The Legend of Old Men-- thoughts on Matt Wagner's Mage: The Hero Denied #0

Mage: The Hero Denied #0
Written and drawn by Matt Wagner
Colored by Brennan Wagner
Lettered by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics

I don’t know if I can be the calm, cool, objective critic of Matt Wagner’s Mage: The Hero Denied #0. Now I can’t say I was there from the beginning in 1984 but I was there for the end of the beginning in 1986 when Kevin Matchstick learned his first important lessons about responsibility and guilt and I’ve been following his creator Matt Wagner ever since. From Grendel to Sandman Mystery Theater to various Batman and Shadow stories, Wagner has operated in the shadows of pulp and noir. But we’ve seen him step out of the darkness before with the two previous Mage stories and are about to see it again with Mage: The Hero Denied. With a zero issue out this week, Wagner shows that he’s not going to take being one of the “old timers” of comics laying down.

“Third Interlude” mirrors the second one that started the last series. In that story 20 years ago (was it really out in July 1997?,) Wagner told a story of Kevin Matchstick meeting his contemporary heroes and adventurers. Told only eleven years following the first Mage series, Matchstick was still kind of impulsive, brash and arrogant, even with heroes that were his equals. In Mage: The Hero Denied #0, Wagner puts Matchstick in the position of being the wise, old hero, watching a new generation of impulsive, brash and arrogant adventurers have their day in the sun. Sound familiar at all? And remember that a large part of the Mage series is autobiographical.

Wagner’s story shows a Kevin Matchstick who is still maybe that proud and slightly arrogant hero but he’s also not looking for every opportunity to prove himself. As The Steeze, a braggart of the new generation of heroes, takes every possible opening he has to prove to Matchstick that he’s just as good as, if not better than, the “old man,” Matchstick sits back, watches the show, knowing that some mistakes have to be experienced to be learned. It’s the mythic hero version of tough love. But even hanging back, Matchstick takes the time to make sure that the job is done completely and any monsters, big or little, are properly dealt with. With great responsibility must come great patience in dealing with the upcoming generation of would-be world savers.

It’s great how Wagner shows the over-eagerness of The Steeze and the cool confidence of Matchstick. The prancing young hero is only too happy to strike a hero pose as he whizzes around on his mystic skateboard to blast little, creepy monsters. Meanwhile, Matchstick leans against some crates, watching even as he knows that the little nasties are only a distraction. “Let the youngblood take care of the easy targets,” his smirk says even as he offers just enough assistance to keep The Steeze from doing any serious damage to himself. 

Brennan Wagner’s rich colors and Dave Lanphear’s descriptive lettering emphasize Wagner’s storytelling, providing highlights to the speech and actions of these two heroes while also showing just what the difference is between them. These complementary visual elements all work together to use the language of comics to tell the story. It seems like such a simple thing but Lanphear’s sound effects feel like something out of a 1980’s comic, maybe even leaning into some of the autobiographical elements of Wagner’s story. When so many modern comics try to play down the lettering into an “invisible art,” Lanphear makes the lettering here bold and visually part of the story being told.

After almost 20 years, Matt Wagner is back and ready to begin the final part of his trilogy. So far, the hero has been discovered and defined but now he’s being set up to be denied. “Third Interlude” shows us where Kevin Matchstick is today and give us a hint at his role in this world. Wagner’s storytelling either eases us back into this world or it may be an introduction, depending on your experience with Kevin Matchstick’s story. But like his character who is cool and confident, Wagner uses this comic to show that while there have been a lot of comics and creators who have been the “next big thing” over the years, Wagner is still one of the best cartoonists around.