The Hero Dialectical-ed.

§ August 11th, 2023 § Filed under indies § 11 Comments

So pictured above is Amazing Heroes #45, the April 15, 1984 issue, back when it came out biweekly(!). This was the first issue of the ‘zine I purchased, and, enjoying the mix of reviews, interviews and humor within, I continued to buy each following issue for a few years. I did eventually drop off, likely more due to finances, but I did pick it up again eventually and kept onboard ’til the series’ eventual end.

Over the years I tracked down the issues I missed, both prior to my picking up that #45, and the issues I missed during my brief hiatus from reading it afterwards. (I did thankfully continue buying the Preview Specials and the always delightful and frequently hilarious Swimsuit Issues new off the shelf.) I currently have a full set of the Amazing Heroes magazine, ready for reference at a moment’s notice…

…assuming I know where to look. And after reading some of the responses to my post about Matt Wagner’s Mage, it brought to mind a review I remembered reading in Amazing Heroes of the first issue of the first mini-series, “The Hero Discovered.” I knew it was in that magazine, but where? Where?

Thus I did the logical thing…I went to the Grand Comics Database and checked the entry for Mage #1 to see if it had an on-sale date. Indeed it did (January 17th, 1984) with the added bonus that the entry indicated the release date info came from Amazing Heroes #40! With a starting issue in mind, all I had to do was quickly scan the contents page of each issue to see what comics were in that’s half-month’s review column…

…ending, naturally, with issue #45, the very issue I started with way back when. Probably should have been my first target, given that I probably read and reread that ‘zine nearly to the point of memorization, given that was my first sample of the title.

Anyway, seeing some of my good and faithful readers of this site wax…unenthused about Mage (either in part or as a whole) got me to thinking about that review. And look, of course it’s fine that you may not care for it. I’m not here to argue with you, though maybe I can move some to perhaps reevaluate the series for themselves. This is more about my perception, that my belief was that the series, despite its rough start, ended up culminating in a beloved series and a comic-bookical classic. Finding out that, no, some folks weren’t into it as much as I was, that’s a call for me to reconsider.

Not reconsider that I like the series, of course. I love the series. I think the first one, “Discovered,” is the best, with the second series “Defined,” being my second favorite, and “Denied,” the third, being, well, you know. But admittedly I’ve only read “Denied” the once, so upon a theoretical reread maybe it’ll go up a bit. But I still liked it.

Mostly what I’m reconsidering is the idea that Mage is not as universally highly regarded as I thought. What’s weird about this is…I know perfectly well not everyone likes every comic equally. Of course I know it. I run a comic book store, for Petes’ sake. How many times have I had someone ask me “do you have any really good comics, like [X]?” where X is a comic I wouldn’t read with someone else’s eyes?

Plenty of times, that’s how many. So I know how it is. But I just had a blind spot for Mage, assuming my love and appreciation for the specialness of the series was nigh-universal. Ah well, What Can You Do™?

Again, back to that early review of the first issue. I even said in my discussion of the comic that the first issue was relatively crude and amateurish, and that we got to see Wagner’s talent and skill grow over the course of the series. (Dave Sim is another example, where his linework and his lettering just became more and more refined over the clunky initial issues.)

This review, therefore, isn’t catching Mage at its best. The reviewer, R.A. Jones, goes on a little bit about the series’ seeming pointlessness and awkward dialogue, expressing surprise at the protagonist’s name, which, you know, fair enough, and concluding with this:

“A disjointed story, forced dialogue, and unimaginative art do not make for a big time winner. Comico’s titles have been dropping like flies, and Mage has only one wing to start with. Skip this one — you’ll be glad you did.”

Which is a bit tough. Yes, the dialogue needs some work, the art is amateurish, but not without its charms. And Jones states about Kevin:

“The ‘hero’ of our story — if such an appellation can be applied — is Kevin Matchsick(!!). Kevin is full of more self-pity than the Thing in his darkest moments. Since we see nothing to engender such pity, the man comes off as a whining bore.”

Now, I mean, the comic is subtitled “The Hero Discovered,” so we gotta start from somewhere, right? Seeing Kevin grow from this low beginning is part of the fun of the story, and the reviewer’s complaint that the titular Mage gives Kevin superpowers for no apparent reason…well, maybe there is a reason, to be revealed eventually. This is the just the first issue, after all.

I have the advantage of hindsight, of course…the review was written with only one issue in hand, and it’s not presenting Wagner at the height of his powers. I’m looking back, literally decades later, after the story has reached its final conclusion with its third series. I know where all that stuff complained about in the review of that initial installment is heading. Yes, I admit it’s rough, and that the protagonist’s surname of Matchstick is a bit something, outside any of its symbolic significance. But I happen to like that roughness, that amateurness, the idea that someone decided “hey I got a story to tell” and basically learned on the job how to tell it. That was wildly appealing to me, and I’m glad I didn’t skip this one.

However, the review stands as a reminder that not everyone found that endearing. And some of you folks reminded me, not everyone likes the same things I do. Which is not a lesson I really needed to be taught, as America’s #1 champion of Frank Miller’s The Spirit movie, but sometimes a little reminder is good. I love Mage, some of you don’t, and that’s all perfectly fine.

11 Responses to “The Hero Dialectical-ed.”

  • Sean Mageean says:

    One thing that struck me about the review was that Jones said that: “Comico’s titles have been dropping like flies.” That made me curious, so I looked it up, and by 1984 Comico had only released a handful of–mostly oddball–comics: Az, Skrog, Slaughterman, Comico Primer, and-the two titles with legs–Grendel, and Elementals. Out of all of these, only Elementals approximated a Big Two superhero comic and ran for a significant number of issues and was fairly popular at the time. and maybe Justice Machine, which soon followed,did okay for Comico. And eventually, new runs of Grendel were published. But basically Comico pivoted to publishing mostly comics of licensed characters–Jonny Quest, Starblazers, Robotech, etc. Anyway, per Jones’ review and perception, maybe Mage was just too different? I think in some ways it might have been ahead of its time.
    I liked it, and I liked Wagner’s primitive art style which looked somewhere between underground comics and Golden Age comics to me in its rawness. I also still recall the hype when Wagner went to DC to do The Demon mini-series.

    That Amazing Heroes cover is great, by the way. It makes me happy that The Fly was included on the cover, along with Judge Dredd,The Spirit, Nexus, the Rocketeer, and various DC and Marvel characters.

    As to The Spirit movie …two main complaints…having The Spirit travel via roller skates along telephone wires was just wrong …was he trying to be the Golden Age Airwave? Also, the face of the Octopus should have never been revealed, just like Eisner never revealed his face in The Spirit sections. Other than that,the film was fun and fairly faithful to the source material.

  • A. J. Payler says:

    I too loved Mage, for what it’s worth–the first series and the interludes from Grendel at least. The long-after-the-fact followups with their more explicitly pseudoautobiographical focus didn’t light me up nearly as much as that first series, but at the time I definitely would have included it among the many late 80s series helping push the medium forward.

    Like Cerebus I think it does suffer from the fact that the opening chapters are so amateurish, but like you say that was part of the charm and seeing just how quickly Wagner’s skills advanced was inspirational. The last half of The Hero Discovered was head and shoulders above practically everything else at the time–for years I regretted not buying one of the Graphitti Mage lightning bolt shirts when I had the chance.

    The original painted (watercolor?) coloring was a big part of its visual appeal though and I also recall seeing some later reprinting with new coloring being… not nearly as appealing. Maybe you had to be there and in the right place for it to have the impact it was capable of.

  • Joe Gualtieri says:

    People don’t like Mage? I didn’t read any of it until the 2000s, reading Discovered and Defined pretty much back-to-back. I thought they were masterful.

    Still haven’t gotten around to Denied, unfortunately

  • Snark Shark says:

    “Amazing Heroes”

    It got so good towards the end of it’s run! I wish it had lasted longer.

    “the idea that Mage is not as universally highly regarded as I thought”

    Well, when compared to GRENDEL, which seems to be universally acclaimed, I guess not.

    “Wagner went to DC to do The Demon mini-series”

    That was good! I liked the Alan Grant Demon series even better. Which was followed by Ennis’ run. Which was followed by HITMAN, which I liked even better.

    “having The Spirit travel via roller skates along telephone wires was just wrong”


  • Jim Kosmicki says:

    at the time Mage appeared, Comico had just started shifting from B&W to color. Elementals took, but the relatively quick collapse of Evangeline after only a couple issues was considered a thing at the time. This is based on my hazy memories of 1984 and reading CBG, TCJ and AH at the time. There was a sense that they had overstepped their capabilities. Again, hazy memories.

  • LouReedRichards says:

    I’ve got a couple of the apparently not so great Image reprints in the “To Read” box, I’ve skimmer over them, but haven’t gotten around to an actual read yet. The little bit of Wagner that I have sampled – the early Grendel and that Batman/Grendel crossover from the early 90’s were just… ok, I guess.
    I don’t think I’d mind the roughness of the early stuff – hell. I appreciate the learn/improve as you go aspects of beginner work – that’s one of the major appeals of DIY art and music.
    So far I’ve found that he’s more of a creator that I want to like more than I actually do.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    @Jim Kosmicki

    I wonder what the whole Evangeline deal was? Apparently, after two issues at Comico, it went to Lodestone Comics for a one-shot special, then finally landed at First Comics for twelve issues. Apparently , it was also Chuck Dixon’s first published work. I did enjoy Dixon’s writing on Airboy over at Eclipse Comics in the ’80s.

  • Tom W says:

    As the person who leapt in to slam Mage, I feel I should apologise here; I didn’t intend to imply others were wrong for loving it. As someone who’d fallen hard for Grendel at its most experimental, who was and is a big Alan Moore fan and who cherished the more literary side of the adult comics explosion, I thought I was getting more of that when I bought into Mage. Instead it’s Wagner very much embracing simplicity on the page. I wasn’t ready. And it’s been the way with his work ever since – love his art, but find I like his work far more when he’s working with other artists. Plus that Mage volume was expensive for me at the time, short, incomplete and as you say, slightly amateurish as it was from early in his career.

    Incidentally you mention Dave Sim, and I leapt into Cerebus with High Society and Church & State v1 at about the same time. They baffled me and I left it there for at least a decade before getting v2, realising that part of my alienation had been my own callow youth, and catching up with the rest of the phonebooks. (Though there was pause of a couple of years between Form & Void and Latter Days, as I decided whether I’d follow him all the way into his delusions…)

  • DavidG says:

    I like Mage enough that it survived a recent purge prompted by a move. And I liked the art right back to the start – even as a neophyte Wagner had a dynamism and story telling chops that lots of others have never reached. I was quite looking forward to the re read, and think that Defined is still pretty good. But it never really hit the climax I was hoping for, and that was more obvious the second time. Art was still great though.

  • For my part, I liked Mage a lot better than Grendel. I liked a lot of the art of the latter book (Bernie Mireault is always an instant sale for me) but the stories always seemed too self-consciously edgy.

    The Grendel mask design is a masterpiece, though.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Speaking of Bernie Mireault, his The Jam comic is underrated…that was one fun and very expressively drawn comic!