by definition a leader, and he definitely sees it as his role to lead and others to follow (whether they agree or not). Kevin sets priorities, aims and goals and cannot understand why Kirby insists that his burden is more important to him than Kevin’s exploration of a growing menace that draws them and a whole host of other ‘superhero’s to a Canadian town where the Pale Enchanter is brewing up a plot.
There’s the Prester, the Hornblower, the Dragon Twins and more: they don’t wear costumes but they each have superhuman abilities and credentials: it’s like a more serious version of the Justice League International only with less team-work. Only the Hornblower (whose Horn, in a manner typical of this slightly loopy take on superheroes, is actually a kazoo) is seriously loyal to the Pendragon, and Kevin’s discomfiture at this, and his irritation, leads him to send his most supportive ally to his death.
Is there a Mage involved? Kevin hasn’t seen Mirth in god knows how long, but he knows he’s prophesied three Mages. It’s just that he cannot believe that street tramp Wally Ut is the second Mage. Wally’s a bit of a joke, like the Hornblower, which was again a characteristic of The Hero Defined, as if Wagner found this superhero stuff to be risible and couldn’t keep from taking a rise out of it.
Nevertheless, the danger is serious. The story leads to a long underground sequence of growing seriousness. The Pale Enchanter is ultimately revealed to be Emil Grackleflint, who is disposed of by the returning Umbra Sprite. It is he who draws off the evil, for now, not Kevin who forces it away.
Because this is a very bad ending for Kevin. His insistence on having his way takes over Kirby’s next Labour, destroying it and alienating both Kirby and Joe. Wally is revealed as being indeed the Worldmage: in fact he’s Mirth, in another incarnation, yet Kevin has resolutely refused to listen to anything Wally said. And in forcing himself in his arrogance into a conflict that was not properly his to begin with, Kevin has done the unthinkable: he has destroyed Excalibur.
An astonishingly dark ending and an extraordinary set up for Mage III – The Hero Denied.
Mage II appeared from 1997 to 1999, with the initial collections appearing at intervals from 1998 to 2001. Those of use who had undergone a ten year dealt to read it were prepared to deal with another decade for the final part of the Trilogy but it is now fifteen years and the most we have on the prospect of The Hero Denied is ‘soonish’, a publication interval that does not appear in anyone’s previews.
If Mage III were to miraculously appear on the schedules in 2015, that would be thirty-one years since the story began. Matt Wagner had in his mind a clearly-defined trilogy. How detailed that vision was in respect of book 3, no-one but he will ever know, but in 2014 he is not the same man, the same artist or writer he was in 1984, learning his trade, extending his skills. Whatever the third part will be, it will, by definition, not be what he originally intended.
It might very well be better. If Mage tells the story of Kevin Matchstick, might it not be very fitting and the best thing that could happen for him to be seen at three different times by an author who has grown older and more experienced? Maybe. Or maybe, as such things have gone before, the extended scale of time, the removal from the impulse that drive the story in the beginning leads to an inability to recapture what made the story so fascinating at the outset.
Because we readers have gotten thirty years older and thirty years more experienced, at the same time as has Wagner.
As thing stand, the story of Mage is like The Lord of the Rings as if The Return of the King had never been written or filmed. It is Uncompleted. Unlike the two Swamp Thing examples, it could be completed. But a long time has passed. We may yet find that, in Harlan Ellison’s superb phrase, The Wine has been left open too long and the Memory as gone flat.
We would need the story to be completed to know whether that is so and I have given up any expectations that that will ever be so.
P.S. I got that wrong, much to my delight. Come and witness my mea culpa.