Matt Wagner is probably most famous these days as the creative force behind the Grendel franchise; the saga of a machiavellian arch-criminal, Hunter Rose, and the tragic legacy spanning centuries in his wake. It's a study of evil and the perpetuation of violence, but it's also the spiritual flipside to Wagner's first proper foray into independent comics publishing, which preceded it from 1984 - 1986; Mage: The Hero Discovered.
Wagner's signature storytelling style (in his later comics at least) includes tightly knit plots and hard-boiled narrations, often from multiple protagonists. His artwork is carefully stylised, and even his most escapist storylines are often tinged with tragic pessimism. It's all the more fascinating to see that his earliest work exhibited hardly any of these characteristics, and it makes Mage an illuminating read for enthusiasts of Wagner's comics. The whole fifteen issue series was reprinted by Image comics from 1998-1999, in 8 digitially recoloured 'collected editions'. It's through these that I first read the story; although those editions are long out of print, the collected trade of the whole series is still readily available now.
In a nutshell, and as the subtitle of the story suggests, Mage is a contemporary coming-of-age fantasy. It super-imposes Arthurian legend onto the tale of an average American twenty-something, Kevin Matchstick, who learns that he has magical powers and an amazing destiny to fulfill. His character arc over the 15 issues of the first series plots a very deliberate course from apathetic everyman to burgeoning champion of all mankind. To give away more would spoil some of the fun of the series. The fact that Matchstick bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Wagner himself suggests that the story may well draw metaphorical parallels to the author's own struggles with uncertainty and angst in his personal life. It also lends the unfolding events a slightly awkward sense of wish-fullfilment.
The highbrow subtext of the storyline borrows heavily from ancient European mythology, and apparently also from Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet', although this doesn't really distract from the fact that, for the first half of the series at least, not very much happens. While the storyline is finding it's direction, the plotting seems to consist of expanded action set-pieces interspersed with unconvincing expositionary dialogue. Wagner was struggling to find a balance between creating a rich reading experience, at the same time as progressing the storyline sufficiently throughout each issue. The blending of contemporary noir and fantasy genres was handled superbly though, and was the comic's greatest strength. The series was originally published at the forefront of the independent comics boom of the 80's, but it's easy to forget that the comic preceded such films as 'The Fisher King', 'The Crow', 'The Matrix' and 'Dark City' by several years, all of which bear similarities to various genre-bending facets of the story.
By the half-way point of the series, Wagner seemed to kick the storyline into a higher gear, his heroes become more proactive and the title finally began to come into it's own. Wagner's creative vocabulary also began to blossom at this point, as he relied less on haphazard cross-hatching and more on minimalist penmanship (thanks perhaps in part to the contribution of new inker Sam Keith). Wagner's figures started to become more fluid, his facial expressions less stiff, and his panel layouts started to make clever use of the page space. In fact the artwork, with it's vibrant colours, animated choreography and stylised design was begining to bear all the hallmarks of Wagner's longtime visual muse; the old Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the 1940's.
Mainstream fantasy franchises like Harry Potter have robbed Mage of much of it's power and originality in the last decade. And yet, a sequel series Mage: The Hero Defined was released in the late '90s, while a rumoured third series is set to complete Wagner's trilogy at some point in the future. Upon it's first release Mage won a cult following as it explored a side of American super-heroics that wasn't camp or spandex-clad. Although super-hero comics in general have done a lot of growing up since those days, it's still worthwhile looking back at the series which arguably set the precedent that others have followed.