This week, readers will finally get to read more of Matt Wagner's Mage as the writer/artist begins the series' final volume with the fifteen-part miniseries Mage: The Hero Denied.
More than 30 years ago, Matt Wagner released the first chapter of Mage, receiving rave reviews and creating a loyal fan following.
After the first volume, The Hero Discovered, was published 1986, fans waited more than 10 years for the second volume, The Hero Defined, which was released 1997-1999.
Now 18 years later, this week's release of Mage: The Hero Denied #1 from Image Comics is Wagner fulfilling his promise that the story would form a trilogy when it was finally completed.
Wagner has been working in the comic book industry for decades, having created the acclaimed Mage and Grendel series for which he's been nominated for an Eisner and won an Inkpot Award. He's also worked on several Batman stories, various books at Vertigo and other projects in the comic book industry.
Newsarama talked to Wagner to find out more about his final Mage story, why it took so long to get to this point, and what readers can expect from The Hero Denied.
Newsarama: Matt, I'm sure you always knew you'd come back and finish this trilogy. But it's been a while. What brought you back to Mage now?
Matt Wagner: Mage has always been a special kind of project for me. As most people know, it’s not only my interpretation of the classic "Hero’s Journey," it’s also what I describe as an allegorical autobiography; the trials and adventures of Kevin Matchstick are directly inspired by the events of my own life.
As a result, I also like to say that I don’t really decide when it’s time to work on Mage... Mage decides when it’s time for me to return to this narrative!
I don’t really think much about Mage during those intervals between when I’m actually producing the books of the trilogy. In fact, I try to not think about Mage during those times. I don’t want any of my ideas to grow stale while waiting for “that time” when I feel the undeniable pull of this storyline once again. But then, I suddenly reach a stage in my creative output where I find that I can’t think about anything but Mage. That’s where I found myself about a year ago… and I knew it was time to contact Image Comics and tell them that I was ready to produce the third and final Mage series.
Nrama: This volume is called The Hero Denied Why "denied" this time around?
Wagner: When this book of the trilogy opens, some time has passed since the events of the previous volume, The Hero Defined.
After first denying his destiny as the reborn Pendragon in Book One - The Hero Discovered, Kevin tried a bit too hard to fulfill what he saw as his heroic role. By the time of Book Two - The Hero Defined, he became arrogant and bossy in a way that didn’t sit too well with his heroic companions. His bullheadedness even seemingly led to the destruction of his mythic legacy and the source of his power, the weapon Excalibur.
Disheartened and even more confused about his path, he retreated from that world of magic and monsters and has since tried to rebuild a “normal” life with his true love, Magda.
Thus…The Hero Denied.
But, as Kevin has learned several times in the past, the dark forces that compel his role as the Hero don’t really give a damn what he wants and, like it or not, he will have to confront those enemies once again.
Nrama: So how long has passed in the story as you start this volume? When does this take place in the Mage timeline?
Wagner: Mage: The Hero Denied #1 takes up nearly 10 years after the events of The Hero Defined. "The Third Interlude," which is basically a short-story motif that I’ve traditionally used as a bridge between the books of the trilogy, was published in July as a half-sized issue - The Hero Denied #0. That story takes place about two years after Defined.
I don’t really provide a definite timeline as a frame of reference in the book itself since I like the story to just flow with no interruptions. OK, well…except for the many years between publication of the books themselves!
Nrama: You've explored different themes in your Mage books. On what part of the Mage mythology does this story focus?
Wagner: The first book of the trilogy centered distinctly on themes and motifs found in Celtic and Arthurian legends. The second book broadened that focus to include both heroes and mystic forces from other myth cycles.
The third book still retains that broad spectrum but also leans heavily towards the Arthurian myths once again. This is due to the fact that, like all of us, once Kevin accepts his role he develops a sense of identity based on his own experiences and the cultural history that he embodies. He still thinks of himself as the Pendragon even though he’s been shown that there are other ways to interpret both his role and the source of his power.
Nrama: How versed in the history of Mage does a reader need to be in order to read this volume?
Wagner: I think anyone can pick up any book of the Mage trilogy and pretty quickly be up to speed on the story motifs and characters. Since each part of the trilogy is such a distinctly different part in Kevin Matchstick’s life (and mine), the structure and vibe of each book is fairly singular although it’s still clearly a linear part of the overall narrative.
Of course, it’s definitely a richer experience for the reader to have read and enjoyed all parts of the trilogy, which is why Image Comics is repackaging both Book One - The Hero Discovered, and Book Two - The Hero Defined as part of an affordable six-volume series that will collect the entire epic saga. These are not deluxe editions but meant more as basic volumes aimed at enticing new readers and perhaps providing reading copies for those more longtime fans who’d like to refresh their familiarity with the story.
Over the years, we’ve released high-end hardcover editions of both the first two books in the trilogy and we will definitely be producing a similar volume once publication of The Hero Denied has concluded, enabling fans to complete that set as well.
So, while I’m certainly eager to appeal to new readers… especially since there’s already such a wealth of material for them to dive into… I’m also anxious to reignite interest in some of my older readers, many of whom might’ve fallen out of the habit of reading comics over the years.
Nrama: Mage started quite a while ago. Looking back at your time with this story, how has the story evolved since it first started?
Wagner: I really never consciously intended to make this such a metaphor for my own experiences. Initially, I was simply trying to provide a visual springboard for my main character and trying to follow that old creative maxim - paint/write what you know.
As the story progressed, its relationship to my life became more and more clearly evident. And truthfully, that’s not really such an odd turn for cartoonists in particular and artists in general. Charles Schultz absolutely was Charlie Brown as a boy and the Rocketeer certainly was Dave Stevens’ alter-ego. Mike Mignola has a whole lotta Hellboy in him, Mike Allred is Madman through and through and, if you really know Jeff Smith…well, he’s Bone!
The point is… creators can’t help but invest a huge amount of themselves into their most personal works. One of the reasons Mage has taken so long to complete is that the various stages of my life needed to unfold before I could properly reflect upon and interpret them.
Book One - The Hero Discovered was produced fairly concurrent with the events of my life at the time. With Book Two - The Hero Defined, approximately five years or so had elapsed following that next phase of things for me. And Book Three - The Hero Denied kind of demanded an even longer period of experience and reflection.
As a result, there’s just no way I could have predicted any specifics about the various books of the trilogy until I sat down to actually produce them. How has this story evolved? It’s still evolving!
Nrama: Then is that true for you as well? Or maybe more particularly, how have you evolved as a creator since Mage began?
Wagner: Well, that question’s a bit more easily answered since it’s all so visually evident. I was only 23 years old when I began the first Mage series and, quite frankly, my work was fairly crude by any standard. But I was eager to determined to become a better artist and story-teller and that really shows as the series unfolds.
In fact, my gradually increasing skills work as a metaphor for the progression of Kevin’s own journey, his increasing power and coming to fruition in his heroic role. When the second series first premiered with Image in the late '90s, I’d moved on to a different stage of my artistic path and that stylistic difference was a bit off-putting to some fans of the first series, I know.
But looking back on it now, there really isn’t a huge disparity. To my eye, both The Hero Discovered and The Hero Defined are clearly the work of the same creator at different stages in his career. Despite the minimal rendering variations, they are definitely the work of the same author telling the same type of narrative.
Now, as we come to the final stage with The Hero Denied, it’s pretty much the same way; there’s a visual familiarity here that longtime readers should find comforting. But my creative skills have attained a maturity and confidence that I feel acts as the perfect conclusion to this Hero’s Journey, both Kevin’s and mine.
One aspect of the maturation found in this last book is the fact that it’s being colored by my son, Brennan Wagner. In fact, I’ve been joking around about how there was such a long stretch between Defined and Denied that I was able to breed and raise my own colorist! And he’s been doing a fabulous job on this series.
Having basically grown up in my studio, Brennan’s just very much in tune with my creative instincts and knows how to use color to bring my work to its fullest realization. We’re both really proud of how it’s all turning out.
Nrama: With this being the final volume of the Mage story, is it bittersweet to finish?
Wagner: Not so much bittersweet as “fulfilling.” Again, this is a path I started many, many moons ago, and to be able to still feel such passion and gratification in a narrative that’s basically grown up with me over the years…well, it’s a real privilege to have had that experience. I’m still having it, in fact!
Nrama; Is there anything else you want to tell fans about your return to Mage, and the start of the final volume?
Wagner: The Hero Denied #1 is premiering this week but, production-wise, I’m nearly halfway done with the entire series. For all those fans who’ve stuck with me for this long and for all those brand new readers who might only now be getting onboard with the Mage journey, trust me when I say - no one has any idea of where this is all headed. There are many surprises in store and I hope you all end up as thrilled with this tale as I’ve been delighted by authoring it. Magic is still green!