Mage: a critique

// 20 December 2013

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A guest post from Saranga, who had high hopes for Mage: The Hero Defined but has been disappointed to find that the women read like props who exist to bolster the men’s actions.

Magda - square - edit.jpgWarning: angry comic book based rant ahead.

The Mage series is about a fella named Kevin Matchstick who meets a wizard named Mirth who grants him supernatural abilities and a magic baseball bat. It turns out that Mirth is Merlin, the baseball bat is Excalibur and Matchstick is King Arthur. It’s set in the modern day and it’s rather symbolic. Matchstick goes on the hero’s journey and fights lots of mythological creatures.

I had high hopes for this. I’ve enjoyed other series by Matt Wagner and they’ve always been good. However…

I’ve found this series utterly uninspired and dull. The plot feels obvious and by-the-numbers. It’s a hero’s journey, a common plot, but I just feel I’ve seen it all before and not in a good way. You have the sidekick, the other warrior, the team-up, the teacher, the victory, the betrayal, the lesson – but there doesn’t seem to be anything more to the characters. They are just playing roles. There is nothing in there to make me think the story is different or special. The few hints at wider otherworldly menaces, little touches of background and attempts at world building are just that: attempts. I feel like the characters are moving and acting in a vacuum. Works like this should full of symbolism and meaning; they should create a world with depth and reference and there should be something there beyond the obvious. If you use tropes, you need to be clever with them.

Having said all that, my main irritation with the series is in the women. The group of three main (male) heroes go to meet some friends, a couple. The fella gets called out to fight some nasties (demons), the woman (Isis) stays inside and flaps. She panics. But, she’s a witch! Why doesn’t she get involved in the fight and try to save her lover? Having her flap and panic just seems to reinforce how traditional and unimaginative this story is. The men fight (and the reader should apparently identify with the men, because OF COURSE the reader is a man) and the women weep. Actually, there’s no need to assume the reader is a man. I don’t know if that is what the writer/artist was thinking. The point is that when readers of either gender are supposed to identify with the male hero (and his male mates), the women tend to get sidelined. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had more women in the story.

Back to Isis. We see elsewhere in the series that she has pre-worked spells ready for use. But in this circumstance she appears to have nothing. I tell you, Zatanna wouldn’t be caught out like this!

I know this is a retelling of the Arthur story but that’s no reason to make this woman so useless. Maybe her behaviour is explained away in the previous series. I don’t know. I now have no desire to read any other series. In this one, her behaviour and the set up is very irritating.

The other chick of note in this book is Isis’ sister, Magda. Magda and the hero are prophesised to get together for sexy times. When they finally meet, she is slim and smoking hot. Of course she is. Because the prophecy wouldn’t be fair if she was ugly or plain? If it’s the feelings between them that matters, she doesn’t need to be smoking hot. Isis isn’t, but then we are not supposed to ID with Isis’ lover. I mean, heaven forfend we ID with a character with an ugly girlfriend. The women read like props, existing only to bolster the men’s actions. Maybe the other sidekick/friends characters are equally useless. Maybe I just can’t see it because I’ve got my gender hat on. You guys tell me.

But that’s what I mean by traditional. This series is a bog standard, uninspired, unimaginative, boring, hero-warrior story. It’s not creating believable multifaceted characters; it’s creating ciphers that move the plot along step by step. There is nothing new or intriguing about this and I can’t abide creative works that aren’t actually creative. This is a shame because Matt Wagner has done some other pretty great stuff (Grendel and Trinity for example). Grendel does give us some innovative storytelling and interesting gender roles. Trinity gives us a wonderfrul (ha!) Wonder Woman, exalted to the same level as Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, Mage: The Hero Defined sucks both on a political level and a storytelling level.

Bah humbug.

Mage: The Hero Defined is available to buy and you can find a full results list for a search of the series through this Amazon search.

Saranga is a 33 year old bisexual feminist reading many many comics. She runs New readers…start here!, where she reviews comics for people who are new to them and also Pai, where she talks mostly about comics. Her favourite hero is Supergirl. She is on twitter as @sarangacomics.

Image description and credit.

Head and shoulder edit of Magda in a black top, green beads and sun and moon earrings. She has blonde hair with a black fringe and stands against a pink background. Art by Matt Wagner, colours by Jeromy Cox. Publisher: Image Comics.

Comments From You

Allison // Posted 23 December 2013 at 4:30 pm

While I haven’t read this particular comic, your statements certainly deter me from doing so. Beyond this however, I hope to possibly shed some light on this Magda character. You mentioned that “Mage” is a modern retelling of the lore of King Arthur. I warrant that Magda also represents a character from the Arthurian realm: Morgan le Fay. The half-sister of Arthur, Morgan le Fay emerges as a powerful magician and frequently attempts to trick him due to her jealousy. In “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” a late 14th century text, Morgan le Fay disguises herself as a svelte young woman who seduces the protagonist, (not unlike Wagner’s Magda). I agree that the comic could have been more creative in its reconstruction of the old legend but perhaps the creator merely meant to set the story in modern times without modernizing the characters. Since the rest of the tale seems to stray little from its inspiration, is it so surprising that this character doesn’t either?

Saranga // Posted 25 December 2013 at 10:28 pm

Hi Allison.

Thanks for the comments – you may well be right. I don’t know Arthurian legend well enough to comment, so I’ll take your word for it. I’m not sure if that will persuade me to go back to the comic, but it does give a different spin on it. Thanks again.

Saranga // Posted 27 December 2013 at 10:55 pm

Hi again. I’ve been thinking on your comment Allison and I’ve come to the conclusion that myths can be remembered and told in lots of different ways and if traditionally Magda/Morgan Le Fay has been shown as seductress of young virile men (in a negative manner) then there’s a problem with how the myths have been told.

For example, the story could be told in a positive way, celebrating Morgan’s sexuality and her independence. The Irish myths (I’m thinking of The Tain) are pretty good at giving alternate versions of the characters’ stories, so I reckon there must be similar versions for the Arthur stories.

However, Mage seems to be propping up the patriarchal values of the Arthur stories (and sidelining the women), and that really frustrates me. It’s like historical/myffic women aren’t important or valued.

Bah humbug indeed!

Allison // Posted 29 December 2013 at 3:58 pm

I certainly see where you’re coming from. In this modern retelling, the artist could easily have recreated the characters so as to truly modernize the tale. It’s unfortunate that he chose to leave so much so similar. I wonder if there are other examples of modernized Arthurian legend that celebrate the female characters rather than sideline them.

Ragnell // Posted 30 December 2013 at 4:27 pm

Well, I haven’t read Mage in several years. I was more unimpressed than enraged. I was enraged by Camelot 3000, but the women do do considerably more in that one.

Still, I don’t know where anyone would get the idea that Morgan le Fay or Morgause (the other sister, mother of both Gawain and Mordred, often combined into one character in retellings) just stood around and looked sexy. They were political power players, even though they weren’t combatants. Sidelining them is not just following the legend, its ignoring that there’s way more to the story than just fighting.

(Oh, and small nitpick, in Gawain and the Green Knight that’s Bercilak’s wife who tries to seduce the hero. The wife isn’t named, but she’s a clever and fun character. Morgan’s just there in a mention as having set the whole thing up to test her brother’s court.)

The best comic retelling of Arthur I can think of is Soulwind, and in that one there’s a couple major women but they come in the later two-thirds. Morgan is important, but not a presence. It’s hard to describe that one but it’s really good and very off-beat.

Really, as comics go there’s not much. There are a lot of modern retellings that celebrate the women, though. Entire series of books from Guinevere and Morgan’s individual perspectives if you just do a slight bit of digging there. There’s really no excuse for a retelling that doesn’t use the female characters we know, let alone the thousands of unnamed female characters who show up in the old romances.

Allison // Posted 31 December 2013 at 3:46 pm


Thank you for the clarification. It’s been a few years since I read the text and I may have conflated the two (Bertilak’s wife and le Fay) since they were involved together. I did not however intend to suggest that Morgan le Fay did not have power in original Arthurian legend. I merely wanted to suggest that it was a possible interpretation that the creator of “Mage” may have assumed.

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