Last May on Free Comic Book Day, Oni Press gave away the first issue of its series The Sixth Gun for free. It was a brilliant marketing move. Not that the issue wasn’t worth its cover price, rather it helped expose the book to readers who may have been hesitant to venture down its Western horror trail. Nothing warms an audience like free. Fast forward six months, the series has concluded its first storyarc. It has been an enjoyable ride, demonstrating yet again that the Western genre is not dead, and probably will never die.
The Western has been one of the dominant genres of the last 100 years. It’s a quintessential and uniquely American art form. The nomadic gunslinger with his boots and full-brim hat riding the dusty trails of the western US. His only companions a trusty horse and a yearning for adventure on the frontier. Often the stories coming from this genre are simple morality tales, depicting a society organized around personal codes of honor and direct justice, rather than any standard law. It has been the stuff of boyhood imaginations, where the country isn’t firmly settled into the day-to-day drudgery of suburban life, but is wild and free of the restrictions of civilized society.
The Western has seen the peaks and valleys of popularity. At its height in the mid 1950s, there wasn’t a popular cultural avenue that didn’t take into account its romanticism of 19th century US settlers. Waning popularity in the 1960s gave way to Spaghetti Western movies that launched the film career of Clint Eastwood. The 1990s saw yet another rise of the Western especially on TV and film as pieces like Young Riders on the small screen and Unforgiven and the Young Guns movies thrilled audiences.
In comics, the Western was never really as popular as it was among readers in the 1950s. The genre never left the medium, but it never had the sales of its superhero cousins. Recently though, as the Western has captured our collective imaginations again, comic books have become the main instrument as to its resurrection. But the stories being told now are not narratively the same as what they were. The Western has evolved as the backdrop of a post-modern era has undoubtedly tinted its themes and execution.
Written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Brian Hurtt, The Sixth Gun is part of this recent trend to reimagine the Western genre. Jonah Hex, though an older DC property, has seen renewed interest (excuse the recent movie). Marvel has revisited its Rawhide Kid. DC’s imprint Vertigo has had success mixing vampires and old west sheriffs with its American Vampire series. The list could go on, possibly back to Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series that spawned a feature film and several comics. It was, in every sense, a wagon train to the stars (apologies to Gene Roddenberry).
The Sixth Gun is something different from these, though belonging to the same subgenre of Horror Western or Weird Western. During the darkest days of the Civil War a psychotic General, outlaws and other unsavory characters came into possession of six pistols with supernatural powers. Eventually the sixth and most powerful disappeared. The gun then surfaces in the hands of a preacher and his daughter, whom dark forces pursue. These men, long thought dead, will stop at nothing to get the gun back. Only a gunfighter, Drake Sinclair, with his own shadowy past, stands in their way.
The horror fantasy from Bunn’s script is translated by Hurtt as to create the otherworldly without actually taking us out of the Old West setting. As with the Vertigo series American Vampire, this book has all the elements of a classic Horror Tale and a Western Adventure yarn. It’s firmly rooted in the Western adventure genre with the horror elements adding intrigue and suspense. They are dueling narrative elements that could play havoc with a creative team’s aesthetic, but Bunn and Hurtt navigate the terrain with easy, surpassing even modest expectation for its premise.
The Sixth Gun from issue to issue utilizes a pacing that doesn’t waste any time, moving right through each chapter with abandon. Armies of undead arise to pursue the holder of the sixth gun, with Sinclair moving in to thwart them, his own motivations slowly unveiling over six issues. Bunn hits all the narrative points in this opening story arc to deliver a gripping adventure. His tone, dialogue and narrative are equal parts terrifying, thrilling and suspenseful.
Bunn plays with the clichés of the genre quite well. The typical poker game doesn’t exactly end in a gunfight, but is rather spectacularly brought to an end by a horde of undead outlaws. Bunn is also very much informed about the creepy history of the era, as the finale to this arc happens in a place that is an obvious allusion to the notorious Andersonville from the Civil War period. That’s evidence of a creator tapped in to the thematic and historical elements of the genre.
Equally contributing to the overall enjoyment of the story is the artwork of Hurtt and colors by Bill Crabtree. The lines, inks and colors are startlingly strong, delivering little touches, such as shading, that enhance the panels and cement the penetrating nature of the book. Hurtt’s character designs are equally strong, with each character having a distinct look and feel. When the ghostly “general” is able to leave the chained confines of his coffin, you feel the dread and terror of his release. The panels work in anticipation of the next driving the story as much as the dialogue.
That’s not to say the book is pitched perfect. It has its problems, namely the dialogue is a bit clunky. As the story unfolds through the fourth, fifth and especially the sixth issue, Bunn often uses the dialogue to remind readers where they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does drag down the narrative flow as the climax unfolds. The panel layouts in the sixth issue are also an odd choice. A good two-thirds of the issue is taken up by multiple page spreads, and regardless of the beauty of Hurtt’s pencils and Crabtree’s colors, the repetition is slightly vexing.
There is a throwback element to the book, as Western tales are obviously old hat, but it certainly rises above the idea of homage to deliver a grounded and original story. “The Sixth Gun” through its first story arc has brought a fresh perspective to the genre, its execution creating a desire for more from this creepy world. Let’s hope that Bunn and Hurtt are up to the challenge of continuing, as their pairing has been the central piece that has made the book a success. They are tuned in to each other creatively, and that fact can make all the difference, especially when dealing with a genre known for its peaks and valleys.
The Western, like the dark forces in The Sixth Gun, will never die. However, that doesn’t mean it will always be the same. Evolution is the key to almost everything in the universe. For a genre to live it must pick up hints of the era its stories are being created in. Our modern world is a bit dark now. A decade of war and economic turbulence can do that. The darkness inherit in The Sixth Gun is not necessarily a byproduct of its supernatural premise, but rather reflective of our times. Regardless, the evolution of Western tales is in good hands if creators such as these men are charged with its upkeep.