Matt Wagner has written and drawn comic book characters of all shapes and sizes at many publishers, but he's still most closely associated with two of his own creations: Mage and Grendel. While the Grendel saga has certainly generated the higher number of pages, it's Mage that is clearly the more personal of the two. And now, Wagner has begun the third and final 15-issue series in his comic book trilogy with Mage: The Hero Denied #1, as his protagonist faces the most dangerous and deadly challenge of his life. Namely, a family.
The first two entries in the trilogy (Mage: The Hero Discovered and Mage: The Hero Defined) introduced us to Kevin Matchstick, the reincarnation of Arthur Pendragon himself. Wielding a magical baseball bat with the powers of Excalibur, Kevin fights off dark spirits and mythic creatures with the aid of a mystical advisor with the title of the World-Mage (Mirth in the first volume, Wally Ut in the second volume). But as Kevin defeated his foes, it always came with a price. In the first series his allies all perished, while in the second series his allies abandoned him on account of always thinking of himself above others. And in doing so, it set up the final page of the second series -- Kevin's proposal of marriage to Magda -- and his new situation as a husband and father in the pages of Mage: The Hero Denied #1.
Wagner's strip attempts to strike a balance between the two sides of heroism. Kevin is raising two children with his wife, even as the supernatural continue to manifest. The attempt to find a balance isn't lost on the reader; as Kevin tries to connect to the World-Mage through the ATM card he was given years ago, he admits that his duties as the Pendragon have fallen to the side. The mythical Fisher King is still missing (the living embodiment of mankind's goodness not having been seen since its form as a stray cat was revealed in the climax of Mage: The Hero Discovered) but instead of looking for him, he's busy being a father. At the same time, Kevin is serving as a hero of a different sort. When Kevin senses an eminent attack, his first priority is not to prepare his weapon, but to send his son Hugo to safety. And when it's potentially time to pick up stakes and move to avoid the Gracklethorns from finding their family, his first thought is how much his wife loves where they live.
Mage: The Hero Denied #1 is hardly just a book about parenting, though. Kevin's fight against the magical foes is a real joy to read. The hobgoblins in all of their different forms look genuinely eerie, from a flying wart-covered snake with a woman's slavering head, to a glowing legless ghast with extremely long arms. When Kevin uses an energized branch to shatter a boulder, for example, the recoil as the pieces go flying gives a beautiful sense of motion. Wagner's characters have such a level of energy that even four or five pages feels like much longer because he plunges you into the action.
What's of particular note is how well the coloring works with Wagner's art. They're by Matt Wagner's son Brennan Wagner, but Brennan definitely earned this job by his skills. The colors often look painted onto the pages themselves, in bright, radiant hues as appropriate and bringing an autumnal park to life. He's also good at using a limited palette when the occasion calls for itself. The reds and blacks of the Gracklethorns' base are simply gorgeous, drawing the eye in and accentuating everything from the confident stance of the Umbra-Mother, to the devilish glow of the sky behind them.
Then again, it's hard to ignore the importance that family is playing in Mage. In The Hero Defined, Kevin's attempts to lead his fellow heroes resulted in his abandonment. His friendships crumbled and he found himself truly alone. In a series where Kevin's foes are often literal incarnations of depression, despair, and defeat, it's hard to ignore that this is a book where Kevin's one relationship that appears to have survived all of these years is that with his wife and children. This is where he's succeeding, finally. After looking at the failures littered in his wake, one has to believe that Magda, Hugo and Miranda's happiness will feature prominently. After all, Arthur Pendragon never had anything even resembling a happy marriage, let alone a family. The big reveal at the conclusion of The Hero Denied #1 is that Kevin and Magda are still together and doing quite well. No matter what happens going forward, this victory serves as a hopeful counterpoint to the admittedly grim subtitle for this miniseries.
With fourteen issues to go, Wagner's story of heroism feels as much about his own journey as an artist. Here we're seeing his alter ego at ease and collaborating at his best with his family, something that's also true with his real life. Could this mean that we can get the impossible for Kevin Matchstick: a happy ending? He still has to find the third form of the World Mage, protect the Fisher King from the oblivion of the Umbra Sprite, and as warned at the end of the second series, "cut through the crap [...] become what you envision." A tall order? Maybe not as hard as we'd first thought.