Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #338: Mage: The Hero Defined by Matt Wagner

Saving the world alone is easy. Working with other world-savers is tough.

That's more-or-less the moral of the middle book of Matt Wagner's Mage trilogy of transmuted fantasy autobiography, The Hero Defined.

Mage: The Hero Defined was published in 1997-1999, a little over a decade after the original 1984-86 Hero Discovered. (See my review last month of Discovered and an over-long, misshapen post about Defined from the really early days of this blog -- no, wait, actually don't see the latter, since it's pretty lousy.) And if the first book was about finding your power -- a big glowy baseball bat for hero Kevin Matchstick, standing in for the joy of comics creation for Wagner -- than Defined is about learning to work with others.

(This is somewhat buried in the book itself, but once the reader realizes all of the other hero characters are based on other comics creators, most if not all of them collaborators with Wagner on various Grendel stories over that previous decade, it gets clearer.)

Defined opens with an interlude, set some unspecified time after Discovered. Kevin has been wandering the world -- we saw him in Paris in a similar interlude at the end of Discovered, so we know he's been outside North America at least once -- fighting and killing "nasties." This time, he's at the Grand Canyon, and he runs into another hero, Joe Phat. They team up to take out the ghoul, and apparently fall into a lasting partnership.

Kevin is a brick: tough, strong, with that magic baseball bat which is more-or-less Excalibur. Joe is a trickster figure: fast, sneaky, able to mend things and find things. That's pretty complimentary, and Joe is also a world-class mooch, so he's quite happy to glom onto Kevin and his magic ATM card that provides endless money for the nasty hunt.

We learn that Joe wasn't the first hero that Kevin met; there are more and more of them these days, and they're meeting each other more often. In the immediate world of the story, that may mean the nasties are getting tougher, or that they're getting over-hunted. In the metaphor, it's emblematic of Wagner's greater immersion in the world of comics -- going from a lone-wolf doing his own stories all by himself to writing Grendel for various artistic collaborators, and, maybe, his work-for-hire stuff as well. (The nasties themselves don't line up well to anything in the metaphor, but the hunt for them is the work heroes do -- tough and demanding, requiring all of their effort, energy, and intelligence -- just like creation is the work comics-makers do.)

There are other magical people than heroes, too: Kevin knows the witch Isis and her husband Bartholomew Gretch, a giant. Those map to editors, more or less, but it's not a consistent part of the metaphor. Discovered tends to say that help on the nasty hunt is sometimes useful, but not consistently necessary. (As an ex-editor, I'm not sure if I'd agree with that in the real world, but it works in the metaphor.)

So there are more and more heroes, and they're running into each other more and more often. Sometimes working together; too often fighting each other first about who gets to take out the nasty.

And this story proper gets underway when Kevin and Joe run into Kirby Hero, the Olympian -- he's basically Hercules, in the middle of his famous dozen labors. The three clear out a nest of harpies, who seem to have enthralled a crazy old bum, Wally Ut. But Wally claims to be Kevin's second Mage and chases them around, occasionally showing hints that he might be doing magic but no solid proof. He also insists that Kevin head north, which they end up doing, more in spite of Wally than because of him, with Kirby dropping in and out as he follows his own labors.

Meanwhile, there's a shadowy figure watching Kevin, and readers of Discovered soon realize who he is. This time, he's calling himself the Pale Incanter, and he sends his five sons/minions, the Sprigginflints, to follow and harass Kevin as the Grackleflints did in the first book.

Eventually, Joe and Kevin and Kirby and Wally all do head north, to an unnamed Montreal. There, many other heroes have arrived, either called on specific quests or seemingly randomly. There's no indication this is all of the heroes, but it is more than have gathered anywhere, as far as anyone can remember. There's bickering and petty fighting among them, of course, but also allies -- the Dragonslayer picks a fight with Kevin and the Presbyter helps him out.

All the heroes are searching for the reason why they were drawn there: Kevin is sure it's all about him, which does not exactly lessen the sense in many of the other's that he's a self-obsessed prima donna. But Kevin is right, and there are shocking losses and, finally, a confrontation with the Pale Incanter and his creation.

Does the hero win? This is adventure fiction. All of the other questions also work out in ways that should be familiar to readers of stories about heroes and the nasties they fight.

This also supposedly is the metaphorical story of how Kevin/Wagner met and fell in love with his true love/wife -- in the metaphor, that's Isis's sister, Magda. Unfortunately, Madga is in about five short scenes over four-hundred-plus pages, so that becomes very much a subplot. I mean, it's very nice that Wagner found his love through comics, but he doesn't make it central to the story he's telling here.

This time out, Wagner inks his own work, giving all of Defined a consistent, strong look -- again, Defined is more than a decade later than Discovered, so he's had a lot of time and work to hone his skills, both at writing words and drawing pictures. Defined is better-looking than Discovered and has more varied characters. But it's also, maybe inevitably, somewhat middle-booky: this is another big event in Kevin's life, and possibly transformative, but that transformation will happen after the last page. What we see is mostly him comfortable and good in his role as a sole nasty-hunter, and more uneasy and less useful as a leader of nasty-hunters. And what we see him do is defeat a lesser villain than in Discovered with more help but more trouble -- he's definitely still heroic, but his semi-implied claim to be the best of them all and the natural leader of heroes takes more than one hit.

It's not entirely fair to judge Defined all by itself, since it is the middle book of a trilogy. Luckily, the third book is almost complete -- we'll be able to see the whole picture very soon.

1 comment:

Melita Kennedy said...

Huh. I'd always assumed the interlude was in French-speaking Canada, not France.

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