Tuesday, 22 June 2010

LLC recommends: Gravel

I've spent a very productive couple of evenings reading comics in front of the football. Magic!
Best of all I've cracked through the 10 issues of Gravel which I'd built up. Usually if I find myself getting behind on a title it's because I'm not enjoying it. With Gravel though, I just sort of let it build, knowing that I was going to dig it when I got round to it. And dig it I did.

For those who don't know, Gravel is a Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer comic published by Avatar. It's a violent book about an ex SAS man, William Gravel, who happens to be a combat magician.

I've been guilty of falling into the the easy trap of comparing the book with Hellblazer in the past. I feel lazy every time I do this, but comparisons between the two are inescapable. Like John Constantine, William Gravel is a working class Brit with a black sense of humour who also happens to be a practicing magician. And, as with Hellblazer, Gravel is all about using magic, demons and ghosts as metaphors to examine issues of class, culture, politics and society in modern day Britain.

Gravel is a different animal to Constantine though - older, chunkier, more cynical and willing to resort to violence. While he's definitely an outsider he's also a climber. So where Constantine is keen to stand apart from the world he occupies, Gravel is determined to fuck over everyone to get to the top and change things from a position of power. At the start of the current series, Gravel is one of the Minor Seven, a group of British magicians whose job it is to deal with problems on the street level of British society. Above this group stand the Major Seven, an altogether more powerful bunch who deal with loftier matters. The rest of the series to date has detailed Gravel's efforts to destroy both the Minor and the Major Seven and create a new hierarchy with himself at the top.

Structurally it's a bit like an American gangster flick. Tonally it's more like a Brit noir crime story. There's certainly a bit of Jack Carter about William Gravel, that's for sure. Of course, there's also more than a hint of Warren Ellis about him and maybe a little of Bill Savage too. The point is, that he's a very British character and this is a very British book. It's full of English folklore, it touches on the history of immigration and industrial decline. Its big moments take place in clasically British pubs, docks and country estates. And, above all else, it concerns itself with the all pervading power of the British class system. Gravel is determined to beat that system, but the overriding feeling after 19 issues is that he may ultimately fail to do so.

If that is the case, then Ellis is delivering a pretty bleak message. Who knows, I could be wrong, perhaps Gravel will prevail. The series is at a point where it appears he might already have done so. But the forces of establishment Britain are lurking, making their presence felt, issuing warnings to Gravel not to get any further out of line, insinuating that bad things will happen if he goes too far.

It's good stuff. Not perfect by any means - I felt the second arc moved towards a conclusion too quickly for example - but very enjoyable. It is, as are most of Avatar's books, extremely violent, often disturbingly so. I guess it could be labeled gratuitous, but I'm willing to accept the gore as a vital part of the world William Gravel lives in. If you don't mind the frequent disembowelments and decapitations, then it's well worth a spin, (there are a couple of trades out I think), London Loves Comics gives it a big fat 8 out of 10!


colsmi said...

Splendid stuff, Mr D. This makes me want to buy those issues of "Gravel" myself just to see if I agree with what you've written. I'm rather burnt out on WE myself, but the temptations there after reading this.

Dom said...

It's good stuff. I generally like Ellis's Avatar work.