Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I’ve been reading the original issues of Matt Wagner’s Mage. I honestly couldn’t tell you what it’s about. Magic, I think. I’m too busy looking at the art. Wagner’s layouts are quintessentially 80’s. And they are also crystal clear. There is something refreshing in the wide, thin super-cinemascope panels and the airbrushed colors made by hand. It’s all aged rather nicely. (It’s too bad that the recent reprints I’ve seen do not reproduce the original comic’s colors)

Wagner was big for me as a young artist. There was a naturalism to his layouts and figures that echoed the best of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and, well, a generic art-school “realism” that suited his stories. I remember his Demon series for DC had a big impact on me (I was 15) because of how stripped down it was for a mainstream comic. It was somewhat shocking back then to see a guy like Wagner go from drawing Mage for Comico to The Demon for DC.

I found myself actually sitting next to Mr. Wagner on a panel at SPX 2007. It was surreal. “Holy shit, Matt Wagner IS Kevin Matchstick,” I remember thinking. Without skipping a beat I pulled out my favorite Grendel issues to get them signed (numbers 16 thru 19 for all you fanboys). “I drew each of those in like a week,” said Matt. It’s always weird when I meet artists who influenced me at a young age. How do I explain to him how important his layouts were to me back in 1987? I didn’t bother. Luckily, the panel began.

Anyways, Mage. Mage is really interesting to look at in 2008. Look at the above page and how “handmade” it looks. How natural it looks. How obvious and how subtle the stylization is. It’s unpretentious. Direct. Clean. I wish I had the patience to really break it all down and explain why I think Wagner’s conservative approach is a superior one when compared to more flowery artists such as Paul Pope or Michael Kaluta. What Wagner lacks in stylistic flourishes he makes up for in nuts and bolts storytelling. He’s more of a Guy Davis kind of artist at heart. Wagner’s impeccable narrative transitions and plodding pace mixed with broad, solid action sequences make for entertaining reading. And on top of that Mage really doesn’t look like anything else. The influences are there but they aren’t worn on Wagner’s sleeve. It looked fresh 20 years ago still looks fairly unique today. Not an easy claim for ANY comic. Check Mage out if you haven’t before.

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21 Responses to “Mage”
  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    You know, I never got into Mage when it was coming out — I think I jut came on board late and never really got Wagner. What I’ve seen of his work the last decade-plus I’ve found rather ugly, but I agree, these pages have aged well and have a clarity that is kind of cool and makes me want to see more. I re-read some Nexus lately, which I liked a lot at the time and don’t really enjoy so much now, but like these pages, I’m simply impressed at how good Rude was at telling a story as he was at making it look so pretty in a way that I don’t see so much in genre comics nowadays.

  2. inkstuds says:

    I think his first Mage series is great, so good, i bound them up in a big hardcover, same with all the grendels. I could do a major dork out talking about Matt Wagner and Guy Davis. I have an old sandman mystery theater page by Guy, and its incredible the amount of work he would put into it.

  3. Frank Santoro says:

    Alright, at least I can always count on Eric and Robin to “get” my posts. Thanks guys!

    From what I understand it was Wagner who really put Guy Davis on the map by having him, asking him,to be part of DC project with Karen Berger, which became Sandman, a HUGELY influential series for the 90s.

    The new Grendel series is a little wonky. I must admit that despite Wagner’s solid storytelling sometimes his work is a little heavy handed. I haven’t read it.

    Zorro? I’ve seen some sample pages, not bad, but I guess I just don’t lose my shit over Zorro like the old timers do.

    Batman/Grendel = great comic.

  4. jimrugg says:

    Fluid, comics storytelling is dying. I think a guy like Wagner, storytelling is his great skill (and his design-heavy/stripped-down approach is in service of clear/dynamic storytelling). I’m not sure who you can say that about in the last 15 years. It’s my impression that Marvel/DC and the next generation of pencillers aren’t that interested in traditional comics storytelling. I think film shorthand (and that’s probably generous considering how many comics look like overrendered, poorly drawn storyboards) has replaced a lot of the storytelling mechanisms on which comics once depended. I find it…disappointing.

    It’s probably noteworthy that Mage is Wagner’s big work and it deals with magic. For me, the magic of comics has been the storytelling elements – the charming links between panels that cue my mind to go certain directions and to make logic jumps to fill in the gaps without pausing to try to understand what is happening in a panel or sequence.

  5. Chris Pitzer says:

    Here’s hoping this post takes (I always seem to have problems with blogger!)

    As some may or may not know.. I’m a huge Wagner fanboy. Mostly due to Mage and Grendel. And yeah, Mage is probably my favorite, given the autobioness of it combined with the Arthur myth.

    Anyway, I just wanted to post to say my big appreciation of Wagner (other than his comic work) was the comic knowledge that he passed on to me. Back in my college days, I contacted him to come to Shepherd and give a lecture and gallery showing. During the lecture he opened my eyes to Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara, and Lorenzo Mattotti to just name a few. Without his nudge, I don’t know if I would have found all those great NBM collections being put out at the time.

    But yeah, Grendel 16-19 are fantastic. Followed by 13-15!

  6. Alex Holden says:

    Wow. I haven’t looked at Mage for a long time, but I’m going to go dig it out of my basement right now.

    I am currently drawing a page that is unabashedly ripping off Grendel 16-17. My fantasy comic is just a series of pulpy noirs by Wagner in that style. I still love his zip-a-tone orgy in Batman Black and White too.

    Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen from Matt Wagner for years has been pretty terrible.

    Seeing him speak with you at SPX (what a line-up!) was somewhat disappointing, since he seemed be saying (I am wildly paraphrasing here) “my mother-in-law likes hallmark card paintings, and to her, they are good works of art. So if someone, somewhere, likes something, it is good”. That seems like an overly forgiving way to look at your own work. Perhaps I am projecting here, but it seems like he was justifying his sub-par work of the last decade.

    I think the first Mage series and Grendel (and other works….what happened to the Aerialist?) were so great because he seemed to be really pushing himself to experiment with what comics could do. Grendel 16-19 is a great example of this. There was such a sense of urgency back then, like these things NEEDED to be created. The contrast of the captionless Mage with an all captioned Grendel back-up feature was so so great, like he was just overflowing with ideas.

    But really, in 2008, another “revisiting of Hunter Rose”? Talk about beating a dead horse. I wish he could get back that spark from years ago. I stopped buying his books years ago, because they crossed a line from being simple in the most beautifully reductive way (I love the art in the first Batman/Grendel) to looking just lazy and hacked out.

    If this seems harsh, it’s only because Matt Wagner was probably my first “favorite artist” and I would love to still want to read his current work.

  7. Jason says:

    Wagner was my first ‘favorite artist’, so to speak, and I am disappointed that he is retreading Hunter Rose yet again. Though he only drew a bit of it, Grendel:War Child was the comic book I went through puberty with. It totally tempered my obsession with Image comics just a bit later. So edgy but still speaking with the syntax of the familiar superhero language…I wish he would return to some of that material. Even the Batman/Grendel books were more amazing than the current series, or even Mage II, in my opinion. Give me the light-saber wielding cyborg death machine from the future any day.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey everybody

    Remember this post is about how great Mage’s craft and execution transcend the medium (independent 80s comics) and looks fresh today in 2008.

    I think what’s difficult is the sense of loss that exists when one’s “favorite” artist begins to produce work that doesn’t live up to the high standard of that creator’s original spark –in this case Mage. How does Wagner top Mage? With Batman/Grendel. And then? Well, think about it from his perspective, he became a “professional” and built a solid industry career. But unlike Bone or Spawn, Mage and Grendel were a little ahead of the curve and didn’t make Wagner a bag of cash. He’s a WORKING artist. And like a professional musician he may cut a few records you cats don’t dig. But lay off. I don’t think he’s packed in his horn yet.

    I mean, I wish Steve Rude would have followed Wagner to DC just so Steve would have to CHANGE. Wagner has adapted. Rude hasn’t. Those old Nexus issues are still great. (The jury is out on the new series)

    I wish Kyle Baker would write and draw just one serious comic that isn’t really silly at heart, I know, I know “Nat Turner”.But thats like a history book, I mean a comic book. Special Forces is close but feels contrived.

    We all have heroes, artists who influenced us, who we also grow past sometimes. But the work that reached us in youth can’t be diminished. Thats the magic.

    Sound corny? Yah, but so what. Thats comics comics.

  9. demian says:

    I know this post was about Mage, but Grendel 16-19 may be the only run of comics I go back to at least every couple of months and just flip through. They blow my mind.

  10. Frank Santoro says:

    They are strange like that, right? The Kurtzman issue? Man.

    Hey Alex, dude, sorry, I’m not trying to shut you down, I just want to focus on the positive I guess. When you spied me with those Grendel issues from across the room at SPX last year you knew exactly what they were and it made me laugh. I thought I was the only one who geeked out on that run, or at least kids my age anyhow.

    Forgive my tone.

    Homework for everyone:
    Look at Grendel 17. Couldn’t one say Chris Ware was possibly looking at this comic in 1988?

  11. Inkstuds says:

    Here is a comment for you Frank. One of the reasons that Matt’s stuff from that period works, is the coloring(or if you are in canada, colouring). I know Joe Matt did the first Batman/grendel, and that was great. Remember airbrushing. I am pretty sure that Joe also did alot of the grendel stuff at a certain point, but i have to take a look at my books later. Take a look at how the old Matt Wagner stuff just sparkles.

  12. Alex Holden says:

    Hey, someone’s gotta say it!

    But I appreciate the desire to fondly look back at this work without dragging the creator through the mud too. I can’t overemphasize how important these comics were to me.

    I found an interview about Grendel 16-19:

    Perhaps this run is worthy of a Santoro-Style Mega Post?

  13. Frank Santoro says:

    Yeah, I’m confused, did Wagner do ALL the coloring for the original Mage run? There’s no coloring credit and I know he painted the Mage back-ups in Grendel 16-19. Hmmmm.

    I think the airbrushed colors strengthen the art. The new coloring of the Mage collections WEAKENS the art.

    Robin, is there a good story arc of Sandman Mystery Theater to check out again? I ditched my issues back in the 90s and can’t remember. But would go grab a run on your recommendation.

    Alex, I totally agree, but will still argue my side about becoming a “working artist” and all that entails when I’m drunk enough

  14. Alex Holden says:

    I’m 99% sure that Wagner colored Mage himself. I could be wrong but didn’t Sam Kieth start inking that series and then Wagner takes over around 5 or 6? I remember the art getting a lot better around then. A lot less black, and letting the color do the work.

    Unfortunately, an hour in the vortex that is my basement did not turn up my copies of Mage….

    I’d like to hear a Sandman recommendation too, by the way.

  15. Inkstuds says:

    I looked at my grendels, and the coloring on those was either by Joe Matt or Bernie Mireault(excellent under rated canadian cartoonist). I think the Mages were colored by Matt Wagner.

    As far as Sandman Mystery Theater goes, I think the Mist was a great storyline, but really, they are all pretty good. You should be able to find them pretty cheap.

  16. Alex Holden says:

    I just re-read Matt Wagner’s Comics Journal interview.

    He had Sam Kieth ink Mage because the coloring was more important to him than inking it. That’s why the first few issues are so heavily feathered and blackened. Eventually, the two synced up and Kieth left Wagner more room for color. I’m not sure, but I think that the printing films for Mage may have been lost when Comico went bankrupt? So maybe the recoloring was not an aesthetic choice?

  17. Frank Santoro says:



  18. Barry Deutsch says:

    I really love Wagner’s panel compositions in those early Mage issues. One thing no one on this thread has mentioned is how daring and successful he was at using panel borders to cut off figures and actions in interesting places. Wagner was a master at implying entire body gestures by picking just a small slice of the body to show.

    A shame about the original color films being lost, if that’s true.

  19. Frank Santoro says:

    True enough,
    especially when he would “slice” scenes up and move the panel through time that way.

    There’s a lot of that in the Demon series where Wagner uses this device to show Jason Blood turning into the Demon Etrigan.

  20. Marcus Brainard says:

    I have various views about the first Mage Series and even met Mr. Wagner in Dearborn, Michigan on March 28, 1992 and dropped off some my material that shook him up. In the past I met black girls similar to Edsel & they drove various vintage vechiles ranging from 1958-60 Edsel, and 1957-59 MoPar vehicles and one owned a 1952 Hudson Hornet & one owned a 1955 Packard Clipper & the first one I encountered in April, 1962 drove an almost new, 1952 Henney-Packard Hearse. Next: What went on inbetween #8 and #9 of Mage was some my material. I had some underwater love scenes with Kevin & Edsel at some indoor aquatic center and also them dressed in street clothing dancing to slow classic music like “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer. The reason I had my artists to do this for various reasons. 1) The indoor aquatic center is a safe shelter from Emil & his brothers; 2) The Fisher King & his driver gets to watch Kevin & Edsel thru an obveration room viewing the underwater view & there romantic encounter is rated PG & they keep there swimwear ON!; 3) Show Edsel’s Status as The Lady of The Lake.; 4) Another good reason why Kevin had to accept The Excalibur Bat.; 5) This is the biggest reason: In the final chapter of the fight inside the Styx Hotel Casino in the stairwell Piet Grackleflint & The Faerie Mistress pose as Sean Knight & Edsel to ambush Kevin. However Kevin knows that is The Faerie Mistress & not Edsel, because Edsel puts out underwater & not in the stairwell. The way I see it, Edsel was business all the way & even at the aquatic center, she was still business to make sure The Faerie Mistress doesn’t get Kevin posing as her & another reason was saving her from Stanis Grackleflint & his loss of his apartment burning down in Issue #8. Mr. Wagner maybe flipping out on that subject & I also gave him Edsel’s real name: CAROLYN ESTHER WILLIAMS. A fitting name for a girl who was once The Lady of The Lake. So that’s it for now. Thank you for your time. Marcus Brainard

  21. Frank Santoro says:

    thanks Marcus.
    Check in again anytime and tell us more, or just to say hello.

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