I love me some Westerns. There Will Be Blood and Once Upon a Time in the West rank up there among my all-time favourite movies. Red Dead Redemption was one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. I’m currently searing through the Deadwood complete series DVD boxset that was surely my best Christmas present this year. And though I eventually had to drop it when trimming my pull list, for a long time I faithfully picked up the Jonah Hex comic by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. There’s just something about that period of American history that fascinates me. I think much like sci-fi, westerns can explore the idea that, out on the extremities of the frontier, we can often get a unique perspective into human nature. While sci-fi often comments on where we could be going, the western at its best often examines how we came to be.
Given this interest in the genre, for a while now I’ve had a yearning to try writing a Western comic myself, despite being an outsider looking in as regards that most American of genres. So when I started hearing good things about The Sixth Gun, the new series from Oni Press – with many industry creators citing it in a recent mass interview feature on Comic Book Resources as one of the best comics of 2010 – I wanted to check it out for myself to see what it was doing right. As it turns out, the answer is “a whole lot”.
I was originally intending to get the graphic novel collecting issues #1-#6 of the series, get myself caught up. But due to a shipping problem here in the UK I couldn’t get my hands on the book last week. So instead, I picked up #7 and decided I’d use this issue to get a feel for the series, and see if it was something I wanted to invest in further. This can be a risky strategy, as when I can I prefer to start a series from the beginning and read chronologically. But it was not a problem for The Sixth Gun, with the introduction on the inside cover getting me caught up on the key characters and plot points.
Reading the comic, it soon becomes clear this is not your typical Western. Writer Cullen Bunn has skillfully blended the Western genre with elements of fantasy and horror. Even a new reader like me is quickly immersed in the expansive mythology Bunn has crafted with this story, with Western archetypes like the cocky gunslinger and the treasure hunter seamlessly interacting with golems and spider-demons, neither world being given short shrift.
It helps massively that the setting of this issue is New Orleans, known for its rich and varied history. And artist Brian Hurtt does a commendable job bringing New Orleans to life and conveying its unique atmosphere, from the architecture of the old buildings to the shadow-drenched menace of the swamplands. While location too often feels interchangable in comics, this is a comic that’s drenched in a sense of place.
Speaking of Hurtt’s art, as well as the illustrations he is also responsible for the lettering, making him the chief architect of the book’s visuals – though the crisp, vibrant colours of Bill Crabtree should also be commended. The way Cullen Bunn writes the narrative captions, it’s like the telling of a weird western tale, an old folk story that might have been the subject matter of pulp fiction back in the days of the Wild West. And in his presentation of these captions with his lettering, Brian Hurtt totally captures that vibe too. But it’s Hurtt’s pencils and inks that are the major contribution, providing a cartoonish vibe that contrasts nicely with some of the dark subject matter.
So, a very strong introduction for me into the world of The Sixth Gun. Certainly enough for me to pick up that graphic novel containing the first six issues. This is a comic that not only shows how the familiar iconography of the west so associated with classic film can be adapted into other mediums, but also how the genre can be subverted and used as the basis and grounding for a quite different type of story. This is a book to keep an eye on.