Image (c) copyright Matt Wagner.
Comic book writer and artist Matt Wagner talks about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators.
This is the first half of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two, in which Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.
Were you a storyteller as a young boy?
Matt Wagner: I was. My father, and this dates him quite a bit, used to say I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle because I was very talkative.... My parents like to tell a tale of when I was quite young. I must have been five or something like that. We had literally -- I kid you not -- a door-to-door Bible salesman come to the door one day selling these lavishly illustrated Bibles. We were going through it and I was pointing out all the illustrations and saying, "Oh, look this is Noah, this is Jonah, Jesus" etc., etc., and we got to a picture of Adam and Eve in their loincloths in the Garden of Eden and I turned to my dad, apparently, and said, "Dad, Tarzan!" [laughter] So I think I was doomed for this profession from the very beginning.
My mother was an English teacher before she became a full-time mom, and a huge proponent of reading, so she made sure I was an early and vigorous reader. Coupled with that was the fact that I was an only child. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania in Amish country -- we lived out away from most other houses.... I drew to entertain myself because there wasn't much video entertainment in those days. I think we had probably three or four TV stations initially. And so I was a vigorous reader and I drew. And comic books were both writing and drawing all rolled into one and just became the magic quotient for me.
So you were headed for comics from the start?
MW: I sure wanted to. They were such a mystery to me. And of course in those days it was all centered around the big two publishers. There was no overnight delivery service at that stage, so pages of original comic art were not going to go from writer to artist to inker through the regular mail. You pretty much had to live in New York; you had to show up at the offices in person to get jobs. As a result it was very, very insular, and I just had no idea what it was all about.
But here again, another childhood tale: My parents have a school-memories book from when I was a kid, and on the back of all the elementary school years is a little spot to fill in what I wanted to be when I grew up. And one year I wrote "astronaut," and I'm sure that's the year they landed on the moon. Every other year I wrote "comic book writer."
From what age?
MW: From kindergarten.
MW: And I wrote "comic book writer" because I just assumed whoever wrote the comics must draw them, too. I didn't know that it was usually a team effort, which in commercial comics is the norm.
Part of what worked with Mage was that you saw me growing up as an artist in the process of drawing and telling that story. ...at least at that initial stage of my career, I think that was one of my biggest strengths -- my reach always kind of exceeded my grasp, and I just paddled a little harder to try and get up to snuff.
Matt Wagner is a comic book writer and illustrator, best known for his original comics Mage and Grendel (winner of three Eisner awards) and a five-year run on Sandman Mystery Theater, as well as for recent stints on Batman and on Trinity, a three-issue miniseries featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Matt Wagner on the Web: mattwagnercomics.com
Your first Mage series, back in the'80s, was a twelve-part story. That seems like an ambitious project to take on so early in your career.
MW: Yes -- even more so because I had started it at an earlier stage and had abandoned it. I'd always been a fan of Arthurian myths, and I really liked a lot of that myth cycle.
I'd started [Mage] long before I was even remotely capable of taking such a project to completion. I had started a story about the return of King Arthur in modern day and it was nothing like Mage. It was much more of a traditional fantasy/superhero-oriented approach. And then DC Comics announced that they were going to do a big project called Camelot 3000. So I just thought, "Well, you know, [expletive] this. It's been done. " [laughter] "They're doing it and certainly that Brian Bolland guy can draw a little bit better than I can." And then it came out and it had a very traditional superhero/fantasy approach to it, and it left me utterly cold. It certainly was beautifully drawn, but I just couldn't get behind the story at all. It was just the same events happening in the same order as the original myths, except King Arthur was fighting aliens now.
So I thought, somehow I had to dress this down. I have to approach this in a way that personalizes it. I had gone to art school in Philadelphia, and I was living there, and I was down at the Philadelphia waterfront one day, drawing, and I came up with two drawings. One was just a drawing of myself and one was a drawing of what would eventually become Mirth, the wizard Mirth. And from that spark of two sketches I approached the project with brand new eyes.
And I will say at the beginning, I wasn't quite ready. Part of what worked with Mage was that you saw me growing up as an artist in the process of drawing and telling that story. And by an artist, I mean as a storyteller. You know, at least at that initial stage of my career, I think that was one of my biggest strengths -- my reach always kind of exceeded my grasp, and I just paddled a little harder to try and get up to snuff.
Is it fair to say the character of Kevin Matchstick stands in for you?
MW: Oh, yeah, more than fair. It's absolutely accurate.... I think that's true of a lot of storytellers in general. And specifically a lot of comic book artists tend to do that quite a bit. If you've ever seen Dave Stevens, he looks just like Cliff, who's the Rocketeer. Even Jeff Smith looks like Bone.
MW: Yes, he does. [laughter]
That's not okay. Are you sure he doesn't look like Shazam? [ed note: For non-comics folks, Jeff Smith is the creator of the much-loved Bone and had a recent run on Shazam! for DC Comics.]
MW: He's not small and Bone-like and hairless, but in Jeff's demeanor and in Jeff's personality and in the lines of his body and his face and his expressions, you see Bone -- you see the character of Bone. And with good art, that's what happens -- it comes directly out from inside of you almost instinctively.
The interview continues in Part Two.