‘The Sixth Gun’: The Supernatural Western That’s Turning Cullen Bunn Into A Superstar
Cullen Bunn is a name you should be getting to know. Over the last few months, the writer has been one of Marvel’s fastest-rising stars, penning books like the rambunctious Captain America and… team-up book, a memorable arc on Wolverine, co-writing and then taking over Venom, co-writing the last few issues of Captain America with outgoing Marvel icon Ed Brubaker, and just ending the world with the hilarious and psychotic Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. In short, if you’re not familiar with Bunn’s work, you soon will be. If you’re already digging his stuff then you should be aware: his best book is not with Marvel Comics.
The Sixth Gun, illustrated by Brian Hurtt and colored by Bill Crabtee, is owned by Bunn and Hurtt and published by Oni Press. And it’s the weirdest, wildest, best damn Western to come along in ages. Really, it’s anything but a pure Western. The weird, Joe R. Lansdale-influenced elements of horror and adventure make Questern feel like the more appropriate term. But blending traditional elements of the Western with the supernatural, weird pop fiction, and high adventure, The Sixth Gun is a comic book that satisfies on several levels. It’s as if the Stranger from High Plains Drifter met Indiana Jones on the road to the mythical city of El Dorado. Wrought with tension and taut with otherworldly suspense, it delivers heaps of riotous action and pure, undiluted fun.
Set just a few years after the conclusion of The Civil War, The Sixth Gun is the story of six mysterious pistols with otherworldly powers, and a race towards the end of the world. The first gun strikes with the force of a cannon; the second spreads the fires of perdition; the third kills with a flesh-rotting pestilence; the fourth can call up the spirit of any man it has shot down; the fifth grants eternal youth; and the sixth grants visions of the future and much, much more.
Recently the guns were the property of Confederate General Oliander Bedford Hume, his wife Missy, and four murderous bandits who razed a path of destruction through every line of resistance they crossed. A monster who committed countless atrocities in his mad quest for power, Hume was finally brought down, only to come back undead and ornerier than ever. For now, though, the pistols rest in the gunbelts of an unlikely pair: deadly gunman Drake Sinclair and step-daughter of the pastor who killed Hume (the first time), Becky Montcrief.
As great as the ideas, the concept, and the breakneck plot are, it’s the depth and uniqueness of the characters that cement The Sixth Gun‘s cred as a great book. Post-Civil War is an interesting moral playground, and the themes of destruction and transformation are very apparent within the main characters. As a professional sonuvabitch and former ranger with Colonel Mosby’s Raiders, Sinclair is a constantly unfolding origami of motives and moral ambiguities. Much as you may love the character for his steely calm and cool, measured badassery, his self-interest is evident from his first appearance, and you will find yourself questioning every decision he makes. Similarly, as an innocent Becky Montcrief breaks convention and propels the story into some interesting ethical areas, but there may not be much innocence left in her. As the possessor of the sixth gun, she’s under the influence of its power, an immortal weapon and conduit to forces of pure evil. Though she might have once been a farm girl with a heart of gold, she’s developed into a finely-honed killer of men, with an ever-increasing collection of bodies to mark the path she’s tread.
The secondary characters also offer scores of revelations. As Drake and Becky’s support, Gord Cantrell is a fount of occult knowledge. A former slave who became a leader of men, Gord is the most intelligent character in the book, and perhaps the most morally centered — but not without his own share of demons, figurative and literal. And of course there’s the instantly likable Billjohn O’Henry, whose presence continues to remind Becky and Sinclair of the power of the pistols and the consequences of their actions. The cast of characters expands to include a prophet turned living mummy named Asher Cobb; the rakish and handsome Kirby Hale, who is even more dangerous than he seems; The Sword of Abraham, an ancient monastic order sworn to destroy the weapons and prevent the apocalypse; and The Brothers of Solomon, a Templar-like organization intent on gathering them for their own to increase their own power. In addition, there are demons, voudoun loa, cowboy mages, and several others, each with an agenda they are willing to die for, each of them in a mad hunt for the weapons that may be able to rewrite the world, and each of them rendered beautifully by the pen of Brian Hurtt.
After years spent developing as an artist on Queen & Country, Gotham Central, and Hard Time, Hurtt has honed his smooth, confident lines into a style that seems such a perfect fit for The Sixth Gun, it’s positively baffling to think of anyone else handling the material. (If anyone else did take over, it would have to be Tyler Crook, who did a great job filling in on issues 14 and 23 — but still, perish the thought.) The setting and landscapes draw you into the story immediately – it’s as if you can hear the eerie whistles and bass harmonica of an Ennio Morricone film score. Deserts, mountains, swamps, monasteries, mining encampments – nothing is ever clumsy or incomplete, and everything looks exactly as it should.
The cartooning is so spot-on it feels like Hurtt may be drawing from some Platonic source of all Westerns. Every yellow-belly, codger, and varmint is drawn like they’re the ideal yellow-belly, codger, or varmint. And it would be absolutely unfair to go without mentioning the coloring of Bill Crabtree, whose palette can go from subtle to vibrant in the blink of a panel, as the story dictates. With a crisp approach to light and shade that perfectly complements Hurtt’s illustration, it’s hard not to be reminded of the very best in classic cel animation. To match the artwork, writer Cullen Bunn (whose name sounds he should be a character in his own book) writes at a very high level. Maintaining the novelty and awesomeness of the concepts, he still manages to keep his metaphors subtle, his dialogue sharp and concise, and constructs plots that thrill like an out-of-control mining cart.
Altogether, The Sixth Gun is unlike anything else on the market. Conceptually unique, ever rising in quality, and crafted by three men with talents that set them apart from the rest of the industry, each just beginning to hit their creative stride. Now, near the half-way point of a planned 50 issues, with a possible SyFy original series looming on the horizon, new readers should hop on the train before it starts moving too fast. Oni Press collected editions of the first four volumes – Cold Dead Fingers, Crossroads, Bound, and A Town Called Penance – are available at finer comic book stores everywhere. And lucky for you, the first issue can be previewed for free or downloaded through Comixology.
There’s a reason Cullen Bunn is becoming a name everybody should know. There’s a reason many of the biggest and brightest names in the industry love this book. Start picking up The Sixth Gun now and find out why. ‘Less you’re yella.