There are “Firsts” that always stay with you. Your first love, your first Baseball game and the first piece of literature that you remember reading that really resonated with you are all things that come to mind (for me at least). I also count the first non-mainstream comic book series to actively blow me away amongst those experiences. I spent so many of my formative years growing up reading just mainstream DC and Marvel comics that I was oblivious to such things as alternative or independent comics. The mid-1980s was a most fascinating time in comics because the independent scene seemed to unexpectedly explode with new publishers and titles. This was the wave of creators, writers and artists, that gave us some pop culture icons (Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), some rather interesting explicit material (Cherry Poptart and Omaha The Cat Dancer) and one writer/artist’s insanely dense vision for what independent comics could be (Cerebus The Aardvark). Of course for every really great piece of independent comics material, there was plenty of derivative crap or awful attempt to re-invent the Superhero genre (pretty much anything put out by Continuity Comics). Then there are the true gems of Independent Comics, like Matt Wagner’s Mage: The Hero Discovered.
Now I am going to talk at length about Mage and why it is great but first I need to talk about the company that originally published the book and why they were important to comics in general. Comico (The Comic Company), was a small publisher out of Norristown, Pennsylvania, started by friends Gerry Giovinco and Bill Cucinotta. Starting as a black and white comic publisher, they were responsible for many well known writers and artists getting their first or earliest breaks. This includes writers like Bill Willingham (the architect of Fables) and Mike W. Barr (who had a run with a lesser known character you may have heard of called Batman). They complemented this with artists who would become fan favorite throughout the 80s and 90s. Names like Adam Hughes, Bernie Mireult and Steve Rude. They also had a talented young writer/artist named Matt Wagner. Wagner made his debut in Comico Primer #2, where the comic world was introduced to Grendel for the first time.
Grendel was an anti-hero, a ruthless assassin who worked to control the East Coast Mafia while being opposed by a cursed Native American werewolf named Argent who worked with the NYPD (trust me it isn’t nearly as goofy as it sounds). That was the simplest form of the story imaginable. Grendel was supposed to get its own series, but plans on that got nixed due budgetary reasons. What ended up happening was Grendel became a back-up story… in Mage: The Hero Discovered!
Make no mistake; Mage put Matt Wagner and Comico on the map. Yes Comico was churning out titles like Justice Machine and The Elementals monthly. Hell they were putting out 6 monthly issues of Robotech over 3 separate series and I’m not talking reprinting manga. Comico HIRED actual Western comics professionals to mimic the art styles of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimensional Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, the 3 TV shows from Japan that comprised the western adaptation of Robotech. Still, it was Mage that made the hardcore comic book fans sit up and take notice. It seemed to be the perfect wish fulfillment story. It was well illustrated and tightly written, and had characters that you just had to see what happened to in the next issue. It was what you wanted your perfect comic book story to be. Wagner entered into partnership with Comico for the rights to Mage, each party getting 50% ownership of the property. Outside of self-publishing, no creator was given a greater deal with his publisher that I can think of. Of course good things for Comcio didn’t last and by the early 90s they were bankrupt and what would’ve been their biggest project (Wagner’s Batman/Grendel) sat on the shelf until 1993 when the rights for Grendel and Mage reverted back to Wagner, giving him 100% control. Make no mistake though, Mage helped build Comico into the #3 Comic company in the early 80s, before that position was assumed by Dark Horse and Image in the 90s.
Now that we’ve discussed Comico, the next Question is: what is Mage: The Hero Discovered?
Mage: The Hero Discovered was like Matt Wagner took every wish fulfillment superhero story and then fused it with Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. It took the tale of a common man put into uncommon situations that end up being the catalyst for discovering what his true calling in life is supposed to be. It is a journey of self and an exploration of heroic themes that go back ages, to stories that were around before any of us were born. Mage is an old tale in modern clothing and yet doesn’t feel like something that has been rehashed. In the end What Mage: The Hero Discovered is, is Matt Wagner weaving a tale that is so rich, romantic and fun that it just might be the best comic series ever published. I say that with no small sense of hyperbole. Mage: The Hero Discovered is amazing. It gives you a hero you can relate to, villains that scare you and an ending so satisfying that you sit there at the end smiling with a warm fuzzy feeling. Mage: The Hero Discovered is like getting laid by a comic book. It is that good!
Oh you want the story?
Kevin Matchstick is a man, who by his own account is very much alone. He views himself as isolated and covers up his own isolation by being loud and rambunctious. He confesses this to a man he meets for the first time on the street. It is Mirth who questions Matchstick’s isolation with the question of “Are you sure your life is worth so very little?”. From that moment you know Matchstick’s life is going to change. He breaks up what he thinks is a mugging of a homeless man only to find out he is fighting something not quite human. Even more surprising is when Matchstick, much to his own bewilderment, punches a hole in a brick wall during the fight. The fight ends with the mugger running away and Matchstick returning home, only to find the man he opened up to earlier sitting in his apartment. The man is Mirth, a mage, who explains to Matchstick what exactly he fought earlier and how it wasn’t a simple mugging. No, he fought one of the Grackleflint brothers, Agents of a Great Evil that, simply by acting against them, Matchstick has now found himself involved in conflict with. In fact after Mirth leaves Matchstick’s apartment, Matchstick encounters 2 more of the brothers at a local diner and ends up brawling with them on the subway.
This all happens in the first issue. The last panel of the first issue is Matchstick crashing out of a subway window with another train coming at him head-on from the opposite direction. I shouldn’t have to explain that Matchstick lives after that experience. He not only lives but encounters Mirth again, who agrees to guide him through the coming conflict. His nemesis is a being called the Umbra-sprite. The Grackleflints serve him, as do many other supernatural beings. You, as the reader, know that Mirth is only giving Matchstick enough information along the way because there is going to be some awful revelation later. Still Matchstick and Mirth join the fight, picking up allies like the girl named Edsel, whose baseball bat gets enchanted with magical energy by Mirth and Sean, the Public Defender who turns out is dead. But remember, this is a hero’s journey of self and in turn the hero always suffers loss along the way. It is this loss that brings us to Mage’s Moment that gives it the #4 spot as one of Comics Greatest Moments.
The moment happens in Mage: The Hero Discovered #14 but it is the events of issue #13 leading up to it that put things in motion. Matchstick, Mirth and Edsel are attacked by a deranged man who had been given an enchanted stapler by the Umbrasprite resulting in Edsel getting shot. In the fray, her baseball bat that was enchanted by Mirth falls to the ground. Matchstick grabs it and uses it to beat their assailant. The aftermath is heart wrenching, as Matchstick demands Mirth help Edsel, who is on the ground dying from her wounds. Mirth explains to Matchstick that he cannot, it is Edsel’s fate to die at that moment just as she has died before while aiding Matchstick in his previous life. From the moment Matchstick met Mirth the 2 became friends, but Matchstick never stopped to ask himself why he stopped to speak to some seeming vagabond for no good reason. Mirth had been keeping secrets from Matchstick the whole time, mainly for Matchstick’s own protection.
But the moment Kevin Matchstick finally came into contact with the enchanted baseball bat, everything Mirth had been hiding became known to Kevin Matchstick. Kevin Matchstick is the re-incarnation of Arthur Pendragon and the glowing baseball bat is more than just enchanted, it is his weapon reborn in a new form, it is the holy sword Excalibur. Edsel was the re-incarnation of the Lady of The Lake, bearing Excalibur for him until he was ready to accept his destiny and become the hero he was meant to be.
Everything unravels for Kevin Matchstick at that point. He questions everything he had been doing up to that point, fighting the impossible, battling Grackleflints and even a dragon. He accepted those things not because he wanted to but because it was impossible NOT to believe it since he was living the experience. It is accepting that he isn’t entirely the master of his own destiny, that this was all fate that he has trouble coping with. For this he has Mirth, who has a counterpoint for every argument Matchstick has. Mirth can do this because he has lived through this experience as well, he knew what was going to happen for he is Merlin and is cursed with the knowledge of Matchstick’s heroic quest. Thus with all the arguments he could make countered by Mirth, Matchstick resolves that it isn’t about fighting against fate but about doing what is right. He has already been involved in the events until now so it is his obligation to see it through to the end. With that resolve in mind, Kevin Matchstick approaches the Excalibur-bat that is embedded in a dumpster due to the fight, and in one of the grandest symbolic moments in comics, accepts his fate.
Mind you, that isn’t the end of Kevin Matchstick’s story but it is the moment that sticks out most clearly as being the important moment. Everything that has been discussed about the Hero’s journey culminates in that moment when Kevin Matchstick finally takes everything that is going on around him seriously. It is essentially him growing up right there, in that exact moment. The symbolism in that moment is multi-layered, as good symbolism is. The bat coming out of the dumpster is an allusion to the sword in the stone, but it is also about taking responsibility of one’s self and one’s actions. It is about taking all the shortcomings and faults Kevin Matchstick finds within himself and accepting them so he can overcome them, so he can become not just a better hero, but a better human being. I love Mage:The Hero Discovered for this symbolism, for this playing with the concept of Campbell’s themes and Arthurian legend, and making them deeply psychological upon reflection.
Whether all of that was Matt Wagner’s intent is uncertain, though he has alluded to Mage, as a whole, being not just about Kevin Matchstick’s journey as hero but Wagner’s own journey and growth as a creator and person. In essence, Matt Wagner and Kevin Matchstick are one and the same. How utterly fitting, especially given the nature of the wish fulfillment aspect of Mage. I mean who doesn’t want to be King Arthur in some regards? Hey I’ve read Mort D’Arthur multiple times. Being King Arthur is no picnic but it is the ideal of King Arthur and what that represents to a child’s sense of adventure and imagination that matters. How that ideal applies to Kevin Matchstick, and Matt Wagner, is about maturation, albeit on a totally epic scale through the perfect medium for young boys to digest, comic books. I keep re-reading Mage: The Hero Discovered and I keep pulling back the layers to reveal depth I didn’t realize any of the previous times I’ve read it. Isn’t that proof enough of its greatness?
The scary part is Mage: The Hero Discovered is only the first part of a concienved trilogy that also includes Mage: The Hero Defined, which finally saw print in 1997 and the as yet unpublished (or even started on, as far as fans know) Mage: The Hero Denied. When it all finally sees its end, I truly believe Mage will stand os one of those crowning achievements of comics. Deeper in subtext than Watchmen and Wagner himself will be held in the same breath as the greats like Will Eisner and Alex Toth. So Matt Wagner’s journey is not done yet, which is kind of a good thing because it means that neither is Kevin Matchstick’s.