My review of the A.V. Club's review of Mage: The Hero Denied #1
Reviews are weird things: on one hand, there is a certain amount of objectivity which most people expect. Sure, reviewing a piece of technology gives a little more leeway in this respect than a work of art, but still – presenting the quality of the subject in an even handed manner is important. But, reviews are also expected to present a point-of-view – after all, why bother with a review if you are not interested in what the writer thought about the subject? I recently got ahold of the first TPB of Mage: The Hero Denied by Matt Wagner. Here’s my one-sentence review: it was fucking fantastic. I am impatently awaiting the next and final volume. Given that the Mage trilogy began in the mid-eighties, I, along with other fans, have been impatently waiting for over thirty years.
My grade for Mage: The Hero Denied #1: B+
So, as is the tradition, I decided to see what others thought of the first half. I had been avoiding reviews since the first floppy was released, which wasn’t difficult given Mage’s realatively niche appeal. One of the reviews I stumbled upon (which only covered the first issue) was on the A.V. Club (link to the Google cache version) and it was… words? It’s not the fact that it was negative – you’re free to dislike whatever you want – but more that most the criticisms were at best tangental, and at worst, completely non-sensical.
Let’s get the positives out of the way: the reviewer, Caitlin Rosberg, does have some legitimate criticisms of the first issue, including Kevin’s lack of character development over the years, the seeming seeming sidelining of Kevin’s wife and daughter in favour of Kevin (a writer favouring the protagonist – well I never!) and his son, and the depiction of the Umbra Sprite and the Grackleflints, who are now female, the Umbra Mother and Gracklethorns respectively. Now, I feel that all her points are on shakey ground at best, but they at least deal with the subject of the review and give some supporting arguments as to why Rosberg feels that way. But it’s those last two points where she starts to go off the rails.
First, Rosberg complains that Magda, Kevin’s wife, is reduced to doing the laundry and “nagging” (her quotes, not mine) him, despite being a powerful witch. So, yes – she is doing the laundry. Sometimes people need to the the laundry. And sometimes those people happen to be married and a woman. The implication is that this lessens her character somehow. Further, it is really a stretch – a yoga-like, spine breaking stretch – to say she’s nagging Kevin. As it’s written, it sounds like normal, married people conversation. Kevin isn’t drawn or written as if he’s annoyed or downtrodden, nor does Magda give any indication she’s browbeating him.
The second main complaint is:
These new lady Gracklethorns not only have revealing outfits instead of matching suits, they have tiny waists, styled hair, eyes to host their long lashes, and carefully defined lips. But their faces convey no emotion at all. Their progenitor, the Umbra Sprite, is now the Umbra-Mother, similarly svelte and with her butt-crack improbably showing through her pencil skirt. The overall impression is that in order to be female, they must be drawn and speak as sexual objects, and it’s clear Wagner’s writing has not evolved at all since he fridged Edsel 30 years ago.
There is a lot to unpack here, but the main point is that Rosberg quickly decided to leave reviewing the book behind and start ranting about her views on the representation of women in comics (or at least a comic). Nevermind that the Grackleflints have always embraced one stereotype or another, so conforming to a generic hot woman appearance isn’t something to lose your shit over. Although I do believe she has a point, at least from a long-time reader’s perspective: traditionally, the Gracs have always been very clone-ish, so the Gracklethorns are breaking from tradition by having more unique appearances. Not a particularly strong point, but small victories. The latter part is where things get weird: Edsel was not fridged. She sacrificed herself to save Kevin (so did Sean before her). I pulled out my copy of The Hero Discovered to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. She was not fridged, but that completely false narrative fits much nicer into Rosberg’s outrage / dismissal of Wagner’s writing. But the weirdest, least relevent stuff is yet to come.
Completionists may buy the books, but there’s far too much competition for Wagner to get away with serving up something so stale. There are other, better comics about predestined heroes, and many of them have women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters in them with agency and their own stories tell.
What. The. Fuck. This is known in psychological circles as going bat-shit insane. This last paragraph has nothing to do with the subject at hand and everything to do with Rosberg’s politics. If you want to read stories where the protagonist is not a white guy: more power to you. Go for it. Read Monstress. Paper Girls. The Wicked + The Divine. Even the bastion of white guy protagonists (DC and Marvel) are publishing more and more material where your superhero is not a re-skinned Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, or Peter Parker. But to go write a review of a very long running series where the protagonist is known to be a straight, pale-skinned male and then use that as a strike against it is ridiculous.
My grade for the AV Club’s review of Mage: The Hero Denied #1: D (maybe a D+ if I’m feeling generous)