Mage: Matt Wagner and Personal Mythologies
April 24, 2019 | Jakob Free
Check out the finale of Mage, in stores now
Three and half decades have come and gone between the first and last issues of Matt Wagner’s Mage trilogy. The series protagonist, an everyman turned Arthurian hero named Kevin Matchstick has been—according to the subtitles of each Mage book—discovered, defined, and ultimately denied. For Kevin, the path of life was not a straight one. As it twisted this way and that, Kevin suffered wounds, gained wisdom, and changed parts of himself both inside and out. The same can be said about Kevin’s creator.
That’s probably because Kevin Matchstick and Matt Wagner are the same person.
Perhaps not exactly the same. Matt Wagner is a talented cartoonist from Pennsylvania who happens to be a very nice guy. Kevin, on the other hand, is the modern-day reincarnation of King Arthur (replete with a baseball bat version of Excalibur), locked in a long-running battle with an evil entity known as the Umbra Sprite. But, at least in the world of super heroics, the gap between creator and character has never been so narrow. For example, Kevin and Matt are more similar to one another than say, Todd McFarlane and Spawn, or Steve Ditko and Spider-Man, or Bill Finger and Batman. It’s because of Kevin and Matt’s similarities, the way both of their journeys have intertwined and impacted one another, that the Mage series is as delightfully idiosyncratic, inwardly philosophical, and as deeply heartfelt as it is.
As far as average Joes are concerned, a lot can change in 35 years. But what about a cartoonist who has committed a great deal of their creative energies over that period of time to a long-form semi-autobiographical comic book epic about warriors, sorcerers, and primordial forces of evil?
“I’ve always considered my career as a visual storyteller in terms of a personal journey,” Wagner said. “In fact, one of the most defining characteristics of the first book of the Mage trilogy—The Hero Discovered—is how distinctly the reader can see my skills grow and mature as the story also progresses. It actually mirrors Kevin Matchstick’s own blossoming powers and acceptance of his role as a hero.”
Kevin’s evolution as a character and Wagner’s approach show us that evolution can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Over the years, both men have tried to push themselves forward into being better, smarter, and more capable. “You’ve always got to be striving for more in regards to what you want to say and how you want to say it.” Similarly, both Matt and Kevin sometimes find a sort of victory in their own mistakes. “I still feel like I’m always exploring. I thankfully haven’t yet attained any sort… I even hate to use the word… perfection of my skills. Perfect is boring. It’s the glorious mistakes to be found in the bold and messy act of creation that I always find the most interesting.”
The Mage series is just as much a prismatic refraction of what’s happened to Wagner as it is a refraction of when it happened. “The fact that I produced the three different books of the trilogy at three drastically different periods of my life is vitally important to both the overall narrative and the visual reality of this saga. The whole point of Mage is that things change, times change, people change. I often say it’s about growing up whether you want to or not. I want the readers to experience the truth of that through Mage as a reflection of my own changing reality.”
Though the series has its fair share of fantastical elements—mystical weaponry, magic spells, monsters, and so forth—it also relies on a grounded reality to get its point across. According to Wagner, the initial concept for the story wasn’t so rooted in the everyday world it eventually inhabited. In the mid-’80s, Wagner had begun to assemble a story that concerned the rebirth of King Arthur in a futuristic setting. But Wagner abandoned the project in the days following DC Comics’ announcement of the sci-fi King Arthur maxiseries Camelot 3000. It seemed, at least at the time, that someone had beaten him to the punch.
“But then [Camelot 3000] came out, and it just did nothing for me. It was certainly beautiful and tightly written… but it offered few surprises and embraced the traditional superhero motifs too closely. I mean, King Arthur was basically wearing a Superman costume: red, blue, and yellow. And another thing that threw me off was the fact that the entire round table was basically reborn verbatim. They were still knights; they still wore armor and wielded swords. Merlin looked exactly liked anyone would imagine him: an old man with a long beard and cloak.”
For Wagner, the lack of relatable characters and a realistic setting to ground the Arthurian myth kept him at a distance from the work. “I didn’t know anyone like those characters. I didn’t know any knights, anyone who carried an actual sword. The people I knew were a bunch of young people in T-shirts and jeans, wandering around the city at all hours, driving old vintage cars cause that’s all they could afford. And some of them kept a baseball bat tucked under the seats of those cars, just in case.”
Luckily, for fans of the series and Wagner himself, the concept that would become Mage was suddenly back on the table. “So that led me to start again on my Arthurian tale… only this time via the settings and characters that meant something to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but [Joseph] Campbell would say I was personalizing my own myth.”
Matt Wagner has been personalizing his own myth for the last 35 years. He may no longer be in his 20s, but his journey’s end is nowhere in sight. He continues to work in the field of comics as both a creator of his own work and a writer/artist on some of the most enduring properties in the history of the medium. But according to him, one thing he will not continue to work on are the adventures of his alter ego, Kevin Matchstick. So, is this really the end of Mage?
“I used to get asked over and over and over again, ‘When are you going to do Mage II?’ or ‘When are you going to do Mage III?’ Now I seem to be getting a lot of ‘Is Mage really over?!’ At the risk of sounding redundant, life is a journey and art is a journey. And this part of my journey is over.”
—The entire Mage series is available now.