Sunday, March 3, 2019

Journey’s End

In 1984 I began a journey, one that ended this week. It didn’t begin as my journey. I was merely a companion, myself and thousands of others, to a stranger who would become someone I felt I knew. Over the last thirty-five years his journey became symbolic of my own, shedding light on my own life in the way all great stories do. Though his personal, real life journey continues, the story he was telling is now over. I want to talk about endings.

Mage: The Hero Denied #15
This is not the first time I’ve written about Mage: The Hero Discovered and its creator Matt Wagner. I’ve talked about it in more detail in a previous blog and written about it academically for Salem Press (though the links in that blog are now dead so you can’t see it anymore). This comic book series began in 1984 and I was there with the first issue. At that time Wagner said that he envisioned Mage to be three distinct story arcs. This week, after thirty-five years and large gaps in production the final issue of the final series shipped. It was the conclusion of a story that I have been anticipating for a long, long time. No spoilers, but I was satisfied with the ending. It wrapped up the various plot lines, encapsulated the feel of the entire series, and stayed thematically consistent with everything that went before. In its ending it conveyed that even when a specific story ends, life goes on.

But I’m not here to do an analysis of the narrative. This is more personal than that. There are specific plot and character elements I’ll go into here but, if you want to know ‟what happens” I’m sure you can find many articles online, or you could, preferably, read it yourself.

I’ve read a lot of comics. I’ve been doing so my entire life and for the last twenty-two years I’ve worked at a comics shop which give me access to everything that comes out. As much as I love the medium most books I read are an ‟in the moment” thing and then forgotten. That is more true now than when I was younger, of course. Like a lot of media consumption the majority of it can be enjoyed while engaged with it, then easily discarded. There are those that deserve further study, of course, and those that reward multiple readings. It is an art form that comes with all of the problems and expectations and joy that can be associated with any other art form. But for everyone who loves this stuff, I assume, there are those few titles that become a part of your life. Heart books I have called them in the past. Those books that speak to something more personal.

Mage is one of those series for me, perhaps the biggest one. At the time I couldn’t have told you why it spoke to me as strongly as it did. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it since. Mage appeared in the early days of the Direct Market, an innovation in comics distribution that allowed for more diverse content from a wider range of creators. I liked a lot of the books I saw then simply because they were not the traditional Marvel and DC superhero fare. Mage was a unique mixture of superheroes, fantasy, myth, and Arthurian legend, all things that I was into. What made it different at the time was that it was all took place in a contemporary setting. The popularity of the genre we now call Urban Fantasy has made this approach much more common, but back then it felt unique. The protagonist, Kevin Matchstick, was a young man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, someone I could know, or more importantly, someone I could be.

This is a core part of the connection. The story opened very differently from most. We didn’t get an explosive fight scene. It was very understated, but it’s was definitely the hook that reeled me in. Kevin meets what appears to be a homeless street urchin and proceeds to have a very personal three page conversation with this stranger, revealing his doubts and anxieties, the kind of questions about life and identity that most people have in their early twenties. It turns out that the homeless man is Mirth, the avatar of the World Mage... Merlin, if you will. This Meeting With the Mentor serves a
dual purpose, one that works on a meta-level. For Kevin, his meeting with the Mage launches him on his personal journey of self-discovery. For me, and probably for others, my meeting with the series Mage brought me into the journey as well. Mirth spoke to Kevin and Matt spoke to me through Mirth. In this way the series became a mentor for those engaged with the narrative. It did for me at least.

What I didn’t know at that time was that Matchstick was an avatar of creator Matt Wagner. He looked just like him. Since that time Wagner has called the series and ‟allegorical autobiography.” He took elements of his own life and fictionalized them. Over time, the more you knew about Matt, the more you could recognize in the narrative, and the more personal the story became. Over the years, because of his other work in the comics industry, through interviews and letters pages, we saw elements of his life outside of his work seep through. Because of these, and because of the personal nature of Mage, an illusion of intimacy was created. This happens a lot with artists, though I think it is probably more obvious with musicians or actors. Through their public persona and the work they create we feel like we know them better than we actually do. This feeling is heightened when we can see ourselves reflected in their work.

2009 San Diego Con.
I don’t know Matt, not really. I have met him in real life exactly twice, once at a convention in Ohio in the early 90s and once at San Diego Con in 2009. During the 80s and early 90s when I was trying to get into the comics industry through self-publishing I sent copies of everything to several receptive creators, Matt among them. He always wrote back, even if it was just a postcard. He was supportive and friendly and those things felt really important at the time. A few years ago when I was researching my article for Salem Press he was gracious enough to answer a bunch of questions for me. He would probably recognize me if I walked up to him at a convention. We’re friends on Facebook. I feel like I know Matt, certainly more than he probably feels like he knows me. But all I really know is what he has revealed to me through the allegory of Mage.

Matt and I are contemporaries. I’m about three months older than he is. We grew up with a lot of the same cultural touchstones, and it’s obvious to me we read a lot of the same books and comics and shared many of the same interests. It’s part of why I could so easily project myself into the series. As time went on some of these interests became more well-developed. Matt has said many times that he was unaware of the mythologist Joseph Campbell and the idea of the Hero’s Journey when he began working on Mage, even though in retrospect it is amazing how closely Kevin’s path follows this pattern. Campbell came to prominence in 1986 through a series of interviews with journalist Bill Moyers (available in print form as The Power of Myth). This series was eye-opening for me and still qualifies as one of the most influential books of my life. It pulled together so many of my interests and the ideas I had been having about them and gave me a language and worldview that still resonates with me today.

One of these ideas is that of a personal mythology. Psychologist Carl Jung asked the question, ‟What myth are you living?” The idea is that each of us reenact recurring motifs in our own personal story. We are the products of our culture and for good or ill we can all become caught up in unconscious behaviors due to the social structures we live in and the stories we have been told about our place in it. The benefit of knowing the myth you are living is so that you can break out of harmful patterns of behavior and self-delusion and adapt a story for your life that is healthier and more fulfilling.

Matt put his personal myth on paper and shared it with all of us. By doing so he set a precedent for his readers to do the same. As we saw throughout his series, it is possible to be living several different myths at the same time. It’s also important to acknowledge that everyone around us is doing the same thing. We may be the protagonist of our own story, but we are also the supporting cast in the lives of others.

It’s important to note here that while the story of Mage, and that of Kevin Matchstick, is over, Matt’s life isn’t. Without spoilers, while there is a definitive end to the series it is implied that life goes on for our protagonists. Endings are important. It’s part of what is missing from mainstream comics. Great myths have their ending, but as licensed corporate characters none of our modern superheroes get to have that. Every character at Marvel and DC have died at some point, only to be resurrected (an overstatement, but you get my point). Big events happen and then are quickly forgotten. We all say we want continuity, but with an eighty year history and characters that never really age we can never really get that. Not as long as people are making money from the products. We continue on with what Stan Lee referred to as the ‟Illusion of Change.” We can never get true closure.

Endings are difficult in real life. Even when the result is a good thing, such as leaving a bad job for a good one, or moving to a better house, it is still stressful. Change is hard. When it is the end of a relationship or a life it can be emotionally catastrophic. Experiencing these in our fictions provides a catharsis from a safe emotional distance. That is but one of the lessons of empathy we can learn from them.

I watched as Matt, metaphorically through his avatar of Kevin, grew in strength and power and came into his gifts as an artist and storyteller. I saw him when he fully embodied that power, when he served as an inspiration for a generation of other creators and shared his path with them, creating opportunities for others to share their own journeys and find their own power. I saw him age and discover new challenges in life, just as I was doing in my own. I have joked with him that I have always identified with Mirth more than Kevin, and maybe that is because part of my path has become that of the Magician. As a writer and artist and educator I embody more of that myth than I do that of the Warrior or the King. Through Kevin, Matt has shared his family with us and his experiences as a father. That part of the recent series became more profound because it was colored by his now adult son Brennan, who wasn’t born when Mage first appeared.

So it goes.

I recently taught an Intro to the Graphic Novel class at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught some of the canonical works that everyone teaches, like Maus and Persepolis and Fun Home. I did a section on the superhero, of course, with Batman Year One and Watchmen being the primary texts for what I wanted to do. I finished the section with Mage. Hey, it’s my class, I can teach what I want! I may be the only person to have done this, and to be honest, I questioned if this was just my favoritism coming into play and if there was anything of value to discuss in a college level comics class. Looking at the work through this lens I was able to use it as a way to talk about myth and Arthurian legend, Jungian psychology, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and the genre of Urban Fantasy. We also were able to touch on a different way to do autobiographical comics, comparing it to some of the other books I mentioned. Where Watchmen and many other books of the time are famously a deconstruction of the tropes of the superhero I argue that Mage (and a few others, like Scott McCloud’s Zot!), are a reconstruction of the trope clothed in a modern setting. However you look at it, the title was a great success in class and gave us a lot of material to discuss. At the end of the semester several students referenced it as their favorite thing we read all semester, and I know I made a couple of avowed fans. The journey Matt documented still speaks to certain people.

So now what? What do I do now that I have seen the end of something I have anticipated for thirty-five years? Is my life that different? Not really. The only thing I no longer have is the anticipation. I trust that Matt will continue to create new material, not for Mage but for other projects. As a fan of his work I still have things to look forward to.

I also now have the entire story of Mage. I have a new anticipation, that of rereading it. I have gone back to the original many times over the years and as I have grown and changed and aged I have discovered new things in the narrative. It speaks to me in different ways at different points in my life. Now that there is more of it I believe this experience will only increase.

Thank you, Matt, for sharing your journey, for inspiring me and many others. Thank you for being a friend in a very meta sort of fashion. Good luck in all of your future endeavors. You have let Mage go, but your well-earned power as a storyteller remains.

Posted today by Matt.