REVIEW: The Sixth Gun: Cold Dead Fingers

In a recent review on this blog, I mentioned how impressed I was by The Sixth Gun #7.  I commended it for how much of a satisfying read it was in its own right, how much plot and character it squeezed into its 22 pages, and how based on the strength of that issue I would be seeking out the graphic novel collecting the first 6 issues.  Well, after picking up this graphic novel, Cold Dead Fingers, I was surprised to discover that issue #7 is actually what passes for a quiet, uneventful installment in this inspired supernatural Western series.  For as far as opening arcs go, the first 6-issue storyline of The Sixth Gun is a belter.

A widely circulated trend in comics these days is comics that read like they’re tailored for trade-waiters.   You know the feeling.  When put together in a 6-12 issue chunk you feel like you’re getting a whole story, but on an issue-by-issue basis you feel like you’re just treading water.   Not a problem for The Sixth Gun.  As much as I like the graphic novel package (the matte-finish paper stock on the cover gives the book a nice feel) I kinda wish I’d been getting the single issues from the start.  Most of the six chapters included in here are jammed with enough content and narrative progression to make up a six-issue arc of their own in a typical comic in this age of decompression.  Every second chapter boasts an issue-long fight scene, and even the “quieter” chapters in-between have their fair share of bloodshed, as well as extensive world-building and character establishment.

That’s not to say, however, that the story at any point feels rushed.  Writer Cullen Bunn gives us with Cold Dead Fingers a meticulously plotted and structured book.  Much like that other great Western/supernatural hybrid comic to debut in 2010 – American Vampire – every issue adds to the greater mythology of the series, while at the same time serving as a worthwhile standalone package that a new reader could use as a jumping-on point.

The comparison with American Vampire is perhaps apt, as The Sixth Gun can be seen as an intriguing companion piece to Vertigo’s latest breakout hit.  While American Vampire is a comic that is very much looking forward, viewing the frontiers of the Wild West as the fountains upon which the bloody secret history of 20th Century America was built, The Sixth Gun is a story more preoccupied with looking back, with its contemporary Wild West setting the tip of the iceberg in a saga that delves into ancient magic spanning back centuries.  This is an uncharted world, still fool of unexplored corners with myths and mystic things, and the old-school pulp adventure heightens this aesthetic.  You get a sense that the Wild West is perhaps the last era a story like this could be told in, before the science and industry of the modern age stamped out fantasy once and for all.  While American Vampire paints the canvas of the Wild West as a beginning, you get a sense with The Sixth Gun that is used to mark an ending, the last flourish of a now-lost time.

But amidst all the plot mechanics and ideas, it’s the characters that truly draw us in and make us want to keep reading.  And the character at the core of Bunn’s tapestry is compelling anti-hero Drake Sinclair.  This is a character who is at times hard to like, and indeed our feelings for him shift as his history and motivations are gradually peeled back in layers.  We first interpret him as the grim lone rider with a heart of gold in the Clint Eastwood vein when we first encounter him, but it quickly seems Sinclair has a much more cynical, selfish bent to his personality – such as when he leaves a dying man in the desert for the buzzards to eat – painting him as something considerably darker.  But as the story goes on, we begin to question if maybe he does have that heart of gold after all, just very well and deeply hidden.  The story cleverly places him in situations where his reactions can be ambiguously read as either altruistic or self-serving, and though by the end of Cold Dead Fingers he seems to be more settled on the heroic side of things, we get a sense that we still have much to learn about Drake Sinclair’s murky past.

Less successful is the other core character, Becky Montcrief.  While she is given the important position of being owner of the eponymous “sixth gun”, right now we’re in a position where there is little to define her other than that weapon, aside from generalities of being “brave” or “strong-willed”.  While Drake Sinclair is a masterful example of a character shaping the progression of the plot, Becky Montcrief too often serves as an unfortunate example of the plot solely defining the character.  I wouldn’t call Becky a lost cause yet, though.  Throughout the graphic novel there are flashes of her innocence corroding, and her growing attachment to this cursed gun in issue #7 hints that there could be dark times – and with it, meaty character exploration – lying ahead.

The supporting cast of goodies is rounded out by aging bounty hunter Billjohn O’Henry – whose grumpy sidekick role becomes a lot more interesting in the book’s second half when it takes on a poignant, fatalistic twist – and escaped prisoner Gord Cantrell, whose hulking frame makes him one of the more visually engaging characters in the series, but who at this early stage remains something of an enigmatic blank slate awaiting further development.

But I’d argue Bunn’s biggest success in characterisation comes with his depraved roster of villains.  I call stories like The Sixth Gun Metal Gear Solid stories”.  Not because the video game was the first by any means to set up such a dynamic (Die Hard and Robocop are notable cinematic precursors), but simply because it’s one story that stands out in my mind at doing it particularly well.  What I mean is a narrative that sets up multiple villains – a “Big Bad” and a selection of other “bosses” working under him – then is subsequently constructed around how these formidable foes get taken out one by one.  Telling a “Metal Gear Solid story” is a kind of artform in itself: getting all the dynamics right, making each villain distinct and memorable in their own right, the craft of making the second-in-command or “Mini Big Bad” stand out from the other villains in their own right while still not overshadowing the main antagonist.  But Cullen Bunn pulls it off with panache in Cold Dead Fingers.

The towering devilry of this graphic novel, and the figure who will likely stand as the ultimate enemy of The Sixth Gun as a whole, is General Oleander Hume, at one time one of the most feared strategists and wartime leaders of the Confederate army, now a rotting undead zombie attached to his coffin by magic-tinged chains, shouting abuse at anyone within hearing distance.  He’s certainly visually striking, as far as villains go, and he’s built up as a soul-crushingly evil menace as much by the terrified testimonials of others as by his actual on-panel antics.  Interestingly, while undoubtedly evil and despicable in his words and deeds, you can’t help but develop a grudging sense of admiration for the crazy old coot – too stubborn and hateful to even let death do more than slow him down, we see him facing down mythical creatures and seemingly insurmountable odds in a manner that we have to acknowledge as bravery, of sorts, particularly when considering that in one instance he does so to protect the men under his command.  And there are even brief, fleeting moments where it seems General Hume might have a warped sense of honor lurking within his black heart.

The Revolver Ocelot of our story, to continue the analogy, is Missy Hume, the General’s scheming widow, and the first visible face of evil in the opening chapter before the more overtly supernatural enemies are revealed.  Of course, as we later discover, Mrs. Hume resides within the realm of the supernatural herself: able to heal from any wound, and apparently immortal and eternally young, making her a nice contrast to her zombie husband.  Missy Hume is so vile that she almost upstages her husband in the villainy stakes, and does so with apparent relish – while the General is on a quest for power and conquest, we get a sense that Missy is driven largely by the sheer exhileration of being bad.  She’s also at the centre of one of the graphic novel’s most gruesome set-pieces, examining the consequences of her gun-toting hand being amputated.  All this, combined with the great way Brian Hurtt draws her – look at the way her cheekbones give her a kind of Glasgow smile, as well as those sinisterly expressive cat eyes – make her possibly my favorite character in the book.

The rest of the rogues gallery is populated by Hume’s four henchmen – each wielding one of the six guns – who seem to reference the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the nature of their guns’ respective supernatural powers.  Each of these characters has their own singular design to make them stand out, and as noted above, much of the narrative’s forward thrust comes from their undoing.

I’ve touched upon it a few times throughout the review, but I should give specific mention to the massive contribution made by Brian Hurtt to the book’s success.  Comics are a visual medium, and so a big part of a character’s success is how distinctive and identifiable their appearance is here.  On this front, Hurtt delivers the goods, with his designs doing just as much (and at times more) to establish these characters as Bunn’s skillful writing.

As mentioned in my review of issue #7, Brian Hurtt is an artist with an incredible sense of place.  And that trend is readily apparent throughout Cold Dead Fingers, with our characters journeying through multiple locations, and each one rendered in detail to give it its own distinctive atmosphere.  For example, note Chapter 5.  We start the chapter in the early morning, and as the narrative progresses we are taken through daytime, then sunset, and end the chapter in the dead of night.  This is not done obviously or with attention called to it, but it’s there in the background, subtly enhancing the sense of building dread and impending doom.  The Sixth Gun is as much a triumph of aesthetic as it is a triumph of ideas.

So, I’m all caught up with The Sixth Gun now, and I’m surely onboard for the long haul.  I have to commend Oni Press for this cracking series, one which skillfully juggles genres while expertly utilising the potential of the comics medium.  I regret that I wasn’t reading this book when I compiled my Top Ten Comics of 2010 list, as I believe it may have ranked quite highly.  As it stands, I’m very excited for where The Sixth Gun is headed in 2011, and if you like good comics, you should be too.

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