After six years, “The Sixth Gun” is coming to an end. To mark the occasion, Haunted Trails is looking back at this journey we’ve taken. Six guns, six interviews.
In the third interview, Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, are joined by “The Sixth Gun” colorist Bill Crabtree to discuss the fifth and sixth arcs of the series, “Winter Wolves” and “Ghost Dance”.
Brian Hurtt: We were somewhere around issue 4 or 5 and we could see the schedule getting tighter and tighter. At the time, I was drawing, coloring, and lettering “The Sixth Gun” and it was getting to be too much for me to handle. When we had started the series, we knew that we would do six issues but that any issues beyond that was dependent on sales. So, to be honest, we were just so busy working on the book that we hadn’t planned on how we would handle colors past the first arc. Once it became clear that the series was going to continue, I have to admit, I panicked a bit.
I felt that we had a pretty good book on our hands and pretty good momentum—thanks to word of mouth from fans—that I was concerned that a new colorist could make or break the book. I still believe that. There are a lot of colorists out there but only a small percentage of them are color artists, in my opinion. They may be masters at using Photoshop, or whatever, but their color choices and their understanding of storytelling through color is way off. Because there are so few great colorists in the industry, demand is high and I had no leads or ideas of who to go to.
Bill can probably speak to this better but I believe it was Greg Thompson (who was working at Oni at the time) that knew Bill and saw him at a social event. He introduced him to our editor, Charlie Chu, and said that they should talk. This was literally just a week or two before we needed someone to start.
As far as I’m concerned, we won the lottery with Bill and if things had gone any different, The Sixth Gun wouldn’t be the book it is today.
Bill, you joined the team for the very last issue of the first arc. Was it a challenge coming onto a series with a pre-established coloring style? What do you feel you brought to the series in those earliest issues?
Bill Crabtree: Early on, the number one concern was trying to match what had come before, especially for issue 6, since that issue would be collected with the previous five in a trade paperback. I was literally sampling colors off of Brian’s pages, something I’ve never done before. One thing I noticed quickly was that his colors were much darker and deeper than what I’d been accustomed to using. I don’t know that it was a challenge, but I feel it broadened my palette, literally. Since then I find myself using those darker tones in all of my work.
I don’t know what I brought to the early issues specifically, but as the book went on I started to slowly transition from Brian’s established palette to my own. Not that I have a palette per se, but it was important to all of us for the scenes to have distinct color identities. My color choices were made with that goal in mind.
I particularly noticed that the visions from the Sixth Gun became a much more bloody red over time, with much less white.
Bill: Well, now that you point it out, I can definitely see the difference between Brian’s handling of the vision scenes and mine. This was not a conscious choice on my part, I just remembered the scenes were monochrome red and colored them as such. At that point I probably wasn’t referencing Brian’s earlier pages, if I had been I would have probably made them more similar.
You mentioned each scene having distinct palettes. This is actually the reason I wanted to discuss the fifth and sixth arcs with you. The fifth is so restrained while Becky and Drake are trapped by the Wendigo, whereas the sixth goes through world after world with the palette changing dramatically throughout the arc.
So let’s start with “Winter Wolves”. Even before Drake and Becky crossover into the spirit world, the warmth was being sucked from the color palette. Most notably, the reds are diminished, even when we cut back to Kirby, Gord, and Asher. The only places where reds are full again are when the Sixth Guns powers are used or there’s death present. How did this particular arc take shape during the coloring process?
Bill: As far as the “Winter Wolves” arc, the lack of warm colors and true reds was really just a function of the scenes in that one taking place at night and in a snowstorm. I tried to make the spirit world scenes seem as cold as possible, so very little yellow was used, and everything had a blue-ish purple cast. Back in the real world, the Asher/Gord/ Kirby scenes were cold as well, though I do remember choosing to make them slightly warmer to differentiate them from the spirit world. The addition of some lantern light and fireworks provided some additional opportunities to make that palette unique.
The costume design has always been a big part of “The Sixth Gun”. In the case of Abigail Redmayne—who only appears in flashbacks in this arc and is destined to be killed by Drake in “The Sixth Gun: Day of the Dead”—she’s wearing a scarlet coat and a red rose. Considering the vacuum of red in this arc, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Actually, one thing I love about the series is the way you can look at Becky or Drake and immediately say “Ah, that’s their look from the such-and-such arc”. I find Becky especially interesting, because she has such dramatically different outfits. And the color seems very important for her. She was introduced into the series wearing blue and white, but red gradually creeps into her outfits, which I associate with the Sixth Gun. Brian, could you tell me about some of your favorite costumes and costume changes and the meaning they are meant to convey? Bill, could you tell me about your approach to coloring individual characters? Do you both talk to each other before starting an arc about the design goals?
Bill and I are very much on the same page when it comes to costuming and keying colors to characters. I know that he was the one to bring up the original Star Wars trilogy when we would talk of the idea of characters having shifting costumes from arc to arc. But, I’ll let him talk more about that.
Bill: I agree with Brian, a lot of what you’re picking up on is happy accident as much as anything. Brian gets full credit for all the costume design choices. He sends me detailed notes leading into each issue where he describes everything from costume colors to overall vibes he wants a particular scene to have. I love getting that input, it’s actually more inspiring for me to work that way. There are times when he tells me to do whatever I want, and sometimes I’ll have a different idea for how a scene will be handled. He and I have a great collaborative work dynamic, which I really appreciate.
As Brian mentioned, we both felt strongly that the characters should have distinctive color schemes from arc to arc. I remember often talking about how Han Solo had that blue jacket with the furry collar on Hoth, for example. We all have an affinity for action figures and such, so we definitely conceived of the costume changes with that sense of a strong iconic identity.
Brian: I give colorists (in general) as much or as little notes as they want. With Bill and I, we’ve discovered a real chemistry in working together. We talk in the abstract about color for the series and we discuss more specifically colors for costuming. But, most of our interactions now have been boiled down to me giving Bill a sense of the vibe or the atmosphere that I might have been going for in a scene. It’s pretty abstract but it gives him a starting point to either work off of or play against. In the end, ALL color choices and color storytelling are under his control. And he has NEVER underwhelmed me. One of my greatest creative joys comes from watching the pages of an issue trickle in over several days and just being completely reengaged in the work by what Bill brings to it. When an entire issue is done, I’ll repeatedly open the folder with the colored pages in it and look at all the thumbnails and then flip through it page by page.
This arc marks a big change for Drake. He was introduced as a bit of a bastard, and in “Winter Wolves” he could have been exactly that when he entered the cave to stop the Wendigo. But instead Drake chooses to sacrifice himself. And he does this while carrying four of the Six, which are known to warp a person’s temperament for the worst. Sure, he can be black-hearted, but more and more he’s choosing not be. Can you talk about the changes he’s been going through since he met Becky?
Cullen Bunn: Becky is the key to Drake’s changing personality in more ways than one. We can’t reveal everything in the interview just yet, but I will say that Drake’s had friends before—Billjohn O’Henry and Abigail Redmayne, for example—but his greatest friend… the person who reshaped him and made him a “better” person was Becky. I don’t think Drake would have thought anyone would have risked life and limb to rescue him the way Becky did. I think that was the moment when he realized that they are well and truly in this thing together.
I also found it interesting that while possessed by the Wendigo, Drake doesn’t use his guns against Becky. The Wendigo desperately wanted to win that fight, but apparently using the guns wasn’t something it would dare do. For me, that sequence speaks volumes about the power of the Six.
I’m curious what the Wendigo would have done had it won. After all, it knew Missy Hume would have come for Becky and Drake’s guns. I get the feeling the Wendigo wasn’t even sure, like it was fighting the inevitable.Continued below
Cullen: The Wendigo was really at war with itself, wasn’t it? On one hand, it feels that it is beyond corruption… the Six are beneath it… but it also fears the power of those guns. It doesn’t dare use the weapons, not when the power of winter itself is at its command, but if it did, it might have succeeded in its quest. If the Wendigo had won, it would have done what it said… It would have spirited the guns to its domain. It might have delayed the inevitable for a while longer… maybe even a long while… but eventually the evil of the guns would had reached a tipping point, maybe positioning its servants for an attack, maybe corrupting the Wendigo.
The real question, though, is if the Wendigo, in its lust to obtain the guns, was not already being influenced by the Six?
I loved seeing Gord, Asher, and Kirby together in this arc. The series had been moving more towards an ensemble comic for a while, but this is the first time we’ve got a plotline with a group of our heroes without the two primary leads, and it works fantastically. The contrast in their various personalities and ideologies made for excellent dialogue too.
Brian: This road trip story with the odd trio is something I had a blast drawing. I could’ve seen several more issues of these three guys on the road together. It always makes for interesting story when, like you pointed out, you can put together characters with vastly different personalities and motivations and play them off one another.
One of my favorite action beats is actually in this story when you have the Sword of Abraham chasing the trio in their wagon. It was quintessential “Sixth Gun”: a Holy Order dedicated to keeping the world safe from arcane magic chases a thief, an ex-slave-cum-mage, and a 9-foot mummy in their stolen Medicine Wagon.
There is actually one line of dialogue I can take credit for in this scene. At the end of the scene, after Asher has pulled Kirby into the wagon and saved him from being trampled, Gord yells to the back and asks, “Are you alive back there?”. In the original script Kirby just replies, “Yeah” and then continues talking. As I was drawing it I saw the obvious gag of Asher relying with a deadpan “No” at the same time as Kirby replies. So that line—“No”—is all me! And I really see the whole arc as hinging on that beat in the dialogue. (Laughs)
There just wasn’t any room for it, but I really wanted there to be a scene with the three sitting around a fire and then one of them, either Gord or Kirby, breaks out a mandolin and one by one, they all end up singing a song. It was to be my ode to the singing cowboy and in particular that great scene in Rio Bravo where Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson break into song.
Cullen: I loved the dynamic of these three and I kind of wish we had done a spin-off miniseries of their oddball adventures. It would have been a great way to highlight that the world of “The Sixth Gun” is open to all sorts of crazy stories, some dark, some fun, some (as I would have envisioned this one) a little absurd.
Like Brian, I would have loved to see Kirby Hale singing a song around a campfire. Of course, I would have had to write the song. Since I am no songwriter, it would have been terrible. So readers can just assume that it’s canon that Kirby Hale is a terrible, terrible songsmith.
The last issue of this arc, when Becky goes into full vengeance mode, was a stunning turn for the story. Eli Barlow seemed like he was someone our heroes would cross paths with eventually and he’d be a tough guy to deal with… and Becky dispatches him in a second. To see the normally fearless Missy Hume have fear in her eyes was amazing.Continued below
And yet Becky was ruthless and vengeful, and while it was satisfying to see the villains essentially turn tail and run for it, what Becky was doing to herself was extremely concerning to say the least. She gave into the Sixth Gun’s lust for death.
Cullen: In my notes and outlines, I described this scene as Becky’s “Dark Phoenix” moment. I wanted to show that the Sixth Gun is much more powerful than we had previously thought. It could make its wielder almost unstoppable. More than that, I wanted to show off how ruthless Becky could be. There’s a reason we never see General Hume use the Sixth Gun in this way.
Brian: Speaking strictly from an art point of view there are several panels in this scene that still stay with me as some of my favorites from the series. The series of panels where Eli meets his end is one of my faves. I believe in the original script he was just shot in the head, but I had this creepy image of him being decapitated and his white-maned head “thump”-ing off the wall. I pitched it to Cullen and he was all for it. I also really love the bit where Missy gets her arm blown off and over the next several panels we see this withered red arm growing back in it’s place. But my favorite panel of that scene is the top panel on the last panel of that scene. I was really happy with how that turned out. Bill’s colors through this whole scene were key to it working and in that panel I feel like we came together to strike a perfectly creepy and weighted image.
Moving on to “Ghost Dance”, this arc was one that opened things up in a big way. The places that Becky saw on the Winding Way are some of the most vivid in the series and so far from the western the series began as. And yet these things have been hinted at. Drake being this caveperson was strange, but it made a certain kind of sense. And even when we got to dragons and knights, it still felt like The Sixth Gun world while being such a departure from it. Could you tell me about how the worlds of the Winding Way developed?
Brian: I remember telling everyone at that time how great our “western” book was. It has everything you could want in a western: mummies, cavemen, dragons, snake men… aerial battles.
Cullen: I don’t think anyone would have expected a story of time travel and alternate realities in a book that had been a rather traditional western (despite the supernatural elements) up until this point. That’s really the point of the arc. After this story, I don’t think readers could look at this world in quite the same way.
I couldn’t help but notice that caveman Drake’s club was the Second. And his sword when he was the black knight was also the Second. So it makes me think it’s no coincidence that back in the first arc, the Second was the first gun that Drake claimed as his own.
Brian: It was definitely intentional that Drake has always possessed the Second gun. It’s a shorthand way of letting the audience know that this guy’s quests mirror each other. They are cyclical. And you might ask why he keeps doing the same thing over and over—is he stuck?
Cullen: Yes, there are connections between the guns and Drake that transcend time and space.
Bill, when I think of the colors in “The Sixth Gun”, the “Ghost Dance” arc is the first thing that comes to mind. This is a story that travels through so many worlds on the Winding Way, but it also has to intercut with Drake back at the camp, and Gord, Nidawi, Kirby, Asher, and Nahuel as they fight the Skinwalkers. The color has to orientate the reader a lot in this arc and yet it still finds room to do some powerful emotional moments too. When Becky wanders through different possible realities only glimpsed for a single panel, those colors inform the readers’ feelings about that world.Continued below
But my favorite bit was Becky in the red dress. I feel like it says a lot about how much sway the gun has over the world she’s in, a reality ruled by the Grey Witch and General Hume. Can you talk to me about how you tackle a story like this? Did it require more planning than usual?
Bill: The wild variety of locales in the “Ghost Dance” arc provided me with a lot of opportunities for interesting color schemes. These are the types of things that, as a colorist, I really enjoy. I didn’t plan much out in advance, but the line art for these scenes gave me a lot to go on. When I look at a page and get a strong impression as to the direction I want to take it in, that’s when my job is the easiest and most enjoyable. I consider myself very lucky to to get to color such evocative work.
As far as the red dress, that was Brian’s direction, although I did request that her pearls be black ones.
Brian: One of my favorite color bits in this arc was in the climactic battle with Nahuel in the cave with one of the main Skinwalkers. Bill lit that with this surreal, almost magenta, light that really brought a lot of eeriness to an already creepy scene. That’s just one instance where Bill has really sold a scene.
I’ll often tell Bill that the art for one particular scene or another is kind of weak and it’s going to be on him to sell it! He always does. He makes me look good.
My point is that this world externalizes a lot of conflicts that have been a internal struggle, and it isn’t bound by the same rules as the rest of the series. All bets are off in this world. So I’m curious how much this sequence changed from concept to execution. I mean, you have Becky meet the Grey Witch, the big villain of the series, in an alternate reality of sorts.
Brian: All I know is that when we first talked about this arc I had envisioned this “Nightmarica” part of the story being much, much bigger. Like with a lot of things we discuss, we just had way too much we wanted to do and the story had to boil down to the essentials. I could’ve done a whole arc set just in that locale! I really loved being able to bring back the Four Horsemen—who are now the Four General’s (I can’t remember if we called that out in the arc or not)—as well as seeing a changed Missy and a General on the winning side of his quest. I think there is still plenty of story there if Cullen and I ever wanted to go back and revisit that alternate reality.
Cullen: Yeah, I don’t know if we necessarily changed any major elements of this reality. But, as Brian said, we did cut a lot of extra material out of the story. We could have easily done an arc or two in that world, but it would have slowed down the progression of the story. I’d love to revisit that world at some point.
Please do. I’d love another walk along the Winding Way.
This arc introduced Nidawi and Nahuel, as well as White Wolf and Screaming Crow, and world of the Native Americans. After this you don’t really introduce any more main characters. The last pieces have been put on the board. Honestly, it’s hard to believe they came so late in the series. Nidawi and Nahuel felt like a part of the group almost at once.Continued below
Well, not without friction, of course. What do you feel they brought to the group dynamic?
Brian: I can tell you that Cullen and I made a specific choice early in the conception of this series that we were going to hold off on introducing Native Americans to the storyline. We wanted to avoid the series coming off as some cowboy and indian pastiche and we wanted to establish the series (visually and conceptually) as a “non-western western”. That meant embracing some traits or motifs of the western—and perhaps turning them on their head—and holding off on introducing others.
In other words, we didn’t want to show all our cards at once!
Cullen: I felt that Nidawi and Nahuel just helped to expand the world and give the readers a view of yet another group of people who have a vested interest in the Six. These two also add a different kind of interpersonal dynamic to the group. They have a star-crossed history that shows off something we haven’t really seen with the rest of the group. Also, next to Billjohn and Becky, Nahuel is my favorite character in the series.
One thing that jumped out at me when I first read this story was Becky’s “paradise”. She has her farm, with two children and Kirby for a husband, and her stepfather’s back alive… but there’s no sign of either of her biological parents. Even before Becky began to realize that the thing chasing her was a part of herself, alarm bells were going off. Do you think you can talk about this without spoiling the final arc?
Cullen: I don’t want to ruin the final arc, but this definitely hints at revelations to come.
Lastly, Missy’s death came as a surprise. And now the Grey Witch stops lurking at the edge of the narrative and steps to the fore. You kept her in the background for a long time, and having her take the Fifth Gun like this, it was a powerful way to say the game has changed. How’d her role in the narrative evolve?
Cullen: I think with the snapping of Missy’s neck, Griselda is upping her game. She’s taking action—not through a proxy but on her own. Griselda is one of those characters who really grew from nothing. When I first thought of her, she was just going to be a kind of background character. We’d see some of her history, but she wasn’t going to be a key player. But the more I thought about her, the more I thought we could tell a really interesting story centered around the Grey Witch as an active player. There was a really tragic history for this character that I wanted to see unfold, and I love the idea that even though she is a terrible creature, she dearly loves her son.
The next issue of “Boot Hill”, the final arc, comes out May 18 (tomorrow).
“Winter Wolves” and “Ghost Dance” are available together in “The Sixth Gun – Volume 3” hardcover along with “The Christmas Story”, an interview with Bill Crabtree, and an enormous gallery section including sketches, covers, and layouts.
The Gunslinger Edition comes in a Becky Montcrief slipcase, with a new dust jacket, and a tip-in page signed by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Bill Crabtree. Limited to 500 copies.