January 2011

Martyn Pedler


The Secret of The Sixth Gun

Writing in 1971, André Bazin wondered if the cinema western possessed some kind of secret: “It must be a secret that somehow identifies it with the essence of cinema.”

So what, then, is the secret to a successful western comic book? I don’t mean “western” like “not manga,” obviously; I mean the Old West. Cowboys. Gunpowder. The thin line where the desert touches the sky. Bad men performing good deeds. In The Sixth Gun, the new western comic book by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt, the man in question is Drake Sinclair. “And you know what kind of man I am,” says Drake, as he breaks a promise to a man hanging dead from a gallows tree in the very first issue.

And we do know what kind of man Drake is. We’ve seen dozens upon dozens of men like him in other westerns, whether soft-focus Saturday afternoon TV or big self-reflexive genre revivals. The rest of The Sixth Gun’s cast are familiar too: Billjohn, the card sharp with a heart of gold; Becky, the feisty female pushed too far. In The Sixth Gun, this familiarity doesn’t matter in the slightest -- and that’s often true with westerns, both onscreen and off.

Look at DC Comics’ current Jonah Hex series. Featuring mostly done-in-one issues, leaving no time for complicated ongoing stories, Jonah Hex’s writers must boil everything down to essential elements. Another corrupt sheriff, another bounty claimed, another woman who can’t be trusted. How do you make each different than the last? The balance between repetition and variation drives all genre storytelling, but Jonah Hex turns into an enjoyable highwire act.

Execution is everything. And Bunn and Hurtt hit almost every note perfectly through their first six issues of The Sixth Gun. (It’s an ongoing series, but you could happily read it as a standalone story, too.) Its timing is impeccable. Its large-scale action sequences given enough space to breathe but always economically choreographed, and its paced quickly enough that I can unselfconsciously use the term "rip-roaring."

The fact that the dead man I mentioned earlier -- the one still hanging by his neck -- can still speak? That declares The Sixth Gun belongs to a proud tradition of “weird westerns.” These are western-set stories that happily absorb other genres; mostly, but far from always, supernatural horror. Joe R. Lansdale is famous for these stories, but let’s not forget how Billy the Kid fought Dracula in 1966’s predictably (but satisfyingly) named Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

The Sixth Gun’s weirdness appears in its talking dead, its mythological creatures, and in the six-guns of its title. Each has a different supernatural power: one “strikes with the force of a cannon shell,” another one “kills by spreading a flesh-rotting disease…” (Has the ability to prematurely end a life with the slight squeeze of an index finger ever been exactly “natural”?) Another gun gives the power of prophecy, represented in sketchy, red-drenched panels, mostly to whip-crack the plot forward whenever things slow down.

Here’s Bazin again: “Furthermore, it is as important for us to marvel at the western’s capacity to resist them as to deplore these passing moments of contamination. Every influence acts on them like a vaccine. The microbe, on contact, loses its deadly virulence.”

The western can reconfigure anything thrown at it, no matter how seemingly misplaced. I’m not sure the same happens as easy in other genres. After enjoying The Sixth Gun, I sought out the same team’s earlier work: a crime comic called The Damned. The story, involving demon gangsters fighting a turf war with the help of cursed middleman Eddie, shows the pitfalls of genre tales.

It’s solidly done, and Hurtt’s art still looks great in black and white -- but the book never amounts to more than Miller’s-Crossing-but-you-know-like-with-demons-cool-huh? Barring its supernatural elements, it’s so similar to its inspiration that it’s only a few steps away from an writer copying out Gatsby by hand in an attempt to unlock Fitzgerald’s secrets. (In The Damned’s defense, its second, shorter series is stronger, much more its own beast.)

Maybe part of the difference is that noir is more of a visual style, whereas westerns function as myth. Right from its first words, The Sixth Gun folds itself into other Old West tales that’ve come before it. Each panel suggests its own short story. Other legends, come before Drake’s hunt. The Razing of Devil’s Forks. The Fool’s Lantern. No western should feel like the first; they should always feel like the last.

When a genre that’s so closely associated with cinema is reconfigured for the page, some comic conventions become newly strange. Like sound effects. They’re so familiar in superhero comics that if you could actually visit Spider-Man’s New York, you’d expect to see words floating in the air like parade balloons. In a western like The Sixth Gun, “KR-RASH!” and “BRA-KOOM!” sit oddly over a bar room brawl. They might be how a western sounds, sure, but I couldn’t parse them as how a western looks. (I never saw Lee Van Cleef standing under a “BOOM!” cloud, you know?) Later in the series, though, the sound effects successfully become visual onomatopoeia again; when an impossible Thunderbird attacks, the sounds written in the sky are almost indistinguishable from the lightning and thunder they’re representing.

Sergio Leone’s films taught us that westerns are a matter of space, time, and the rhythm between the two. Comic art offers absolute control over those elements. When long sideways panels are used, with heroes on horseback in the foreground, it lets your eye wander across the horizon just like it would on screen. The final, oversized issue of The Sixth Gun’s first storyline shifts almost entirely into double-page spreads for its all-out fight scene, like multiple Cinemascope screens stacked one atop another.

I’m not sure that The Sixth Gun has anything to say -- at least not yet -- and that might grow wearying in time. For now, the comic is an example of how the well-worn grooves of genre can provide endless entertainment. The Sixth Gun’s storytelling is clever, economical, and simple. And it was André Bazin who said that mocking the western for simplicity would only “draw attention to its greatness, a greatness near perhaps to the child-like, just as childhood is near to poetry.”

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He has, on occasion, stood under a “BOOM!” cloud.