While Hurtt may not have gotten his comic book start at Oni — his first work was for Marvel — it was with the independent publisher where Hurtt made his name and reputation working on projects like “Queen and Country,” “Skinwalker” and “Three Strikes.” After working at DC Comics on the short-lived “Hard Time,” written by the late Steve Gerber, and the Vertigo Crime graphic novel “Cowboys,” written by Gary Phillips, Hurtt pulled up stakes and headed west with Cullen Bunn on “The Damned” and “The Sixth Gun.”
CBR News spoke with Hurtt for an in-depth conversation about the book and his career, with the artist discussing how “The Sixth Gun” has changed since the first story arc — which Hurtt not only pencilled and inked, but lettered and colored — while offering CBR readers a detailed look at his artistic process.
CBR News: To start, can you tell us how you ended up working in comics?
Brian Hurtt: I honestly don’t know. I was always drawing. I got into comics when I was about nine years old or so and just fell in love right away. I honestly don’t remember a time after that when I didn’t want to draw comics. I loved telling stories and it seemed like the best outlet for me.
The first comic I really got into was “G.I. Joe.” All the neighborhood kids were reading it, and I was already a fan of the toys and the cartoon. I remember going to a flea market where I bought a bunch of comics and one of them was “Thor,” one of Walt Simonson’s issues. That became my new favorite comic book. That ended up leading to other Marvel books. Then I found “X-Men,” and it was all over from there. [Laughs]
The first comic that I and likely most people came across that you illustrated was the second story arc of “Queen and County.”
“Operation: Morningstar.” Technically, my very first work was a six page story I did for a “Captain America” anthology. I pencilled it and Jim Mahfood inked it. Shortly after that, I got the “Queen and Country” job. I got that by showing up at Chicago [Comic-Con] with my portfolio, going to the Oni booth and showing them what I had. One of the things I had was, I had been able to get my hands on an upcoming script for “Queen and Country” issue five. I had five or six pages. This issue was already in production. They already had an artist for it, but they liked my sample and said, “We’ll keep you in mind for something down the road.”
A couple weeks later I get a phone call saying, “The artist we had didn’t quite work out and we’re desperate and need someone really fast to get this book out, and since you already have the first six pages done…” [Laughs] I was in the right place at the right time. Bryan Lee O’Malley of “Scott Pilgrim” inked that first issue, and then Christine Norrie inked the following two issues. From there, one job led to another. I did “Skinwalker” for Oni right after that, and then “Queen and Country: Declassified.”
After that, you did “Three Strikes” before you did some projects at DC Comics.
As I was working on “Three Strikes” I got a call from DC. They had a fill-in issue for “Gotham Central” coming up, and Ed Brubaker had asked for me. That was my big break into the big two. Then, as I was turning in those pages, they came across the desk of another editor at DC, Joan Hilty, who hired me to do “Hard Time” for DC.
I wanted to ask about “Hard Time,” because you worked with the late Steve Gerber. The book only lasted for about a year and a half or so, but what was the experience like?
I worked on the book for about two years or so. It ran nineteen issues. I pencilled and inked most of them — I had a fill-in inker on three or four. But yeah, it was a pretty big endeavor, my first time doing a monthly, serialized book. It was a blast. Steve and I didn’t have a whole lot of contact. We had a conversation before we started, and I got to meet him in person a couple times and sit down for coffee, but for the most part, Steve would work on the scripts and would not tell me anything about what was happening because he said he liked me to be the first reader of the book. He wanted my honest reaction, so he was kind of writing for me. I really appreciate that when working on a book. I don’t need to know all the details. It takes the fun out of it for me.
Looking at your career, it seems that you like to work with writers for a period of time rather than hopping all around the industry.
I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked with some really great writers. I’ve worked with Greg Rucka a couple times. Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir, I’ve worked with three times, I believe. Ed Brubaker, Steve Gerber and of course Cullen Bunn. These are all people I respect as writers — I’m very fortunate to always work with good writers. I’m less interested in the art than I am in the story, so I want a good story first.
After “Hard Time: Season 2,” you did “The Damned” with Cullen Bunn, which was the first thing he ever published. How did the two of you connect?
I met Cullen when I was about eighteen. We were both working at the comic book store and we just really hit it off. We had very similar sensibilities. At the time, he was writing a lot a lot of horror short stories. He did some small press publishing. “The Damned” was his first comic book project. As friends, we’d always wanted to do a book together. We had attempted to put some projects together in the past, but “The Damned” was the first thing that really came together for us — and we haven’t looked back. [Laughs]
For “The Damned,” you pencilled, inked and lettered the book in addition to doing the graytones. It’s interesting that you came off a DC monthly book and went back to Oni and did something where you had complete control over how it looked.
I guess that’s been a recurring theme in my work. I’d read the magazines growing up on how to get into comics and how people make comics, and I always just assumed I would break into comics and be a penciller. Then somebody will ink it, and somebody else will color it and letter it and so on and so forth. My first job was the “Captain America” story and then “Queen and Country,” where I had two different inkers on the book. Christine Norrie is a great inker. She inked what I put there, but it wasn’t how I saw it. I hadn’t envisioned it looking the way it looked. So when I had the opportunity, I went, “I’m going to ink it myself. That way if I don’t like it, it’s my fault.” [Laughs] But at least it’ll be closer to my intent.
When I did “Queen and Country: Declassified,” I inked the book myself and it was a trial by fire. I taught myself on the go. It was a struggle, but I quickly fell in love with inking and decided I didn’t ever want to have anybody ink my work again. The inking seemed like the full expression of what I was trying to get across. Then I did “Hard Time,” and I had three different colorists on “Hard Time” and again, not knocking any of the colorists because they’re all good, but it’s not quite how I saw the book. When I had the opportunity on “The Sixth Gun,” I asked if I could color the book. With the lettering, that was more of a matter of necessity. We needed a letterer, and I basically taught myself how to letter. “The Damned” is a little bit of a mess form a lettering point of view, but I think I’ve gotten the hang of it by now.
On “The Sixth Gun,” because it’s a monthly book, I’ve had to let go of things. Obviously I can’t do all that on a monthly basis. Eventually I let go of the coloring, and thank God we got Bill Crabtree, who’s just an amazing colorist. So much better than I could ever do. Eventually, I let go of the lettering as well. I’m just trying to focus on the line art for the book. I enjoy doing it all, but if I have to choose between a week or two coloring the book and drawing, I’d rather draw.
How has the process changed for you over time? You’ve done a lot of black and white work and color work, but what are you doing differently now that you’re handing the book off to Bill Crabtree to color?
Well, it’s constantly changing because you’re constantly thinking, “There’s got to be a better way to do this, there’s got to be a faster way to do this.” For me, the one thing I wish I had was a schedule. I’m not very regimented. I just grab time as I can. I wish I could say I wake at seven every morning and I pencil until ten, but it’s never been like that. For instance, I don’t do a lot of sketching and character design and stuff like that. That’s just been the virtue of tight deadlines. I do all the work on the page. I will take the script and break it down and do thumbnails. Every now and then I’ll call Cullen and say, what if we do this? Then I do my full blown rough pencils. I’ll do the whole issue all rough and then I’ll tighten up the pencils and go directly to inks. That’s where I’m at now. There was a time where I would pencil the whole book on copy paper and then I would blow it upon the printer and light box it and tighten it up full size before inking. That wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things, [Laughs] but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty comfortable just drawing directly onto the board. That said, I still erase an awful lot. [Laughs]
Does Cullen write a full script?
Oh, yeah. And again, I’ve been very fortunate. The writers I’ve worked with have a very similar approach to the scripting process. It’s not by accident. Greg Rucka was one of the first people I worked with, and I really liked the way he wrote scripts. The next people I worked with, Nunzio and Christina, are friends of Greg Rucka’s, and they learned how to write comic scripts from reading Greg Rucka scripts.
When Cullen got into writing comics, he wanted a sample script and I gave him Nunzio and Christina’s scripts. So they all have a very similar approach. They break it down panel by panel and give me a basic description of what is happening on the page, setting the mood a little bit, but not too much. Maybe give some camera angles if necessary. Then the dialogue. I love that. I would never work from a plot. It’s just way too much work for me, and I would not enjoy that at all. The way these guys write, I appreciate, because they paint the picture for me, first. I’ve seen a lot of scripts where it’ll say, “Wolverine and Storm,” and then dialogue, and there’s no description. Whereas these guys, and especially Cullen, he’s really a master at it. You’re not just reading a script, you’re reading a story.
Having established the characters and set the tone in the first story arc, do you and Bill Crabtree have many conversations about the coloring?
We do. Bill’s a great guy. It’s kind of like me with Cullen, where I like Cullen to set the scene and the mood for me, Bill likes to know my thoughts or how I’m seeing something. Every time I turn in pages, I give him brief notes about what I was thinking. Nothing too specific. I just want to set the scene and give him a direction to go in. I trust him fully as a colorist and I want him to do what he does best.
It’s really worked out well. At first, I wasn’t going to give him notes, but he started asking for them. When you have somebody you trust and you hire them to do their job, stay out their way and let them do what they do. I really trusted Bill’s style and his sensibilities. I give him the most basic of ideas for setting a scene.
It’s more about discussing abstract ideas rather than saying, “This should be yellow #5.”
Yeah, it gives him an idea of what I’m going for. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m going for. I’ll say, “Bill, I have no idea what I’m thinking here.” [Laughs] A lot of times when you’re doing the art, you have a vague sense of how you want it colored, and every now and then you’re like, I have no idea. If I was the colorist, I would just start experimenting and see what works best. But not being the colorist, I’m going to let Bill do that. There’s a couple flashback scenes like that. There isn’t a palette in my mind that fits it, and I tell him to run with it. When he came on with issue six, he had to make it look seamless and follow the vibe I had set down, but he’s slowly making it his own book. I think the book is getting better every issue.
Honestly, it makes my job easier, knowing Bill is coloring the book. I feel more comfortable with the pages going out the door. I don’t overwork the pages because I know that Bill can handle it. It’s hard to describe. I’m not saying I cop out on the art or phone it in, but there is a comfort level. I know I don’t have to over-think or overwork the artwork for it to look good.
As opposed to, if you didn’t know colorist, you might try to suggest a direction with the art.
Exactly. It’s hard to put into words how you do that. As a penciler, you would do it for an inker if you didn’t know the inker, and if you’re doing line art, you would do it for the colorist. You push it in a certain direction. You do stuff with the art that, like you said, is suggestive. I don’t have to worry about that. I can just do what I do. He’s my collaborator just as I’m Cullen’s collaborator on bringing it to life. I trust him and it works very well that way.
You mentioned that you do little design work for the book. How much detail did Cullen give you when you started?
Again, it’s more suggestive. Design-wise, a lot of times the scripts are a complete surprise to me. For instance, we have a couple settings in the new book that haven’t been seen yet ,and we discussed them before he ever wrote the script. I didn’t do any sketches. I said, “What if it looks like this?” And we’ll bounce it back and forth so I have an idea in my mind. He has an idea in his mind and he’ll put that in the script, describing the area, but it’s never overly detailed. It’s enough to be suggestive and let your mind run with it. With characters, he does very little to paint the picture of what the characters look like. He leaves that all to me. Unless it’s a very specific idea. It might be, “This guy is big and mean-looking.” That’s about it.
This past summer, “Cowboys,” written by Gary Phillips, was released by Vertigo Crime. How did you end up on the book?
I knew Gary through Oni. He had done some books like “Shot Callerz” and “Midnight Mover,” and we’d see each other at shows and talked about maybe doing something together some day. At one point, he was editing an anthology that needed some illustrations and he called me. A few months later, I got a call from DC/Vertigo. Apparently he had a crime book with them. I was the person he had suggested and they listened to him.
How did knowing that the book would be printed in black and white and in a smaller size affect how you work?
I like that book, but honestly, I was not as comfortable doing it. It does not appeal to my storytelling sensibilities. There are only three to four panels a page, and the scenes roll over pretty quickly, so you’re in a scene for maybe twelve panels or so. I need a little more room to work. I like those silent beats and being able to break things up a little more. If you look at “The Sixth Gun,” we average probably six or seven panels per page, often more. I’m usually uncomfortable with anything less than six panels on a page. [Laughs] I had to rethink how I drew pages and how I designed pages. That said, I love a challenge, and you never learn anything doing the same thing over and over again.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because in “The Sixth Gun,” you seem to be very consciously exploring and detailing the settings.
I feel like these characters, in order to feel real, need to exist in a place. They need to feel grounded in that place. That’s why I try not to skimp on backgrounds. They need to feel real, and when they move from one area to another, it needs to feel like they walked to the other side of the room and I know where they’re at. It’s never vague about where somebody might be in relation to another character in the scene. That’s very important to me. I think that a big influence is cinema. I need to make it very clear how things are flowing from one panel to another. “The Sixth Gun” is all about world-building. To make that world feel real, you have to put these characters in a real environment.
The settings of Westerns tend to be dusty towns, but you’re really trying something different.
We had a mission statement from the very beginning, that the book is a Western but it’s also a fantasy. It’s probably a fantasy before it’s a Western, if that makes any sense. We didn’t want the book, and I was very adamant, to be tumbleweeds and sepia tones. Let’s explore the country. That’s why we went to New Orleans in the second arc. You don’t have a lot of Westerns that go to New Orleans. We intentionally avoided all those Western tropes early on. Now that we’ve established ourselves, we are going to a town that has more of Sergio Leone Western vibe to it.
That’s, for example, why the colors are as colorful and vivid as they are. I told Bill when he came on, I wanted the book to have more of a pop feel. I wanted it to exist in a classic comic book storytelling way. That’s why we have the big sound effects on the page. It owes a lot to superhero language and superhero pop comics. I wanted to have those vivid, rich colors, rather than browns and grays that you might be used to.
It helps that the first story arc is set in the Southeast, which doesn’t look or feel like the West, which is very different from New Orleans.
We’re very keen on exploring the whole world, north, south, east and west, and even different seasons. Bill and I have talked about that as well. We want there to be seasons in this book. Almost every issue or arc has a different palette to it, because it’s a road trip book. It helps to establish this world as being broad and vast. I think that’s why I don’t get bored drawing it and Bill doesn’t get bored coloring it, because no two issues are the same. There’s no home base. We don’t have to keep drawing the mansion, or whatever it might be. We’re always developing and exploring new places of this world.
As part of that, do you utilize a lot of reference?
Yes and no. When starting off, especially a story arc, I’ll do a lot of research. More to get a sense of something rather than for it to be absolutely true and loyal to that area whatever it might be. New Orleans was probably the most research-heavy, because it is a place. We’re not making up New Orleans, and so there was a lot of research going on during the course of that arc. Often, what I do is I do research, maybe do a couple sketches to get a sense of something, and then I fake the rest of it.
As a final question, while you’re still in the midst of “The Sixth Gun” and will be for a while, what would you like to do going forward in your career?
That’s one of the many reasons we wanted to make this a finite series. I’m having a lot of fun doing it, but the longer I do it, the less opportunity I have to do other projects. Cullen and I both have projects we’d like to do together. If you see my bookshelf, I have all these three ring binders with story ideas and things I want to do on my own. Ideally, I would like to do my own work, my own writing and art.
As far as collaborations, right now, Cullen is the only other writer I want to work with. We have such a good working relationship, I can’t go back to basically doing a work for hire model where I get a script and I draw it and that’s the extent of my input. With “The Sixth Gun” and “The Damned” and any project I’m working on with Cullen, I’m in on the ground floor. I get to throw out ideas and it’s a real collaboration. I’ll happily work with Cullen again. Again, in my dream world. [Laughs]