Review: Gravel Vol. 1: Bloody Liars trade paperback (Avatar Press)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

Warren Ellis’ tenure at Avatar Press began similarly to Alan Moore’s work with Image and Extreme, with the key difference that Avatar doesn’t appear to interfere on an editorial level. The result is fifteen years of publishing Ellis’s most challenging and violent books; in turn, this has raised their stature in the comic book world. One only needs to look at Zenescope to see what Avatar would have become without books like Garth Ennis’s Crossed and Ellis and Mike Wolfer’s Gravel.

Introduced in the Strange Killings series of mini-series, the character of William Gravel became popular enough to warrant an ongoing series -- the first one Avatar ever published. Much of this early material has only been collected in a rare hardcover, Never a Dull Day, but the first trade of the ongoing, Gravel: Bloody Liars works as an effective start.

It’s unfortunate that Gravel has a non-indicative title. When it relaunched last year, it was given a much more appropriate subtitle as Gravel: Combat Magician. Bill Gravel strikes a balance between the lower-key magic of John Constantine and the theatrics and spells of Doctor Fate, using his abilities frequently but practically. He rarely says spells aloud, bringing to mind the wand-less and silent magic techniques in Harry Potter. This is definitely to the book’s advantage as reciting magic words in the middle of a war can come across as time-consuming and silly.

But more than his magic, Gravel’s defining characteristic is his personality. He’s an older and irascible man with a dirty mouth and little patience. His career in magic began because his father was a combat magician back during World War II; he possesses the cynicism and anger of a British baby-boomer, a man who experienced the horrors of war as a child. Gravel has few friends and trusts almost no one; in his defense, however, there are few within his peer group who are trustworthy. Prior to the start of Bloody Liars, Gravel was a member of the Minor Seven, Britain’s council of urban magical detectives. He’s been expelled from it with the explanation that the others thought he was dead. It’s an excuse that he isn’t buying.

What results is Bill Gravel taking revenge against the Minor Seven. It’s not quite a case of “one villain per issue," as Ellis, Wolfer, and artists Raulo Caceres and Oscar Jimenez break up the story with some clever beats. One issue is spent almost entirely on Gravel talking with his mentor Sykes; this gives a look both into the main character’s head and at how magic works in general in this universe. The Minor Seven all use different forms of magic, from Lovecraftian spell-books to ghost horses and the fearsome Wild Hunt from Celtic myth. At the core of Gravel’s quest are the pieces of the Sigsand Manuscript which the Seven have in their possession. This manuscript was first seen in William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories, a progenitor of the occult detective genre. (Since Thomas Carnacki appears in the story in a flashback as an actual person, Gravel shares the same universe and canon as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, wherein Carnacki was a main character in Century 1910.)

Mike Wolfer’s art is absent from Bloody Liars apart from the covers and chapter transitions. He has a very specific way of drawing Bill Gravel so that his face looks almost “mushy," as if he’s been punched in the face far too many times. Caceres and Jimenez both have similar and more detailed art which gives Gravel more distinct features. One of the staples of Gravel is not using dialogue at all during fight scenes. This gives the artist more room to work with and, as mentioned before, makes the timing more believable versus some of the speeches spouted in X-Men or Nightwing during acrobatic fights.

Warren Ellis is supposedly still working on a Gravel screenplay and I really do hope he gets it sold. Assuming that the first movie is based on the Strange Killings mini-series, Bloody Liars would make a great source for a second film -- set up the Minor Seven in the first so that Gravel can take them down in the sequel. The future trades provide much more information about the magic in the world of Gravel and a supporting cast to work from. Now that omnibuses are becoming a bigger trend, here’s hoping that Avatar can collect both the various mini-series, Gravel Vol. 1: Bloody Liars, and the other trades of the ongoings together so that Gravel can reach a broader audience.

(By the way, if Warren Ellis somehow happens to be reading this: please convince the studio to cast Sylvester McCoy as Sykes. I’m fairly certain that he was designed to look like the Seventh Doctor's actor and he’d be a highlight of the film in that role.)

In two weeks, more Warren Ellis with a review of Ellis’s Moon Knight.
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