Best Shots Advance Reviews: MAGE - THE HERO DENIED #15, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER #2, FORGOTTEN QUEEN #1

Valiant Entertainment February 2019 cover
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: Image Comics

Mage: The Hero Denied #15
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Back in the 1980s, Matt Wagner promised that his Mage story would be a trilogy of series following the life and times of his semi-autobiographical character Kevin Matchstick. It’s only taken 35 years, but Wagner finally wraps up his trilogy this week with Mage: The Hero Denied #15. Fighting for kith and kin, as well as alongside them, Matchstick’s story about warriors, legends and family takes him to the heart of darkness, the Umbra Sprite, a being of ultimate evil. Over the years, many allies have come and gone, so it’s only right that in the end, it’s Kevin, his wife, his son, his daughter, and the worldmage Mirth in the end, fighting against this evil. There’s no great master plan to take over the world, no wanting to burn the world, no long standing rivalries. The battle between good and evil in this ending is just that; two epic forces fighting just for the ability to exist. This isn’t going to be a battle about compromise or reconciliation. Matchstick versus the Umbra Sprite is ultimately for survival and existence.

That makes Matt Wagner’s life work sound rather heady. And if you take the Mage series, along with its counterpart Grendel, as a statement of the efforts of evil or corruption in this world, Wagner does tackles some fairly big concepts in his writing. Borrowing heavily from Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero's journey, Wagner tackles our own legends and myths in the world of Mage. Kevin Matchstick exists as a metaphorical, modern-day extension of King Arthur, complete with magic baseball bats that stand in for Excalibur. Other characters in the series reflect other legends and gods, but even more importantly is how these characters reflect Wagner, his family, and his friends. Just as he uses legends to flesh out who his characters are, you can also view them as people in Wagner’s own life. If Wagner is Kevin Matchstick, it doesn’t take that much to see this as a tale about his own wife and children as well. Even the creation of this comic extends to his family, as Wagner’s son Brennan has colored this last series.

Wagner’s drawing is as confident and accomplished as it’s ever been. Through these three series, we got to watch the artist grow from a young, relatively inexperienced cartoonist to the bold and professional artist that he is today. In each series, he’s allowed himself the extravagance of one multi-page fold-out spread. Not a showy or extravagant artist, he’s a storyteller who doesn’t want the imagery to get in the way of the story he’s telling. You can see in other artists how they try to define the story through their images. Once upon a time, Wagner did this with his Art Deco approach to Grendel: Devil by the Dead. But that book is visually great because Wagner approached the art in a way where it defined opulence and tastes of the character.

In this final issue of Mage: The Hero Denied, we see Wagner working in the style that’s purely his own. No other artist looks like him, with his simple, solid figures and his precise and crisp visual storytelling. Building his art around his characters, he concentrates on Kevin, his wife Magda, and their children. Narratively and visually, his art works by focusing on actions and reactions of his heroes and villains. In this story about how his past and his perceived destiny have put his family in the path of his enemies, much of this issue is Kevin reacting to the dangers that his family is in because of him. In many ways, he’s the one responsible for what his family is facing, or at least he thinks that even if Wagner shows how they’ve all made their own decisions along the way leading up to this final issue. For Wagner, Kevin’s sense of responsibility is his ultimate strength, even if the character himself considers it his greatest weakness.

It is inevitable that this series’ final battle was family versus family. Since the earliest days, the Umbra Sprite has used its sons and daughters to attack Kevin, while the hero has searched for allies who could never be able to truly follow him all the way in his journey. One way or another, he has always been abandoned by those allies. But here, in what is truly the end, Kevin has found those lifelong comrades in the most wonderful of places — the family that he and Magda have created together. For someone who’s either always been alone or abandoned before the climatic battles in the past, the end of Kevin’s journey isn’t about saving the world like he always thought it was going to be, but about saving his family.

Maybe that’s how the hero has been denied in Wagner’s epic story, as referenced in the series title. As Kevin’s devotion to the heroic quest that he has been on never allowed for there to be room for others (see the second series The Hero Defined for Wagner’s take on that), this battle sees Kevin choosing between fighting for the world in a mythological way and fighting for his family in a completely down-to-earth way. In this issue, there are even moments where Kevin forgets about legends or even good and evil and is totally devoted to Magda, Hugo and Miranda. It’s not so much that the hero is denied as it is that the “hero” is just out of mind as his roles as father and husband kick into high gear.

At the end of this run that began back in 1984, it’s hard to really judge this series without looking at the past 35 years. As a reader who has been there with Wagner since those early days, it’s easy for me to get lost in these three series and stages of Kevin Matchstick’s life. From those youthful days of being a know-nothing kid, to early adulthood with a chip on the shoulder and believing you could take on the world, to the days of watching your kids grow up and wanting the best for them, I’ll admit that there’s part of me that thinks I’m just the perfect age for this story. Looking back at Kevin’s story, I can see my own history wrapped up in Wagner’s work, recognizing times and events in my own life reflected in Wagner’s story.

So a large chunk of the satisfaction of this ending is that it’s an ending a lot of us have waited a long time for. But whether we’ve only read this past series or been on this ride since 1984, In this last issue we get to see a cartoonist who is in full control of his art and writing, able to create an emotionally resonant story of a man struggling to keep his family together. Working in allegory, Wagner’s tale in these last 15 issues has been the story of the struggles of a family who love each other but who have to fight against a world that wants to taint and corrupt them. There’s a lot of ways you can define their troubles if you wanted to relate this more to the real world, but Wagner uses his fantasy tale to talk about the everyday travails of life, love, and family. He just uses magical bats, Arthurian legend, and evil monsters as metaphors for things in our everyday lives.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #2
Written by Jordie Bellaire
Art by Dan Mora and Raúl Angulo
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“‘90s reference!” quips Buffy. “Powerful stuff.” When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first premiered on television a staggering 23 years ago, one of its defining features was its sharply contemporary outlook. Writer Jordie Bellaire is keenly aware of this in her reimagining of the cult series, a concept that will always have one foot in 1996 and the other firmly planted in 2019. Yet Bellaire proves with this second issue that no cow is completely sacred, offering interesting new takes on characters that dovetail into topical conversations.

Case in point is Cordelia Chase, described by Willow upon her reintroduction as “so nice and beautiful and smart.” Old-school fans will know that Cordy spent her initial appearances as a minor antagonist for the Scooby Gang, and this bit of unbalance offers a different vantage point for the existing audience. Newbies will still quite happily enjoy the intrigue of seeing the environmentally conscious Cordelia get drawn in by the magnetic qualities of the blonde stranger in a leather coat. Those taking their second trip through the Hellmouth may ponder what this more enigmatic Spike has in store for the the reigning Ms. Sunnydale.

As Bellaire weaves in these altered elements - and new ones like Buffy’s potential love interest Robin - you may not notice what she’s cleverly done with Xander. Which is kind of the point: as Willow’s blissful relationship with Rose, Cordy’s campaign for school president, and Buffy’s slayer duties continue, Xander is completely sidelined. It’s leading to a potentially interesting thematic union of high school isolation and entitlement, and using the beloved character of Xander as a vehicle for this might be her masterstroke.

If some of these changes are your idea of a nightmare, then artists Dan Mora and Raúl Angulo have anticipated your unease. The issue opens with a red-drenched corridor, peppered with zombified versions of familiar characters and several Dutch tilts for good measure. As Giles’ jaw unhinges like a python ready to feast, Buffy 2019 marks itself as a comic willing to serve up some genuine chills alongside the wry comedy.

Mora and Angulo maintain a faithful look and feel during the body of this issue, keeping the lights turned all the way up for the sunniest dale of them all. Character designs match the likenesses of the actors who filled the original roles, although the the artists have updated their wardrobes to match these modern times. Where they really get to cut loose is during the Druscilla/Anya scenes, a Gothic inspired sequence that ends with the reveal of a new demonic entity.

There will be readers who might wonder why this ‘remake’ is needed at all, but reimagining superheroes is a tradition at least as old as the medium of comics. Bellaire, Mora, and Angulo aren’t just remixing a classic TV show but breaking it down to its component parts and rebuilding it for a generation who may not have a connection to the original. By the time we get to the powerful final panels of this sophomore issue, Bellaire has shown us that this Buffy the Vampire Slayer redux is not only welcome, but absolutely necessary for modern audiences.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

The Forgotten Queen #1
Written by Tini Howard
Art by Amilcar Pinna and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Jeff Powell
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Tini Howard and Valiant Entertainment’s newest star gets half of a great debut in The Forgotten Queen #1. Divided between the time of Mongolian Empire and present day, Tini Howard introduces us to Vexana, The War-Monger, a hard-as-nails, punky new antagonist with the power to drive people to fight simply by being around them.

Vexana as a character is vintage Howard, all coarse language and cocksure charm as she cuts a bloody swath through time, having to barely lift a finger to inspire bloodshed. Couple that with with the burly sword-and-sandal inspired artwork of Amilcar Pinna and Ulises Arreola in the time of the Khan, and you have a debut ready made for the Valiant stable. But then there are the present day scenes. Though hobbled slightly by a clunky framing device, The Forgotten Queen #1 is very much on-brand for Valiant’s current character-focused output.

Starting with the good, fans of Tini Howard’s style and overall voice will find a lot to love in the pages of The Forgotten Queen. We will get to the past/present framing device here in a second, but the actual content of the Mongolian scenes and the origins of Vexana are all sorts of badass. Introducing another semi-immortal figure into the Valiant Universe, Howard walks readers through her powers and the times she has killed through, stopping only to focus on her budding relationship with Genghis Khan and another Mongolian warlord on the rise. Standing as sort of the antithesis of Valiant’s Eternal Warrior, Howard’s new leading lady fits in perfectly with the aesthetic of the line, and I hope to see her interacting with the larger world moving forward.

But it’s the issue’s framing device that keeps it from soaring. While Howard and the art team are wowing us in the sandy, blood-soaked past, they are also detailing a salvage operation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one that introduces a whole mess of characters and is somehow tied into the resurrection of Vexana into our time. Unfortunately, these scenes really sap the energy away from the sequences in the past and Howard doesn’t give us enough context as to how these characters fit into the scheme of the narrative beyond a few lines of dialogue. It isn’t a complete deal-breaker, as Vexana’s origins fall well into Howard’s wheelhouse, but these scenes do give the issue a stuttering start.

The stuttering energy also extends to the artwork at times as well. Again, the sequences in the Mongolian Empire are fantastic. Emulating other Valiant epics like Britannia and Savage, Amilcar Pinna and Ulises Arreola deliver historically accurate action blended with pulpy, hard knuckled page layouts like the montage like sequence of Vexana’s past and the issue displaying her prowess behind a sword. The pair really shine in the past, but once we cut back to the present, things start to get a little wonky. Though their work in the present has a gleaming, sundrenched sheer about it, their character models and staging become almost stiff and vacant. The closest comparison example I can give for the pair is the world of Salvador Larroca, at his best and worst. That’s not something that will completely break one’s enjoyment of the debut, but I feel we could have gotten better things from the pair had the script been more focused.

The Forgotten Queen #1 is a little from Column A and a little from Column B that is 100 percent Tini Howard, a writer whose attitude and attention to character detailing is a real boon for this debut. Pair that attitude with the weathered artwork of Amilcar Pinna and Ulises Arreola and you have a debut that has the potential to add something really neat to the tapestry of the Valiant line. Hopefully by next issue, the scenes in the present will add a lot more to it than they do the first.

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