interview conducted by Henry Barajas, originally published in IMAGE+ #14
It has been 33 years since the publisher Comico originally printed the debut of MAGE: THE HERO DISCOVERED by Portland-based comics creator Matt Wagner. Now, Wagner is ready to unveil the epic finale, MAGE: THE HERO DENIED, this summer. Plus, he’s going to do it the good old-fashioned way: his way.
“I’ve had a long and productive career in comics, and MAGE is certainly my purest and most personal creation,” Wagner admitted. “Unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn’t turn to creator-owned projects after first coming up through the ranks at the mainstream 'Big Two' comics publishers. I was part of the initial wave of independent creators in the early '80s with both MAGE and my other title, Grendel. As a result, creating comics 'my way,' as you put it, became the only manner that I knew how to do things.”
Wagner was in the process of creating a comic about the return of King Arthur set in modern times until DC Comics announced Camelot 3000, a twelve-issue miniseries with a similar idea. He predicted that series was going to be an all-around better execution than his original idea. “I was still a very fledgling author and, truthfully, nowhere near ready to tackle such an epic tale,” Wagner said. “And that Brian Bolland fella sure drew a hell of lot better than I did!” Eventually, Wagner decided to run with his idea, but to take it in a more personal direction, and thus Kevin Matchstick was born.
“One day, I accidentally produced two sketches that changed everything for me,” Wagner said. “The first was a self-portrait, but a different version of myself than I’d ever drawn before...more brooding and world-weary. And the other was of a ragged but sprightly looking character who seemed to be half urchin and half street performer. Eventually, these sketches led me to personalize the myth that had been escaping me, to tell this story as an allegory of my own journey through life and all the challenges and monsters that I would eventually confront. When I later discovered and read the work of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, I realized that the hero’s journey is a tale as old as mankind itself. It has been told and retold by every generation and culture since the dawn of time, because this tale continually needs to be reinterpreted to meet the personal needs of each new generation and every global experience. This version—MAGE—is mine.”
Wagner is looking forward to pressing onward and, as his comic book doppelganger put it, ready to “get this shit over with.” The upcoming series is going to take place 10 years after the epic fight with one of the five Grackle Flint Brothers, Emil. “In THE HERO DENIED, we’ll see whether Kevin can advance beyond the 'agent of destruction' Mirth decried and evolve into something grander and more life-sustaining,” Wagner said. “But as we’ve seen time and again, old habits are often hard to break.”
Matt’s creation has had some long-lasting ramifications on some of the industry’s most prolific creators. The creators of the indie comic series turned hit CW show iZombie, Michael Allred and Chris Roberson, were die-hard fans of his work and eventually became friends with Wagner.
“MAGE feels classical and iconic and unique and ground-breaking at the same time,” Allred said.
“Readers who encounter the series for the first time now will likely not recognize how influential the book was when it came out,” Roberson said. “At a time when virtually every American comic series relied heavily on narrative captions and thought balloons, Matt made the decision to use only dialogue and sound effects, otherwise relying entirely on the visuals to tell the story. But more than that, the way that he skillfully blended mythology and psychology with the fantasy and superhero genres, all while structuring a story that was an almost mythologized autobiography in some respects, had an enormous impact on me.”
Wagner sent Allred a postcard to show his appreciation for the work he was producing for Slave Labor Comics at the time. “Not only with much-needed words of encouragement, but his phone number! This set a standard for camaraderie and kindness in the biz I’ve tried to follow ever since” Allred said.
At a dinner after a con in New Jersey, Roberson sat down with Wagner. “I tried to express to him how much of an impact his work had on me as a teenager. I could see that I wasn't quite getting the point across. So I jumped to my feet and gestured to what I was wearing. 'Matt, I'm a grown man who almost exclusively wears jeans, Chuck Taylors, and black t-shirts with shit printed on them. I learned it by watching you.'"
Wagner is only continuing a longstanding tradition that he learned from the legendary Will Eisner. “I was lucky enough to be a presenter at the very first Eisner Awards way back in 1988,” Wagner explained. “Will Eisner himself delivered the keynote speech wherein he spoke of his undying love for this medium and the grand scope and breadth of untapped possibilities he saw for its future, far beyond the trends and tropes that dominated the industry at any given time period. He humbly claimed that if by offering up his name as the cornerstone of this newly formed awards ceremony, he could in some small fashion encourage others to take up the pen and try to express themselves through this vibrant and limitless art form, and then he’d consider his career and lineage even more successful than it’d already been. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Everyone in that audience immediately wanted to rush home and start drawing comics! I couldn’t be happier than to see the comic book art form really achieve the level of depth and diversity that Will always envisioned. I mean, Image Comics alone provides a publishing venue for such a wide range of talents and narratives. If my own efforts over the years have served to inspire the same sort of response from my colleagues and friends, both young and old alike, well, I consider myself in the finest of company with Will. And all those who come after us.”
The number of people that have been inspired by Wagner's work on MAGE over the years isn’t quantifiable, but he does have living proof that magic is real. Wagner’s son－Brennan Wagner－will handle coloring duties on MAGE: THE HERO DENIED.
“Brennan’s been a professional colorist for some time now, and he’s really developed a lush and beautiful approach to his craft,” Wagner said. “Brennan grew up in my studio, so we very much speak the same sort of creative language, and he’s incredibly sensitive to my artistic instincts. The communication level is really good, and that makes for wonderful results.”
Brennan might be best known to fans for his work on the showdown between Wagner’s Grendel and the classic pulp hero The Shadow. “But this feels like our most intimate collaboration yet,” Wagner said. “Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier or prouder of being able to see the trilogy finished in such a manner, and with such a creative partner.”
The first MAGE story was the late '80s at its pinnacle—action-oriented counterculture superhero comics for discerning fans. Wagner painted a picture of the people around him, the time he lived in, and all without capes. Kevin Matchstick is a confused and hard-headed man that is desperately trying to do the right thing, with his only guidance being his moral compass. The first volume is a raw and powerful story from an artist with something to say.
"Admittedly, the first several chapters of the first MAGE series are really rough around the edges,” Wagner confessed. “But the core ideas are there and, gratefully, I learned and further honed my craft with every issue. In fact, that’s one of the things readers love so much about the first series. As Kevin’s power grows and his acceptance of his role and responsibilities matures, so too did my own creative skills come to fruition,” Wagner said.
“In MAGE, Kevin’s growth as a hero (and, metaphorically, as a human being) is measured by his heritage as the reborn Pendragon, through the mystical power known as Excalibur,” Wagner explained. By the end of THE HERO DEFINED, Wagner and MAGE become something else entirely. “Fans could literally see me growing up as a comics creator right there on the page,” Wagner said.
Wagner’s eye for storytelling is at a master level. His characters are detailed and dynamic. His ability to convey emotion through pictures and words are on a new level. “Recently, an interviewer pointed out the stylistic differences between THE HERO DISCOVERED and the second installment of the trilogy, THE HERO DEFINED, and how that seemed to throw some readers off-kilter. But I maintain that it couldn’t have been any other way,” Wagner said. The evolution and progression of MAGE makes for a satisfying read to say the least, and it’s even better the second and third time around.
Originally from the Old Pueblo, Henry Barajas works for Top Cow Productions and sells doughnuts in Hollywood. He writes comics, writes about comics, and collects comics. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.