After six years, “The Sixth Gun” came to an end. To mark the occasion, Haunted Trails has been looking back at this journey we’ve taken. Six guns, six interviews.
In this final interview, Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt discuss the last arc of the series, “Boot Hill.” Be warned, we are talking full spoilers, so if you haven’t read the final arc yet, maybe wait until you have before reading this.
If you missed the previous interviews, you can find them here:
1. “Cold Dead Fingers” and “Crossroads”
2. “Bound” and “A Town Called Penance”
3. “Winter Wolves” and “Ghost Dance”
4. “Sons of the Gun,” “Days of the Dead,” “Dust to Dust,” and “Valley of Death”
5. “Not the Bullet, But the Fall” and “Hell and High Water”
Before we talk about “Boot Hill,” I wanted to talk more generally about endings, because I feel like striking the right balance for the ending of a long-form story is really difficult. So what are some of your favorite endings to long-form stories, and what is it about them that you think works so well?
Brian Hurtt: I’m hard pressed to remember specific endings to a lot of long-form stories that I’ve enjoyed but there are a few that stick out.
I can only think of two comics off the top of my head but, to be honest, how many comic stories have a beginning, middle, and end? They tend to go on forever with rotating creative teams or fizzle out and never finish their story. I remember feeling that Brian K. Vaughn really stuck the landing on “Y: The Last Man.” While reading the series I remember feeling that this is going to be difficult to impossible to craft an ending that will be satisfying. But he did it, and I remember feeling that the ending was both emotional and satisfying. “Preacher” is another one that I thought had a perfect ending for a fantastic series. One of the all-time great comics.
With television, it is more common to see a series go through its entire arc and reach an ending. There have been a lot of good endings over the years but the ones that are fresh in my mind are Breaking Bad, The Shield, Mad Men, and Lost (just kidding). Maybe it’s easier in those first three examples because, for the most part, they were driven by the arc of a single character. As long as the creators are true to that character’s arc then a good ending should be a natural outcome of the creative process. I also think that with the advent of creator-driven shows (ones that have a strong creative visionary at the core) we are seeing a lot more satisfying endings. I remember The Shield being one of the first shows I ever watched all the way through where I felt that it had the most satisfying conclusion. It was the perfect ending for that character’s arc and everything that happened in that final season, that final episode was a result of actions that character took in the very first episode.
Cullen Bunn: Brian and I have very similar tastes, I guess, because I would have named “Preacher” and “Y: The Last Man” as examples of great endings in comics as well.
I would also list some of the same TV shows as Brian. The Shield and Breaking Bad are particular favorites. For me, great endings serve as pay-offs for all the time that you’ve invested in a story. The American version of The Office is another good example of a show that paid off all the time I’d spent watching it.
The story itself is part of it, seeing all the loose ends tied up neatly. Another part of it, at least for me, is the emotional payoff. “Y: The Last Man” had a big emotional punch, for example. For the same reason, I’ll differ with Brian and say I liked the end of Lost, maybe not because of the story so much as because of the emotional impact the finale had on me.Continued below
Back in the first retrospective interview, we talked about the script for the very first issue of “The Sixth Gun” and how it was such a tightly constructed introduction to the series. Looking back at it now after the series has finished, I feel that it’s an even better introduction than it first appears. I especially love how the final pages of issue #50 echo the first pages of issue #1.
How much of this ending did you have figured out back when you wrote this issue?
Brian: I know that Cullen had a few different iterations of that ending from the very beginning but they were all very close in intent and the setting never changed.
Cullen: Yeah, I had a couple of different versions of the ending in mind, but they were all pretty similar, at least in a big picture sense. There was always a little bit of wiggle room in the series overview, and some characters and events that surfaced over the course of the book’s run might have altered the fine details. For the most part, though, the book ended pretty much exactly as I had in mind.
Were there any unexpected changes in the final arc from your original conception of it when you began “The Sixth Gun”?
Cullen: I don’t know that there were any major changes. Like I said, there were some characters and events that sort of came out of nowhere and had a lasting impact on the series. For example, Yum-Kimil the death-god was not in my original plans. He took shape later in the series. In fact, he only really appeared in some of the spin-off books. But his inclusion in the finale felt right and helped to bring the series full-circle.
Was that a concern for you, introducing a character that hadn’t been mentioned in the main series at all as a pivotal part of the ending?
Brian: I admit to being a little apprehensive about it. But I also admit to really wanting to draw Wyrm-Griselda going toe-to-toe with Yum-Kimil! I could’ve drawn that giant monster battle for twenty pages!
If nothing else, I hope it encourages any “Sixth Gun” fans who skipped the spin-offs to go back and pick them up!
The big questions in the series were wrapped up in your two leads, what they really were, and where they came from. One of the big problems I find with long-running stories that have major mysteries hanging over the whole series is the way the expectations of readers can inflate to the point that no answer could ever really be satisfying, or that when the explanation comes it feels like an info dump, crossing off a checklist of questions.
However, I feel like “The Sixth Gun” deftly avoided these pitfalls, and I feel like the key to that is the characters. You made the answers to the big questions so deeply personal, that the impact wasn’t in the reveal, but in what these answers meant to Becky and Drake. The answers upped the emotional stakes.
There was a moment after those big reveals in issue #50 when Becky and Drake silently exchange a look, and that look says everything that needs to be said without a word being uttered. The success of that scene is a testament to six years of set-up and it is fantastic.
Brian: There was a little bit of a push-pull with Cullen and I on the ending and it all stemmed out of my fear of not landing it. I leaned more towards explaining more (because we did have a pretty clear understanding of this mythology) whereas Cullen always leaned more towards having a little bit of ambiguity. In the end, he was right, and the story is much stronger for ending the way it did. Being character driven and being about these personal journeys and not the mythology of this world we created. And recreated.
Cullen: That bit with Becky and Drake is one of my favorite bits in the final issue. I’m glad it seemed to play well.
My approach to the series (and really to most of my creator-owned work) is to treat it as if the reader is right there in the middle of that world. And I want that world to feel real, no matter how fantastic it is. One thing I think we can all agree upon is that here in the real world, none of us really know every detail of what’s going on in the world. We’re all kind of lost at times. So, I tend to not explain everything. I let readers feel like there are right in the thick of things. For me, nothing pulls me out of a story more quickly than having every little detail over-explained to me.Continued below
This story has many of recurring images throughout, and I find the way these are used to handle exposition particularly powerful. There was a moment in issue #48, when General Hume first collects the Six, and we’ve seen a glimpse of that moment before, so straight away there’s this an energy to the sequence.
But then the shadow of Drake appeared in the scene and took it to a whole other level.
I’ve often wondered about Drake’s relationship with the guns, whether his birth was a harbinger of their coming. However, it turns out his very existence was entangled with the guns far more than I could have guessed. And all this was explained visually with Drake’s shadow being cast on the wall.
Brian: I remember the genesis of this scene pretty clearly and it’s the outcome of that push-pull I was talking about. We had lots and lots of discussions about the nature of the guns and the nature of Drake himself. In the end, we (probably mostly Cullen) settled on this visual shorthand and, again, it was more powerful for its simplicity.
Cullen: I don’t know. I remember the push-pull you’re talking about quite vividly. And, yeah, I think the ambiguous nature of the scene makes it all the more powerful. But I think Drake’s shadow might have been your idea. Either way, it was a good notion!
Cullen, I know how much you love Billjohn. It was truly fantastic to see him back in the fold again, not just as a silent golem, but as a real part of the team, and in many ways a guiding force toward the ultimate end. I imagine you must have enjoyed giving him a voice again after he’s been silent for so long.
Cullen: I always knew we’d see Billjohn again at the end of the series. There was a moment, maybe around issue 40 or so, that I started to get really excited for Billjohn’s return. His interactions with Becky at the end of the series still choke me up a little.
You’re not alone there.
Brian: While Gord is my favorite character, I can say that Billjohn comes in a close second. But he is by far my favorite character to draw! So, for both those reasons I was excited to have him re-enter the story. It was a long wait as, though he died in issue #6, Cullen and I both knew—even then—that he would be returning for the last arc. It was so nice to see him again and I agree that the moments between him and Becky are what make him so endearing.
This is also a good time to plug Cullen and Tyler’s Billjohn story that came out about a year in advance of the final arc. I still think it’s one of Cullen’s best stories!
One of my favorite moments in the issue was the pause before the end, specifically when Nidawi and Nahuel stop fighting and take that moment to be together. That moment kind of broke me, to be honest. With everything else going on, this is the sort of thing that could’ve been overlooked, but it’s the sort of thing that really made the ending for me. It was very intimate and epic at the same time.
Cullen: I’m glad that worked, too, because I wasn’t 100% sure I should include that. I wanted to bring everything back to the characters again, though. In the middle of all that crazy action, I wanted to bring everything back to the characters. Why Nidawi and Nahuel? You might ask. I felt like there was so much going on in the series that I felt like I missed out on some of the character moments with Nahuel and Nidawi, who were favorites of mine, just after Billjohn.
Brian: I don’t want to say that they got short shrift because “The Sixth Gun” is really Becky and Drake’s story, but I always wanted to see more of these two. I guess that’s a testament to Cullen’s writing and the little things he did tease out about these characters. But, I can also say the same about most the characters in “The Sixth Gun”—there was just never enough time to fully explore all of them and still have a narrative that moved forward. Maybe if we had made it a 300-issue run…Continued below
The final sequence at Boot Hill had so much material to cover. Brian, I was stunned by the choreography there. The way an element from the previous scene or the next scene would appear in the background of the current scene was an excellent device to orientate the reader when you have so much going on at once.
Brian: Some artists hate it but one of my favorite things to do is to orchestrate chaos. Action scenes in particular can be a mess and the reader can easily lose orientation and that takes them out of the story. The cardinal sin in storytelling! I love the challenge of keeping the reader in a scene even though there may be lots of chaos involved. I may not always manage it, but I strive to to keep the action and storytelling clear at all times. A major key to doing this, in my opinion, is defining the environment clearly. This goes to my belief of environment and location being key to good visual storytelling. It is essentially another character and can not be forgotten.
Cullen: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Brian Hurtt is one of the best visual storytellers in the business, and scenes like this prove it.
In the case of the final Boot Hill sequence, how far did you go into defining the environment before thumbnailing sequences. How much back and forth was there between design and staging?
Brian: Cullen and I had discussed the basic composition of Boot Hill but the script left it relatively open. Cullen knew I wanted to have some room to add and expand the action and his descriptions were all about character actions and moments. It was then up to me to stage the scene.
We’ve worked with each other long enough now that Cullen trusts that I might move a piece or add a new beat here or there, but that I would never do anything to undercut the intent of a scene he’s written. Again, whenever we do scenes that get a bit epic, I’m allowed room to maneuver. Other than some general conversations after my reading of the script, I’m pretty much allowed to run with it.
When it came to defining this environment, I actually worked backwards and started with the thumbnailing. As I worked out all the beats and where people need to be then the environment started to take shape around them. In other words, I bent the environment to serve the will of the story… if that makes any sense!
So for instance, the tower that the heroes climb at the end of the issue 50 was really more of a dais atop of Boot Hill. I knew that I wanted some height, and different levels for the action to exist upon, so I changed it into a tower that rose from the Hill. This allowed for Griselda to take more of a dramatic fall and also for her to rise up in her Wyrm-form to the top of the tower. The height also added more drama to those atop it and it made the scene where Becky is beginning to harness the power (the light show) a little more iconic.
I love the way you made the top look a bit like Stonehenge. It conjures up that feeling of just how old the Six really are.
Brian: I wish I could take credit for that but that was all Cullen. I agree that it just adds to the epic quality of the story anytime we allude to the centuries and eons that the Six have been around. Anytime we could evoke that, we did.
I was very pleased with the way the series ended. Those final pages of Becky’s empty home were beautiful. And, since he’s my favorite character, you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that Gord was the narrator or the series.
Brian: As I’ve said before, Gord is also my favorite character so I’m right there with you! It was fun to also echo that final scene of Gord’s arc way back in issue #17.Continued below
Cullen: Look, I wanted to end the series with a flash forward to the modern era. We’d see an open plane, and suddenly six missile silos would ride out of the earth. Each missile would be marked with a symbol of the Six.
Okay… not really… but I’ve told Brian that’s how the series would end for years.
But, yeah, this ending was a much better choice.
Brian: For as long as Cullen has been pitching that ending I’ve been pitching a “Sixth Gun” where he has to draw it himself!
I just want to point out that this series ran for sixty-six issues (fifty of the main series, plus sixteen of the minis) over a period of six years… which will eventually be collected in six Gunslinger volumes. Well played, gentlemen.
Brian: Wow. I was aware of the six Gunslingers but didn’t realize it had added up to sixty-six issues total. Ahem, I mean… look how clever we are!
Cullen: That’s hilarious! When I was first planning the series, I thought sixty-six issues had a nice ring to it. But we eventually settled on fifty issues. Looks like my original plan wasn’t so far off after all!
Cullen, in your afterword in the final issue, you spoke about how Drake and Becky’s story is done, how you can’t add any more to it now without diminishing the ending of the series. In a way, this series has been exploring finality. Drake has been stretched beyond his natural lifetime, and his passing is ultimately a good thing. Likewise the Grey Witch just wants to die so she can rest at last. Meanwhile Becky’s life is all too short, and yet incredibly beautiful because of what she did with it.
I felt the ending captured both the melancholy and beauty of finality.
Brian: You just made me sad. Finishing “The Sixth Gun” was a whirlwind of hard work and sleepless nights. Now with some distance, your speaking of the themes of finality and of Becky have made me… feel feelings.
Cullen: That really means a lot, Mark.
You know, I’m still thinking about great endings, and I think about the end of the Elric books and the Corum books. Both of those series were big influences on “The Sixth Gun” and they are both books that had very clear—very final—endings for the characters. I never really liked when later books came out that took place before the characters met their ultimate fates.
With “The Sixth Gun” complete, what’s next for you both?
Brian: So much! I’m currently about halfway through writing and drawing what will be almost a two-year stint on the webcomic Table Titans. For those not aware, it is the story of a role-playing group of friends that we follow both in the game and at the table. It’s worth checking out as I work in a more cartoony style but one that is still recognizable to “Sixth Gun” fans.
Cullen and I are also returning to the world of “The Damned,” the first series we ever worked on together. Bill Crabtree is along for the ride and providing colors, both for the new material and the old.
There is also a secret project that Cullen and I are co-writing with a super talented, but yet-to-be-named art team. Other than that, there are several things simmering on the back burner. I’ll be staying very, very busy for the foreseeable future!
Cullen: I think Brian covered it pretty well. We’ve got “The Damned” and our secret project in the works.
Of course, I’m also working on a number of creator-owned projects, including “Harrow County” with sometimes “Sixth Gun” collaborator Tyler Crook. I think if readers liked “The Sixth Gun” they’ll like “Harrow” as well.
Cullen, Brian, thank you for doing this. It’s been an honor to talk about a comic I love so much with its creators. This has been a truly epic interview.Continued below
For further reading, I recommend checking out Comic Book Resources’ interview with Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Bill Crabtree.