Friday, January 04, 2019

Book-A-Day 2018 #369: Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 1 (or maybe 5) by Matt Wagner

Kevin Matchstick is supposedly retired from the nasty-hunting game, to protect his family. He and his wife Magda have two young kids -- Hugo is in third grade and Miranda is in pre-school -- and they seem to be moving around more often than they'd like, to keep a low profile and stay one step ahead of the big nasties that would be after Kevin.

(What does that mean for the metaphor, in that Kevin is transparently a stand-in for creator Matt Wagner and nasty-fighting the equivalent of his comics career? I don't know of a period when Wagner was semi-retired, but maybe I wasn't paying attention.)

If you don't know what any of that means, you probably need to go back and see the first two stories about Kevin -- The Hero Discovered from the mid-80s and The Hero Defined from the late '90s. He's a supernatural hero in a world with both heroes and villains -- plus some others around the edges, like the witch he married -- and the usual mass of humanity unknowing about any of them.

Kevin is The Pendragon: the reincarnation of King Arthur, more or less. And of others, too -- there's a moment in this book where a major nasty calls him Gilgamesh, and that fits about as well. All of the avatars -- we saw a bunch in Defined, and may see more before this series is done -- are mythic figures, and myths are tricky, changing things. They show up, fight something bad, and often win in the end. Often, not always. A lot of hero-myths end with the tragic death of the hero, after all -- Beowulf, Hercules, Theseus.

And, more pointedly, King Arthur.

I don't think Wagner is planning to kill off his fictional avatar for the climax of Mage: The Hero Denied, but I could be wrong, and it would be appropriate.

This book, Vol. 5 [1], collects the front half of the Hero Denied series -- the first eight issues. We see Kevin, living quietly and trying to stay retired but not doing a very good job of that. The Umbra Sprite is back, still seeking the Fisher King: now in a female form, with a new group of children, the female Gracklethorns, who are just as cruel and dangerous as their predecessors. The Umbra Sprite also seems more organized and focused this time around, more in control of herself than the male version was in Hero Discovered, more able to summon major supernatural entities to find and attack Kevin.

Let's not forget that Kevin is much more vulnerable now: he has a wife and children to protect. Magda may be a witch, but her power doesn't have any combat applications -- she can help them stay quiet and safe and protected, but there's no sign she can do anything once the nasties arrive. And the kids are...well, kids, though Miranda may have some budding power.

Worst of all, the third conflict is rising and there's no sign of a third mage. The magic ATM card still works, but no matter how much Kevin talks at the machine, there's no response.

So: the nasties are more organized, and more focused on Kevin. They learn he has a weakness, a family. And there's no one to help him -- Joe Phat is out of the hero business, Kirby Hero is dead, the new breed of avatars are self-obsessed light-weights, and there's no new mage anywhere to be seen.

It is called The Hero Denied, after all.

I still think Wagner will pull out a triumphant ending, but the hero's journey must be difficult and fraught with dangers -- that's the whole point. At the end of this book, we're in the middle of the third, climactic story of Kevin Matchstick, which should be, by all laws of fiction, his lowest point.

Well, it could get worse before the end. There's always more low points.

Hero Discovered started a little shakily, with too-overwrought dialogue, but settled down quickly. Hero Defined was crisp and professional, but a little surface-y, particularly in its inconclusive ending. It remains to be seen how Hero Denied will end, but, so far, Wagner's building a strong story and avoiding any cheap outs. And his art is strong and expressive, particularly well-supported by his son Brennan Wagner's colors. We're not at the end yet, but it's in sight.

One last consumer note: oddly, this book does not include the individual issue covers, unlike every other comics collection I've ever seen. I have no idea why, but don't be surprised if there's a bigger, full-Hero Denied hardcover collection later in 2019, with the covers and some additional bells and whistles.

[1] The current reprinting of the three Mage mini-series uses overall numbering, which is confusing for anyone who wants to come in with this book. Vol. 5 is the first book of Hero Denied.

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