On Free Comic Book Day in 2010, The Sixth Gun made its debut. Six years later, the series is drawing to a close with its final arc, Boot Hill. Over the next three months, we’ll be looking back at this journey we’ve taken.
Six guns, six interviews.
We’re kicking things off Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurt looking back at the first two arcs of the series, Cold Dead Fingers and Crossroads.
Let’s talk about how The Sixth Gun began. From what I understand, the earliest version of the story only had one gun, was set in New York, and Drake was the villain of the piece.
Cullen Bunn: The series went through a lot of changes early on. Heck—at one time, it was a modern day story. But I’d say that in the first “real” pitch, the story was set in the Old West. In the original, though, it was a dark horror story. There were still six guns, but Drake (who was a murderous outlaw) already had 5 of them. The guns had been given to Drake and his gang of cutthroats years earlier by agents of the darkness, but Drake had assassinated his compatriots in order to steal the weapons. One—the Sixth Gun—had vanished, though, and ended up in the hands of a girl (Becky, who was—maybe—twelve) and her younger brother. Drake had learned that the children had the weapons, and he was chasing them down. The guns, too, had a much more important purpose, but it was pretty different than what you see in the book today. Originally, when the guns took 666 lives, the Devil would be free to walk the Earth.
The first hardcover collection showed some of the original pitch images for the series, which is kind of surreal, seeing this semi-familiar world. Is that when Brian became involved or was he involved at an earlier stage? How did the concept change when both of you were working on it?
Brian Hurtt: Let me preface all this by saying that this is a real “look behind the curtain”. A “how the sausage gets made” moment. I don’t think we’ve actually ever talked about this in any detail in an interview before.
So, I didn’t become involved with The Sixth Gun until after Cullen had already pitched it to Oni Press (the version he described above). At the time, there was even another artist attached to the project. But this artist wasn’t working out for various reasons and the project was kind of floundering at Oni.
Cullen: At this point, in fact, the artist and I had parted ways for a number of reasons. As far as I was concerned, The Sixth Gun was just going to sit in limbo—possibly forever.
Brian: Cut to the guys from Oni being in Hollywood, taking meetings. They’re at a major studio going through a list of all the books they have that are available for the big screen treatment. As I understand it, at the end of the meeting the studio guy said, “That’s all great, but what we’re really looking for is a supernatural western”. Well, the Oni guys looked at each other and said. “Actually…”.
Cullen and I had a great working relationship with Oni when we did The Damned and we were both eager to work with each other again. Unfortunately, Oni couldn’t justify paying me what I needed to make to pay my bills. Even so, as a friend of Cullen’s I had been kept in the loop on the whole Sixth Gun project and was very aware of the story and so forth. And I was pretty jealous that I couldn’t work on it with him (interesting enough, one of the early images that was put in the back of the Volume 1 hardback was actually done before I was on the book. I just did it as a fan of what Cullen was putting together).Continued below
Cullen: That’s right. That was the first image of The Sixth Gun ever drawn, featuring Drake with five of the six guns, a very young Becky, and a mean-looking preacher!
When Oni called me and asked if I was still interested in working on The Sixth Gun with them, I was thrilled, but at that point I no longer had an artist. They asked what I thought about Brian doing the book. I thought it would be great, but I didn’t think he’d say yes, for all the reasons he’s already mentioned.
Brian: So when Oni called and asked me if I would want to work on the book if they could pay me a enough to keep a roof over my head, I was super excited. But before I said yes I needed to talk with Cullen first.
I can still remember that first conversation. At the time, Cullen was a VP of Marketing for a company and I remember going to see him in his office. I told him that this is a really exciting opportunity and that I really wanted to work on the project, but I wanted to make sure that he and I were on the same page. I said that I was only interested in working on the project if we could work in the same way we did on The Damned. That is, that there would be a back and forth about ideas and such. I wanted to be able to throw out a bunch of ideas and, whether he liked or used any of them, to at least feel like I had been listened to. I wanted to make sure it was a collaboration and not feel like just a cog in the machine. If I wanted to just be the guy who draws the script he’s given and has no input then there were many places I could go do that for better money. To Cullen’s credit, he didn’t bat an eye. “Yeah, of course”.
Cullen: Well, yeah. I wanted Brian to throw out his ideas so that I could dismiss them offhandedly and crush his spirit, thereby ruining his confidence and making sure he would always work with me. Talented artists are hard to come by, so you have to resort to cheap shots when you can.
Actually, the back and forth—the real collaboration—is something that I enjoy. It’s never as enjoyable to work on a book when the artist isn’t engaged on that level.
Brian: I know from experience that if I’m not engaged with the work then the work suffers. I feel like Sixth Gun is my best work to date, not because I’m a better artist, but because I have a real love for the material.
Once we had all that settled, we told Oni we were all in! At that point the studio was brought into the process so they could hear directly from us on what our vision of the book was. Both figuratively, and literally. I created some art pieces that were made to help the studio envision the project. Those were also printed in the back of the first Sixth Gun hardcover.
Cullen: Those early conversations with the studio were interesting to say the least. We were very involved, not just in the development of our comic, but in the pitch for the studio… which was very, very different. There were lots of crazy notes, everything from “We’re not sure we like the title ‘The Sixth Gun’” to “This story needs treasure—not just the guns, but actual silver and gold.” The note we kept getting was to make it bigger and crazier. One of the versions of the pitch had Kung Fu monks and shapeshifting witches and a train made of solid gold.
Now, we’re talking about the movie pitch here. The comic was always something different, with its own story. And while the movie pitch was pretty different from the comic itself, there were elements that we came up with for the movie that inspired some cool moments for the comic.Continued below
Brian: There was definitely a lot of ridiculousness involved with some of the notes but, even then, we had a pretty good sense of humor about it. For months, whenever talking about a story idea of talking with a friend about their story idea, we would always be like, “Yeah, sounds great, but what you really need is treasure!”. It was comical only for how hard they were hitting on that element—like “treasure” had tested really well with audiences.
Like Cullen said, even with all the nonsense surrounding this pitch process, it still planted some seeds for elements that would later be in the books. The one I remember most was their note that we have some big monster to fight. We needed a “dragon” essentially. That led to Cullen coming up with the idea of using the Thunderbird from Native American myth. That was something that we both ended up loving and the inclusion of and it was the catalyst for what is my favorite issue of the first arc (issue 4).
I still remember the first time I picked up The Sixth Gun—it was the first hardcover volume—and looking back, it shows that you had both lived with the story for a while, because it felt so fully fleshed out right from the first page. On the surface it’s a western, but it’s also a grand fantasy epic, and every scene in that first issue drives home that point. And the way each character was introduced, teasing out questions and playing with readers’ expectations, was particularly effective. Was it difficult to find the right starting place for this story?
Cullen: I really think that first issue came together really naturally for me. I hate to say that the words just flowed, because that makes it sound like it wasn’t work. But once I had outlined the story, figured out the direction we would be going, and got a handle on the characters and what I wanted to reveal about them, scripting went pretty fast.
As for a starting place, I originally wanted to begin with an image of the Gallows Tree.
That scene still plays out pretty quickly. But I went with this meeting between Missy Hume and the Pinkertons because of something you mentioned. On the surface, the book is a western, but we wanted readers to know right away that this was something different. By cutting from place to place in the world of The Sixth Gun, we were highlighting some of the strangeness that awaited the reader. This was a mystical world—a fantasy world—and we showed that in just a few panels.
I still think it’s one of the strongest first issues I’ve ever written.
I have to agree. And it extends to the whole first arc. You struck the right balance between between the story in the present and the story in the past, with each revelation from one feeding the other.
Brian: I agree. I think it’s one of the best written first issues of any series. Cullen really did a masterful job of crafting it. The whole tone and direction of the series is set up in those first six or seven pages.
I literally just got back from a comic shop where I met someone who is a fan of the series. He was telling me that he was hooked from that page in the first issue where the Gallow’s Tree is introduced. He said the pacing and the imagery gave him goosebumps. I told him that I had the same reaction. When Cullen was first telling me about that first issue he described the Gallow’s Tree to me and it immediately popped into my mind. That one idea, that one mental image, told me everything I needed to know about the series. In many ways, it is my touchstone for the book.
One of the most iconic moments from Cold Dead Fingers was the way the final issue was almost exclusively double page spreads and an extra ten pages long. It was literally bigger than anything else in the series so far. Was this part of the early concept for the issue or something that evolved out the thumbnailing stage?Continued below
Cullen: I’m not sure who first said “Let’s do the final issue in double-page spreads” but I remember talking to Brian on the phone during that conversation. I still had my day job at that point, but I had taken a “work-from-home” day. I was pacing through my house, rattling off all these ideas about Billjohn’s fate and what would befall Missy Hume, and I was absolutely giddy about it all.
Brian: I honestly can’t remember who first suggested doing all double-page spreads but I can almost guarantee that it was my idea to add more pages. I have a tendency to want to add. It’s a sickness.
I can say that both Cullen and I have a fondness for experiments like this. We both loved the idea of an issue of all double-page spreads, just like we both love the idea of doing a silent issue (which we later did), or doing an all splash page issue (which we still haven’t done). It’s just one more way to keep those creative juices flowing and to keep us challenged and engaged.
Brian—I know this is a bit of a random question, but I have to ask—how did you avoid going mad drawing all the chains in this arc?
Brian: You’re making certain assumptions about my mental health there, Mark. It was super maddening and monotonous but I will NEVER back away from drawing something in a story just because it’s difficult or challenging. What the story demands I deliver. To the best of my abilities. But I won’t be too sad if I never have to draw another chain link again.
You really made the most of them too, the way they became like tentacles. And the soft focus effects gave the larger sequences a real sense of depth in the panels.
Were there any characters that surprised the pair of you when you started work on series, that took on a life you weren’t expecting?
Cullen: There were quite a few characters who surprised me. Some of them didn’t show up until later in the series, but some of them even appeared in the first two arcs. Billjohn O’Henry, my personal favorite character, was a bit of a late addition to the cast, actually. If you look at the original concept art, there’s no sign of him, and he doesn’t show up until the beginning of the second issue. Brian and I decided (I think after I was already done with the script for issue 1) that Drake needed a partner in the early issues of the series, someone he could talk to about his plans. More importantly, someone who could interact with Becky in a kinder, gentler way until Drake’s cold exterior wore down a bit. That’s how Billjohn came to be, and we’ve obviously done so, so much with him since that time.
That’s surprising. Billjohn is such a defining character for that first arc, it’s hard to imagine a version without him. When I looked through the early concept art, there was a guy with glasses who I assumed was a proto-Billjohn—a different character that had a similar narrative function.
Cullen: I can’t remember the name of the guy with glasses, but he was definitely the proto-Billjohn, as you put it. I do remember that he was an author of dime novels who was in way over his head with the likes of Drake Sinclair. I’ve toyed with the idea of introducing him back into the world of The Sixth Gun, maybe in a role-playing adventure or in a prose story. You never know.
Brother Roberto is another character who shows up in the second arc, but I don’t know that I ever intended him to have such a big role to play going forward. He’s interesting to me, because he plays both antagonist and protagonist as the series progresses.
Brian: Roberto is a favorite of mine for this reason. The more questions we asked ourselves about him the richer he became. We still have a lot of unused material for Roberto and his father (who appeared in the mini, Days of the Dead).Continued below
Cullen: I was a little surprised how readers reacted to the Horsemen. We killed them off pretty quickly, but we received a lot of requests that we reveal more about them. We’ve had the chance to do just that over the years, and even those ne’er-do-wells have become fully fleshed out characters.
It’s interesting the way these characters have taken on a life of their own like that, demanding their own stories alongside the main Sixth Gun narrative.
Speaking of fully fleshed-out characters, I find Becky’s evolution over these first two arcs very interesting. She was introduced as familiar type of character, the innocent farm girl. But she proved herself quite formidable in Cold Dead Fingers, proving to be a crack shot, and more than capable of handling herself in the battle in the Maw. In the second arc, Crossroads, she’s exploring her independence and making a few mistakes along the way. What I like here is that when Becky screws up, and she finds herself in a tough situation (like when she’s attacked by the giant serpent or captured by Kirby Hale), she’s not rescued by the male heroes. Becky rescues herself.
Cullen: It might be easy to assume that Becky is a damsel in distress. In fact, we kind of wanted readers to see her in that light at first. But we really always saw Becky as the star of the series. We wanted to show her growth from humble beginnings. In the first arc, she’s being rescued by Drake, but later in the series, she’s the one who is doing the rescues!
Yes, exactly. We’ll talk about that as we get to the later arcs, but even in the beginning, Becky’s only put in a situation where she needs to be rescued after a considerable fight. She’s never played as helpless.
I think she’s always been the star though, or at the very least the reader’s access point to this world. We learn about this world alongside her; for the most part, we usually know about as much as Becky does, and we know what she wants and how she feels. Whereas Drake’s character and motives were presented as at mystery first, and over time we’ve learned to read him better.
Cullen: Right. She’s our point of view character—the window into the world. I think it’s always fun if there’s a character who is learning about this fantasy world right along with the readers.
Brian, I wanted to talk about your design of the characters, especially Kirby Hale. I mean, this is a western, but this guy’s wearing a pink shirt and totally pulling that off. So of the core cast introduced at this point (Drake, Becky, Gord, Billjohn, Kirby) what were the the “Ah, I found the character” elements of their design?
Brian: Kirby is an interesting example. He was intended to be the flip-side of Drake visually. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and colorful. I wanted a real “pop” looking character to juxtapose, not just Drake, but the tone of the story. In conversations with Bill, I think I was describing the shirt as being salmon colored but it ended up playing out more pink and I just loved it. I had actually been watching the Blu-ray of one of my favorite westerns, Rio Bravo, and in that cleaned up version of that print I was really struck with the color of John Wayne’s shirt. It was what I’d describe as a rich salmon color. So that was my original intent.
It was only much later, after that arc had been long done, that I came across an image of Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and I saw that he bore a striking resemblance to what we had done with Kirby. Something that had been completely unintentional on the part of Bill and myself. At least consciously.Continued below
Other characters had different sorts of evolutions in their style or different “Aha” moments.
Drake was always the easiest. He is pretty much as described in Cullen’s earliest pitches. He’s a silhouette. A man in black with a Bat Masterson–type bowler. I added some flourishes in the first arc, like the red lining of his quarter-length coat, to play up this dandy side of him that he was presenting.
Becky has been a constant evolution, but that has been by design. I have my favorite moments/costumes, but she is a character going through the most change and her costuming reflects that.
Gord, was a character that I wasn’t really happy with his costuming until the third arc where I feel like he got his moment to come into light as a character and his design also fell more into place at the same time. He is an educated black man of great power and intellect and his clothing represents that pride and confidence. But there is still that element of ruggedness that is his background as a slave and that is represented in his floppy cowboy hat and rougher, road-worn overcoat.
Crossroads was the story that introduced one of my favorite story elements: the Spirit World. The immense swamp is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this story. It opened up this world, and made it bigger than just the Six. It really pushed the series into epic fantasy territory, while never losing its western identity. What was your approach when you were fleshing out the spirit world? Did you both need to sit down and figure out the rules of it and how it fit into the broader mythology?
Cullen: I think in those early days—especially during the second arc—we were a lot more willing to wing it when it came to the spirit world and let it come together sort of naturally.I did a little research into myths, legends, and ghost stories, but I was happy to create some elements from scratch, as long as long as it felt right. In later arcs, there were more rules placed on the Spirit World, a lot more definition. Some of those rules are things that we’ve never spelled out in the comics, but that Brian and I have in mind.
Brian: The nice thing about knowing our basic overarching story for the series from the outset is that we can plant seeds, like the Spirit World, knowing that it will take more precedence as the series closes in on the end. I think in this arc, it was handled by Cullen in such a great way—giving just enough information to engage the reader’s imagination. You know, “If this character, Marinette of the Dry Arms, exists in this Spirit World then what else is over there?”
For me, the standout character was Kalfu. I just fell in love with that character immediately. I can’t remember if we had any plans to use him again from the outset but it became pretty clear by the end of that arc that he needed to come back.
I think there must have been some plans, because right from his first appearance, he was telling Drake that they would meet again.
Brian: Our other goal with the second series was always to push the book in an unexpected direction. Aside from the Spirit World, that included using New Orleans as a setting for this arc. This was a location we knew would feature in the second arc from the very beginning. We had a sort of dictate from the beginning of this series to not have this supernatural western look like your typical, sepia-toned, red rock western. To that end, we wanted to take those western aesthetics and apply them to what would be a normally alien environment to the western. All the while still being of the era. Hence the swamps, the voodoo, and that idiosyncratic French Quarter aesthetic.Continued below
Before we wrap up, Cullen, early on you wrote a short story, Them What Ails Ya, which is collected in the first hardcover volume. You were planning more of these at one stage, Mama Raptor and Darker Than Witch’s Blood. You’ve spoken about doing more prose stories before. Are these tales we may see in future hardcovers?
Cullen: I suppose it’s possible. Both Mama Raptor and Darker Than Witch’s Blood have huge sections written, but they are both unfinished. One of those stories introduces my favorite Sixth Gun character who has never appeared in the comic—Gutshot O’Toole, Drake’s partner from way back in the day. I think you’ll see more prose stories somewhere, even if not in the hardcovers.
Ah yes, I remember Gutshot O’Toole was mentioned in Crossroads. I look forward to reading these some day and hopefully meeting the character.
Boot Hill, the final arc, begins in The Sixth Gun #48 coming out April 20. Final order cut-off is March 28.
Cold Dead Fingers and Crossroads are available together in The Sixth Gun – Volume 1 hardcover along with the short story Them What Ails Ya, and an enormous gallery section including sketches, covers, and pitch artwork.
The Gunslinger Edition comes in a General Hume coffin box, with a new dust jacket, three exclusive art prints, and a tip-in page signed by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Bill Crabtree. Limited to 1000 copies.