Eight years ago, Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer introduced the world to combat magician William Gravel in the pages of Avatar’s “Strange Kiss.” Since then, Gravel has graced the pages of almost half a dozen other Avatar mini-series, but never headlined his own ongoing series – until now. Mike Wolfer and Warren Ellis are co-writing “Gravel,” a full-color ongoing to be released by Avatar Press early next year, with art by Raulo Caceres, and CBR News spoke to Ellis and Wolfer about the new series.
Ellis gave us a primer on William Gravel for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the character. “William Gravel is a soldier in the British SAS, the crack Special Air Service,” Ellis said. “He is also a Combat Magician: a student of magic as it applies to the art of war. This has been something of a plague on his professional life. He also has a tendency to moonlight, taking on illegal security work and the like for extra beer money. Because soldiers aren’t paid very well, and Bill Gravel likes a bit of extra cash in his pocket.
“That’s how you define William Gravel: he’s not a big spooky look-at-me magician, and he’s not a gung-ho soldier,” Ellis continued. “He’s just a bloke who wants a bit of extra folding in his pocket and who wants to be left alone to enjoy it. That’s all. He’s a very simple man. It’s a shame that it’s not a very simple world.”
Wolfer had his own take on the character. “First, dispose of everything you know of comic book anti-heroes, their weaknesses, their angst, their personal codes of morality and their inner demons,” Wolfer said. “This isn’t that book. Now: Picture the hardest bastard you can imagine, a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone in a world that seems to be eternally dragging him into the hell of its political and societal woes. William Gravel is a Combat Magician. But this is not the fuzzy, wand-waving, broomstick-riding kind of magic. It’s brutal, it’s bloody and it springs from the blackest pit of the occult ever conceived.
“Though Gravel is still on active duty with the S.A.S., many of his adventures take place while moonlighting, taking dirty little jobs for the highest bidder to earn pocket cash, much to the disdain of his military superiors,” Wolfer continued. “And they’re the kind of jobs that you and I would dismiss as urban legend, or irresponsible journalism; tales we’ve heard in whispers that could not possibly be happening in our world. They’re the kinds of situations whose final resolutions can only be brought about by extraordinary or supernatural means.”
Wolfer told CBR News that “Gravel” is going to give readers their first real glimpses into the title character’s personal life. “In the 528 pages that are in print (all 6 mini-series are available in Trade Paperback format, by the way- *Plug*), we’ve only seen William Gravel in action either moonlighting, in military service or performing duties in some official capacity or another,” Wolfer said. “The first story arc of the ‘Gravel’ ongoing monthly is going to illuminate his personal life, his ties to the world of the occult and what he does with his time off.”
There exists a magical hierarchy in the United Kingdom, Ellis explained: The seven Kings and Queens of magic in Britain are referred to as the Major Seven, and the buffer between them and the civilian population is an assemblage of seven occult detectives known as the Minor Seven.
“Gravel was once a member of The Minor Seven, but after returning from military service in Afghanistan, he finds that he’s been unceremoniously replaced,” Wolfer said. “And the Minor Seven were glad to be rid of him.”
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To make matters worse, Gravel’s successor secured his admission into the Minor Seven by providing them with a devastatingly powerful occult artifact known as the Sigsand Manuscript. “Now the senior six of the Minor Seven have, in six sections, the entirety of a terrifying and potentially incredibly destructive work of scholarship called the Sigsand Manuscript, thought lost a century ago when Thomas Carnacki died,” Ellis said. Gravel is insulted that his place among the Minor Seven has been usurped, and that his share of the tome is in another’s hands. “So old Bill’s going to have a word with the new boy who replaced him in the Minor Seven. And then he’s going to have words with the other six.”
Wolfer gave us a glimpse of what Gravel has in store for the Minor Seven. “Long-time readers know what’s coming next, but fans picking up the series for the first time are in for one hell of a twisted, gut-wrenching ride as Gravel begins to sift through the clues and rip through body after body on his way to his ultimate goal.” But when it comes to the unpredictable William Gravel, his ultimate goal may not be what it seems. “Warren has created an entirely new supporting cast for ‘Gravel,’ consisting of the current members of the Minor Seven, each with his or her own specialties, personalities, temperaments and motives. They’re all so richly developed and individually fascinating, which is indicative of Warren’s work. It will be a shame if they’re all reduced to bloody smears by the time Gravel’s done with them.”
The first person to suggest that William Gravel get his own ongoing was writer Garth Ennis. “Avatar Editor-In-Chief William Christensen and I met with Garth last spring in New York City, to discuss ‘Streets of Glory’ and down many shots of whatever mysterious, brown liquor Garth was feeding us,” Wolfer explained. Ennis kept bringing the conversation back to “Strange Killings,” a world which Ellis and Wolfer had not had the opportunity to revisit since 2004. “It turns out that Garth is a huge fan of William Gravel, and when he asked William Christensen why we had not considered doing an ongoing monthly featuring the character, well, no one wants to disappoint Garth Ennis, now, do they?”
Wolfer has been contributing dialogue to the series since 2002’s “Strange Killings,” but “Gravel” will be the first time that he’ll be Ellis’ full writing partner. “The whole ‘Gravel’ experience has been a unique collaboration, wherein I’ve been given more and more flexibility to rework scenes or dialogue to correspond with my particular storytelling strengths,” Wolfer said. “Warren’s trusted my judgment, allowing me to diverge a bit from his very detailed plots, to allow the visuals to breathe on their own, perhaps in a way that he had not originally envisioned. Even so, Warren’s sense of pacing, characterization and blocking of action sequences are fantastic; I’ve just been allowed the incredible honor of contributing my own creative energies in a way that’s not always possible in the field of comics.”
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Ellis has taken a page from James Cameron’s book in his approach to “Gravel.” “For each issue, I write something called a ‘scriptment,'” Ellis said. A scriptment is a treatment, “like a short story written by someone with serious ADD.” Ellis’ scriptment is then, in turn, handed to Mike Wolfer, who uses it as the basis for the final script. “So, basically, I foam at the mouth for several thousand words and then Mike makes it make sense.” And Ellis said that to call their arrangement on “Gravel” a writing partnership would be unfair to his collaborator: “Mike has a far harder job. The end product will seem more like me than him, I think, because I’m probably giving him far more than he can use, but it’ll have a slightly different sound to it, which I think will be very interesting.”
Wolfer said that Ellis’ scriptments amount to 7 to 8 page, intricately detailed plot descriptions. “I work from his notes, contributing my own artistic sensibilities, refining each issue into page-by-page, panel-by-panel scripts for artist Raulo Caceres,” Wolfer said.
Wolfer’s own busy illustration schedule made lending his artistic skills to the first arc of “Gravel” a virtual impossibility, but he couldn’t be happier with the artist who was chosen to take the reigns. “Raulo’s an excellent storyteller, with the same reliance on real-world, background details that I’ve always found so important to the series,” Wolfer said. “As we’ve seen in Warren Ellis’ original graphic novel ‘Crecy’ and the ‘Doktor Sleepless’ wraparound covers, Raulo’s keen eye for realistic environments and his use of solid, heavy blacks in his inking gives ‘Gravel’ the kind of creepy, dark moodiness that has been always been the hallmark of the Combat Magician’s adventures.”
Despite his full schedule, Wolfer has every intention of providing artwork for the series further down the line, and his artistic style will not be altogether absent from “Gravel” even at outset. “Currently, I am supplying art for the regular cover editions of the series as well as the gray-toned, 1-In-15 Black Magic Edition chase cover variants,” Wolfer said. “With the series now in full color, it’s nice to acknowledge the black and white roots of the series with the Black Magic variants. There’s something about gray-toned art that greatly appeals to me, perhaps harkening back to my childhood love-affair with Warren Publishing’s ‘Eerie’ and ‘Creepy’ magazines back in the early 1970s.”
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“Gravel” is far from the first writing credit to Wolfer’s name: when the burgeoning comics creator was self-publishing his own work in the late 1980s, he provided both the words and the artwork. “It’s only been in recent years that I’ve been offered more and more script work from Avatar Press (as opposed to writer-artist gigs), on the ‘Friday the 13th‘ and ‘Night/Escape/Plague of the Living Dead’ titles,” Wolfer said.
Ellis lauded Wolfer for his “understanding of timing in storytelling,” which Ellis attributed in no small part to Wolfer’s long career as an artist. “It’s probably likely that my experience as an illustrator has made me particularly conscious of the needs of the artist, so my scripts are full of camera angles, and inking and coloring notations,” Wolfer said. “I try not to be too overbearing, however; nailing down every aspect of what is in a panel can crush the creativity of the artist, which I try to keep in mind when I’m writing panel descriptions.”
Page layout is an important aspect of any comic, and it’s an element of his work that Warren Ellis approaches with great deliberation: In Image’s “Fell,” for instance, the writer adheres to a strict 9-panel grid for each and every page. For the ongoing adventures of William Gravel, Ellis settled on a six panel grid as a starting point. “A six-panel grid, to me, is television,” Ellis said. “It’s a steady pace. It’s normalcy. And it keeps Raulo under a degree of control, because he’s a maniac with page layouts otherwise. One of these days I’ll write him something where he can lay out pages the way he’s used to, but I tell you, there’ll be twenty thousand people in hospital the day after that book comes out, full of people weeping blood and claiming to be able to see angles that were previously invisible to human eyes.”
“Gravel’s” first major story arc will be 21 issues long, what Ellis describes as a cycle broken up into three sub-cycles of 7 issues each. “But pretty much each issue can be read as a self-contained story,” Ellis said. And Ellis has at least one more 21-issue cycle in the works. “That said, there is a possible endpoint,” Ellis explained. “I’ve also written a miniseries that turns ‘Strange Kiss’ and ‘Stranger Kisses’ into a trilogy. ‘Strangest Kissing’ might be the final William Gravel story. One day…”
“Gravel” #0 hits stands on January 2nd.