Dad Comics and Matt Wagner's Mage: The Hero Denied #1

Mage: The Hero Denied #1
Written and drawn by Matt Wagner
Colored by Brennan Wagner
Lettered by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics

Mage: The Hero Denied #1 opens up paying tribute to the very first issue of Mage back in the 1980s. But instead of walking down a city street and encountering a bum, Kevin Matchstick is now strolling through a park, trying to catch up with his young son Hugo. It’s weird seeing our Kevin Matchstick as a family man. I mean, he started out a bit of a loner in the eighties, walking down a street one night before meeting some street vagrant who would end up changing his life. Since then, we’ve seen Kevin make all kinds of allies and friends on his journey. We’ve seen him be a fighter, a warrior, and even a leader but this is the first time we’re seeing him be a father. Instead of singing “Teenage Rebel! Rule! Rule! Rule!,” this older man is now singing “My spirit gets soooo downhearted… sometiiimes.”

Part of this weirdness admittedly is my own relationship with Kevin Matchstick and Matt Wagner. I came to Mage through the collected version of Grendel: Devil By the Deed and the Pander Bros. issues of the first Grendel full-color series. Most of the first Mage series was done and I think I only ever bought the last two issues of it off of the new comics rack. Everything else was from back issue diving. But in one form or another (ah, those Starblaze/Donning editions that I still worry about falling apart every time I open them,) Mage: The Hero Discovered has been in every house and apartment I’ve lived in for the past 30 years. It’s one of those formative books to a young Scott Cederlund. The second series isn’t nearly as burned into my brain but it still ranks up there as some of my favorite comics because of character and creator.

So, I was just a young man, a bit younger and maybe not as cynical as Wagner was when he introduced Kevin Matchstick to the world. When Mage: The Hero Defined came out, I was married and trying to figure out things like responsibility and purpose in life. It’s probably a bit nerdy to say but I feel like I can trace my life along the run of these 30 or so issues. So now it’s 2017, I’m still married, have a son and a house in the ‘burbs. Until recently, life seemed pretty good and safe out here in the western suburbs of Chicago but now the world seems to be going mad and this once safe world is now pretty threatening. Funny how once again in Mage: The Hero Denied #1 that fiction seems to be an eerie mirror of reality. 

Walking through that park, singing Elvis Costello's “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” Matchstick seems to be enjoying the idyllic state of his life even as he’s aware of the constant and looming danger. That’s the weird state that seems to be becoming the norm lately-- looking for peace while knowing that the world around us is tuned for war. Brennan Wagner’s colors reflect this dichotomy of nature and destruction as his father’s story treats the violent world as a monster-filled allegory. The monsters in Matchstick’s world are quite literally monsters, things that have stepped out of a nightmare and try to take us down every day.

But Matchstick doesn’t flinch from these fights. Stepping into the mystic realm to battle, Matchstick recognizes his foes for what they are; a mere diversion. “Your master must be kinda desperate. Sending the likes of you against me,” he chides them. This fight isn’t so much the war but a skirmish or maybe even an opening salvo. It’s an indication to Matchstick that the safety and peace that he thought he had isn’t quite as secure as he hoped.

More so than in the previous 0 issue (reviewed here,) Wagner lets us know what this story is going to be. It’s not about the warrior but it’s about the family man, the father who has to think about his wife, son, and daughter. That was the lesson that Matchstick had to learn in the last series; to think and make decisions with other people in mind. As this Matchstick is about 10 years older, those lessons have become his normal, everyday thoughts and responsibilities.

Wagner’s original story hit me all those years ago because it was about this weird, superhero-ish rebellion of our hero as he discovers that there is more in the world than were dreamt of in his philosophies. The second series didn’t have that same effect on me but maybe I was a bit too close to Kevin Matchstick to see the story that Wagner was actually telling. But right out of the gate, Mage: The Hero Denied #1 takes me right back to that first series, only 30 years later. Once again, it’s easy to project myself onto Matt Wagner’s own semi-autobiographical avatar and instinctively understand where Wagner and Matchstick are coming from.