[Interview] Mike Wolfer Digs Deep Into Paranormal Horror In ‘Gravel: Combat Magician’

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Avatar Press is re-launching the series in January with “Gravel: Combat Magician” #0 with horror veteran Mike Wolfer taking over the writing duties from Warren Ellis, and Italian artist Gabriel Rearte handling the visuals. Issue #0 is a great jumping on point for new readers, as we find Gravel picking up the pieces after a battle to the death with blood-thirsty serial killer and he’s targeted by Combat Magic-fueled assassins who hope to take him out once and for all.

“Gravel: Combat Magician” is the perfect mixture of mythology, ultra-violent black magic, and blood dripping horror.

Bloody-Disgusting caught up with Wolfer to discuss all the launch of this new ongoing book, the possibility of a movie adaptation, and where Gravel’s paranormal investigations are set to take him in the coming months.

Bloody-Disgusting: ‘Gravel’ has been around for quite a while, but has finally returned as a monthly book in January. Why was this the perfect time to bring back ‘Gravel’?

Mike Wolfer: Whether or not it’s the perfect time remains to be seen, but it was the perfect time for me because I’ve dearly missed the old Sergeant Major! After we wrapped the third story arc of the last series, the ending had a nice, final end point which gave us the ability to step back for a bit and catch our breaths… And to start making plans for the future. It was decided then that I would continue as the sole writer of the series, with Warren Ellis’ approval of my plots. He gave me direction, and let me know all of the hot button topics and underlying themes which I needed to incorporate, but I was given the space to create stories from scratch. Previously, Warren was supplying me with what he called “scriptments,” which were super-detailed plots, and included some of the major dialog exchanges.

BD: How involved is Warren with this series and how do you go about taking over someone else’s vision and still make it your own?

MW: As I said, Warren approved my plot outlines for the first 18 issues, so even though he’s not actually writing, he is there to oversee the direction I’m going, and if I misstep, we’ll redirect. But when you consider that I’ve been with William ‘Gravel’ since his first appearance in STRANGE KISS #1 back in 1999 as either artist or writer, or both, it’s pretty safe to say that I know the guy inside out, and have had the immense honor of helping shape the series over the years. Warren Ellis’ “vision” is very much my “vision,” as well. I think they’re almost identical, at least that’s my hope.

BD: After re-reading all the past issues of ‘Gravel’, did you find elements of the story that haven’t been explored before that you could use in ‘Combat Magician’?

MW: I did. Those are mostly sub-plot things which were never tied up in the past series. So while we’re exploring new ground with COMBAT MAGICIAN, we can also enjoy the richness that comes with a healthy past history. It gives the story more weight and maybe, for example, we’ll find out how Gravel survived having his arm cut off at the shoulder. Things like that.

BD: I’ve heard that when you are writing a character there are elements of your own voice that come out in the story, is that true in the case of ‘Gravel’?

MW: In some instances, yes, but the writer always has to remember to treat their fictional creations as if they are living, breathing individuals, with their own personality quirks and motivations independent of the author’s. When I’m writing , if I ask myself, “Okay, what would I do in this situation,” the answer has to be, “No one cares what YOU would do, Wolfer. What the hell would GRAVEL do?”

BD: You’re working with Italian artist Gabriel Rearte on art for the series. Tell us a little bit about how you found him and what he brings to the book…

MW: Gabriel’s indirect association with ‘GRAVEL’ goes back years. He had always been in line as a potential artist, but schedules and shifting creative teams never afforded us the opportunity to utilize his talents. Because of my own drawing commitments on other books, I was unavailable to illustrate ‘‘Gravel: Combat Magician’, so in stepped Gabriel. He has a very clear, easy to read style which is vital to a book like this. Because of the locations and military aspects of the series, ‘GRAVEL’ has a very “real world” feel, and Gabriel is perfect in capturing that tone.

BD: Tell us a bit about where we find the book as the series ‘Gravel’: Combat Magician begins and where things are heading…

MW: At the end of the last series, ‘Gravel’ had ascended to the height of the British occult hierarchy, having killed everyone who had formerly held power. He was the last man standing, “The Last King of England.” But since he had been AWOL while he sorted his supernatural responsibilities, the Army caught up with him and hauled him off to the Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester. That’s where COMBAT MAGICIAN begins. Frankly, Gravel’s bored with everything- his struggles with the occult world, his military service, basically everything in his life. He’s resigned himself to life as a prisoner, because really, it’s a good life with no responsibilities. You’re fed regularly. It’s not that bad. But there’s a problem. While he was off dealing with the Major and Minor Seven in the previous series, Combat Magicians were being pushed through the SAS training program, and without an experience vet like ‘Gravel’ to oversee their training, they’re being deployed into the field with the barest grasp of what the hell they’re doing, or how to control their inherent magical abilities. So now ‘Gravel’ feels compelled to clean up the shit they’re leaving behind in their wake.

BD: In issue #1 we find out that every country has their own combat magician. What can you tell us about the role that these magicians play for their country and how big of a role they will play moving forward in the series?

MW: Combat Magicians aren’t public knowledge in any country. They’re Special Forces within Special Forces within Special Forces, so even within the military, they’re just rumor. They’re very much military men and women, with total dedication to their fellow soldiers and whatever government they serve. Their duty is to protect the troops in the field of combat, but occasionally they’re deployed to do a little clandestine dirty work as most world governments are known to do: kidnappings, assassinations, destabilization, etc. In the past, ‘Gravel’ thought that he was one of only a handful in the world, but as we’ll see in this new series, other world powers are exploiting magic as a viable combat and Covert Ops technique. So the goal of ‘GRAVEL: COMBAT MAGICIAN’ is to broaden the sphere of influence the outside world has over ‘Gravel’, and to show that he’s not safe within the nice, comfortable zone he’s established for himself in Britain.

BD: With a book like ‘Gravel’ that has so much history, how do you approach a new series like this and make it accessible to new readers?

MW: That was our primary concern with launching COMBAT MAGICIAN, so I intentionally wrote the #0 issue as an introductory, stand-alone story in which we get to see who ‘Gravel’ is, what he can do, where he’s from, his military service, his ties to the occult world… It’s all in there in one neat package. Which isn’t always an easy thing for a writer to accomplish, but I think I hit all of the marks. And then, as far as his history in print, we have 18 pages in the back of the double-sized #0 that recaps in words and pictures every single adventure that has seen print, from STRANGE KISS to the full color ‘GRAVEL’ series from a few years back. That was a lot of fun for me, as I did the actual page building of the “back matter” (who knew I had computer skills?), so I got to write all of the text and select the illustrations from all of those hundreds and hundreds of pages of art. But before doing that, I sat down and read every single issue, which amounted to somewhere around 1000 pages. And after all this time, and with the story itself written over a twelve year span, the whole sprawling tale is very cohesively. It’s amazing.

BD: For anyone that hasn’t picked up ‘Gravel’ before, what sets this book apart from any of the other paranormal investigator books, ala Hellblazer?

MW: Ha. I unfortunately can’t say, “It’s nothing like any other paranormal investigator book,” because I’ve never read another paranormal investigator book. Not even HELLBLAZER. Not a single issue. That’s actually true, but really, I have no idea if this is different because I have nothing to compare it to, you know? It’s like the old Hollywood pitch thing, “My screenplay is like ‘Jurassic Park’ meets ‘Django.’” I can’t say what ‘GRAVEL’ is like, because plain and simple it’s just what I want to do, what I want to write, totally uninfluenced by any other works. But I think that the fans of the series are the ones who can tell you. I do hear them compare it to HELLBLAZER, but in doing so they say it’s much cooler, so I think we’re doing something right.


BD: ‘Gravel’ has always dealt with the dark arts and the occult. How much research goes into a book like this with the magic and occult aspects of the book?

MW: It really depends on what the story calls for. Gravel’s brand of magic, Combat Magic, is entirely fictional and not based on any documented practices, so I’m making that up as I go along. But there are aspects of the story which do require research, particularly when it comes to some of the other characters we’ll be seeing in the series. Some of them wield magic which is based on known practices, or spring from real-world locations and beliefs. It’s a unique exercise for me as a writer, to try as often as possible to not rely on abilities we’ve seen in other comics or films. That’s the appeal of the character, that we really have no idea of what this guy is capable. “Oh, he can do magic and shoot a gun.” Yeah? Well how about if the bullets he shoots are living parasites and they can eat their way through a man’s insides after he’s shot? I do enjoy my job!

BD: Legendary Pictures picked up the film rights for ‘Gravel’ a while back. Do you have any details on how things have developed on the movie front?

MW: Actually, no. The super-secret, insider information which I have came from IMDB and Variety, so… The last thing I heard was that Tim Miller is set to direct, but I haven’t heard anything else in almost a year. You know. “Hollywood.”

BD: You were writing ‘Lady Death’ for Avatar, but the book abruptly ended with #26 with readers left hanging. What happened and will we ever see the remaining issues?

MW: Ah, “Lady Death.” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I absolutely loved writing the series, let me say that. I had such a huge cast of continuing characters and subplots that it was a very immersive experience, and I hated to see it end because I had big, big plans. The beginning of those plans was seen at the end of #24, in which Lady Death was transformed into an emissary of Death itself, so I was taking the series from the fantasy realm into a world of more pure horror. She wasn’t just called, “Death,” she was “Death.” Unfortunately, the plug was abruptly pulled due to contractual issues, which left me extremely disappointed, to say the least. Artist Marc Borstel and I completed up to #30, but I have no idea if those will ever see print. It’s an absolute shame, because the art is gorgeous.

BD: Working on ‘Lady Death’, I’m interested to hear if you had the chance to check out the Dynamite re-launch of Evil Ernie and your thoughts on the planned re-launch of the Chaos Comics characters?

MW: I did read Jesse Snider’s ‘Evil Ernie’ series, and thought it was a cool and unique, new approach. And yeah, I’m very much interested in the re-launch of the Chaos library. I’ve let Dynamite know that I’d like to contribute, so we’ll see if anything comes of it. Although Dynamite now owns the rights to Brian Pulido’s characters, Brian’s a good friend of mine, and it’s kind of a personal thing, that I’d like to be able to say, “Brian… (fill in the blank) is in good hands, bro. I’ll make you proud.”

BD: Tell us a bit about some of the other projects you are currently working on like ‘Skin Trade’ & ‘Stitched’?

MW: Well, the fourth and final issue of George R.R. Martin’s SKIN TRADE mini-series just shipped to stores last week; I was the artist on that one. And unfortunately, STITCHED is coming to an end with #19. I’ve written all of those scripts, so I’m done there, but damn… I’m so proud of that series. I really think that artist Fernando Furukawa and I had a perfectly parallel vision, and we really ended up with one hell of a creepy, final product. Next up for me at Avatar Press is a six-issue arc on CROSSED: BADLANDS which I’m writing and drawing, of which two issues are already completed. One personal project which I have planned for 2014 is to launch a Kickstarter to fund a trade paperback collecting all of my RAGDOLL stories which appeared in Avatar’s RAW MEDIA QUARTERLY back in the late ‘90s. I’ll be toning it down to an “R” rating (formerly “X”), but the art is really cool, black and white with graytone ink washes. Hardly anyone has seen it, but it stands out as some of my finest, “lost” art. I’m also very excited about several other projects I’m developing including MALISON PLAGUE, which I’m shopping around to publishers, but I’m not sure just what my fans will see next and when. I can guarantee that if they’ve liked what they’ve seen from me in the past, from WIDOW to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to FRIDAY THE 13TH… Expect more like that. A lot more.

BD: What can you tell us about your upcoming arc on ‘Crossed Badlands’? How do you approach a series like this where the creative teams have consistently pushed the envelope and there really isn’t anything left that could be shocking to the readers?

MW: One of the things which I’ve enjoyed at Avatar Press has been the ability to exercise my own creativity, so in my ‘Crossed: Badlands’ arc (“Lesser Of Two Evils”) for example, I’m not trying to one-up anyone. I’m telling the story my way, with my own pacing and content. I don’t believe in the whole idea of, “You have to push farther and be more disgusting than the last guy.” My focus is on telling a better, more personal and engaging story than the last guy. That’s it. Of course, I’m including certain violent elements which are meant to shock, but if you look at Garth Ennis’ initial ‘Crossed’ story, the explicit content was very sparse, and that’s my approach as well. Numbing readers into insensitivity isn’t my style. Lulling them into a false sense of security and then throwing them a curveball is, and I hope that’s what I accomplish with my run. That’s the cornerstone of “horror,” and that’s how I approach all of my scripts.

BD: Is it hard to write a book like Crossed when readers are expecting a certain level of grotesque horror or is it just about letting loose and giving them what they want?

MW: I give the readers what they want, but followers of my work know that I make them wait for it. Writing grotesque horror is the easy part. Making the readers care about the characters is far more difficult. If I filled my story with distasteful characters that the reader can’t stand, then the story becomes a simple exercise in waiting for death scenes. There’s no tension in simply serving up horrible deaths with no personal attachment for the reader. It’s desensitizing. I’d much rather make the reader connect with the characters so that they’re uneasy with the turn of every page, as they hope to God that their favorites don’t get the sudden and unexpected axe.

BD: Throughout your career you’ve been firmly entrenched in the horror world. What is it about the darker side of things that you seem to find so inspiring as a creator?

MW: I honestly don’t know. It’s just something which appeals to me. I guess I find it exciting to be able to take a story which might appear to be mundane and take it way, way over the edge. I do enjoy the creation of characters and their relationships, but it’s fun to then put them into situations that none of us would know how to deal with and see how they react.

BD: Are there any characters that you would like to take a crack at if given the opportunity, but have never have to chance to work on?

MW: Off the top of my head, I’d say Vampirella, Man-Thing and The Evil Dead. I think you can see the trend, there.

BD: You serve as an investigator for Diamond State Ghost Investigators (www.DiamondStateGhostInvestigators.com). Tell me a little bit about your work there, the things that you’ve seen firsthand and how they’ve impacted your writing…

MW: That’s an interview in itself! I’ve been a paranormal investigator for around 4 years. I know, it sounds crazy, but there is absolutely something going on that we don’t understand. My personal view isn’t, “Hey, look- It’s the ghost of the Miner Forty-Niner! Zoinks!” My belief is that what people are experiencing is energy-based, and in some instances seems to be intelligent, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s specters dressed in Civil War uniforms. I began doing this out of curiosity, to find out if there’s any validity to it, and I’ve had so many personal experiences that I strongly suspect that there is. I’ve recorded intelligent, vocal responses to questions, caught a few unexplained bursts of energy in photographs, and experienced direct call-and-response “conversations” through the use of EMF detectors, K2 meters and digital thermometers… All of the things we see on the shows. And I’ve been grabbed, which was fun. And yes, being an investigator has impacted my writing in the sense that it’s gotten me to consider other aspects of what we call “reality” which I might have before dismissed. It teaches you about determination and concentration, how to focus, how to do effective research and it opens your mind to new, creative possibilities. I experience, first hand, what it’s like to be confronted with the unknown, so I try to incorporate that into my work and express it through my characters. I also like being scared, so there’s that, too.