Thee Comic Column #73 – Gravel: Combat Magician

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Ah, William William William. You just cannot stay away from the things that go bump in the night for very long, can you? Certainly not now that Mike Wolfer has launched Gravel: Combat Magician with Avatar Press. And if Gravel’s going to get sucked back into the Dark Arts and those that use them for their benefit, you can bet the blood is going to flow and the magic is going to be eldritch and dark.

Good. I like my magic dark.

If you’re familiar with Warren Ellis’ character William Gravel then you know that this is one hard bloke; an anti hero who has a long history that dates back to a series of mini series published by Avatar Press back around the turn of the last century. Gravel is a surly, dirty tricks bastard of a magician and a military-trained killing machine. Like his father before him William serves in the queen’s army, a special branch called the Special Air Services but with one distinction – not just a soldier Gravel is a Combat Magician, a little-known elite group of troops trained to use their natural magical abilities to up their combat game, as it were.

As many will be quick to point out about Gravel there is definitely an analogue to be made with Vertigo’s John Constantine (notice I specifically denoted the Vertigo character, not the PG-13 version currently on the stands via The New 52). And while I do agree with this to a point, the comparison’s are really only skin deep. While both men are British, cigarette smoking, get-what-they-want bastards, Constantine is generally a con and a cheat; a fairly complex plotter who has pulled some legendarily clever jobs on everyone from the Devil to an Angel to his own flesh and blood. Gravel on the other hand is a much more simple man. Simple, and mean as all hell. Where Constantine often devises intricate ways in which to get what he wants, Gravel simply kills his way through to his objective. Or at least that is the William Gravel we met in 2007’s ongoing Gravel series written by both Ellis and Wolfer (I’ve still not read those initial mini-series so I can’t directly comment on them). As an example of Gravel’s methods, the first issue of that 2007 series saw him drive a very large knife through a former acquaintance’s mouth. It was at that point any connection to one Mr. Constantine pretty much left my mind for good.

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Gravel: Combat Magician stems directly out of the events that transpired in that previous series, a series which saw Gravel kill his way through the rank and file of Britain’s Magical secret societies, never letting up until he held the position as the country’s King Magician. Again, no machinations of any note went into this coup coup d’état, just one-after-the-other violence that saw Gravel eliminate his targets in a manner one would expect from a military lifer. And you know what? It was GREAT!

Now lest you get the idea that Gravel’s simplistic approach to things might carry over into the actual writing of his adventures let me assure you that is not the case. William might blunt force trauma his way through the book, but the events he simplifies with death all belong to a fairly intricate sequence of events. Events that center around Britain’s Major and Minor societies of Magicians, most of whom not only abhor Gravel but also see him as a ‘lower magician’ due to his meat-and-potatoes approach to magic and his ties to the queen’s military. From this rift the book takes us through a veritable spiderweb of revenge and betrayal, initiating Gravel’s need for vengeance and, subsequently, the pieces of a very powerful ancient magical manuscript that serves as the Major Seven’s power base. Things get really interesting when you realize that the artifact in question is actually a very interesting literary allusion, as Ellis and Wolfer used the opportunity to tie their series into early twentieth century writer William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and have Gravel not only have had mutual acquaintances to Mr. Carnacki, but also a newfound need for the pages of Hodgson’s Occult Detective’s Sigsand Manuscript. At the time of the publication of the final issue of this previous series, Gravel has indeed gotten what he wanted but has also had it taken from him. Things go pear-shaped and the old son is knocked back down quite a few pegs. In the very last panels of that series Gravel is arrested by military police, charged with being AWOL from the SAS and it looks as though he is in for some hard time.

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Mr. Wolfer has been very explicit in recent interviews about how his intent is one hundred percent to do the character justice by Mr. Ellis and reading the first issue I believe him. I missed the 0 issue – I forgot how much Avatar likes putting those out – but the first proper issue is a clear case of a ‘set-up’ for some classic Gravel material. William has been sitting in a military lock-up for quite some time when a strange and bloody magical attack transpires in Tokyo via another former SAS member. With a rogue Combat Magician on their hands the brass seek out the one man they know has the skills to stop things before they escalate any further. Of course there are ‘terms’ for his release that would put Gravel directly into the thick of things, working once more for the military. Gravel, being the surly bastard that he is, pretty much tells the brass to get stuffed and that’s where the issue ends. Now, obviously events are going to force Gravel to take some sort of action, but it is so very much in William Gravel’s character that he would rather tell his jailers to piss off than accept any terms for his own freedom. Just based on this subversion of such a classic set-up I’m really looking forward to where Wolfer is going to take things. The horror vibe is strong right off the bat in this first issue, and considering the stories in the last volume unfolded I’m sure we are in for some dark magic and a physical brutality that, although sometimes a skosh disturbing, tends to be quite refreshing. It’s Gravel’s tough-as-nails brutality that really separates him from other horror characters, and its the narrative that makes it come across a lot more coherent and sophisticated than the books that spill gallons of blood just for the sake of spilling blood.

William Gravel has a world view and a systematic approach to getting what he wants, and any and all that get in his way should either step aside or prepare to suffer a terrible demise. Thus far in Gravel: Combat Magician we don’t know what exactly is in store of ol’ William, but whatever it is it’s liable to be dark, disturbing and surrounded by more interesting Occult lore, lore that would appear to use actual Occult research as the logic map that outlines what were in previous story lines, some really interesting artifacts/characters/events.


Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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