So, I’ve been meaning to get back into writing comic reviews, but there’s frankly been very little out there that got me excited. I’m more of an old school comic fan, preferring the comics that would actually take ten or fifteen minutes to read. Yeah, I’m a slow reader, but even I can push through most modern comics in two or three minutes without much trouble. All splash pages and dialogue-free scenes. It seems like most modern comic writers don’t know how to tell a serial story: each issue should be its own story, as well as a part of a greater narrative.
But I’ve long been a huge fan of Matt Wagner (check out my previous reviews for Mage: The Hero Discovered and Mage: The Hero Defined), so I knew I was going to be on board for the third and final part of his Mage trilogy: The Hero Denied. Issue #0 came out in July and, while it looked great, it was basically a half-issue meant to work as a teaser for the main book, so there wasn’t much to review. Also, I got suckered in by a nice issue #0 for the Red Sonja reboot that fed into a series that was disappointing. So I decided to wait until a proper issue #1 came out before deciding whether or not it was worth my time to commit to review the whole series.
Since you’re reading this, you can guess how I feel about issue #1.
But let’s start with issue #0. (spoilers to issues #0 and #1 beyond this point)
The title is “Third Interlude,” alluding to the fact that there were two interludes appearing between volumes one and two. In this interlude, Kevin Matchstick is an older, calmer hero, a sort of living legend among younger heroes. But there’s also a perception that he’s a hero who’s past his prime. There’s a conversation between Kevin and a young hero who goes by the title “The Steeze.” Honestly, I’m not the first reviewer to point out that the Steeze comes off more like a parody of how Baby Boomers and Generation X view Millennials than an actual character. In the previous volume, Matt Wagner made a point of basing most of the characters off people whom he actually knew. I’m not sure if the Steeze is meant to represent somebody that he knows at Image Comics, although if it is a representation of somebody real, it’s not a flattering depiction. Also, I’m not sure if it’s meant to date the story, but the Steeze listens to a cassette player when he fights monsters … my last cassette player stopped working a year or two ago and I have no idea where to even find a new one.
Kevin takes the “old timer” cracks in relative stride, showing that he isn’t bothered by it. He lets the Steeze fight a pack of goblins, seemingly unwilling or unable to lend a hand. But as several of the critters begin to overwhelm the young hero, Kevin shoots off a quick spark of magic energy to vaporize them. The action is so quick and subtle that the Steeze doesn’t even notice Kevin’s help, assuming at the end that he defeated them all single-handed. As he leaves the field of battle, he mentions that he’s on his way towards attaining “legendary” status for his heroic deeds, adding, “like you used to be.” Again, he respects Kevin’s past achievements, but believes that the old hero’s greatest days are behind him.
Once the Steeze is gone, Kevin reveals that he’s after something bigger. Goblin hordes tend to gather around bigger monsters. Much bigger monsters. And the half-issue ends with a full-page spread of Kevin Matchstick wielding an enchanted No Parking sign against a building-sized ogre.
What we learn about Kevin’s power is that, if anything, it’s increased since the last series. No longer restricted to simply using a magic baseball bat, he now seems capable of infusing any object with the power of Excalibur.
But besides that, we no longer see a man who has to prove himself to anyone. He’s working alone and content to let people underestimate him. He sees no reason to show up the young hero, giving him a chance to fight his own battle, offering only enough help to keep him alive, without damaging his dignity by saving him outright (which makes sense, given his falling out with Kirby Hero at the end of Hero Defined). In twelve pages, we get a lot of information about the man that Kevin Matchstick’s become without a lot of direct statements. He shows his character by what he does (and what he doesn’t do).
On to issue #1.
The title is “What’s Past Is Prologue.” All of the issue titles in volume one were quotes from Hamlet. All of the issue titles from volume two were quotes from Macbeth. And this time, Matt Wagner into dipping into The Tempest, William Shakespeare’s final play, for chapter titles. The title also suggests that we’re going to get a complete story in this third volume. While it’s certainly better to read the first two volumes before this one, if you skipped them, you could think of them as simply a thirty-issue prologue to this story.
And we certainly find Kevin Matchstick in a different place than we last saw him. We don’t even see him in a situation similar to issue #0, which leaves me wondering if the Third Interlude was supposed to take place several years before this story (again, explaining that cassette player).
So, issue #1 opens with Kevin Matchstick singing in the woods. Two damn pages of a silhouette in a jacket, walking through the woods in autumn and singing. With only twenty-three pages, it’s a bold choice to open the story.
And then we meet Kevin’s son, Hugo, sporting the improbable combination of shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. At least, it seems a weird choice if you don’t have children and don’t know that, yeah, they make weird fashion decisions. I’m not sure how old Hugo is meant to be, but he does seem a bit too precious to be relatable. Again, Matt Wagner tends to base the characters off people he knows, so we may well be seeing his own son through the idealizing eyes of a father. Or maybe his son really is just that unbelievably upbeat.
Well, the idyllic scene doesn’t last long, as the monsters begin gathering around the edges, cautiously approaching Kevin and his son. Kevin sends Hugo off to play with friends, warning him not to “stop to talk to anything along the way,” quickly correcting to “anyone.” Don’t know that I’d send a kid off on his own if I knew there were goblins afoot, but Kevin seems fairly confident that they’re interested in him and not the boy.
Once Hugo is out of sight, the monsters decide to show themselves (no idea why they waited) and apparently Matt Wagner’s been spending his years away from Mage thinking up nightmare hybrid monsters. We get a broken ghost-goblin dressed in rags. We get an ent with a rather explicit “appendage.” We get some sort of half-spider/half-snake thing. We get a crow with a spider’s face. And we get something that’s half flying worm and half drooling old lady.
Kevin kills them all with a twig.
Afterwards, he laments the fact that, now that he’s been discovered, he’ll have to take his family and move again, unaware that Hugo has seen the whole thing. At this point, I’m not clear why Kevin has to move on. The way that he so easily dispatches the monsters suggests that he can pretty much live wherever he wants.
Of course, the scene shifts immediately to a white-haired woman standing in a high-rise office, smoking a severe-looking cigarette and dressed in a red-striped skirt and blazer reminiscent of the suit worn by the Umbra Sprite in volume one. We learn that she is, in fact, the Umbra Sprite returned in female form. Actually, the cigarette is an interesting choice for her as well, given what destroyed the Umbra Sprite at the end of volume one.
And once again, the main villain of the volume has five pale children ready to do her bidding. This time, though, it’s five daughters known as the Gracklethorns (in volume one, they were Grackleflints). In previous volumes, the five identical henchmen distinguished themselves by different colors of clothing. This time, they can be separated by different hairstyles.
After stopping at an ATM for some advice (which you’ll understand if you’ve read the first two volumes), Kevin goes home to tell his wife, Magda, that the bad guys have found them. We find her holding a basket of laundry, playing with their daughter Miranda, and complaining about various household repairs. It’s kind of weird to see the witch from volume two wrapped up in mundane chores this time around, but time changes people.
Honestly, Kevin and Magda’s life together brings me to one of my few complaints about this series (and a lot of other urban fantasy, come to think of it). There’s no real sense of how Kevin makes a living while he’s fighting monsters. In volume one, he had a job that he lost over the course of the story. In volume two, he was living in his car and on friend’s couches, supplementing his income with a magic ATM card. In volume three, he owns a house. What does Kevin do to afford a house? Not only that, but a house with two kids to raise. Maybe Magda’s the one with the job (she does mention making a lesson plan), but if she’s the breadwinner, then why isn’t Kevin the one at home folding laundry and just killing any monsters that wander into the backyard? I know it seems like a nitpicky complaint, but so much of this series feels grounded, so that one element does stand out.
So is it worth your time? I honestly don’t know how new readers will react to this series, but if you’re already a fan of Mage from the first two volumes, then you absolutely want to pick up this series. Matt Wagner’s art is beautiful on its own, but it’s enhanced by colorist Brennan Wagner. And, yeah, Brennan Wagner is actually Matt Wagner’s son, but nepotism absolutely pays off here as the mood shifts between lush woods, harsh wastelands, and a stark corporate setting.
We get a nice action scene in the middle and dialogue that reveals character without being expository. If I have any problem with the setup of this issue, it’s that we don’t really get a sense of what sort of life Kevin is living at this point. We learn more about what his wife, his son, and the Umbra Sprite are doing. But Kevin appears to be more of an observer in the story until the monsters show up. Does he have a job? Does he have friends? Hopefully, we learn more in future issues.
Also, there’s the matter of the Fisher King, last seen way back in December 1986.
Mage: The Hero Denied #0 and #1 are available in print at all decent comic shops, as are back issues to volumes one and two of the series. If you prefer getting your comics digitally, then check out Mage: The Hero Discovered, Mage: The Hero Defined, and all the latest issues of Mage: The Hero Denied at Comixology.
Michael Penkas has been a fan of Matt Wagner for longer than some of you have been alive. He’s written a dominatrix detective mystery novel, Mistress Bunny and the Cancelled Client, as well as dozens of ghost stories. He occasionally maintains a website and regularly participates at various reading events throughout Chicago.