Having cast an eye over the combat magician’s most recent activities a couple of weeks ago, it seemed appropriate to consider Bill Gravel’s first arc as a whole, recently collected by Avatar in one of its famed slightly-too-expensive trade paperbacks. It’s a fascinating series of vinaigrettes, but it’s hard to tell if the creators are deliberately facilitating its flaws.
The anti-hero has become a standard comics feature, but there’s rarely been as thoroughly unlikeable piece of work as Sergeant Major Gravel. He exists solely to be contrary, defining himself as the opposite of whoever he is presently taking a dislike to. He’s the hardheaded squadie when facing Joanna’s mystical view of the world, but happily ignores order from his CO in order to pursue his vendetta. He’s the straight-talking southerner to Skyes’ poetic Yorkshire sheppard, but has no time for the silent acolytes who are all business just a couple of chapters later. What eventually becomes Gravel’s defining feature is his lack of imagination. When faced with the prospect of a real change to his life, with a lavish mansion and a group of obedient servants/followers, it doesn’t take him too long to find an excuse to “sacrifice” both as a means of completing his original objective. For all the stories he’s appeared in, Gravel’s utter refusal to grow or change has never been as strongly displayed.
The character’s always been the off one out in Warren Elli’s menagerie of self-aware, cranky heroes, but ongoing status may have tipped him over the edge into deliberate vacuousness. The most curious feature is the hollow nature of the book. Its star acts entirely without reason, and it’s impossible to by into the slight he claims to have suffered to a status that has never once been referred to in all his previous adventures. It’s impossible to know if this absence is a genuine flaw in the book or a deliberate parody of the likes of Garth Ennis, but Gravel spends the entire volume scrabbling around in the hope of finding a motivation to justify he predetermined course of action. The art takes the form of a trick not often seem these days, with Mike Wolfer providing breakdowns to be finished by other artists. Of the two other creators involved here, it’s Oscar Jimenez who is by far the most successful, allowing his work to breath and find its own way in contrast to Raulo Caceres’ lifeless mimicking of Wolfer’s finished work on the many volumes of Strange Kisses.
Although nowhere near the strongest work from its co-writer, its an intriguing read. It’s just hard to be sure if the joke is on the purchaser or the other titles that have walked this path before.