You may not have heard of wrestler Bunyan Paulson before — he doesn’t appear on Monday Night Raw, he doesn’t have catchy theme music or fireworks as he walks down the ramp, and he’s never had a confrontation with Vince McMahon. What he does do, however, is wrestle bears — big, bad ass, scary, championship-holding bears.
Bunyon is the star of a webcomic called Yon Kuma, which was created by Josh Hechinger and Jorge F. Muñoz. “The name’s a pun on ‘yonkoma,’ those four-panel Japanese joke strips, and ‘kuma,’ which means bear,” Hechinger said. “Basically, this kid, Bunyan Paulson, spends four 22-page chapters wrestling the Yon Kuma, the four great bears who are the regional champs of human/bear wrestling.”
I spoke with both Hechinger and Muñoz about the popular webcomic, its move to mobile devices and what comes next for the pair.
JK: How did you guys meet, and where did the idea for the strip come from?
Josh: I posted on Panel and Pixel looking for an artist, and Jorge basically had me audition for him. Somehow, my bear-wrestling comic beat out his other offers.
More than anything, this comic came from me wanting to do something FAST in comics. Garage rock, three-chord-punk fast. It was also me trying to get a handle on what I call my “Yankee shonen” style of comics; i.e. I’m a suburban white boy who grew up reading Dragon Ball Z, and it’s permanently warped the comic-making parts of my brain.
The secret influence on it would be things like the old Fist of the North Star movie, or the Rurouni Kenshin/Samurai X OAVs. Cartoons where they condense arcs and arcs of story down to two hours or a handful of episodes. The way I approached the comic was, “Okay, pretend there was this long-running kid vs. bear series in Japan, and I’m condensing it down to a four episode OAV.”
Like I said, my brain’s a little warped.
Jorge: Like Josh says, Panel And Pixel. I got offered lots of projects, even some with a little payment involved. Most of those projects were heavily influenced by Hellboy/Buffy/Vampires, but I got intrigued by this bear-wrestling idea Josh had. It sounded too different from the rest; it sounded like a lot of fun, so I said yes to Yon Kuma.
JK: Have you guys done other work in comics?
Josh: I wrote five pages in the award-winning/eye-dazzling/teeth-whitening Comic Book Tattoo, and I was just in the Zuda competition for December ’09. Archaia’s going to be publishing my first OGN, The Grave Doug Freshley; that’s drawn by mpMann, who is and was fantastic to work with, as well as being the perfect guy for a supernatural Western buddy comedy.
Jorge: I’ve done anthology work here in Mexico, but nothing too big. The only thing I’ve had published in the U.S. market is a pinup that appeared in Wasteland 19. Also I’ve done too many failed five-page pitches to count. I mostly do freelance illustration for a living.
JK: Josh, you mentioned in an earlier email to me that this is a story that might have “died horribly” in the direct market, but was able to thrive online. Can you expand on what you mean by that a little more?
Josh: Well …it’s an 88-page comic, from two unknowns, colored only in shades of red, about a kid beating up bears with a heavily Japanese-influenced vibe. This wasn’t intentional, but it really is like a laundry list of things the DM apparently hates.
Put another way: if we’d come out in pamphlet form, I think maybe five people would’ve read the thing, and four of those would’ve been people we know.
Whereas as a webcomic, we were linked to by Warren Ellis and Steven Grant, picked up for mobile comics publishing without having to lift a finger, and got into an exhibition by the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
JK: How successful has the strip been for you guys?
Josh: Money wise? Not very, although we think that has to do with the title (my fault: it’s an elaborate bilingual pun, which is cute, but not smart) and the amount of comics we’ve been offering per “issue.”
Speaking of: this is as good a time as any to mention that we’re changing the series’ title to Bear Beater Bunyan, and where 99 cents would’ve previously gotten you half a chapter and a couple screens of backmatter, the new Bear Beater Bunyan mobile issues will be the full 22 pages of each chapter sliced up for your phone, plus the backmatter.
(This is another “Yay, digital comics” thing: we’re able to make major changes to the form of the comic without having to pulp a print run, take retailer returns, figure out what we’re doing with all those Yon Kuma hats we had hand-stitched for the con circuit, etc.)
So, money-wise, not amazing, but we live in hope. Exposure wise? Super effective. Hey, I wrote a punky little comic about bear wrestling on the internet, and now I’m being interviewed by a major comics news site, y’know? Jorge and I have both been really, really floored by the response to the comic.
And, I dunno, artistically? It’s been really satisfying; I set out to do a speedy, fun comic, and Jorge did the work of heroes on the art. I’d say a good 90 percent of the comic’s success and charm comes from the dynamic inky raw power he puts on every page.
Jorge: Exposure wise it has been amazing, Money wise, well, I would’ve made more money by picking up cans and selling them. Art wise, a true challenge, I think my artwork grew dramatically from the first issue to the last.
JK: How did you guys hook up with Robot Comics? How has it been working with them?
Josh: Well, Warren Ellis linked to the comic, and either later that day, or the next, Robot Comics asked if we wanted to do a mobile edition. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between the two events, but there you go.
Robot have been absolutely great to work with; when we got the news that we weren’t really lighting iTunes on fire, sales-wise, they were nothing but helpful in trying to figure out what we could do to fix that.
Like, they never blamed the comic or us, they just tried to figure out what wasn’t working in the presentation to that wide audience and suggested ways we could make it work. Changing the title was something I actually pushed; they identified it as something that was possibly confusing readers, and I decided the pun had outlived what cleverness it had.
In all other things, production questions, design help, so on and so forth, they’ve been amazing. I’ve been recommending them to anyone who’s looking to put their comic out there on phones.
Jorge: I firmly believe it’s because of the mighty internet powers of Warren Ellis, after he linked to us we had more traffic in a couple of days than all the previous months combined.
JK; Are there plans to eventually collect it into print?
Josh: I don’t have any, although I know Jorge would like to see one on the shelves. I’m not anti-print, but it’s not something I’m chasing after on this project.
Jorge: I would love to see a digest sized collection, filled with extras but as Josh mentions it, we are not chasing it right now.
JK: Do you guys have any plans to work together in the future, now that the comic has wrapped up? And do either of you have any other comics projects in the pipeline?
Josh: We’ve been talking about doing something called R+M, which started as me saying “what if we did Batman/Superman, but with Astro Boy and Devilman?” and is evolving into something that’s A) going to be really cool and B) not going to get us sued back to the Stone Age.
On the pure wishful thinking level: there’s one specific Marvel character we’d love to take a crack at together. It’s not classy to say who, but hint: the character was created by Jack Kirby.
Jorge is a pleasure to work with, and as an artist, he makes my Yankee shonen comics actually look like something worth reading. I’m always happy to do more work with the guy.
Otherwise: I wrote an OGN for Lea Hernandez called The Moon Is Mine, and I’m super pumped about that project. I’m re-writing a script for mpMann that’s a short historical fiction piece. John Bivens and I are still working out what we’re doing with The House Always Wins post-Zuda. There’s one more pretty big Yon Ku—er, Bear Beater Bunyan announcement coming, but I don’t know when that’s cool to talk about.
Jorge: Besides R+M, I have a couple of shorts I need to finish with Josh. I’m also working on a submission for a contest with the übertalented Ryan Burton and the übertalented Felipe Sobreiro, with whom i’ve worked in the past in a short story, Oloshino, currently available at Top Shelf 2.0
And my personal projects of course.
JK: Is Bunyon’s story completely wrapped, or do you imagine someday revisiting the characters?
Jorge: I would love to revisit the characters in the future, but hopefully after I have some other projects under my belt.
Josh: I consider it wrapped, but if people started really clamoring for a sequel, I’d be down for seeing what Richaud’s career was like.
It’d be like Kinnikuman with bears, I imagine.