Saturday, December 24, 2005

Just Read: Mage: The Hero Defined by Matt Wagner

Yes, it's a comic book. But it's a really fat comic book, in hardcovers and everything, with pretty full-color printing on every page, and it looks like a real book when you put it on a shelf.

Also, I read at least as much comics stuff as pure-prose stuff, and I often like the comics much better. So I'll be talking about them every so often here, along with old-fashioned books. But I still won't call what I'm doing reviewing, since I'm not unbiased, not unconnected to the books I read, and not above stretching the truth or a point to avoid getting myself in trouble.

Anyway, this is the second book in a projected trilogy, after Mage: The Hero Discovered in the mid-'80s and to be followed by Mage: The Hero Denied sometime, we hope, before Wagner kicks off. (There's a Wikipedia entry on the series, for further reference.) I think of it as essentially a superhero book, or, at farthest remove, the first cousin to a superhero comic. I may be alone in this, though, since I thought the same thing about Crossgen's output -- people regularly appearing in the same distinctive costumes, check; saving the world, check; neat-o kean-o powers, check; talking about one's responsibilities, I'm afraid that was there, too -- and everyone else seemed to be amazed that a company could be briefly successful publishing popular comics that were so different from the superhero mainstream.

Kevin Matchstick is our hero; in Discovered he (and we) learned that he was essentially Wagner's version of Moorcock's Eternal Champion; Matchstick was the reincarnation/new version/whatever of King Arthur, and he had been called forth from the collective domahickey to battle a Big Nasty called the Umbra Sprite and his sons and minions. It was a bit rough to begin with (it opens with a wince-making dialogue scene where Matchstick both wears his heart on his sleeve and explains everything about his life), but gained strength and confidence as it went along; the final chapters have genuine mythic power.

Unfortunately, this book tends slightly in the opposite direction; there's a lot of good stuff throughout, but the ending of Defined is pretty talky and devoted to speeches about "this is the purpose of your life" (something comics can't seem to avoid, but which gives me hives). It's not a bad ending, but it does feel a bit like a reversion to the earliest, clunkiest days of Mage; Wagner handles it much more skillfully this time around (it's all good dialogue, for one thing), but I'm still not convinced all of that talking about the relationship was necessary. At most this is a stumble, but the big confrontation at the end of Defined doesn't compare to the similar moment at the end of Discovered; then again, that may just be yet another incarnation of the Eternal Middle-Book Problem, doomed to haunt spinner racks and mall stores unto eternity...

I can't really recommend a series of two $50 hardcovers to new readers, but the two series used to be (and may still be) available as four trade paperbacks each, at price points in the $10-$15 range, which are more browser-friendly. Since the series is an interesting amalgam of self-aware comics superheroes, epic-fantasy-influenced questing, and contemporary fantasy soul-searching, anyone with an interest in any of those areas might want to give it a look. (Browse one of the books in your local comics shop until the proprietor looks up from his Magic: The Gathering game long enough to growl, "Hey, kid, this ain't no liberry!" and decide then if you want to buy it.)

The other interesting thing about this series (much more evident in Defined than Discovered) is the elements of autobiography. Matchstick is explicitly physically modeled on Wagner himself, and one of the subplots of this book is a fantasy version of Wagner's courtship of his wife. In Discovered Wagner/Matchstick was the only character (that I know of) that was modeled from life, but, in Defined, we learn that there are many heroes (or warriors, or avatars; different people call them different things, as of course would happen). And that is the particularly interesting part, since all of the warriors are comics creators Wagner knows. (One side note, of an unfortunate nature: we don't see, or even hear of, any female warriors, though mythology certainly provides them for Wagner to pick up. This may be a deliberate choice on Wagner's point -- perhaps for simple story reasons, or to focus on the "boy's club" aspect of comics -- but I do wish there was at least a throwaway reference to "the Warrior Queen" or somesuch.)

So, since this series started coming out (around about 1997, I think), I've been looking for a complete guide to the characters. I think I know who most of them are, but some I wonder about. (And surely the obsessive world of comics would have produce someone who would do this, right?) I looked when the single issues finished, and didn't find anything. I looked again when the trade paperback collections came out, and found nothing. Let's Google again...

And there's something! It's not complete, and it tries to fit all of the characters into the same schema, which is probably a bad idea (the three sisters do map very obviously to Wagner's real-life wife and her two sisters, but they are also clearly not avatars; Magda, the love-interest in Defined, says so explicitly). Similarly, the mages (Mirth in Discovered and Wally Ut in Defined) are also the same mythic figure (Merlin), and probably do not map onto a real-world person. The Pale Incanter and Umbra Sprite also show no signs of being modeled on any real-world persons. (And that chart also misses Wagner's fictionalized ex-brother-in-law-in-law, the giant Gretch Bartholomew, husband of Magda's sister Isis -- as I recall, the real-world person filling that slot is Bob Schreck, who used to be married to Diana Schutz.)

So let me run through the heroes myself, in the order they appear in the story:
  • Kevin Matchstick is explicitly both the Pendragon (i.e., King Arthur) and Wagner himself.
  • Joe Phat is also obviously a general Trickster figure (Coyote, Rabbit, Crow, etc.; every primitive society has a mythic-figure like this), and is also stated by Wagner to have been based physically (and as a character) on comics autobiographer Joe Matt.
  • Kirby Hero is called The Olympian, has a sister named Athena and a brother named Apollo, and is in the middle of a twelve-labor job for his dad, so he's obviously Hercules. The page I linked to above (which doesn't seem to have been created by a person, but only by "Tech-Style") identified him with Canadian artist Bernie Mireault, which I agree with.
  • Kim Song is identified by Tech-Style as the Monkey King (although that would overlap quite a bit with Joe Phat's Trickster figure, and Song's affect is about as far removed from a trickster aspect as can be imagined). He also looks like he could be an older man, but I'm afraid I don't know who he could be -- I'd guess an older Asian man connected with independent comics, but that's as definite as I am.
  • Garth is "the Hornblower," clearly Roland (though he doesn't have the mythic Roland's fighting ability, just the magical horn). The Tech-Style page suggests he may be indentifed with Chester Brown, which would fit the "Canadian cartoonists" general theme, but Garth doesn't look much like Brown. I suggest, instead, that he's meant to be Scott McCloud, who usually draws himself with an identical shirt (and who, maybe, some people think is long-winded).
  • The Sun Twins are identified by Tech-Style as mapping onto Mayan Hero Twins and the Pander Brothers art team, both of which are reasonable to me. (Though I'll also add that the idea of magical twins is not unique to the Maya; we don't see them much, so we get a one-dimensional view, but I bet there's more to them than the sun-imagery.) I'd originally thought they might be the Bros. Hernandez (who have a higher profile in comics), but the Hernandezes don't have any connection to Wagner I know of; the Panders fit better.
  • The Dragon-Slayer is obviously Siegfried, and equally obviously Dave Sim, another Canadian comics writer/artist. (Whom Wagner, as I far as I know, has never worked with, which may be important in a later next discussion.)
  • The Bear-Wulf is an interesting one, at least as an in-joke, since his emblem (all of the warriors have a logo, another thing they have in common with super-heroes) is the mask of Grendel from Wagner's comic of that name. Tech-Style identifies him with Beowulf, which I agree with. They don't identify him with any comics creator, but the Bear-Wulf is balding, as I believe Chester Brown is. Otherwise, though, Wagner's depiction of the Bear-Wulf doesn't look much like Brown's self-images. The Bear-Wulf also appears older, so he may be meant to be someone from an older generation. I'm really not sure who he's supposed to be.
  • The Ulster Hound, with his two women, is clearly Cuchulain and is as obviously comics writer Alan Moore.
  • John J. Strider the Presbyter is identified by Tech-Style as Prester John (the mysterious medieval Christian king of parts unknown), which makes sense; he's probably also a saint-figure in general. Tech-Style also identifies him with John K. Snyder III, probably because Snyder worked with Wagner on the Grendel series (and the Wikipedia entry claims Defined is an allegory for Wagner's work on the Grendel series, specifically about his time dealing as a writer with other comics artists). I'm not sure I find that argument convincing; for one thing, Strider looks very physically similar to the Dragon-Slayer, which may be coincidence (I don't know what Snyder looks like) or not. Perhaps Strider is "Good Sim" and the Dragon-Slayer is "Bad Sim?" Or perhaps Strider is meant to be another Canadian comics artist, Seth? (Seth first became known as an artist for the Mr. X comic, and there's a panel where a giant cross casts the image of an X on Strider's dark glasses, which image appeared many times in the Mr. X comic.) I think, for now and without other evidence, I'm leaning towards Seth.
  • For completeness's sake, I should also note that there seem to be three other warriors (who don't speak, and are mostly at the edges of panels) at the big meeting of the warriors in issue 7). One of them could be Strider, but, from the dialogue in his later appearance, that seems unlikely. One of them also could be the Dragon-Slayer, but that seems even less likely.
Finally, to connect this to my supposed area of expertise (that would be science fiction), what Wagner has been doing with this series is a perfect example of Rudy Rucker's concept of Transrealism: writing aspects of one's own life as if they were fantastic. So any Rucker readers out there would probably want to at least check out The Hero Defined.

And this is way too long now, so I'm out of here. (Well, one last parenthetical comment: this book doesn't credit a real editor -- it does list a "managing editor" -- and it could have used one. One page is repeated twice, and another page is out of order; yet a third page may be missing. Kirby also once says "the women feint," which is not what he means. Those kind of cheap mistakes are very annoying in a $50 book.)

1 comment:

Chris Roberson said...

When the book was originally being serialized, I thought that the Bear-Wulf was Jeph Loeb, though in retrospect I can't remember my reasons for thinking that.

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