Glow-In-The-Dark, Holofoil, Chromium and Die-Cut – Comics In The Nineties Weren’t All Bad – Proposition Player

GameStop, Inc.

PP1The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.

For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.

Bill Willingham’s Proposition Player.

PP1Page2A few years before Willingham would begin his runaway hit Fables, he wrote the brilliant six issue mini-series Proposition Player. And it is, to this day, my favorite series of his. Joey Martin is a proposition player, a person hired to liven dull card games, therefore filling tables and making the casinos more money.

Over the years he’s gotten very good, with an excellent poker face. He’s gotten so good that he’s convinced a bar full of his friends to sell him their souls for the price of a beer. Pretty soon they start dying off, and those three dozen worthless names written on napkins put him in a celestial tug of war between the forces of Heaven and Hell. He’s going to have to be good to win this hand.

Kind of a brilliant concept, huh? But a concept is only as good as its story, and boy is it a good story! The story is darkly comedic, absurdist, and quite a bit cynical, but still rather fun. He could have delved a bit deeper into the philosophical leanings of the concept, but that would have made the book a bit too heavy. Willingham’s ear for dialog is as present as ever, and there are some very funny moments due to the various conversations had. The way Joey is written forces the reader to be sympathetic to his plight, as a man wholly unprepared for his task as caretaker of these souls, yet ready to fight gods and monsters to keep them safe. Which is good, because he’s kind of a prick.

PP2In fact, many of the characters are jerks. Willingham plays the various characters against type; the emissary of Heaven is a brute who uses scare tactics and a heavy hand, while the emissary of hell is a seductress, using her wiles to get to the souls, but both are extremely underhanded in their quest to rend these souls from Joey’s clutching fists. No matter their tactics, as a professional gambler Joey can read faces and see all the angles, and he’s decided this could be a lucrative venture. He has gods of his own in his corner, in the form of Hawaiian shirt wearing Anubis and Moloch, and the power over these souls, making him a god-like entity, a power broker in a seemingly un-winnable game.

Oh, and there’s a chaos monkey.

He does tread some familiar ground with the “a God is only as powerful as their popularity”, but does some very interesting things with this cliche, making the concept fresh along the way. Joey’s advisers being the gods of yore, the gods people stopped worshiping, Joey realizes the power he has, and that he with the most souls wins Godhood. Not to mention these are his friends souls, and he has the power to control exactly where they end up. That kind of power would surely corrupt even the most loyal of friends, and in the hands of a selfish jackass…

PP4Page16Proposition Player is, in many ways, a stylistic precursor to Fables, as Willingham handles the many characters of myth and legend the same way he handles those of the stories of yore, and blends the many mythologies and religious beliefs to take a hilariously absurd look at religion, death, and the afterlife. This book isn’t poking fun at religion, per se, but it could seem that way to many. And the way Joey turns the tables in the final issue; I never saw it coming.

Willingham entered comics as an artist, and so draws the first issue. When Paul Guinan takes over in issue two it isn’t even noticeable; their styles mesh seamlessly, keeping the slightly cartoonish look all the way through. Guinan uses just the number of panels he feels he needs, but it never feels cramped or cluttered. His art isn’t anything flashy, but it works perfectly for the tale at hand.

Lucky for you, due to Fables’ success DC/Vertigo has kept Proposition Player in print, available at your local comic shop, book store, and on, so you have no excuse not to check it out.

Is it as good as Fables? Not quite, but Proposition Player shows a little of what we would come to expect from Bill Willingham, is laugh out loud funny at times, and at its heart is a rumination on religion and the afterlife. I know, pretty deep for a comic book. It still holds up and was one of the reasons it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.


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