35 years ago, a 23-year-old Matt Wagner launched Mage - a modern-day Arthurian tale that was also a semi-autobiographical story for Wagner himself. And on February 27, 2019, that story ends with Mage: The Hero Denied #15 from Image Comics.
Wagner once again spoke with Newsarama about Mage - as he has done for decades here at Newsarama, and in it the now 57-year-old writer/artist digs into the final days of Kevin Matchstick, his last day drawing Mage, and how it's all come down to this one final story.
Newsarama: Alright Matt, bring the new fans up to speed. Where does the start of The Hero Denied find Kevin Matchstick?
Matt Wagner: The main character of Mage is Kevin Matchstick, a somewhat cynical everyman when the story first begins, he eventually meets a wily street wizard (the title character) who reveals that he is heir to a legendary power and destined to become the hero he never imagined himself to be.
The three stages of his journey make up the three books of the Mage trilogy—The Hero Discovered, The Hero Defined and the current series, The Hero Denied. The second series ended with some significant developments in Kevin’s role as a hero and his proposal to his beloved Magda. The latest and final series - Denied - begins with a #0 issue, which is a motif I’ve used throughout the saga to bridge the gap between each book of the trilogy. Here, we find Kevin still going through the motions of tracking down and hunting supernatural menaces but feeling somewhat out of place and disconnected from his role. The actual first issue of The Hero Denied skips ahead a few years to find Kevin and Magda settled down with a family and effectively retired from the world of magic and monsters that had become his reality. Unfortunately, those same familiar mystical threats soon reemerge to threaten their peaceful life.
Nrama: When/how did the story arc of The Hero Denied come to you?
Wagner: It came to me while I was doing it! This is a bit hard to describe but since Mage is an allegory for my own life, with most all of the characters acting as avatars for people I know and love, I really try to not over-think the creative process when it comes to this narrative. In fact, during the lengthy periods between publication of each book of the trilogy, I distinctly try to not think about Mage whatsoever. That’s mainly an effort to not become too tied down to ideas that might end up being stale or less pertinent when it comes time to actually write and draw each part of the saga.
I treat it like a Zen journey, where each step leads to another new adventure that I hadn’t foreseen. Even as I was finishing the art and story for The Hero Denied, I was uncovering small details and story motifs that weren’t there when I started.
Nrama: In this story, Kevin's reluctant to use his most powerful weapon, Excalibur. Why is that?
Wagner: As I said, Kevin and Magda have basically sequestered themselves away from the world of magic in order to provide a safe and “normal” environment for their children. In the story, we find out that there’s a farther-reaching plan they have in mind to fully guarantee that security, but in the meantime, they’ve gotta play it cool and not engage with the mystical realms.
Unfortunately, Kevin has learned over the years that drawing Excalibur means that its radiance stands out to his enemies. It’s like a glowing beacon that attracts more of the “nasties” he’d spent so many years trying to defeat. So, for the sake of his family, Kevin has attempted to keep his power bottled up and thus invisible to their enemies’ attention.
Nrama: The Gracklethorns have been looking for a Fisher King to kill since the first issue of Mage. Now that they've found him, he seems to be ok with being sacrificed? What gives?
Wagner: Mythologically, the Fisher King is a messianic figure…a medieval add-on to the Christ cycle. As we saw in #14, the Fisher seems to embody many aspects of other mythological beings, all of whom are associated with rebirth and renewal. Like Jesus, the Fisher King bears the cost of humanity’s failings albeit in the form of his being lame or, in some versions, in bearing a suppurating wound that will never heal. Unlike Christ rising from the dead, the Fisher King offers hope not in his resurrection but in his survival, by continuing onward despite his severe adversities.
Like many messianic figures, there comes a time when the ultimate sacrifice must be faced and they often seem to do so willingly, or at least with the realization that this moment was predestined. The Umbra Sprite has experienced a vision of an approaching confluence of mystical power…the union of "The Three." It seems like the Fisher understands this moment has arrived as well… and has stepped forward to see his part of the prophecy fulfilled.
Nrama: Every threat in Mage seems to get bigger and badder. We've gone from a lone Grackleflint in a trenchoat to a literal Goddess of the Underworld. What will be Kevin's last battle, and how is it bigger than the rest?
Wagner: Well, throughout the Mage saga, Kevin’s main opponent has been the scheming and malevolent power known as the Umbra Sprite, along with its various venomous broods. And so far, after years of story time and many, many published pages… the Pendragon has yet to ever meet the Umbra in face-to-face combat.
Nrama: In issue #15, Kevin and the Umbra Sprite are going to meet for their final confrontation. What will be going on in Kevin's mind at that point?
Wagner: There’s only one thing going through Kevin’s mind this entire series…how does he keep his family safe. All the rest of it, the Struggle and the inevitable face-off with his long-time enemy, are just secondary concerns to him at this point… the hero is seemingly denied. He certainly won’t shy away from the final battle… if that’s what it takes to make sure his family is safe and secure. But he doesn’t give a damn about filling any greater destiny or rising to any heroic heights.
He’s always been just an everyday guy, after all. But, consider this… fighting to preserve love, to protect the innocent and to ensure the tranquility of heart and home… isn’t that what a hero does? Perhaps… the hero isn’t denied as much as he thinks.
Nrama: You introduce Kevin's son, Hugo, into this story arc. Does he have a future story ahead of him? If so, what might it look like?
Wagner: Kevin’s in fact got a whole family in this arc… his wife, Magda, his son, Hugo and his daughter, Miranda. And while they’re vitally important to the course and outcome of this tale, the story is distinctly Kevin’s journey and tale.
Nrama: Things look really bad for a member of Kevin's family on the last page of issue #14. Will Kevin blame himself for what happens to his loved one?
Wagner: Well, I’d like to point point out that things look pretty bad for all the members of Kevin’s family by the end of #14. And of course he’ll blame himself if anything happens to them. I’d like to hope any father would feel the same.
And, naturally, that ties into him not fulfilling his heroic role in the first place. If he’d been active in “the field” for the past decade or so, would that have made some difference in the outcome of things? Would he still have ended up with his family facing such immediate danger, as they are now? By denying his destiny…has he doomed his family to the fate he’s been trying so hard to avoid? And, despite all his shortcomings and potentially bad decisions, will the hero inside him prevail in the end?
Nrama: Mirth is almost entirely out of magic. As Kevin himself runs out of power, we have to ask: Should Kevin fail, does Mirth have enough magic to defeat his enemy?
Wagner: That’s the big question, isn’t it? Kevin started off his heroic life by rejecting and not believing anything Mirth told him. He did the same with Wally Ut. Now, so many years later, he’s pretty much spent this series doing just the opposite… pleading with Mirth (or the next version of Mirth) to return and help guide him, all to no avail until now.
And, when Mirth finally does appear, he can’t fulfill his role in the manner that Kevin was expecting. Which calls into question the ultimate capacity of our title character; is he there as Kevin’s mentor or as his failsafe? Or perhaps…neither.
Nrama: In your mind, are there any other Mage characters who have stories beyond The Hero Denied? Fans certainly wouldn't say no to a spinoff...
Wagner: Again…this is Kevin’s tale. To follow the stories and lives of other characters from this narrative wouldn’t be Mage. Not to say those tales don’t exist… there’s just no way they’d be titled Mage.
Nrama: Just like Kevin's battle for good, your writing of this comic hasn't been you alone. Who would you say were the biggest helps/inspirations through 35 years of Mage?
Wagner: Like I said, Mage is a metaphorical saga based on my own life… what I like to describe as an allegorical autobiography. As such, I draw inspiration for the story from every aspect of my own experiences and relationships. But the whole thing first started from my interest in Arthurian legend, which began with a girlfriend I had in high school who was really into those narratives.
It was around that same time that I first read Mary Stewart’s classic trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, which presented the story of Arthur and Camelot from the wizard Merlin’s point of view. Shortly after that, I fell in love with John Boorman’s fantastic film Excalibur. Again, this was a version of the Arthurian tales that focused a lot of attention on the compelling character of Merlin, brilliantly portrayed by the late Nicol Williamson. Both of these obviously influenced me to title the series Mage and not 'The Pendragon' or some other other focus on the hero as opposed to the magical catalyst of the main character’s heroism.
Later, I learned more about what I had been instinctively developing when I was exposed to the work of famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, whom George Lucas acknowledges as a major influence on Star Wars.
Campbell’s academic approach to myth uncovered common archetypes that run through all of the world’s religions and seem to be hardwired into the human psyche. His most famous and seminal work is a book titled The Hero With A Thousand Faces wherein he breaks down the three stages of the classic 'Hero’s Journey' as reflected in legend after legend around the world and throughout history. Again, I knew little or nothing about Campbell’s work when I first began Mage but when I later read Thousand Faces, I was surprised and relieved to find that the motifs he listed for the first stage of the 'Hero’s Journey' read like a point-by-point plot breakdown for The Hero Rediscovered!
From there on out, my approach to the second and third volumes of the trilogy where more directly informed not only by Campbell’s work but also my life as a whole. What I’d initially begun out of instinct eventually became a more deliberate approach to creating my own personal myth.
Nrama: What have your interactions been like with publishers and fans, now that they know the story is drawing to a close?
Wagner: Well…I quite a of them seem a bit incredulous, like “Can this really be the end?” For a lot of my readers, the prospect of a new Mage series being promised further down the road seems to have been a bit of a lighthouse to which they could always look forward. I’d have to say that holds true for you as well… as quite a few of these questions reflect!
Nrama: Was this always the end you planned for Mage? If not, how has it changed?
Wagner: Again… I didn’t know the end until I got to the end. That’s not how I work on any other of the many stories I’ve woven over the years… Grendel, for instance. But Mage is something different and special for me, a real personal journey. When I got to the last issue of this series, I actually had to make a list of all the many narrative elements I had juggled into the air. I had to make sure I landed them all satisfactorily. But it wasn’t until I began that issue that I fully addressed how I was gonna do that. It might seem like a crazy way to weave a 1000-plus page epic saga…but that’s the way it worked for me.
Nrama: These characters' struggles go way beyond their current incarnations, from Kevin's former life as King Arthur to Mirth's as Merlin. With that being said, is this really the end?
Wagner: As I said, this is Kevin’s story. And yes…this is really and truly the end.
Nrama: What was going through your own mind as you drew the last panel of issue #15?
Wagner: The most immediate thought was that I’d successfully stuck the landing again…and that made me really happy. If you go back and look at the first two books of the trilogy, the final page marks a real statement of change and maturation on the part of Kevin Matchstick. He’s come beyond the situations and character flaws that were holding him back.
To my mind, the final page of The Hero Denied accomplishes the same goal. And sure, the ending was bittersweet but I also felt a real sense of achievement. This project that I’d started as a brash young wannabe 35 years ago had finally come to full fruition here in the prime of my creative career. This project that was so very personal for me had really stayed true to its artistic soul throughout three distinct and lengthy stages of my life. This project defined me as a story-teller like nothing else I’ve done before or since.
To commemorate the moment, I snapped this pic - me laying down my pen after having finished the final page. As you can see…my studio-mate is so excited, she can barely contain herself!