By Courtney RyanA satisfying conclusion to a trilogy is a challenge to pull off. For every Return of the King there are at least a dozen Alien 3s. Yet, when a trilogy manages to stick the landing, the risks involved are completely worth it. Of course, some of the most gratifying trilogies have come from stringing together stories with self-contained conclusions, like the Toy Story or Before series.

I mention The Before Trilogy because it is so representative of filmmaker Richard Linklater’s obsession with capturing the ordinary passage of time through cinema. And I mention all of this trilogy/Linklater nonsense because this summer, Image Comics began releasing one the most eagerly awaited trilogy conclusions in comics—one that is as much obsessed with concluding its hero’s journey as it is with depicting the passage of time.

Mage: The Hero Denied #3Mage: The Hero Denied #1-3

Written by Matt Wagner.

Art by Matt Wagner.

Colors by Brennan Wagner.

Letters by Dave Lanphear.

The wait is over. Matt Wagner published Mage: The Hero Discovered, the first volume of his now beloved fantasy trilogy, for Comico in 1984. His second volume, The Hero Defined, concluded its 15-issue run in 1999. To say that the third and final installment has been highly anticipated would be a slight understatement. But here we are, some 30-odd years since it all began, finally in the throes of discovering what kind of brew Wagner has been concocting for his hero, Kevin Matchstick, since the beginning.

Of course it’s likely that Wagner himself needed to live a little bit before finishing the trilogy. Since Mage debuted, he’s been crystal clear that Matchstick is his comic book alter ego and everything that occurs throughout the series is a metaphor for his own life. So where does a guy whose life has been represented by heroic battles against the minions of a powerful evil faerie, the malevolent Umbra Sprite, end up?

Yep, he’s a dad at the playground now. But not just any dad, he’s still the reincarnation of Pendragon, still able to wield the magical Excalibur, and still longing for guidance from the mystical third mage. Ever the reluctant hero, Matchstick has left his epic adventures behind and returned to his form as the relatable everyman. He’s living the quiet suburban life with his wife—Magda, one of the three witches he met in The Hero Defined—and raising two young children. That is, until a few stooges of dark magic turn up and the epic battle between good and evil he’s forever destined to fight begins all over again.

Interior panels from 'Mage: The Hero Denied' #3. Art by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner/Image Comics

Interior panels from ‘Mage: The Hero Denied’ #3. Art by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner/Image Comics

A family affair. As the character Kevin Matchstick has grown and matured throughout the Mage series, so has Wagner’s artwork. The first volume featured realistic, if unrefined depictions of Matchstick’s aimless existence before he discovers his mythical destiny. The battle scenes certainly weren’t crude, but they did stand out as less glossy than what readers had come to expect from the Big Two and helped define the slightly understated, gritty look of indie comics for years to come. But as Wagner has polished his chops as an illustrator, Matchstick’s world has also taken on a more polished veneer, which casually enhances the tone of the story. Fittingly, The Hero Denied centers around a more grownup hero, and we can actually see that.

The Hero Denied is also visually unique since Wagner’s son, Brennan Wagner, has jumped in as colorist. Brennan has colored for a few of his father’s previous efforts, including Grendel vs. The Shadow and The Shadow: The Death of Margo Lane, but the autobiographical nature of of the Mage series makes Brennan’s inclusion all the more poignant. It’s also quite fortunate that the duo’s personal relationship translates into a strong creative collaboration. Brennan complements Wagner’s etchings of sensible suburban life with warm, muted tones that glow at the sight of Matchstick’s domestic brood. Adversely, his mythical villains are icy, casting dark shadows across the faces of those they confront.

Interior panels from 'Mage: The Hero Denied' #3. Art by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner/Image Comics

Interior panels from ‘Mage: The Hero Denied’ #3. Art by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner/Image Comics

Start from the ending, or beginning, or even the middle. The Hero Denied is absolutely meant for fans of the previous two volumes. Image has helpfully published a pair of reissued trade paperbacks to allow readers to catch up, and Wagner provides a lot of exposition to fill us in on the past, but I suspect that most readers will already be familiar with Mage. That’s partially due to the humble archetype Wagner has created in Matchstick.

As a fictional proxy for the author, Matchstick may encounter fantastical elements and experience extreme events, but he always confronts his extraordinary conflicts as a character rooted to an otherwise pretty average existence. Through Matchstick, Wagner inspired countless other writers and artists to create relatable heroes whose journeys might be incredible, but whose daily lives are completely recognizable. This everyman hero is so commonplace in comics now, from The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes to Y: The Last Man’s Yorick Brown, young readers might not even realize how influential Matchstick has actually been.

Of course, the other side of Mage’s excellence relates to Wagner’s fantasy allegories and references. These continue to be a fixture this time around and should certainly draw in new readers who enjoy melding our ho-hum existence with the worlds of King Arthur or Macbeth.

If you’ve been patiently waiting for the return of Kevin Matchstick then The Hero Denied will likely feel like slipping into a booth for a drink with an old friend. Reliably, he’s returned as the brooding everyman with a soft heart and a remarkably brawny build, reluctantly fighting on behalf of all that is good and noble. Mage is always camped in the dependable trajectory of a classic Hero’s Tale, so your enjoyment of the series depends entirely on whether you’re drawn to such odysseys. Wagner also peppers his story with references to history and mythology, which has generally been a positive lure for his readers. Still, it’s the multi-dimensional Matchstick that ultimately determined Mage’s success with readers, and that character, and his approachable reality, is as present as ever in The Hero Denied. The difference is that this time he’s also dealing with the complexities that come with family life.

7.5 out of 10

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