Cullen Bunn has proven his knack for taking historical genre tropes and settings and twisting them into something new and original. His books "The Damned" and "The Sixth Gun," both published through Oni Press, populate both prohibition-era America and the wild west with demonic consorts and cursed men.
For "Helheim," his latest project with Oni, Bunn has moved from the desert of the American southwest to frigid Nordic country to tell a story of honor, betrayal and black magic among Viking warriors. With the first installment of the five-issue miniseries, featuring art by Joëlle Jones ("You Have Killed Me," "Madame Xanadu"), set to hit store shelves in March, Comic Book Resources spoke with Bunn and Jones about the project -- and the torment of life after death.
"'Helheim' is the story of black magic during the age of the Vikings," Bunn told CBR. "Two witches have gone to war with one another, and they don't care who they use, who they hurt and how much of the world they corrupt as they try to destroy one another. Our story focuses on one man, a noble young warrior named Rikard, who is caught in the middle of this battle."
Early in the story, Rikard falls in battle, but his story is far from over as he becomes fodder for the next phase of the war being waged between two witches, Bera and Groa.
"Rikard is our 'hero,'" said Bunn. "He's the guy who does the right thing and can get the job done. He doesn't survive our first issue -- as the story progresses, Rikard is literally becoming less and less human. He wants to be at peace, but he feels nothing but betrayal and hopelessness. His rage is something that cannot be contained. He finds himself in a strange place, trapped between the land of the living and the land of the dead, walking the line between dead man and demon.
"Bera is one of two witches in our story," Bunn continued, moving on to another of "Helheim's" major players. "She's beautiful and sweet on the outside, but her soul is that of a cruel, calculating seductress who can control both the living and the dead. Groa is the mortal enemy of Bera -- if your great-great-great-great grandma was evil and could summon demons, you'd have Groa."
With Rikard is caught in the crossfire between the two witches, his father, Kirk, discovers the extent of the witch Bera's manipulations. As a result, the Viking patriarch sets out to correct the wrongs inflicted upon his son.
"[Kirk is] a brave, tough-as-nails warrior," said Bunn. "He is tormented by what has become of Rikard, and he wants to see his son's soul set free -- and that means killing him."
"Helheim" is, from the first page, a story heavy with the weight of death. The blood flows early as Bunn quickly subverts the reader's understanding of the hero's journey.
"Death is a force of change," Bunn explained. "Without change, there's really no story. In the case of Helheim, I wanted everyone to know right from the start that no one would be safe in this book...Rikard's worldview is about to be shattered, and not just because he's going to be brought back from the dead as this hulking killing machine. The readers will hopefully find their expectations challenged right along with Rikard."
As evidenced in his other works like "The Damned," and "The Sixth Gun," Bunn has a long-standing interest in juxtaposing genres and settings, especially when one of those genres is filled with ghosts, demons and creatures of the dark. "I think there's a kind of magic that comes from thinking about these combinations and discovering the stories that begin to take shape," the writer explained.
The story taking shape in "Helheim" has been in the works for several years. Bunn told CBR the idea initially came to him while he was working on "The Tooth," a book that was, itself, six or seven years in development.
"The original concept for 'Helheim' has remained the same from the beginning, but having a few years to mull it over has certainly changed many elements of the story," said Bunn. "Early versions of the story didn't have as much 'heart' as the story you'll be seeing now. The emotional core of the book is something that has come together over time, and as it took shape, it helped shape the story into new, different directions."
Artist Joëlle Jones has joined Bunn in bringing the bloody world of "Helheim" to life on the page, and both Jones and Bunn admit to being initially surprised by their pairing.
"I've been a fan of her work for some time, but I couldn't imagine that this was the type of project she'd want to work on," Bunn said. " Joëlle, [Oni Press editor] Charlie [Chu], and I sat down over breakfast at SDCC to discuss the book, and we just all seemed to click. We were on the same page about the kind of dark, terrible madness we wanted to bring to the page.
Jones was caught somewhat off guard herself, but quickly rose to the challenge. "I was a little confused by the choice at first, and a little intimidated," Jones admitted. "Once I sat and thought about it ,though, I really got into it. Cullen has been really great to work with. I look forward to every new script I get from him and he really allows quite a lot of room to play and let my imagination play a big role in creating it as well. I was excited about this project from the beginning. I thought, here was my chance to try something different. I wanted it to be gritty and beautiful, simultaneously, but mostly I wanted to use those components to tell a good action story.
"Every time I sit down with a new script, the challenge for me always starts with pacing," Jones continued, describing the ways in which working on "Helheim" has caused her to grow as an artist. "I am more used to drawing books that are romantic or conversational, not a lot of action. Learning those new tricks has been really rewarding."
The result of Jones and Bunn's collaboration is a book featuring a richly rendered world, dense and gritty and with a distinctive stylized visual language.
"I feel like when I occasionally get it right, I can be drawn into the world that Cullen made and play around with stuff," Jones said. "Also, the monsters. I get to draw bad-ass monsters."
"After that meeting, I got very excited about seeing what Joëlle would do with the initial images," Bunn said, reflecting back to his and Jones' first encounter. "I was simply blown away. I think this book will demolish any preconceptions people might have about the type of work Joëlle does.
"One part 'Frankenstein,' one part 'Beowulf', one part 'Eaters of the Dead' -- this is a brutal horror story with lots of witchcraft, hellish creatures,and bloodshed. Rikard lived an honorable life," Bunn continued. "He died a good death. But he's been refused his final reward."
Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones' "Helheim" debuts March 6, 2013.