Robot Sixth Gun | An interview with Cullen Bunn

One of the standout offerings from Free Comic Book Day was undoubtedly the debut issue of The Sixth Gun, a new supernatural Western from Oni Press that reteams The Damned collaborators Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt.

Set in the American West in the aftermath of the Civil War, The Sixth Gun centers on the pursuit of a pistol that possesses a dark and otherworldly power. The first issue will be re-released on July 14, the same day that Issue 2 arrives in stores.

In anticipation of that second issue, Robot 6 is featuring a series of posts dedicated to the new monthly series (we like to call them "Robot Sixth Gun"). You've likely already devoured the first issue, and gotten a glimpse of what the book's creators are reading.

Today we talk to writer Cullen Bunn about the importance of setting the story in the Old West, the role of the supernatural, what we can expect from the second arc, and more.

For anyone who might've missed the Free Comic Book Day issue -- and who, for some reason, still hasn't read it online -- what's your sales pitch for The Sixth Gun?

My pitch would go something like this:

You like awesome, don’t you? Okay, just kidding. I sometimes wish I could channel my inner carnival barker, but today’s not the day. Let’s try again.

The Sixth Gun is a story about six magic pistols, each with a terrible gift. The most powerful of the guns falls into the hands of an innocent young woman, and the only person standing between her and the forces of evil is a gunslinger with questionable motives. Together, they travel across a mythical Old West, all the while pursued by an undead fiend and his hideous minions.

And let’s face it, if you’re not sure if you’ll like the book, there’s an easy way to find out. Oni Press has posted the entire first issue online for free. You can read it here. And, really, you like awesome, don’t you?

That FCBD book was a massive vote of confidence from Oni Press that seems to have paid off for the series, at least in terms of buzz. Were you surprised by the response to the book, both from the publisher and from readers and retailers?

I was really pleased with the reaction, and I was thankful that we could get the book out to so many people. Readers can be really selective about the books they’ll pick up for the first time, and one of the tough things about a western is that it comes packaged with a lot of preconceived notions. So, you could have someone who sees the book on the shelf, but won’t give it a second thought because they “don’t like cowboys.” But I had a feeling that if readers gave The Sixth Gun a chance, they’d like it. I really think it’s got something for everyone. I was excited to hear some people saying, “This isn’t the type of book I’d normally read, but I’ll definitely be following it now!” Score!

You've said your initial idea for The Sixth Gun took place in modern-day New York, but that you couldn't get the concept to click until you changed settings. Can you pinpoint what it is about the Old West that made everything fall into place?

I’m not sure if there was any one thing that made the setting work for me. I think it was a catalyst that just helped things fall into place. As soon as I decided upon the Old West, the idea for Drake Sinclair popped into my head, quickly followed by Missy Hume and General Oliander Bedford Hume. Everything just took off from there. I love a good weird Western, and I was able to channel my enthusiasm for the genre into this story. Westerns, like fantasy stories, offer countless possibilities for great set pieces and characters and action, so there’s a lot of storytelling potential.

In the opening pages you do a nice job of establishing that there's a wondrous and terrible world beyond the quest for the Sixth Gun, with allusions to the Razing of Devil's Forks, the Fool's Lantern, the shaman Screaming Crow -- or at least what's being billed as his shrunken head -- and more. Are these things simply part of world-building, or is there a chance we may see more of them as the series continues?

World-building is one of the most fun parts of this book. Right off to bat, I wanted to show the reader that The Sixth Gun takes place in the mythical Old West. Mentioning a few unique places, people, and objects was my way of showing that without saying, “Once upon a time …” You’ll definitely see more of that kind of thing in the first story arc. However, we’re going to be focused on the magical guns — the Six — throughout the first story.

That said, once I gave names to Screaming Crow and the Fool’s Lantern and Asher Cobb, I started thinking of stories about those characters and objects. So, yes, at some point they’ll probably reappear in some fashion.

I’m also working on a guide to The Sixth Gun, sort of an “Official Handbook,” if for no other reason then to help me keep all these different people, places, events, and items straight in my head.

Fantasy writers often have to grapple with the rules, and costs, of magic within the context of the story. Is that something you've worked out for The Sixth Gun, or do you approach it more instinctively? Do you already have a clear-cut idea of what supernatural elements exist in this world and what don't (say, mummies but not vampires)?

The most important thing for me is that the supernatural elements in The Sixth Gun feel “right” in the Old West. It sounds crazy, especially in a story with undead generals and magical guns, but there’s a certain degree of keeping things “grounded” that I strive for if I want to make the story somewhat believable. So, you probably won’t see a giant stomping around with his head in the clouds or anything like that. That’s not to say we don’t have our monsters, but when they show up (in issues 3 and 4) they will fit seamlessly into the Old West.

The story has gone through a lot of changes since I first started kicking the idea around. First, there was only one magical gun. Then, there were six guns which were the only supernatural elements of the story. Then, I just opened the floodgates by changing the setting to a fantasy world. I think stepping into the magic of the world slowly helped me develop some of the rules of magic for the world.

As for other supernatural elements, you’ll definitely see more as the story progresses. I made a list of fantasy elements I’d like to write about (there are a lot of them) and I’ve started thinking about how to make them work in The Sixth Gun.

My favorite image, and probably my favorite scene, from the first issue is the Gallows Tree. The creaking branches building up to the shot of the oracular spirits of dozens of hanged men dangling from the tree is beautiful and disturbing. Can you recall what inspired the Gallows Tree?

The Gallows Tree has been rattling around in my head for more than 30 years. It has appeared, in various incarnations, in a number of my short stories. In general, haunted trees frequently appear in my work, and I know exactly where that comes from.

When I was a kid, my friends and I spent a lot of time exploring the woods around my house. In the center of the forest was this massive, gnarled tree we all called “the Big Tree.” It became something of a landmark and a base of operations for us. We always met at the Big Tree when we set off on one of our adventures. I’m not sure how it got there, but there was a large, rusty plow blade embedded up high in the trunk of the tree, almost like it had been sitting in the ground and the tree grew up around it. That gave the tree this magical quality for us. It seemed to set it apart from the “real world.”

Pretty soon, we started making up ghost stories about the tree, and we all told tall tales about seeing a mysterious green light floating around the tree. Sure, we never saw the light when we were together, but if one of us was on our own, we almost always came back with a story of a harrowing encounter with this strange specter. To this day, not one of us has ever admitted to making those encounters up.

Anyway, that’s where my love of spooky trees comes from.

What are you able to tell us about Drake Sinclair that won't spoil what's to come? He's obviously no stranger to the supernatural, and if the spirits are to be believed, he possesses a "heart as black as chimney soot" and as "rotten as witch's milk." Sinclair himself teases that while he isn't the Devil, he "does his business from time to time." So, he's not exactly wearing a white hat.

Drake will divide people a little, I think, but he definitely doesn’t deserve to wear a white hat. I don’t think I’m ruining anything when I tell you that in his first incarnation, Drake was the villain of the piece. He was downright evil. The “new” version of Drake is definitely rooted in that original characterization. Still, I don’t see him as a bad guy as much as an anti-hero. Others, including some of the folks at Oni, have a different opinion about him. I’m going to explore his nature quite a bit throughout the series, and I’ll be interested in how the readers describe him.

In the prose pieces I’m working on, I’ve decided to explore Drake’s adventures between the Civil War and the beginning of the first issue of the comic. You’ll see a little more of his treasure-hunting side in those stories, and he’ll certainly be facing some supernatural menaces. The first of the stories, “Them What Ails Ya,” was posted on Oni’s site. I’m working on the second story, “Mama Raptor,” right now, and I’ve got a third, “Darker Than Witch’s Blood,” on the way. I’m not sure just yet how those will be made available.

Aside from Becky Montcrief, who comes into possession of the Sixth Gun by accident, the first issue is populated largely by sinister figures, from the Widow Hume and her Pinkerton agents to the wild-eyed General Hume and his gang. What more can you reveal about the story's heavies?

You know how there are some villains you can almost sympathize with? Well, not these guys. I really wanted this group of bad guys to be really mean and cruel. They’re a nasty bunch. You can measure the hero by the villains they face. I wanted Drake and Becky to square off against some really tough opposition, just so you know they can handle themselves.

The General is our big bad. He’s a ranting maniac, yes, but he’s also extremely powerful. He’s the wizard of the first arc. He’s been trapped by the man who “killed” him, and he’s weakened in the beginning. He steadily grows stronger as the story progresses.

His minions include Silas “Bitter Ridge” Hedgepeth, “Bloodthirsty” Bill Sumter, “Filthy” Ben Kinney, and Will Arcene. They make their first appearance in the final scene of issue 1. They’re dangerous in their own right, but each of them possesses one of the Six. You get to see a glimpse of what Bill Sumter, Ben Kinney, and Silas Hedgepeth’s guns can do in the very first issue (although some of the powers are more clearly illustrated than others). By issue 3, you’ll know exactly what the six-shooters can do. The guns, though, come with a pretty heavy price, and they have “changed” those who wield them in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

That brings us to Missy. She’s near and dear to my heart, because she is just so damned awful. She’s a driving force of the series, and her vileness is something of a slow burn. Once it reveals itself in all its glory, readers will be booing and hissing. She’s the proud owner of one of the magic guns, too, and it makes her very dangerous.

I understand you've already begun work on the second arc. Is there any chance you'll give us a glimpse of what we can look forward to?

I’m sworn to secrecy! All I say is that the second arc takes place a few weeks after the close of Issue 6, and some of the characters may be having a hard time dealing with the fall-out from the first arc.

There’s a panel in the sixth issue that is sort of a teaser of “things to come.” When Brian read that, he called me up and said, “Well, you certainly put a stake in the ground for the second arc, didn’t you?” And that’s exactly what I did! I had these cool ideas that I wanted to make sure were staged and ready to go.

I think the second arc will be a refreshing change of pace after the first six issues. It’s a different type of story. Brian and I did the same thing with The Damned. The first story was a noir mystery, while the second arc was more of a pulp adventure. Changing things up keeps the book interesting. I like to play around with expectations a bit.

Beyond the second arc … Well, we have a lot of awesome stuff planned. We’ve pretty much figured out where we’d like to go with the entire series, and I think it’ll be one helluva ride.

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