Mage III: The Hero Denied (and an apology deserved)

Just over three years ago, and as part of the series on Uncompleted Stories, comic book series that have never seen their full intentions come to fruition, I commented on Matt Wagner and what we had all, in the beginning, was going to be his most significant work, Mage.

Mage was conceived as three series, each of fifteen issues (the last of which being double-sized), representing different stages in the life of everyman, Kevin Matchstick (a metaphor for Wagner himself), who learns that he is the modern incarnation of the Pendragon: of King Arthur.

The first series, ‘The Hero Discovered’, appeared between 1984 and 1986, from Comico. The second, ‘The Hero Defined’, did not arrive until 1997, a delay engendered in large part by Wagner’s struggle to regain the rights to his work after Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990.

And after that a long silence, still prevailing in 2014 when I wrote. I had anticipated/resigned myself to another decade, but we were well beyond that period, and so I categorized Mage as Uncompleted, and that was that. Thankfully, I am not a prophet.

About four or five months ago, Wagner announced the appearance of ‘The Hero Denied’, to the same fifteen issue format, again to be published by Image Comics, who brought us the second series. And today, my visit to Forbidden Planet in Manchester has seen me bring back issues 1 and 2 of the final story.

It’s far too soon to pronounce. Wagner is still drawing in the same style he used for ‘The Hero Defined’, with his son Brendan as colourist. A decade has passed since the events of that story: Kevin may still go in for the same black-and-white Captain Marvel influenced t-shirts, but he’s bald on top. He’s also married, to Magda, witch and one of the Weird Sisters of Mage II, and they have two children, Hugo, aged about eight or nine, and Miranda, about two. They’ve been in hiding from the nasties, but chance has exposed Kevin, less than a week before Magda’s potion of pure protection will be ready, after eight years preparation.

The Umbra-Sprite is once again moving, as are the Sprite’s spawn, but these are now Grackle-thorns, and all six are female. They still hunt for the Fisher King, who was absent from series 2, but they still seek revenge upon the Pendragon, and especially now his children, of whom Hugo, by the end of issue 2, has learned that neither the world nor his Dad are what he’s so far been let to believe.

No sign yet of the Third Mage, he who will follow Mirth and Wally Ut, nor yet a glimpse of anyone who may be that Third representative of Magic, and no attempt yet to come to even a premature verdict on what I have read, nor will there be until Mage, but in this year when Twin Peaks came back, and when I took a thirty year old manuscript and made it something on the verge of publication, here’s another moment of unexpectedness, and resignation refuted, to make this world, at least momentarily, less of one where faiths fail, possibilities close and stories go without endings.

To Matt Wagner, my profound thanks.


A Sandman Mystery Theatre Disappointment

Amazon have just informed me that Volume 3 of the Deluxe Sandman Mystery Theatre collections has been cancelled.

This is what you call a pisser.

I assume sales didn’t justify it, so I shall blame you lot out there. Hustle and buy Volumes 1 and 2, persuade DC that continuing is commercially viable, and incidentally treat yourself to some bloody brilliant stuff, and I shall smile upon each and every one of you, fondly.

In person, if you’ll pay travelling expenses.

That’s Friday night buggered then.

From Uncompletion to Completion: welcome back Mage

A few years back, I did a series on Uncompleted Stories (of which one post remains unwritten, though I will get to it one of these days), about comic book series/stories which were never ended and which, by implication, would remain forever without an ending.

One such was Matt Wagner’s Mage: intended to comprise three series of fifteen issues, of which only two have appeared, then and now. Fifteen years had passed at that point since Mage II – The Hero Defined. It’s eighteen years now, but you may officially now laugh and point at me, and cry jeers about my lack of faith but, starting in May, we will finally have Mage III – The Hero Denied.

Like the second series, it will be published by Image Comics, in four blocks of four monthly issues, each block separated by a skip month in which the Graphic Novel compilation of each block will appear, which at least settles one question for me: I will forego my curiosity, my eagerness for the story, and I will wait for the books.

So: one more thing to anticipate. 2017 is rapidly becoming a year of unexpected comebacks: Twin Peaks, Mage, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books final book (when, oh when, will that be translated and published in English?) and even my thirty year old novel.

And Mage is going to take me into 2018 as well.

Now, all we need is another Play (or a dozen) from the Sandman Mystery Theatre and I’m almost going to be a happy bunny…

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance

The second Deluxe Reprint Volume of DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre arrived today, and I’m even more delighted to see that Volume 3 is already scheduled for July this year. It gives me hope that the entire series will be collected, including those later stories that missed out when the first Graphic Novel series was abandoned.

Volume 2 is thicker than the first, collecting as it does the four-part stories, ‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and ‘Dr Death’, and the never-before-reprinted Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual, an extra forty pages. This will be balanced out to some degree by Volume 2, which collates only two stories from the series, ‘Night of the Butcher’ and ‘The Hourman’ and completes itself with the one-off Sandman Midnight Theatre.

If a six-monthly schedule can be maintained, given that Volume 3 would take us to issue 34 of the seventy published, then we’re looking at six volumes for the complete run, finishing in early 2019. These Deluxe editions are brilliant: if I were independently wealthy, I’d be looking to translate my collections of Lucifer, Fables and Preacher into that format.

Of course, what would be completely and utterly ideal would be a new performance, a new play, the re-uniting of Matt Wagner, Steven T Seagle, Guy Davis, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and all the other denizens of the Mystery Theatre, advancing out of the dust and neglect to fill our eyes beneath the prosenium arch for four more Acts.

But it won’t be. It’s already eighteen years since the final, abbreviated play. Guy Davis no longer draws comics. The Mystery Theatre years sometimes seem as distant and distancing as the Thirties do when we re-read those tales. But to be able to re-read those tales, and to introduce them to new eyes without committing them to penury-by-eBay, is delightful.

Welcome back, old friends.

Theatre Nights: A Repertory Revival

I’m delighted to confirm the arrival of Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One, a single softback Graphic Novel collecting issues 1 -12 of the original series, the plays ‘The Tarantula’, ‘The Face’ and ‘The Brute’ into a single volume.

Better yet, it’s already possible to pre-order Book Two, comprising issues 13 – 24 (‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and Doctor Death’ PLUS the never before repeated Mystery Theatre Annual 1), due in January 2017.

Given that other Vertigo series such as Preacher and Lucifer have already been reissused in this kind of heavy-duty, big-chunk GN, until the entire series is available, I feel on safe ground in saying that this time DC are committed to putting the entire run into print.

That’s going to mean six Books all told, and if the Annual’s going to be collected in with Book Two – whose pre-order price is less than both the pre-order and actual prices of Book One – I’m expecting that Sandman Midnight Theatre and the two Winter’s Edge shorts will be made permanently available.

This is simply great news. I spent a lot of time and words a year or so back explaining just why this series was so utterly brilliant, and now you’re going to be able to get hold of it and see that I was right!

Uncompleted Stories: Mage

The Mage gang(s): l-r, Sean Knight, Edsel, Mirth, Kevin Matchstick, Wally Ut, Joe Phatt, Kirby Hero

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.

Theatre Nights: Two Short Stories

Vertigo: Winter’s Edge. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (plot and dialogue) and John K Snyder III (artist), Vertigo: Winter’s Edge 2. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer) and Paul Rivoche (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Throughout its publishing history, Sandman Mystery Theatre was published by Vertigo Comics, the Adult and Mature Reader imprint of DC Comics. Vertigo specialised in more adult material, dark, noirish, frequently imbued with horror: not blatant gore or gratuitous sex, but a genuine exploration of more serious themes, as the Mystery Theatre demonstrates.
In the late Nineties, Vertigo twice published Winter’s Edge anthologies, squarebound 96 page comics in which one of the imprint’s series would act as a framing device to eight page shorts featuring other series form the line. Sandman Mystery Theatre was represented in both.
Spirit of the Season, in 1997, was plotted by Wagner and Seagle, dialogued by Seagle, and drawn, in a neat, precise, slightly stylised manner, by John K Snyder III. The story is set in the Christmas season, starting with Dian and Wesley out Christmas shopping. Dian’s full of fun, though Wesley, whose thoughts lie behind this story, is his usual quasi-curmudgeonly self, focussing only on the emptiness and hollow materialism of a consumer oriented season.
The two separate: Wesley has something to do alone and Dian, joking about buying a girlfriend his Christmas present, is happy to let him go. Wesley’s destination, his intention, is uncharacteristic for an avowed atheist, believing in no religion. He is going to a synagogue.
It’s to do with another woman, and something he feels unable to share with Dian. But the woman is Marina Dodds, Wesley’s late mother, who (we learned in The Mist) was Jewish. Wesley has paid for an observance plaque, and for a candle to be lit in front of it every year on the anniversary of her passing.
There is no candle tonight, but it is no negligence on the part of the Rabbi, rather Wesley’s own failings, as his mother’s anniversary was a week before. The Rabbi gives him a Kaddish prayer to contemplate, to ease him: despite his beliefs, Wesley takes the prayer to a pew.
This short story is the only time in the entire run that we are treated to any insight into Wesley’s relationship with his mother. Though he hints that he was denied parental comfort and involvement as with his father, it’s plain to see that Wesley is still more closely involved with his mother’s memory, paying for rituals he does not believe in for her benefit, being protective towards the much-spat upon Jews. Where does he so much as mention his father’s Christian religion, or make any act in his honour?
In the pew, a young, beshawled woman sits, crying. Wesley offers support and learns her story: her name is Yora Zacoff and she is a refugee from Nazi Germany, spirited out by her father and, after his death, cared for and eventually married to an older guardian, Alexi. But the marriage was brief: four days ago, Alexi died of consumption, and she has not slept since, trying desperately to get money to pay for his burial.
The conversation is interrupted by gentile thugs, breaking into the synagogue to steal gold candelabra and candlesticks. They are confronted by the Sandman, who downs two of them, but the third is about top batter his way out before he is grabbed by Yura, fierce in the defence of her faith. She is about to get her head smashed in when the Sandman puts the last man to sleep.
The thugs may be collected by the Police before they wake, but the Sandman offers the brave Yora a gift: a small whiff of gas, to grant her peaceful sleep, and a release from her stress.
Wesley Dodds then rejoins Dian Belmont, ready now to share his story with her.
Spirit of the Season was a superb vignette, folding down a complex and moving story into a mere eight pages, a masterpiece of story-telling. In sad contrast, City of Dreams was an appallingly slight piece. This was published in late 1998, contemporaneously with Sandman Mystery Theatre 69, the penultimate issue. It was written by Seagle and drawn by Paul Rivoche, best known for his work on Mr X, a series with a background of futuristic architecture.
City of Dreams is also an eight-pager. It uses three full pages to depict a dream in which the Sandman pursues a man through a fantastic, futuristic city, ending with him leaping ostensibly to his death, only to survive and escape.
It then cuts immediately to an exhibition of a futuristic city, to which Wesley has dragged Dian due to his dream. The Christmas connection is her kissing him in public, despite the absence of mistletoe.
Both see the city’s architect attempting to throttle his partner. Wesley changes to the Sandman whilst Dian, claiming to be a reporter, pursues the man with questions.
He turns on her in a fury but the Sandman intervenes. This leads to a reprise of the dream fight and the leap from the balcony, although the result this time is a bathetic fall destroying the model, which was flawed in any event. The sole twist is that, in the initial struggle, the Sandman’s gasmask is partly displaced, and he gets a whiff of his own gas.
The final page effectively reprises The Goblin by Dian calming down the confused Sandman and sending him home.
City of Dreams is a very poor story, feeling bloated even at only eight pages, it’s story dull and negligible. The only point of interest in it is the near immediate repetition of the distracted Sandman as a potential menace. This suggests that Seagle planned to develop the schizophrenic nature of Wesley Dodds and the Sandman in future stories, and the potential menace one role has for the other. But it never was.
One sublime, one ridiculous. There is nothing now to detain us. We must return to the Mystery Theatre for its final performance.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their final call to performance, in a play titled The Hero.
Break a leg.