By the time it’s complete, almost 35 years will have passed since the first issue of Matt Wagner’s Mage saga began, with two decade-plus gaps between arcs. That’s a long stretch for anyone, but fans have been eagerly awaiting this new story. Though recognizably Wagner’s style, the art in Mage: The Hero Denied #1 (Image) shows marked improvement from the first two arcs. Wagner’s skill has evolved, and is looking better than ever in no small part thanks to the talents of the colorist Wagner says he “grew himself”: his son, Brennan. Backgrounds were minimal to the point of distraction in The Hero Discovered, and both these more detailed panels and the monsters that Wagner creates for Matchstick to beat are far more interesting than they were in the previous installments. Issue #1 displays Brennan’s skill by surrounding Kevin and his young son Hugo with a park full of trees. The action sequences are bright and well balanced in terms of color, though Matchstick has grown past the point of punching everything and is using his skills strategically, which is nice character growth.
That’s where the advancements end. In an attempt to catch readers up, the comic opens with a brief recap that labels Kevin “a cynical everyman,” and that’s the challenge Wagner will have to overcome. In 1984, Mage was novel enough to sustain itself. But the industry has changed, and so has the media landscape. Even with 10 years between The Hero Discovered and The Hero Defined, it didn’t feel like Matchstick changed much; he retained that “cynical everyman” attitude for too long, and that’s a story that’s been told too many times to be anything but dull. Readers might expect that his new role of family man might make Matchstick evolve further, but #1 dashes that hope.
Kevin and Hugo dominate this issue, leaving wife Magda and daughter Miranda at home. Magda, a powerful witch who in the past has saved Matchstick from his own stupidity, spends her entire brief appearance doing laundry and “nagging” Kevin. What’s worse is that Wagner is not only reusing the same exact villains yet again, but that this time, they’re female. The Gracklethorns of The Hero Discovered were fascinating: completely featureless, but still wildly expressive. These new lady Gracklethorns not only have revealing outfits instead of matching suits, they have tiny waists, styled hair, eyes to host their long lashes, and carefully defined lips. But their faces convey no emotion at all. Their progenitor, the Umbra Sprite, is now the Umbra-Mother, similarly svelte and with her butt-crack improbably showing through her pencil skirt. The overall impression is that in order to be female, they must be drawn and speak as sexual objects, and it’s clear Wagner’s writing has not evolved at all since he fridged Edsel 30 years ago.
Completionists may buy the books, but there’s far too much competition for Wagner to get away with serving up something so stale. There are other, better comics about predestined heroes, and many of them have women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters in them with agency and their own stories tell.