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Proposition Player

Bill Willingham kicked around the Vertigo offices for a few years before he finally got himself noticed with the spectacular ongoing series about fairy tale characters in the modern world, Fables. Due to the popularity of that series, much of his earlier work is seeing collection and reprinting, like The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales and the topic of this review, Proposition Player.

Ever wonder if you have a soul? Even better, have you ever thought about trading your soul for a free beer? When professional gambler Joey Martin makes what he assumes is one pricey bar joke, he comes into possession of thirty-two souls, among these the ones belonging to his girlfriend and fellow co-workers.

Joey thinks it's all a harmless prank, until what appears to be a three hundred pound ex-drill sergeant with a halo named Bill shows up at his door, wanting to buy said souls for a hefty fee. Joey, deciding there's more money to be made, holds out, and from there, things get strange. Well, stranger.

Now members of every defunct pantheon or infernal or heavenly host are trying to broker a deal with Joey, either looking to get his souls or form a business relationship. Joey has to make the biggest decision of his life: bet safe and sell his souls, or go big and set himself up as a new god. When people start dying and start showing up in Joey's afterlife (namely, his roach motel apartment), the stakes get even higher.

Willingham is playing around with a lot of heavy concepts in this book. Do we have souls? What happens when we die? Will I ever get to sleep with a sultry she-demon from the nether realms (oops, that one was my question…best disregard that). Willingham handles the topics in a very matter of fact way, which I found somewhat refreshing in reference to a religiously over-toned comic. When you die, your soul goes to whatever afterlife notion you subscribed to. Whichever religious system controls the most souls is the top dog, or rather "god" but with a capital "G."

No flowery principals about good or evil, no romantic notions of self-sacrifice or oneness with something greater than ourselves, just pure unadulterated capitalism. Heaven is just as cut-throat, even more so, than Hell in its zeal to collect souls, which is demonstrated in the scenes involving Bill and Archangel Michael, both bastards to the highest degree. Mary, in a nice bit of biblical irony, is the envoy from Hell and makes a straight up offer at least: money, sex and power. You gotta love a comic where Hell is playing it straight, and Heaven ends up being the psychotic bastards.

The overall feel of the book is kept very amoral. Willingham doesn't seem to want the reader to identify with his characters (with is probably best, since most are current, former, or future gods), or make them good or evil. Instead, he's using the characters to give his take on one possible interpretation of the "afterlife," throwing in some major and some minor mythological references (I know Anubis, but who the Hell is Moloch?) and using a pretty workable metaphor for the whole thing using poker and gambling to show how the game of soul gathering is played.

While the lack of character development irks me somewhat, the larger themes interest me more and I find myself drawn into the "religious corporate struggle" ambience that Willingham portrays.

The artwork is nothing special, but it works well with the book. Paul Guinan and Willingham himself shared art duties. The interior art is something of a mix of Daniel Clowes (of Eightball and Ghost World, whose work is not my particular brand of vodka) and Paul (Leave It To Chance) Smith, with soft line work and more curved than hard or sharp lines. The inking is inconsistent at points, mostly involving the character Bill, which may be due the frequent size changes he goes through. This was an interesting visual concept, but never fully explained as to why Bill would go from King-Kong-Big to Gimli-Big at a moment's notice. Still, the inking is light to reflect the sterile quality that accompanies the Big Business feel of the book, and Ron Randal and Willingham do well by the piece (he writes, he inks, he draws; he's the Renaissance man of comics).

Also, I was forced to remember that this book is somewhat dated due to a Vertigo nude scene that did not actually show nipples, something every book in the Vertigo Line ends up doing eventually.

While some parts didn't hit big with me, I'm recommending this book because it hits some really good notes as far as plot and concept go, not to mention some very humorous bits. Joey's accidental hypothesis on how he created the universe, as all competent gods claim, involves a monkey (fanboy favorite) and feces (not so much a favorite as an interesting accessory to the monkey).

For a paltry $14.95 (and your immortal soul), you get the full miniseries, a snazzy introduction about the history of poker by James McManus, and a beautiful gallery of the original painted covers for the series. Pick this up, and then pick up Fables if you're not reading it already. They're both worth your time.

Robert Sparling

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