A mage awakens in a mysterious field surrounded by sweeping landscapes and crumbling relics. His purpose unknown, he embarks on a journey with stunning magic in tow, meeting a faithful companion or two along the way. Though this is the set up for many a fanciful tale, the mage soon realizes that this world is not kind to wanton adventurers. There are monsters with abyssal maws that can swallow beings whole, creatures that maul and mutilate for their own cryptic ends, and a corrupted force that seeks to end the mage’s wanderings permanently. Death and carnage rule this land, thrusting unrelenting horror and pain onto the mage at every opportunity. It will take all of the mage’s magic, strength, and perseverance to abate the darkness, but seldom does one attempt such a feat and come out unscathed.
Mage and the Endless Unknown delivers a horror fantasy both memorable and unnerving, its mysteries culminating in a narrative readers will want to revisit more than once to see if they can truly decipher them all. The story is conveyed mostly through images without much clarifying text. As a result, an ominous silence follows our protagonists, encouraging a sense of unease as they encounter peril after peril. Readers looking for a story with a clearly defined plot and explanations for its more abstract elements may be somewhat disappointed, but Miller still creates a sort of dreamlike cohesion during its progression. The reader shares the mage’s lack of knowledge about this strange place, which instills a greater sense of empathy for him as he meets creatures that become more frightening and deadly as the journey continues.
Ultimately, the graphic novel’s aloof and ambiguous tone makes it rife with interpretation, leaving the reader with the task of deciding what it means to them. Though Miller gives some context towards the story’s end, there are still questions one may have towards its meaning and purpose. For me, the process almost became somewhat existential, thinking about certain themes like the pains that inevitably come from living, the weight of trauma and fighting to survive, about how, through all of that suffering, one can still achieve a sense of peace and rest. Despite the constant darkness the mage faces, there is a light of hope at the end, one that reassures and soothes old wounds. Mage and the Endless Unknown has a good amount of layers to it, some of them terrifying, some of them uncomfortable, even some wondrous, but at its core there is something that encourages reflection, whether regarding the mage’s tale or our own.
With an art style that incorporates influences from manga and Western comics, Miller exhibits a great knack for illustrating the uncanny and grotesque. The creatures are drawn with such rigid, realistic detail, providing a stark contrast to our more rounded, charming, and cartoonish-looking mage. Some of their designs defy explanation other than as eldritch-inspired horrors, one sporting a long, wormlike body and tendrils made to literally get under your skin, another a large flying beast with a single gazing eye and a leechlike mouth, the opening of which taking up an entire page. Their designs and presentation have a Junji Ito-esque aesthetic about them, mainly in their bold outlining and how startling they come across when one’s guard is down. While these monstrosities are abundant throughout the graphic novel, Miller balances their presence with a natural world that appears genuinely captivating. Dark forests may appear intimidating with trees that loom and close in all around, but also include gentle waterfalls that house ethereal jellyfish creatures that seem more benign than some of its other residents. Giant mushrooms provide a safe napping space for the mage, while lush, intricate flowers are a source of small comfort. Here, beauty thrives even among such malevolence, which could either be a small reassurance or an opportunity to garner a false sense of security. The backgrounds, with all their enigmatic structures and ruins, hold more secrets of this world, prompting readers to spend time to soak in each page rather than rushing through to get to the next one.
Mage and the Endless Unknown will likely appeal to those interested in a manga-like style combined with darker elements and a vague mode of storytelling. There is a good amount of disturbing imagery in this comic, coming from its inclusion of body horror, gore, and violence, so this title will fare better with an older audience. The publisher has designated the comic as a Teen/Young Adult title, which I believe is apt considering its content. Librarians and educators looking for original graphic novels with unique presentations, memorable visuals, and an engaging mystery should consider purchasing this title.
Mage and the Endless Unknown
By SJ Miller
Iron Circus, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: Teen/Young Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Nonbinary