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INTERVIEW: Sixth Gun Team Crafts A Supernatural Noir World in The Damned

by  in Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Sixth Gun Team Crafts A Supernatural Noir World in The Damned

The team of Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt and Bill Crabtree are best known for their long running series “The Sixth Gun,” which wrapped up last year. This year, the three re-team for a new Oni Press project, “The Damned.”

Originally released as a black and white series by Bunn and Hurtt a decade ago, now they’re taking the opportunity to return to that world and tell the supernatural crime story they always intended. Crabtree is joining them to color the ongoing series as well as the original miniseries, which Oni is releasing as “The Damned: Three Days Dead.”

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CBR spoke with the trio about where the character of Eddie came from, what they have planned, how this book will look and feel differently from the previous title, and tease a few hints of what readers can expect.

CBR: Where did the idea for “The Damned” originate?

Cullen Bunn: Years ago, Brian and I wanted to work together on a comic. We had pitched a number of different ideas back and forth, and then I remember very clearly Brian calling me one day and saying that he wanted to do a book featuring this character that he had come up with – the character of Eddie, who’s the protagonist of “The Damned.” I don’t know that we had a lot more beyond that character during that phone call, but it spun out into this supernatural crime story set in the Prohibition era. The mobsters are all demons who are running rackets to get humans to sell their mortal souls.

Brian Hurtt: I had an idea for a character who’s sort of an amalgamation of a couple characters. We started there and asked, what do you want to write? What do you want to draw? What kind of story do you want to tell? I’d been doing crime stories and spy stuff, and I like that work, but I wanted to push it in more of a fantastic direction.

Now, you’re relaunching “The Damned” with a new edition of the first miniseries, and then a new ongoing series.

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Art from “The Damned” #1

Bunn: We’re going to re-release the first trade paperback of “The Damned,” the first five issues, so we can introduce the series and the world back to readers. It’s an easy jumping on point for new readers. For readers who may have read the series, it’s an easy place for them to come back to it and read it again in a slightly different format. After that, we launch “The Damned” as an ongoing series, which will just be a continuation of that story.

Bill, what made you say yes to coloring “The Damned?”

Bill Crabtree: I really like working with Brian and Cullen. We have an informal understanding that whatever they’re doing in the future, I would definitely want to color it.

Hurtt: As soon as we considered doing this book and doing it in color, there wasn’t a decision that we made. It was, Bill will color this if he wants to. That’s where we are.

There are a few people who have seen the full color trade, that has the original miniseries. Bill colored it, and people have said it looks amazing, that it looks like a brand new book, and I think that’s true. Even if you are familiar with the original series, I think this is a whole new experience.

What was your approach like in coloring the book, because this was a series that was originally published in black and white.

Crabtree: I don’t know. I don’t have a super formal approach. I must think about it because I get impulses of what to do and how I’m going to go about it, but I don’t approach it any differently than anything else. I mean, everything I color is black and white at some point.

Hurtt: How do you think your approach is different going from “The Sixth Gun” to “The Damned?”

Crabtree: I don’t really think about it, like, what am I going to do here? I’ve said this before, with Brian’s stuff, one of the things that makes it a lot easier for me to work on is that I get really clear impulses off the pages. A lot of times when I look at the stuff, I don’t have to really think about what I’m going to do. I just get an impression of a certain mood or something like that. It’s not like I sat down and thought about Prohibition era Chicago, demons and what color is that? I look at the pages and get impressions and just go with them.

Hurtt: Who should we ask about your approach to colors if you don’t understand it yourself? It’s magic?

Crabtree: When you get a script from Cullen, do you really “think” about it? Is that really the word you would use? You get impulses and suggestions and you run with it.

Hurtt: There are little tiny things where I’ll say, I’m going to do this. With “The Damned,” I’m definitely using more black lines. It’s noir so there are heavy shadows. That’s part of my approach, thinking in those terms. I was wondering if you have any rules like, I’m not going to use this color, or that sort of thing?

Crabtree: Not really. I think about the world. I probably dial it back a little bit in terms of it being colorful. There’s a scene in the first trade where Eddie is trying to shake these two guys that are following him and he’s outside and dipping into a grocery store to shake them, so that scene was done a little warmer, a little more pleasant. It’s the “real world,” so I’ll color it a little less subdued and grim.

The book isn’t heavily stylized, but you use a lot of dark colors, a lot of shadows, so the bright colors you do use feel different.

Hurtt: To what you’re saying, I try not to ever have my art dictate the story or overpower it. I try to keep away from over-stylized choices because I don’t want to get in the way of the story. I don’t want people to look at the art and go, “Oh, wow, that’s a really clever choice.” I just try to communicate the story without getting in the way of the story, to have clarity for the reader as to what they’re seeing, what they’re following. I don’t think either Bill or I set out to make any artistic statements other than tell a good story and do the best we can with that.

Crabtree: It’s the difference between “The Long Goodbye” and the “Sin City” movie. The vibe is in the sum of its parts. It’s delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, but told in the service of what’s happening in the story rather than some overarching strong look.

Hurtt: I think we’re all coming from the same place. Nobody ever wants their individual contribution to be what drives the book. Nobody’s here to showboat or draw attention to themselves. We’re trying to work together. The focus is the book itself, and the story.

You’re treating 1920s gangster stories, the Chicago mob, much the same way you treated Western tropes in “The Sixth Gun.”

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Art from “The Damned” #1

Bunn: I agree. I feel like those tropes are important in order to establish the world. We lean into some, and introduce new elements like the supernatural and demons. I think it’s easier to get reader buy-in when they’re first introduced through the things that are familiar to them.

Hurtt: We’re starting in what is an established genre, but we’re not looking to repeat everything that’s been done in that genre. We’re looking to create our own world with that as a launching point.

Bunn: Right. We introduced what seemed to be a fairly standard Western world, and we introduced these strange elements as the story goes on. It’s the same with “The Damned.” As the story goes on, we’re working in a world that is still recognizable as a noir story, but it definitely establishes itself as its own universe and its own unique world.

“Three Days Dead” introduces a lot of elements by the end, which were not apparent in the beginning.

Bunn: I don’t ever want to do a book where I sit down at the beginning and have this big exposition where I explain, this is the world, and then just sum up everything. I’d rather the reader come along with us for that and discover those things along the way because I feel like that makes the world seem more real to the reader.

The first issue picks up shortly after the trade ends, and without giving much away, someone Eddie knows returns to town who is trouble and other people are looking for him. It’s an old noir trope, but by the end of the first issue you’re making it clear that this isn’t going to play out in a way we expect.

Bunn: The established tropes are like the bait on the hook. We want to lure the reader into something they’re fairly comfortable with, they can accept it and they know it. Not only have they seen the story of your deadbeat friend in noir stories, many of them have experienced in their real life – their deadbeat friend comes in from out of town and needs a favor. We want to hook them in with that, then turn everything on its ear.

You make a point of explaining and laying out some of the rules of the world in #1 in a different way than in the trade.

Bunn: It was a tough issue, because I was coming off of “The Sixth Gun,” which was a big bombastic story. Brian and I wanted to dial it back a little and do something a little more deliberate and quieter. I think it’s important that we set this apart. “The Damned” and “The Sixth Gun” are not the same kinds of stories. “The Sixth Gun” was very much a swashbuckling fantasy story, and “The Damned” is definitely much more low key and brooding.

Hurtt: It’s a little more grounded in its action. That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be exciting action sequences and violence, but it’s a very different kind of book. It’s as much about mood and atmosphere as much as anything else.

Bunn: Even though we’re releasing “The Damned: Three Days Dead,” which sets the world up for readers, we can’t assume everybody is going to read it, so we also had to approach this first issue as an introduction to the world. One that wouldn’t get bogged down so readers who have read the trade wouldn’t tune out because they’ve seen it all before. It also had to stand on its own enough so new readers could follow the story and hopefully be enticed enough to go back and read “Three Days Dead.”

Brian, at the time the original came out, you were best known for crime stories, but you seem to have a lot of fun drawing the monsters and demons here.

Hurtt: When I got into comics, I never dreamed I was going to be drawing crime stories and spy stories because that wasn’t what interested me as an artist. I was more interested in drawing fantastic stuff, but as I got in and started drawing books like “Queen and Country” and “Hard Time” and “Skinwalkers,” I really got into that world, and it made me a better artist in general. With “The Damned” I wanted people familiar with my work to see something that was in the same realm, but push it a little further. But, yeah — I love drawing creatures and monsters and drawing monsters in suits. [Laughs] I think it goes back to Richard Scarry. When I was a kid, I loved cats in lederhosen, and I loved putting animals and monsters in clothing. It’s just fun!

I did not think of Richard Scarry while reading “The Damned.”

Bunn: I can’t un-see that now.

Brian [Laughs] “The Damned” was much more representative of the sort of stuff you would see in my sketchbooks at the time. It felt more me than the work I had done prior. Everything I’ve done with Cullen has come from a place of wanting to do something that’s fun. When anyone is enjoying the work they’re doing, I think you can see it in the work. I think “The Damned” and “The Sixth Gun” are my best work, and it’s because I’m having the most fun working on those books.

Have you always had an ending in mind for “The Damned?”

Bunn: Brian and I have talked about where “The Damned” would end since we were originally working on it. With “The Damned,” we have an ending in mind and we know how the story ends, but the climax of the story is not quite as clear as it was with “The Sixth Gun.” On the other hand, I think some of the beats along the way getting to that end point for “The Damned” are a little more clear because Brian and I have been talking about them for so long.

Hurtt: The end is a little vague, even to us, but there are a lot of signposts along the way that we’ve talked through quite a bit over the past ten years.

Bunn: I don’t think there had ever been a time when we weren’t still discussing “The Damned.” When we were working on “The Sixth Gun” and there was no sign of returning to “The Damned” in the immediate future, we were still discussing what we’d do with it. We have a thematic ending in mind, but at this moment I couldn’t sit down and tell you, this is what happens in our final issue. But I can tell you where and on what note “The Damned” will end on.

Is there anything that you’re really excited about in the ongoing?

Bunn: I’m excited about the introduction of some characters. I’m excited about what we have planned for Eddie’s brother, Morgan, his relationship with Eddie, their relationship, and their family’s relationship with these demon families. I’m excited to get into the meat of that history that we’ve had in mind for so long and to tell those stories.

Hurtt: It was frustrating for Cullen and I in that we set the table, we did a book “Three Days Dead,” that I think still holds up. We’re very proud of it and we were so excited to get rolling in this world — and then we got stopped short. Now we have all these stories that we can’t wait to get to. We’re going to see more of the mythology of these different families, more of the city and other neighborhoods and other players in the city. We have an idea for a big flashback story arc at some point that I’m most excited about right now — probably because we’ve been talking about it for the past ten years. There’s lot of things coming own the pike I’m pumped about.

That’s interesting, because family and how it plays out over many generations is such a big theme in mobster stories.

Bunn: It’s a huge theme in mobster stories and it’s also a pretty big theme in demonic stories. I don’t think that we set out thinking that would be a connective tissue when we started, but it became evident as we went along.

Hurtt: It became apparent to both of us at a certain point, thinking about future stories, that the whole book is literally about blood. The shared blood between families and what that means. If there’s a theme – at this moment, at least, it could change as the book takes on its own life – that’s where things are going.

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