Talking Comics with Tim: Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt

Tomorrow, writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt's holiday prose/sequential art tale, The Sixth Gun Short Story, Them What Ails Ya: A Christmas Yarn, reaches its final installment at the Oni Press blog. As described when initially announced: "A  tale of medicine shows, magic tonics, outlaws, cannibals, and bona fide Christmas miracles  will run every Tuesday beginning December 1st and ending December 22nd on the Oni Press blog. Each segment will  feature another chapter of Cullen Bunn’s prose short accompanied by a Brian Hurtt illustration and an original comic-strip will bookend the story." My thanks to Bunn and Hurtt for their time.

Tim O'Shea: In what ways has your collaborative style evolved--comparing your present day work with the experience of creating The Damned?

Cullen Bunn: Over the years, I think Brian and I have gotten more comfortable working with other. We really have a good feel for how we work best. We've thrown ideas for collaborations around for years, but I don't think we realized how often we were "on the same page" until we started working on The Damned and The Sixth Gun. I can't tell you how many times one of us has come up with a "brilliant idea" only to learn that the other had a similar or complementary thought. We've also gotten a lot more comfortable letting each other know when we're traveling down the wrong path. With the Sixth Gun, we spent a lot more time at a white board, thumbnailing, outlining, and even scripting certain scenes. It's a different approach for both of us, but it has been successful. We'll probably do more of this with future projects.

Brian Hurtt: Hey--that's exactly what I was going to say! I've always known that Cullen and I were interested in the same things, the same kinds of stories, genres, etc., but it wasn't until we started working together that I realized what a good team we make. A good deal of this just comes from the simple fact that Cullen is a great, and patient, collaborator. And like Cullen had mentioned, it still amazes me at how often we are on the same page--we almost finish each others sentences, in a creative sense. I've come to appreciate the dynamic we have more and more as I talk to other people who have tried collaborating on projects with friends or other professionals. We've never even come close to a heated exchange because we both know when to bend and for the most part we are so close in our storytelling sensibilities. I look forward to years and years of collaborating with Cullen.

Bunn: Forget it. I'm gonna be too big to work with you soon enough.

O'Shea: One doesn't normally think western pulp and Christmas-time as being compatible themes--who initially proposed doing such a tale?

Hurtt: I know that Cullen and I had discussed doing Sixth Gun prose stories as far back as a year ago. We had intended to do stories,and possibly even publish some, in the old Dime Novel tradition. But, if I'm not mistaken, I think it may have been James Lucas Jones (Oni's Editor-in-Chief) who suggested doing a serialized story on the Oni blog for Christmas.

Bunn: Brian's memory serves him correctly. James caught wind that we wanted to do some illustrated prose stories, and he immediately suggested we try a Christmas tale. I'm not sure how he made the connection, but my guess is one of his favorite holiday memories involves finding some six-shooter cap guns and a felt cowboy hat under the tree one year. In either case, as soon as he mentioned a Christmas theme, the plot for "Them What Ails Ya" jumped into my head.

O'Shea: In terms of the art, what influenced the decision to leave some of the art black and white and some of it color?

Hurtt: The choice to do black and white illustrations for the story was inspired by the woodcut illustrations prominent in publications (like Dime novels) of the 19th century. I wanted to do something in the style of art to help get across the sense of the period.

The color comic strips that bookend the short story were done in response to the black and white drawings. I stepped back and realized that this short story would be the first encounter that most people would have with the world of the Sixth Gun and I didn't want them to come away from it thinking that it would be a black and white comic. And given that even the style of drawing in the illustrations is different than the comic it was decided to give people a little preview of what the actual comic would look like.

O'Shea: When the print series launches in 2010, will there be any prose pieces running as a back-up feature?

Hurtt: We haven't discussed doing that at this point--for one thing, Cullen and I keep running over our allotted page count so I don't think we'd even have room. I can say, pretty confidently, that any prose pieces we do will eventually be reprinted in the collected edition.

Bunn: There are hundreds of Sixth Gun stories waiting to be told--more than Brian would ever be able to draw as a comic. I'm definitely interested in exploring other characters, other locales, and even other time periods and events in the Sixth Gun universe, and I've always envisioned using prose to get those stories out there.

O'Shea: Given that the Sixth Gun concept is historically framed during the Civil War, who ends up doing the most amount of research for accuracy?

Hurtt: Accuracy? Um...

Actually, a bulk of the series takes place an unspecified number of years after the war--we have something of a date in our head but we are being purposefully vague about it. I can't speak for Cullen but I know that I have done a lot of visual research, especially at the outset of the project. Still, it's never enough--you can end up getting lost in the research and at some point you just need to stop and start drawing the book. I remember years and years ago that Cullen and I were working on putting together a comic that took place in the Victorian era. In doing visual research I ended up getting so buried and overwhelmed that I felt I just couldn't do the book!

Bunn: We share the burden of research, although I'm happy I don't have to spend time drawing historically accurate handguns! Even though we want to be as accurate as possible, I think it's important for a book like this that historic exactness doesn't come at the cost of a sense of fun and adventure. In the end, this is the Old West That Never Was. It's a fantasy world in which all the dime novels, all the larger than life yarns, only scratch the surface of what's really going on. Of course we don't want to make any glaring errors, but it is much more important to me that the book have the right feel--high adventure, supernatural thrills, action.

O'Shea: What ideas or storytelling elements were you two able to attempt in this Christmas tale that you know you will not have time or narrative space to pursue in the ongoing series?

Bunn: Probably the most obvious thing is that this story takes place years before the events of The Sixth Gun, sometime between the end of the war and the first issue of the comic. In addition, the main character in this piece does not appear in (at least) the first story arc of the comic. I think that's what I really enjoy about the prose stories (and that's why I'll be doing more). They really allow me to look into what else is going on in the world.

O'Shea: What should folks know about the Sixth Gun and its characters/universe that will make them even more enthused about the project?

Bunn: There are a couple of things I think someone considering picking up the book should know. First of all, I want them to realize just how much story they're getting. Sure, there's the main storyline, but there's a wealth of history and backstory on every page as well.

We wanted this book to stand apart from other western books in a lot of ways. The characters, the settings, and the action all "fit" in the genre, but they're bolder, more colorful, and (we believe) more interesting than your average Old West tale. As I said, part of the idea is that, rather than being exaggerations of the truth, the tall tales and dime novels of the era really downplay the incredible adventures that are really taking place.

Also, we went to great lengths to make sure this book had a different look and feel than The Damned, and there's a big pay-off. I have no idea how Brian pulled off some of the pages I scripted--big, complicated, action-packed, detailed pages. Just making those pages work would have been an amazing feat, but he managed to conjure up some of his best work at the same time. I know, I know. Every writer says "the artist did his best work with this book." But usually they're just trying to sell you something, friends, like a snake oil huckster bellowing about his wares. But not me! No, sir! I'm trying to do you a gen-u-ine favor by pointing you to some of the most breathtaking Wild West art you're likely to see!

Okay. Sorry about falling into my medicine show pitch. I just get carried away sometimes.

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