Cullen Bunn burst onto the comics scene when Oni Press debuted his and artist Brian Hurtt’s creator-owned “The Sixth Gun” in 2010. In 2013, Oni debuted Brian Churilla’s psychedelic “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper.” All three creators came together in 2013 for a “Sixth Gun” miniseries, “Sons of the Gun,” a collaboration which worked out so well, Bunn and Churilla have found themselves teaming once again in 2014 for the ongoing “Hellbreak.”
The creators spoke with CBR News about the upcoming supernatural action series, explaining the origins of the concept of a world where there is not only an infinite number of Hells, but people sometimes have to travel into them in order to reclaim souls displaced by demonic possession. Plus, CBR has an exclusive first look at the uncolored pages of the first issue — Churilla is already penciling Issue #7 of the title — which debuts this fall from Oni.
CBR News: What exactly is “Hellbreak,” and where did the concept originate?
Cullen Bunn: “Hellbreak” is a new ongoing series. I’ve often called it half-jokingly a story of action exorcists. It follows a group called the Kerberos Project, which is working closely with the Catholic Church. We find out that when someone is possessed, their soul is actually displaced so a demon or devil takes up residence in the person’s body and kicks their soul into Hell. There are an infinite numbers of Hells out there, each one different, each one ghastly and horrible in its own way. The Kerberos Project has found a way to access these Hells, to enter them, and they use that technology to send a squad called the Orpheus Team, to go in find the lost soul and retrieve them. They have to do this in time with an exorcism that’s taking place in our world so as the invading spirit is exorcised from the host body our heroes are in Hell retrieving the soul so that it can be placed back into the host body.
I have difficulty figuring out where this one came from. Most of the stuff I work on I can tell you what the seed of the idea was. This one is something I’ve been noodling with for a while, and maybe it’s just been so long that I can’t remember what set me off. I knew I wanted to do an action movie with heavy supernatural elements.
You’ve worked together before, on “The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun.” What made you interested in renewing that collaboration?
Brian Churilla: I think I was just starting “Sons of the Gun” when Oni approached me with this. I have a criteria when things are brought to me — there’s got to be fun stuff to draw. This story is constructed in such a way that there’s something awesome to draw in every issue. It’s kind of a no-brainer. It being an ongoing made me a little leery. I did that before with “The Anchor,” but since I started working digitally, I work way faster. It was like, Cullen’s writing it and Cullen’s a great writer. The material is there, it’s a cool concept, so it wasn’t that tough a decision.
Looking at the preview pages, I couldn’t help but think that the Hell monster is very much a Churilla kind of monster.
Churilla: [Laughs] Well, that’s cool — there’s a Brian Churilla image! There are a lot of monsters and supernatural ne’er-do-wells. That’s what I love to draw.
When we talk about supernatural action in comics, you’re dealing with the long shadow of “Hellboy” and “B.P.R.D.” This, however, is a different kind of book, with its own tone. Was there ever anything you thought you couldn’t do or wanted to approach differently?
Bunn: I don’t know that I ever sat down and said, these are the things I’m going to do differently than in “B.P.R.D.” and “Hellboy,” both of which are books I really like. The way I was approaching this — to my mind, anyway — was pretty different. In “B.P.R.D.” and “Hellboy,” you have characters who have supernatural capabilities who are protagonists and going into “Hellbreak,” I wanted our heroes to be very grounded and very real world. They’re not superheroes. They don’t have any powers. They’re just badasses. Kind of like Churilla. He’s a regular badass.
Churilla: Thank you.
Bunn: The world that the story takes place in is the real world. You’re not going to see any monsters in the real world in “Hellbreak” other than the individuals who are possessed. The supernatural elements and the really strange stuff comes then, when our team enters Hell and goes off on these missions.
When you mentioned that the team has to retrieve people’s souls, I immediately thought, what if they don’t retrieve it?
Bunn: That’s a great question. One of the interesting things about the book is it starts with that very simple premise: Retrieve these souls from Hell. But it started bringing up a lot of questions. What happens if they don’t retrieve the soul? What happens if one of our team members dies in Hell? Those types of questions opened up a lot of plot points and story elements that will really impact the series in a big way. Some of these things will be revealed as the story goes on.
Who is Marek Proctor?
Bunn: Marek is the head of the company that has put this technology together and is running the show for our team. He’s going to be a source of mystery and intrigue because he’s a character who, as the series progresses — definitely in the first arc — we’ll start seeing that maybe he has some agendas not everyone is aware of. He has plans of his own that may not necessarily sit well with his partners in the Church.
Brian what have you been enjoying most about drawing Hell?
Churilla: There’s always something fun to draw. It doesn’t get boring. It changes issue to issue. There are infinite Hells in this series, and it’s just fun. If a comic isn’t fun to draw, there’s really no point. If I’m not enjoying my job, I should do something else. Cullen is very inventive and creative. It’s just been a blast to come up with different stuff and draw a lot of monsters. I’m a huge David Cronenberg fan. “Naked Lunch” is one of my favorite movies, and anybody who’s familiar with “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper” can see that influence. It’s a lot of fun to just draw disgusting, gooey stuff.
Bunn: That’s an interesting point, and it’s not something we necessarily knew when we started. Cronenberg has always been a big influence on me as well, so Brian and I get along well in that respect. I know the issue he’s currently working on features armies of what I consider Cronenberg-inspired Hell creatures.
Churilla: Even the technology has that aesthetic. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also a nice way to cheat as an artist. If you’re drawing a fleet of tanks and not drawing them the same way each time — I’m just drawing this big gooey mass with intestines for treads and giant penises as cannons. Not literally penises, but they’re definitely representations. There are a lot of Cronenberg fans and I think they’ll be stoked.
Cullen mentioned before we started the interview that you’re drawing issue #7 right now.
Churilla: I’m penciling it as I’m talking to you. [“Hellbreak’s”] not going to drop until fall, and by then I’ll have like 15 issues in the can.
Do you prefer to have this kind of lead time to really work things out and get a lot of the book under your belt before anyone sees it?
Churilla: Well I prefer to have lead time, but it’s still keeping a monthly schedule as far as producing the book. It’s going to be coming out monthly for such a long time there’s no time to sit and noodle stuff to death.
Do you have a favorite character or scene so far?
Bunn: I think it’s interesting, because there are interactions between characters who have made certain characters my favorites when I really just intended for them to be background characters and it changed the direction of the series. There’s an exorcist character who, as I was writing him, I realized he was going to take a much bigger role in the series just because I enjoyed the character and I think he brings an interesting dynamic to the series. It’s a series about these tough as nails soldiers, and this exorcist brings such a nice balance to that group. There’s some interactions with him and the team and some of the victims of these possessions that I really like. There’s a conspiracy element that surfaces in issue #4 that has much bigger implications to the series as a whole that I really like. And then, as far as issues, Brian is drawing issue #7 right now, which I think is my favorite issue of the series so far.
Churilla: Once the main overarching plot is touched on, and once it gets into that, it’s such a cool idea. There’s so many dynamics to it. It’s a really interesting story. I’m really interested in that and excited to get to it. As far as things that are fun to draw, there’s these really cool insectoid creatures that are made of rocks. A lot of times I’ll do design work on the fly as I’m drawing. That keeps it interesting. I have no idea how I’m going to draw that monster, so I just draw it. In the issue I’m working on, I did some designs prior to working on it because there are some elements I wanted to play with and make sure I had figured out in my head before I started.
Do you enjoy designing creatures and monsters?
Churilla: Well, I enjoy not so much the designing, because that can get pretty tedious if you’re sitting there trying to work out a design. A lot of times, I don’t have a specific image in my head that I want to do, but it’s fun drawing it on the page. It gives you a lot of freedom to work that way.
Does Cullen give you a lot of freedom as far as the visuals?
Churilla: He really gets into detail on the scripts. These are the longest scripts I’ve ever had to deal with. I can’t even staple them. They’re 50-60 pages long.
Bunn: What this tells me is, I’m spending way too much time on my scripts. I need to start whittling those things down. [Laughs] I’ll have a new one in your inbox tomorrow. Panel: Soldier.
Churilla: You would never be able to do that. I think that’s part of your process for you. Cullen’s pretty relaxed. I’ll simplify things a lot for time because I don’t get paid by the hour. [Laughs] He’s really relaxed, because we’re collaborators. Cullen understands that time is a factor, and I’ll change things appropriately to suit how I draw. Unless there’s a continuity issue, he never has a problem with it.
Bunn: First of all, I don’t want anyone to think that my scripts look like an Alan Moore script, because they don’t.
Churilla: You’re a close second. Not in quality, but in length. [Laughs]
Bunn: Thank you. I was waiting for that. Next script. Page one. There are 350 important characters in this panel. [Laughs]
Churilla: Page one. There are three important characters in this panel. [Laughs]
Bunn: [Laughs] Anyway, I don’t ever want my scripts to feel like marching orders or for people to feel beholden to them. Brian doesn’t, he changes whatever he wants. [Laughs] As Brian said, it’s part of my process. It helps me visualize what’s going on in my head, but at the same time it is a collaboration and I want the artist to feel like they can contribute and change things. There have already been instances where Brian has called or emailed me and said, hey, can we have this kind of creature show up in the series and that’s influenced some of what I’ve done already.
You said at the beginning you were still struggling to sum up the series, and I know you have a few months to practice, still, but what is your quick pitch right now?
Bunn: I think the quickest way to describe it is a team of highly trained soldiers is invading Hell to free lost souls. It avoids all the other elements of exorcism and things like that but when I was trying to get Oni to bite on the series, I originally pitched it as a black ops team performing a series of high tech rescue missions in Hell.