On Thursday, April 18, 2019, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Pop Culture Association – American Culture Association (PCA-ACA) in Washington, DC. This was my first time presenting there. Of course, as anyone who knows my primary loves in comics, I presented on Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner. The following is the text of my presentation, with the images I used in my slideshow.
The Hero Divergent: Binary Paths on the Quest for Self-discovery in Mage: The Hero Discovered
The stories and tropes of Arthurian fiction, particularly that of the Grail Quest, have often been interpreted as psychological symbols of the search for personal identity. This is most clearly seen in the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and his famous Hero’s Journey, as well as Jungian psychologists such as Emma Jung, Maria-Louise von Franz, and Robert Johnson. In this paper I will argue that in the series Mage: The Hero Discovered we see this quest in the journey of the series protagonist, but also through the actions of one of the villains in a way that mirrors and sheds light on the whole.
Mage: The Hero Discovered was first published by Comico in 1984. At that time series creator Matt Wagner said that he envisioned Mage as a series of three distinct story arcs that would follow the life of its protagonist, Kevin Matchstick. The second series, Mage: The Hero Defined appeared in 1997, and the third and final story arc, Mage: The Hero Denied, concluded in February 2019. In this series Wagner wove together the tropes of contemporary urban fantasy, Arthurian myth, and the superhero genre.
Joseph Campbell said, “Mythology is to relate found truth to the living of a life.” Carl Jung encouraged people to ask the question, ‟What myth are you living?”. This question was meant to help us understand that unconscious myths may shape our lives, for good or bad. For Jung the central concern of doing this was to be better able to see the transmutation of everyday life into archetypal struggle. Through what Wagner refers to as an allegorical autobiography he applied the mythic tropes of King Arthur to elements of his own life.
Matchstick is an obvious avatar for Wagner himself, as can easily be seen in the various phases of the work. Though he has not been forthcoming with all of the details many of the characters and situations are based on real people and events in Wagner’s life.
Though Wagner has said that he was unaware of Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey when he created Mage, Kevin Matchstick follows this paradigm closely. It is an examination of the way by which a callow youth comes to maturity. The reader can see the real-life growth of Wagner as an artist and storyteller over the course of the series, creating a meta-fiction that parallels the growth of his avatar. The story begins with Matchstick’s Meeting With the Mentor.
Mirth is the titular mage of the story, the avatar of Merlin. As the series progresses it is revealed that Matchstick is the current incarnation of the power of the Pendragon. Not the reincarnation of King Arthur himself, but the person who carries the same archetypal power in the modern era. In the story Matchstick meets allies in the form of Edsel, a young woman who is the descendent of the Lady of the Lake, and Sean Knight, a ghost who stands in for all of the Knights of the Round Table.
Shortly after meeting Mirth, Matchstick heeds the Call to Adventure. He sees a homeless man getting mugged in an alley and rushes in to save him. Kevin immediately recognizes that this act is significantly out of character for him. This is because the most salient aspect of the Heroes Journey that Matchstick embodies in the first series is that of the Refusal of the Call. Time and again, in spite of monsters and magic all around him, Matchstick refuses to accept his destiny. He is led by circumstances he thinks of as beyond his control. Mirth provides leadership and Kevin’s companions are more committed to the mission than he is.
Scene after scene shows Matchstick with his arms crossed, classic body language showing his attempt to wall himself off from what is happening so that he can deny responsibility.
By rushing into the alley Matchstick Crosses the Threshold and sees there is another world around him. He also discovers he has super strength and a certain level of invulnerability, though he continues to deny the evidence of his senses. The person he confronts in the alley is not a person at all, but a strange creature.
Emil is one of five identical brothers called Grackleflints.
They are the sons of the Umbra Sprite, the main villain of the series. The Umbra Sprite wishes to usher in an age of darkness by finding and killing the legendary Fisher King. He is a distant villain who prefers to do his dirty work through the expendable hands of his children. Each of the brothers has a specific power; Stannis can fly, Piet is a shapechanger, Radu can turn invisible, and Laslo has the power to recognize the true identity of the Fisher King, who is a shapechanger in this incarnation. Emil, it seems, exhibits no special ability.
In 1990 Jungian psychologists Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette released a series of books analyzing masculine psychology through the classic mythic archetypes of the King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Lover. They analyze behaviors associated with each of these and look at the patterns as they manifest in contemporary life. They take great care in not only discussing the positive aspects of these, but also the negative ones. They refer to these, using Jungian terminology, as Shadow aspects.
Jung described the archetype of the Shadow as ‟an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself.” It is everything we cannot accept about ourselves. Part of the psychological journey toward health is the ability to recognize these shadow qualities in oneself and to integrate them into the core personality.
To maintain the Arthurian metaphor, Kevin Matchstick embodies the archetype of the King (with elements of the Warrior; Moore and Gillette acknowledge that these are not exclusive traits), while Mirth is obviously the Magician. The Umbra Sprite and the Grackleflints are the Shadow versions of the King and the Round Table, though this is not a simple one-to-one comparison.
The role of the healthy King is to give order to the kingdom, to be the stable center around which everything else revolves. A healthy King gives guidance and support to his followers. Kevin has not yet fully embodied this role and the reader sees more of this aspect of him in the succeeding series. A Shadow King is more of a tyrant, making demands of his subjects and not listening to outside counsel, no matter how wrong or misguided his decisions are. We see this pattern in the Umbra Sprite and the way he treats his subjects, the Grackleflints.
With the exception of Emil they are unmotivated and helpless without his guidance, and as the story progresses his obsession with his battle with Mirth overshadows his true mission, the search for the Fisher King. He gives them less and less attention until everything collapses around them.
The Umbra-Sprite embodies the Shadow aspect of the Magician as well, and in this way mirrors Mirth. He sees Mirth as the true threat, mainly because Kevin has not yet come fully into his power. He is what Moore and Gillette refer to as the Detached Manipulator.
Though the Umbra Sprite seems to be the main villain, the dark lord of this fantasy epic, it is Emil who reflects the path of Kevin Matchstick. As Kevin reluctantly follows the path to discovering the hero within, guided by Mirth, Emil struggles to find his own identity among his identical brothers in the shadow of his distant and controlling father.
Emil is the Grackleflint who has the most individual personality. The others are only distinguishable by their powers, not by any specific personality traits. It is Emil who exhibits leadership among his brothers when their father is distracted by his own addiction to power. Time and again in the story we see Emil challenge his father’s authority, even at the risk of punishment. There is a reason he is able to do so.
In the penultimate chapter Mirth reveals to Kevin what Emil’s power is. ‟It is initiative. He is the only one who does not blindly follow their father’s lead. This makes him the most dangerous.” This is significant in how it applies to Kevin’s own journey. Initiative is exactly what he has lacked throughout the story. In the beginning he was content to follow Mirth’s guidance. While Mirth was in hiding it was Edsel and Sean who continued the battle against their foes. Kevin’s refusal of the call inadvertently led to both of their deaths. Emil represents the ‟unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself.”
It is only when Kevin takes the initiative to accept his destiny that the Hero is truly discovered. This moment, when Kevin takes up the modern incarnation of Excalibur and truly accepts what he is, is the true ending of The Hero Discovered. In terms of Kevin’s journey the final chapter is denouement, essentially a series of fight scenes with the various creatures the Umbra Sprite has conjured. In the final chapter, he never actually confronts the Umbra Sprite. It is the end of one phase of his journey and the beginning of another.
Emil also has an ending and a beginning. His father, bloated with his own excessive use of power and drained of all will, and initiative, sits and waits for Mirth and the Pendragon to arrive. Emil, left to his own devices, fulfills the quest the Umbra-Sprite has forsaken and finds the Fisher King in the guise of a three-legged cat. Unfortunately he has not been properly prepared by his father and does not know what to do. In the traditional Grail stories, specifically those of Chrétien de Troyes, it is the knight Perceval who finds the Fisher King, who is wounded. To condense the story significantly it is only through an act of compassion that Perceval is able to obtain the Grail and its power.
Emil has never been shown compassion, so does not know what it looks like. Instead, he attempts to kill the Fisher King, unleashing an explosion of power in which Emil is wounded. This mirrors the transformation Kevin goes through when he accepts his destiny. Whereas Kevin embraces a power beyond himself and merges with it, Emil’s encounter with the light creates only a darker shadow.
Emil goes back to confront his father. This patricide is another nod to Arthurian tradition, in this case Arthur being killed by his son Mordred, it is Emil who kills his father.
This is played against scenes of Kevin confronting his own inner demons. Emil’s demon is the father who failed him. His power of initiative has led him to not only recognize his father’s weaknesses, but to destroy him (though as we discover in the sequels, defeating evil is never that simple). The first series ends with the collapse of the Umbra Sprite’s empire and Kevin and Mirth drive away, presumably to find further adventures. The fate of Emil is unknown.
In the second series, Mage: The Hero Defined, we see a continuation of these themes. In brief, Kevin has now come fully into his power. He has discovered that there are other heroic avatars, who are a mix of specific mythic archetypes, classic superheroes, and real life comics creators.
In his role as the archetype of the King, Kevin attempts to lead them, whether they want to be led or not. Where before he lacked initiative, he is now brimming with it. The dark side of this is overconfidence. His insecurity has been replaced with arrogance, which in the end leads to failure and the loss of life.
Emil has attempted to become a new dark lord and serves as the main ‟villain” of the story. He wears the costume of a dark lord, but throughout he seems to be play-acting the role. His initiative is gone, and like his father before him, he lurks in the shadows, using others to do battle for him. His master plan is to drain the energy of the Pendragon to fuel an engine of destruction. Neither he nor Kevin can see the larger picture and both become embroiled in their own, narrow agendas. At the end of this chapter, both of them fail.
The relationship between the characters of Kevin Matchstick and Emil is not easy to define in terms of opposites. They are not purely a hero and anti-hero pair. Kevin’s reluctance and flaws make him something of the latter, while Emil never really engages in heroic behavior. It is Emil’s insistence on defining himself in opposition to Kevin that is his ultimate flaw, just as his father’s was defining himself in opposition to Mirth.
In The Hero Defined the lesson Kevin must learn is that he is more than just the Pendragon. By limiting himself to one metaphor, one point of view, he has limited his potential for growth. It is only when he discovers that one person can embody many myths and stories that he is able to move on. Emil has defined himself as the villain, but now lacking initiative he doesn’t know who he is other than a pale reflection of both his father and his opponent. Sadly, his story ends in failure, while Kevin is able to continue on to another chapter.
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Wagner, Matt. Mage: the Hero Discovered. Image Comics, 1999.
Wagner, Matt. Mage: the Hero Defined. Image Comics, 2000.
Mage and all characters and art associated with it is copyright 2019 by Matt Wagner.
Writing and art by Matt Wagner, with additional inks by Sam Kieth, and additional colors by Jeremy Cox and Brennan Wagner.