Cullen Bunn Talks ‘Helheim’: ‘There’s No End To What You Can Do With A Viking Frankenstein’
Last week saw the release of Cullen Bunn, Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi’s Helheim #1 from Oni Press, and with it came a whole slew of supernatural Viking action. It’s a great book, full of murderous skeletons, the darkest witchcraft, and, most importantly, a Viking Frankenstein. It’s exactly the kind of high concept comic I love.
For Bunn, who’s riding high on the critically acclaimed The Sixth Gun with Brian Hurtt and work for Marvel relaunching Defenders, Helheim represents a new creator-owned title that hits the same notes of historical horror that has made his other work so successful. I spoke to him about the similarities of his books, the challenge of doing something with a defined ending, and why Joëlle Jones referred to it as a comic by a thirteen-year-old, in a good way.ComicsAlliance: Stop me if I’ve got this wrong, but Helheim is the story of six magical battle-axes…
Cullen Bunn: That is exactly right. That’s exactly how I pitched it.
CA: [Laughs] Before we get into the specifics, I am curious about how much of Helheim was motivated by you wanting to do a followup to Sixth Gun.
CB: That was not something that ever really entered my mind when I was initially coming up with the idea. That said, I think all of my ideas come from the same wellspring, so I can definitely see how someone might think that this had its origins in planning some Sixth Gun storyline. And if I’m being honest, it might have, I just don’t remember it.
The Sixth Gun initially came from an idea I was working on for The Damned, so it’s likely that something I was working on for The Sixth Gun triggered something else, some other reptile brain memory that caused me to think about Helheim.
CA: Full disclosure: You and I have both worked with Helheim editor Charlie Chu at Oni Press, and part of me wondered how much of this book coming out now was based on him being after you for your next pitch now that Sixth Gun has become so successful.
CB: Let’s face it: I’m quick to sell out if I can. [Laughs] But Helheim was something that I was working on and thinking of years ago, before any of the buzz on Sixth Gun really started. It didn’t come from Charlie emailing me and saying “let’s try to replicate the Sixth Gun,” as much as him contacting me and asking if I had any other books I wanted to work on with Oni. I pitched two books, thinking that they would accept one, and Helheim was one of them. There’s another one that I pitched that they accepted as well, it just hasn’t been announced yet.
It was a situation where Charlie wanted to work on some other books, and I think he knew the types of books I’d pitch to him when I pitched a project, but I don’t think he was looking at me to try to do a Sixth-Gun-With-Vikings story.
CA: That brings us to the specifics of Helheim, which does not actually have six magic battle-axes. The basic premise of the story is set up in that first issue from last week, but how do you describe the plot? Is everything in that first issue?
CB: To some degree. I pitched the story as a Viking-era Frankenstein tale. Its roots are probably in my love of stories like Beowulf, or if I go more pop culture, my love of The 13th Warrior, something like that. But I knew I wanted to tell a gothic horror story with Vikings.
The first issue sets all that up, but I also didn’t want readers to really know where I was going with it. In the first issue, spoiler alert, our hero dies halfway through the story. I wanted to take people aback when that happened, and that’s hopefully not the only twist that people will see as the series progresses.
CA: One of the things I noticed in those first issues is that you do jump right in without explaining anything. The Draugr are just there, like “There’s monsters, there’s maybe a witch behind them.”
CB: I kind of hate over-explanation in comics. I think it’s, to some degree, insulting to the reader, so yeah. I didn’t go throw out the term “Draugr” and then spend several pages explaining it. I figure if someone calls something a Draugr, people can figure out that it’s a monster or some sort of mythic creature, and if they want to know more there’s plenty of information out there about those mythic creatures. I didn’t want this to be a book where I spent a lot of time trying to over-explain things, or spend a lot of time with exposition, as you noticed.
CA: It’s a style I really gravitate towards. The story quite literally opens up running; people are actually running from monsters on the first page.
CB: I come from the school of thought where, if you don’t spend a lot of time explaining it, if you just say there are Draugr and there are witches and that’s just an accepted thing in this comic, my thinking is that puts the reader there and makes it feel a little more real. There may be a little more confusion about what the terms mean, but the fact that they’re being used almost matter-of-factly, stories like that always fuel my imagination and make it seem real.
Now, if the story were to progress for years and years, it would naturally have to have a little more explanation, but not in these early stages. Not to my way off thinking.
CA: Do you have a plan for Helheim to go for years? Not to jinx it, because this is still early in the book, but you clearly had a plan for Sixth Gun that went for years. Is it the same way here?
CB: Not to the degree that I do with Sixth Gun. I knew that was going to run for several years to tell a much bigger story. Helheim, as it stands, is going to be at least a six-issue story that will tell Rikard’s tale in such a way that wraps it up in a relatively neat package.
However, I do have other stories that I have in mind and that I would like to tell in that world. Whenever I start coming up with these creator-owned concepts, there’s always a little bit of world-building there, and that gets me thinking long-term and thinking about what’s the next story featuring these characters. I’d love to have the opportunity to continue that story, but I don’t think that the story of Helheim is going to run for like sixty issues. Even if I expanded it beyond the initial arc, it would still be a much shorter story.
CA: I’ve read a little bit ahead, but that first issue feels like a Tomb of Dracula or Monster of Frankenstein, those ’70s Marvel horror adventures where you get this very quick establishing story that sets up Rikard as someone who could have all kinds of adventures. By the third issue, though, there’s a twist where this guy very clearly has his story. Is that the plan, to just see him through a complete story?
CB: Yes. If Helheim doesn’t go beyond the initial six issue story arc, I believe readers will feel satisfied with Rikard’s story, where it goes, and how it all nets out. He will have a complete story arc and will have gone through his journey by the end of the sixth issue.
CA: Was that daunting for you?
CA: Did you approach it with the idea that there’s only so much you can do with a Viking Frankenstein?
CB: I think that there’s no end to what you can do with a Viking Frankenstein, but it was a little daunting. Originally, Helheim was going to be five issues, and I wrote it as a five issue story. My editor, Charlie, came back and asked if I was satisfied with how I wrapped it up, and I said “not really. I feel like I rushed the last chapter.” Oni agreed to expand it to a six-issue story, and I felt much better about where it ended, and I was able to spend more time with the characters and do what I wanted to do with them.
It was a little bit of pressure, but it was nice thinking of it in terms of six issues, because I could at least then wrap it up. If I had been thinking of it without that six-issue cap on it, the story could’ve started meandering in that first arc, and I didn’t want that to happen.
CA: It seems like the past decade has seen a big upswing in Viking-related content.
CB: They were all just trying to get ahead of the Helheim curve.
CA: There’s Northlanders, Viking from Image, everybody suddenly loved Thor again, who’s the pinnacle of Vikings in comics…
CB: He WAS the pinnacle of Vikings in comics. Now, we all know that Helheim is the pinnacle Viking comic.
I think Vikings have always been popular, haven’t they? I remember being a kid, and being in second grade reading a book about this Viking warrior. I just think that there’s a fascination with them, and everybody likes the badass warriors that they represent.
I think you’re seeing more of them in comics over the past several years, but they’ve always been around in comics. What was it, the Viking Prince? Come on.
CA: So you consider Helheim to be a modern update of the Viking Prince.
CB: I did not say that. Is this “gotcha” journalism? I think Helheim is everything the Viking Prince wishes it could’ve been.
CA: That’s a good quote. Put that on the paperback, attributed to you.
CB: I’m going to blurb my own book. But no, I think there are many writers out there who probably have a Viking story in their heart, and I was lucky enough to tell the one that I had in my heart.
CA: So it’s a very personal story of decapitations and sewn-up heads.
CB: Joëlle Jones almost had a nervous breakdown over the fourth issue. I remember her saying that the fourth issue was like a 13-year-old’s viking fantasies. There was so much insanity and so many monsters that I was asking her to draw in that issue that she thought 13-year-old Cullen wrote that story.
What she did not realize is that everything I write is basically from the point of view of 13-year-old Cullen.
CA: [Laughs] Has she read any of your comics? Like the one with the magic cowboys?
CB: She’s obviously not familiar with any of my work. As you were talking about it earlier, it dawned on me that Helheim probably has more in common with The Tooth, the book I did with Shawn Lee and Matt Kindt, than it does with Sixth Gun. When I think back, I think it came into my mind when I was thinking of The Tooth.
CA: The art in this book is beautiful. Nick Filardi’s colors are beautiful, which is important in a Viking book, because all the blood has to look good.
CB: A lot of people originally saw it in black and white, and Joëlle’s work by itself is amazing and awesome, but then when Nick came onto the scene and added his colors to it, I think it made the book pop in such a perfect way. I couldn’t be happier with how that book looks. I’ve been extremely lucky in my career, in terms of artists and colorists I’ve been able to work with, and I think Helheim is a perfect example of that look playing out perfectly.
CA: Was the team put together by Oni, or did you want to work with her on this when you were pitching it?
CB: I pitched Helheim without an artist attached to it. I was familiar with Joëlle, I knew her and her work, but when the guys at Oni came to me and suggested her, I wasn’t sure. I was a little bit hesitant, because the types of books that I knew her from were nothing like Helheim. She was doing romance type titles or noir stories about pretty people, and while I loved her work, I couldn’t wrap my head around her doing this really gory Viking story with demons and witches and undead creatures.
But they brought her name up, and I met with her a couple years ago during Comic-Con, and as soon as we sat down and started talking about it, I could tell that we were on the same wavelength. I started talking about Molly Hatchet album covers and Robert E. Howard novels, and we just clicked in terms of the story. I could tell instantly that Joëlle was not afraid of the levels of violence and horror and weirdness in this book. In fact, I think she was really excited to work on a book like that.
Within the next week or so, she sent in some character designs of the main cast, and from then on, I couldn’t picture anyone else drawing the book. It was a really pleasant surprise, and I believe this is some of her best work. You can tell she’s having a lot of fun with it, and I like that it’s something people wouldn’t expect from her.
CA: I don’t want you to spoil it, but what was it in #4 that almost gave her a nervous breakdown?
CB: It’s funny. When I did the first draft, I put a note at the top of the script that said “Joëlle, you can breathe easy, this script isn’t very action heavy and will be a nice breather for you.” About three fourths of the way through the script, I scrapped that and turned it on its head.
Basically, the fourth issue will follow two armies that clash, and one of the armies is extremely inhuman. Extremely inhuman.