Writer Cullen Bunn burst onto the scene in 2006 with "The Damned," a comic that mixed monsters and mobsters. Drawn by his long-time friend and fellow comic shop employee Brian Hurtt, the Oni Press title soon drummed up a healthy dose of buzz that the pair parlayed into another book from the publisher, this one a weird western called "The Sixth Gun." Fast-forward a few years and Bunn finds himself in the enviable position of having Marvel and DC Comics contracting him to work on books like "Deadpool Team-Up," "Superman/Batman" and "Captain America" with plenty more to come.
A life-long fan of comics, Bunn gravitated towards Marvel at an early age, focusing on titles like "Avengers," "X-Men," "Dreadstar" and especially "Micronauts." The writer did his best to absorb everything he could get his hands on, and now he's working on an equally diverse group of characters, including some of the most publicly recognizable in the world. CBR News spoke with Bunn shortly after his first issue of "Superman/Batman" hit stands, discussing everything from that project, his short story in "Captain America" #616 which celebrates Cap's 70th anniversary, the future of "The Damned" and "The Sixth Gun" and how he ended up working in comics in the first place.
CBR News: Cullen, I saw on your blog that you're quitting your day job in order to write comics full-time. Congratulations!
Cullen Bunn: I am. As of March 11, I am a full-time writer. It's pretty cool if I can get past the constant state of nausea and the constant wondering of, "What the hell am I doing?" Yeah, that's the only thing that's not cool about it, but it's one of those things that I've got to take a shot at it at some point.
It seems like now is a good time for it, because you've got a lot of work coming out.
Knock on wood, I'll keep it coming, too!
Let's start at the beginning of your comics life. How did you get into the medium?
I remember the first comic that ever took hold in my mind was an issue of "Avengers." This is probably before I was really reading comics. I could read, but I think I was more looking at the pictures. It was an issue with Tyrak, an Atlantean warlord fighting the Avengers ["Avengers" #154]. I remember reading that and thinking that he had actually killed them. It horrified me! This was before I actually understood any kind of continuity, I was just getting an issue here and there. He beat the Avengers horribly, and for some reason I thought he had killed them and that was the last issue of "The Avengers." [Laughs] I used to get my comic books at flea markets in big grocery sacks: $5 for 50 comic books. There was no rhyme or reason to the books I was reading, it was just whatever happened to be in those sacks. It was $5 for Marvel and DC and $3 for other brands.
Did you lean towards DC or Marvel or just absorb everything you could?
I absorbed it all. I think I was more drawn to Marvel over DC, and "X-Men" quickly became the comic I loved more than anything. In fact, my dad was not into comics, but he loved going to comic book conventions with me and he loved wheeling and dealing with the dealers. So something my dad and I used to do together would be to go to comic book conventions and build my collection of "Uncanny X-Men." That was what we were always trying to do and at one point I had every issue from #1 to when I stopped. I sold them all to pay for college. I sold them at a good time and was able to pay for two and a half years of college. But, I want those comics back bad. And I don't have my dad's money to help me do that!
Maybe he can help wheel and deal again.
Yeah, he was really good! He'd go to one dealer and say, "This cat says he'll sell it for this much," and he'd play them against each other. He was a lot better at it than I ever will be.
When did you realize you wanted to write comics? Was it as a kid or did it develop over time?
As a kid, I wanted to draw comics. I wanted to be an artist and I used to draw my own comics. I was a writer/artist, but didn't have the talent to be an artist. I got into writing prose for a long while because I wanted to tell stories. I knew I wanted to tell stories, regardless of the medium. I pitched for comics for years and years, to Marvel, to DC and some of the smaller publishers, but I also focused on a lot of prose as well.
Did "The Damned" and "The 6th Gun" start off as prose stories and evolve into comics or were they always comics in your mind?
They were always intended to be comics. About 15, 16 years ago, Brian Hurtt and I collaborated on those projects. We worked at a comic book store together. During that time, he knew I was always writing stories and sending stories off to magazines and he was always drawing. Even back then, we started talking about pitching some ideas and working on comics together. Nothing really materialized for that for several years. We pitched some ideas together that didn't take root, then we hit on the idea for "The Damned." Brian happened to be working for Oni Press at that point, so my in to that publisher was Brian. That's how that one got started. Brian called me one day and said, "I want to pitch something to Oni and I want to pitch something dark." That's kind of where "The Damned" started, wanting to pitch something dark.
A few years later I put together a pitch for a western. It was always "The Sixth Gun," but a little different from the way it currently appears. It was a much darker story, it was intended as a miniseries that would end after that. It kind of morphed from that and turned into what it is now, for the better I think. Oni came to me and asked if Brian would be able to work on this, and I said I'd love to work with Brian as long as he's available. So we had to wait a little while for a few things to drop off his plate before he could tackle that one. "Sixth Gun" has always been a comic. I was just mentioning to someone the other day, the first short story I ever sold was a weird western. It never got published, the magazine that was going to publish it folded, which was probably for the best. I was always working on those weird westerns and I think for "Sixth Gun" I've kind of harvested bits and pieces of those stories.
Where do "The Sixth Gun" and "The Damned" stand as ongoing projects right now?
"Sixth Gun" is ongoing, but it has a definite end in site. I've mapped out the entire series and, give or take, it's going to be about fifty issues in length, unless something happens and people stop reading it. If that happens, it'll be shorter than that, but it's doing really well and people seem to be liking it and responding to it, so I definitely see it running it's course for the fifty or so issues.
"The Damned" was also intended to have an end in site, but it's a matter of us getting to it. I think within the next year to year and a half, we'll be doing another arc of the damned. People have been asking us when the next arc is coming out. We're going to be doing another arc in two years at the most. We just need time in the schedule for Brian to draw it. There's another three issue series. Once that comes out, the second volume of the trades will come out. Brian and I love that story, we love that world and we definitely want to finish the story we have in mind. It's just that "The Sixth Gun" is what we're focusing on now.
You've got a lot of other things in the pipeline, including your four issue "Superman/Batman" arc. What can you tell us about that story?
The other day I was at a signing, trying to explain the high concept pitch [for "Superman/Batman"], and I realized I am the worst high concept pitchman ever. It's a very magic-heavy story because I like the idea that magic is Superman's other weakness. It's a story that kind of puts Superman in a world where magic is a driving force instead of the laws of nature and science. He's been thrust into a world where he has to deal with magic on a much larger scale, and Batman is trying to figure out where Superman is. Along the way, Superman meets magic versions of familiar characters. He meets the Batman of this magical world and a number of other DC characters. Back in "our world," Batman is dealing with a lot of the magic heroes like Shadowpact and some of the other characters who are magic-focused. It gave me a real chance to kind of cut loose on a lot of stuff. I just really wanted to tell a fun, old fashioned comic book story.
It sounds Silver Agey, but in a good way.
I think that's probably true. I read a review that this story seems to owe a lot to the Batman and Superman Animated Series cartoons and I was like "Huh, I like that. I take that as a compliment." I wanted it to be a story where people didn't have to follow a lot of continuity to get into and enjoy. I saw some people who said, "I don't know who this Blue Devil guy is," so maybe there's some characters that people won't know immediately, but I didn't want people to have to know about that universe to really dig it, which I think is what the strength of the "Superman/Batman" series really is.
Was it intimidating writing two of the most iconic characters in comics?
This might get me in trouble for saying this, but first of all, it's a different fan base. For "The Sixth Gun" or "The Damned," the fan outcry is, for the most part, positive. People give positive reviews, positive feedback and positive responses. I was really scared going into the superhero community because the fanbase tends to be a little bit more unforgiving. I've done some stuff, I did one of Marvel's "Immortal Weapons" books, I did some Deadpool stuff and I started to see a a little bit of that. They're a little less forgiving than the fans of the creator owned stuff. So that was a little nerve-wracking. I knew I didn't have a lot of leeway with that audience. They were not going to take any crap. Also, it's Superman and Batman! First of all, they're huge characters, they have huge fanbases. Second of all, you think about what kind of stories you can tell with these characters and there's a ton of stories told about them already. Third, the biggest challenge was telling a story that's interesting for Superman but can also engage Batman. They have very different power sets, so you have to tell a story both of them can be engaged in.
In addition to fan reaction and getting to handle bigger characters, have you noticed a difference between writing your own books and writing for the bigger companies?
Maybe I should approach them differently, but I really don't. To me, the editors and DC and at Marvel hired me to do these projects because they like what they've seen me write in "The Damned" or "The Sixth Gun," so I'm kind of trusting my instincts and I'm going to tell my kind of story. I'm going to tell the kind of story that Cullen Bunn would write. The biggest thing, in something like "The Sixth Gun," is that nobody's telling me, "Hey, that wouldn't happen in that world." With a DC or Marvel book, they have to, for continuity sake. "Hey Superman wouldn't do that," or, "What you just tried to write happened six years ago in this miniseries." Thank goodness for that, or I would really mess things up. Beyond that I've found that I do a lot more research, trying to make sure I know what's happened with the characters.
When I took on Deadpool as an assignment, I went and read a bunch of Deadpool books because I wanted to read up on that character. When I started "Superman/Batman," I went and got the trades for everything I didn't have of that series and read those stories to get a good feel on what had been done. There's probably a little more research about the characters and just being conscious of continuity. Not just continuity of the past, but also what they have planned for those characters in the future. When I did the Deadpool book, I wrote a story about Deadpool and a chupacabra and I wanted Deadpool to get bitten by this chupacabra and get infected with chupacabra-ism. Axel [Alonso] called me and said, "This is great, we want to do the chupacabra story, but I don't want you to do that part because of what's happening in 'X-Men' with the vampires." That's what those guys need to know. I wouldn't have known and I don't want to be telling the same story in books coming out a couple months apart from each other.
Do you find working within those constraints to be creatively interesting or frustrating?
They haven't frustrated me yet. It actually improves things, for me. You try to do something and they say, "You can't do that because of this," and then you've got to figure out a way. It can even be characters. I don't want to say the character's name, but in "Superman/Batman," I had a supporting cast member in there and they came back to me and said, for this reason, you can't use that character. I wanted to fill that void and I wanted to use someone. It changed everything in a good way. It forced me to flex my creativity a little bit and tell a great story around constraints that might be around it for whatever reason. I actually kind of like that, at least up until this point. Who knows if in the future it starts getting on my nerves. I think that's just the nature for someone who's going to write for one of the big universes. You're going to deal with that.
It's probably good, then, to have projects in the works, both in the big shared universes and with your own projects.
Absolutely. It's a good balance to what I'm doing.
You mentioned, in the old days before you broke into the industry, you would pitch stories to Marvel and DC. Did you pitch the stories you're working on now to them, or did they come to you?
These were not stories I pitched to them. One of the things I did, was I made sure every editor I could contact had a copy of ["The Damned" and "The Sixth Gun"]. I racked up some postage charges sending out copies, I gave them to editors at conventions. Then they've come to me, saying, "We'd like you to do a "Superman/Batman" story -- would you be interested in pitching it?" And I kind of play it cool and say, "Oh sure." Then I get off the phone and the first thing I do is call my wife and tell her what's going on. Then I call Brian [Hurtt] or one of the other creators I know and go, "Guess what?!" I think I did four pitches for "Superman/Batman" and asked, "Which one do you like best?" I've done that with pretty much any company giving me the opportunity to work on their characters. I try to send them a few options and see what they like best in terms in of story.
On that note, what can you tell us about your story in the big "Captain America" anniversary issue?
I guess I can talk a little bit about it, but I don't want to tell too much of what's going on with it. It's an 11-page story illustrated by Jason Latour who is one of my favorite artists. It's more the kind of story I might have read when I was really into Captain America back during the Mike Zeck days. It's a little bit more of an old school Captain America story. You always think more fondly of something about the time when you first got into it. I love current Captain America stuff, but the stuff I always think most fondly of is the issue of Captain America where he fought The Scarecrow and Mike Zeck drew him. That was awesome. So that's always the era you're going to love. It's the same with "Uncanny X-Men." You ask fans what their favorite era is and it's when they picked up their first issue, and theirs is different from mine because I'm an old man. 11-page stories are challenges. Short stories can be very tough to write and tell a good, concise story. It's more of old fashioned Captain America story. I wanted to tell a story about what I feel Captain America represents, especially for this anniversary.
Is the story set in the modern day or the era you like most?
It's a Steve Rogers story, but there's no distinction about when it takes place in the history of Steve Rogers. That said, I don't think I ever said in the script, "I am Steve Rogers." That said, it could be Bucky Barnes. [Laughs] In my mind, I was writing Steve Rogers.
Being friends with Brian Hurtt and working with him so closely, have you noticed a big difference working with other artists?
It's not the same relationship because Brian and I are such close friends. We live in the same town, so we can get together. I think I kind of frustrate artists. With Brian, he was always telling me, "Add more, add more, don't be afraid. I'm not scared of a nine-panel page. Don't hold back when it comes to the action." There's an issue of "The Sixth Gun" that has an animal attack in it, and I'm talking about a big, old, animal attack. In the past, I wouldn't want to inflict that on Brian, but at the outset of "The Sixth Gun" he basically said, "Hit me with whatever you've got." He always challenged me to scare him off and that's the way I started writing. I started enjoying writing big, complicated things that could be challenging for an artist to draw.
I kind of feel bad for CrissCross on "Superman/Batman" because I just threw all sorts of stuff at him. I saw on Twitter one day, he wrote something like, "Cullen Bunn is kicking my ass on this issue." At first I felt bad and then he came back and said, "No, no, I love it." There's some challenging stuff in there. I try and temper it when I meet a new artist because you never know what their appetite for something like that is going to be. I feel like I always owe an artist an apology. There's certain pages where at the top I write, "I'm really sorry for this page," because it's going to be a lot of insanity.
If I ever wrote something that couldn't be done, I'm sure whoever I'm working with would say "Did you realize you tried to put eight pieces of action in this one panel?" and then I'd have to fix it. I try to be conscious of that stuff, but at the same time, "The Damned" is the talkiest talking head comic I'll ever write, and it had a lot of action and giant monsters and things like that.
When you describe monsters, do you describe them in detail or is it a collaboration with the artist?
It's a little of both. With the stuff I do with Brian, sometimes I write some ideas of what I think the creature will look like. Brian and I actually get very involved ahead of time in plotting everything out in the beginning. He'll know there's a certain creature and will say, 'What do you think of making it look like this,' and then I'll just write to that design. For instance, the Thunderbird which appeared in the fourth issue of "The Sixth Gun," just across the river in Illinois there's an image painted on a rock wall of a giant bird. It's called the Piasa Bird and I told Brian I want the Thunderbird to look very much like the Piasa Bird, and that's the way he drew it. He put his own spin on it, obviously.
Brian's got this sketchbook of characters he draws and sometimes I'll just look through it and say, "Let's put that guy in the book." Eddie from "The Damned" is a character Brian has been drawing for years, so we put him in "The Damned." In "Superman/Batman," there's a horde of demons that come running in. I just wrote a few general ideas of what they'd look like, like one of them looks like a dog, and CrissCross just went crazy with that description.