THE SIXTH GUN-- BOOK I: COLD, DEAD FINGERS By Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Bill Crabtree, James Lucas Jones, Charlie Chiu, and Keith Wood.
"Why must pronouncements and judgements ... be so sweeping and extreme, not to mention callous and cruel? Why can't our voiced opinions be more measured, tempered, considered?"
-- Doug Moench, May 1984, COMICS INTERVIEW #11
THE SIXTH GUN is a supernatural Western, concerning six magical revolvers, and some cowboys & cowgirls who fight over them. If you're in the market for a very clever Saturday Morning cartoon, oh, it's a pleasant enough comic. Maybe not quite as good as some of Dark Horse's BPRD books, but I think they share some the same "comfort food" qualities and weaknesses, if that helps you.
(1) Straight-forward characters fighting over-the-top cartoon monsters. The heroic characters in THE SIXTH GUN are just stock characters for the duration of the first trade-- (1) anti-hero motivated by treasure, (2) pretty farm girl, (3) old coot. Boilerplate. If the next volume has a fucking retired gunfighter in it somewhere, I just might spit. There's not a lot of meat on the bone to the hero characters in the first trade-- maybe that gets better in the issues that have come out since; you can let me know. The "stars" of the comic are the bad guys, the monsters, the ghouls. They're a reasonably gnarly bunch-- the villains definitely received the lion's share of the book's creativity (which is maybe as it should be, though).
(2) Deliberate, "cinematic" pacing. The story moves along quickly enough, but the creators know how to slow things down at the right moments-- there's a nice build to a dragon/gryphon/whatever attack in the middle, in particular. On the other hand, THE SIXTH GUN has a lousy narrator-- it's not one of the elements to the book's credit, I don't think. One of the major character turns near the end-- the anti-hero's decision that gosh darn it all, it's time to behave heroically..? That gets handled by the narrator telling you it's happening-- the story itself hadn't really pulled that part off on its own. "Nevermind about the only and defining character trait of the hero." It's not a lot better than that. I like 3rd-person narrators, generally, but I just think they leaned a little too hard on it near the end...
(3) Traditional comic art, without a noticable influence from manga, art-comics or photo-tracing. Hurtt seems more influenced by Jeff Smith than anything "modern." Keep an eye out for Hurtt's sound effects, especially. (A lot of horses in this comic, though-- I'm nothing resembling an expert, but I'd have to figure drawing a comic with a lot of horses in it would be a headache some mornings. I mean, have you ever actually taken a good, long look at a horse? They're like giant muscular dogs from Mars-- they're just some weird-looking son bitches. Aliens in comic books usually don't even look so weird. Hurtt draws 'em swell enough, though.)
And (4) a larger fantasy universe setting with mysterious nooks & crannies that the reader is invited to explore. THE SIXTH GUN is throwing imagery around from the start, within its first two pages-- references to Old West magical relics, throw-away ideas, Weird Legends, the sort of thing delivered in front of a candle and a skull in a Mignola comic. Smart move; probably bought no small amount of credit with readers. THE SIXTH GUN manages enough eyeball kicks in its first half, that I didn't put the book away when the last half of the book avoided any cool ideas and instead descended into some dreary, generic zombie battle. Boy, if you could have seen my face when the fucking zombies show up-- it was like watching air go out of a balloon.
I figure a considerable number of comics have aimed at those four particular virtues over the years. There's nothing intrinsic to the book that's especially noteworthy, no hard corners or inexplciable quirks that I could pick up on anyways. But there's nothing intrinsically noteworthy about a peanut butter & jelly sandwich or a glass of lemonade, either. THE SIXTH GUN is just... pleasant. Nice. Unchallenging. Comfy. With room for growth, improvement, definitely, but that's not such a bad thing-- that can be fun to watch, too. I don't know that I'm enthusiastic about it, exactly-- look, I'm probably just not fan enough of Weird Westerns to get especially enthusiastic about one, however well done. But I'm at least curious to see if they can improve in later volumes, how they build out their world, if they can get a little weirder, darker, scarier without losing any of its underlying appeal.
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"At Oni, we really feel like we’re pushing the real mainstream on the comics populace. Oni’s output would include the romantic comedy that would gross $30 million on an opening weekend. It would be the cult teen flick like Napoleon Dynamite that just plays forever and has repeat viewing after repeat viewing."
-- From "Oni and the Real Mainstream," October 4, 2004.
But let's take a step back, and let's try to put this comic into context.
THE SIXTH GUN is a comic book published by Oni Press. Oni Press is a comic publisher founded in 1997, and since 2003, it's been the sister company to Closed on Mondays, a production company that Oni describes as "created specifically to help Oni Press creators and titles find life in mediums outside of comics" which "works closely with Oni creators and staff members to find [appropriate] creative partners." Like other similarly situated comic companies, Oni refers to their comics as "creator-owned" -- though when comic publishers have sister companies that work closely with creators, some people might find it a little fuzzier what creator-owned means exactly-- or at least, it's my limited understanding that reasonable minds might differ on that point. All the crowing and chest-puffing of this past year aside, the label "creator owned" on a comic seems sort of like the label "organic" on a box of cookiess-- it's not exactly clear to me what that means, and I don't know if it's a good idea for me to always assume what's being sold is healthy just based on that label.
But so: various announcements over the years. Wheeling. Dealing. For example, in June 2008, Oni Press announced a webcomic in collaboration with OZ creator Tom Fontana called "Men With Guns: Assassin," a "cat-and-mouse struggle between a hired killer and the cop who is out to get him—a conflict that is complicated by a Romeo and Juliet affair between their children." According to articles, that started out as a TV script (surprise!) before being "reimagined," though unfortunately it appears that no one could re-imagine a halfway decent fucking premise. Yaddah yaddah. Deals with CBS. Deals with Dreamworks. So on; so forth.
Skip ahead to May 2010, and Oni launches THE SIXTH GUN on Free Comic Book Day. On the precipice of the release of the film version of the beloved SCOTT PILGRIM series (and let me quickly add, beloved by, among others, me). Months after the release of THE SIXTH GUN, a billboard image of SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORD would be splashed against the sides of a hotel at San Diego Comic Con-- "nerd culture" arguably at its zenith. Access Hollywood reports "SCOTT PILGRIM CREATES COMIC-CON PANDEMONIUM." Billy Bush might have even said those exact words to himself or one of his loved ones-- and he's probably going to be President someday.
Months after that, SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD would be one of the most spectacular box office bombs of 2010.
It is the second bomb based upon an Oni Press comic, after 2009's WHITEOUT,
Would a film version of THE SIXTH GUN turn the tide on this deplorable trend? Well. One imagines there might be those in Tinsel Town reluctant to invest in what might be perceived, by lay persons, to be a "re-imagination" of 2010's multiple-Razzie nominee JONAH HEX, the most recent and most notable Weird Western movie, which also made its way onto various Biggest Bombs of 2010 lists...
And as we sit here today in 2011, Hollywood is enjoying the fruits of its latest attempt to cater to San Diego Comic Con crowds, Zach Snyder's SUCKERPUNCH. Here's a sample Comic Con panel report on advance footage of SUCKER PUNCH from 2010: "Unbelievably fast-aced [sic] and sleek and gritty. ... If you like women kicking ass, this film has plenty of it. Amazingly imaginative and creative. Reminds me of a video game on steroids."
Here's the New York Times: "There is nothing here to enjoy." Based on Cinemascore grades and box office numbers, audiences seem to agree.
When asked, there's a certain type of comic creator who likes to answer that comics are the "cheapest form of R&D there is," or some other small-minded variation thereof. And above, we have the results of the cheapest form of R&D in action. The fanboy audience can now help to isolate the DNA of failure with almost unerring accuracy. The boys in the lab can make movies no one wants to see lickety-split thanks to nerd R&D. Next up for Science: making cats ugly, decreasing the power of orgasms, and frowning at ice cream. Thanks to San Diego Comic Con, Hollywood can now research what a limited number of people who don't matter in any great scheme of things, what they happen to like better than ever. Congratulations, Einsteins!
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"It's so hard because-- here's the thing, I hope I'm completely wrong. I keep hearing-- I check Box Office Mojo, and I read IMDB and I read the trades and stuff like that. Just to get an idea of, like-- can you at least tell me what the market is looking for? And most of the time, it's 'We don't know-- We don't know-- We don't know.' But they keep throwing around this word niche ... and I'm hearing it more and more. And ever since Scott Pilgrim vs the World, i hear this more and more: 'That's niche.' Which [they suggest] is a bad thing, that Niche movies don't work. Aimed at a specific group of people that love this stuff to death. They want something that's going to be across the board-- get that small group, get your mom and dad, and it just made me go, you and I, our taste, the stuff that we love, we are completely in the minority."
-- Rob Schrab, from Episode 41 of Steve Agee's UHHH WHAT podcast.
But let's take another step back and try to put the context of this comic into context.
Let's make a map.
Let's make a map of the "mainstream"-- not the mainstream of the present day yet; let's start instead pre-internet. How about 1986? Picked out of a hat-- 1986.
1) Let's start with the burning white-hot center-- culture which everyone in the culture you would expect to know.
That white dot was well-populated in 1986. Michael Jackson lived there; Bruce Springsteen lived there; Harrison Ford, Madonna, Bill Cosby. For about two weeks, the band Timbuk 3. Fact.
2) Let's add movies in blue-- a nice large circle for Hollywood and its blockbusters. Let's add some a smaller circle for foreign films, and an exceedingly tiny dot for independent films-- SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE was still three years away at that point. Let's also add television in yellow-- with a tiny dot for cable. This is 1986, and for people not alive in that year, in 1986, not everyone had cable. If you think that's mind-blowing, it's only because you don't know/remember what remote controls for cable television looked like back then.
3) And add in music and books, in green and purple respectively and that should do it. Music will need a small cluster-- a big circle for popular music, but then country, jazz, R&B, and classical. Books-- we just need one for books and one for magazines, I figure. Oh, let's add a tiny dot in grey for videogames-- I think Atari was around by then-- something needs to reflect the nascent gaming culture. And let's add in comics-- let's put that out past books and magazines.
Okay. So there's a rough map of "mainstream culture" in 1986.
Fast-forward to 2011, present day. How do we redraw the map?
1) For movies, we should increase the circle for independent film; probably decrease the circle for foreign films. Let's add a dot for documentary films-- those seem to have hit more often lately. And we have to add a dot for the home market-- 1986, the home video VHS market was around by then, but it was not like it is now. You'd have to go to some musty Mom & Pop shop, and if they didn't carry the movie you wanted to see-- you weren't seeing it. Now, we have DVDs, Netflix on demand, Hulu on demand, On Demand on demand. Also: we should probably shrink the size of current blockbusters-- you know, TRANSFORMERS 2 was a blockbuster, financially, but it's actual place in people's lives is ... what, exactly?
2) For television, we should drastically increase the size of the cable circle, maybe add a smaller circle out for pay cable which has original programming now in a way that it didn't in 1986. Again, we have to shrink the size of the television dot to reflect decreased ratings in network programming.
3) Music-- we would have to completely disintegrate music into a mist. Pop music isn't as popular anymore. According to Wikipedia numbers, Lady Gaga's album only sold about 4-5 million copies; THRILLER, by comparison, sold 65-110 million copies; even MC Hammer's 1990 album PLEASE HAMMER DON'T HURT EM sold 18 million copies. On the other hand, when ARCADE FIRE won the Grammy for Best Album this year, the internet got filled with shrieks of "Who are ARCADE FIRE?" Add in the rise of a million different sub-genres-- do you like country music? Or do you like Alternative Country, Honkie Tonk Country, Americana, Country-Rock, Pop-Country, Western swing, Texas Country, Red Dirt music, Southern-Rock, Nashville Sound, or Rockabilly?
4) Books and magazines are easy-- those, we just have to shrink.
5) Games we increase in size, but even there, you have to reflect the different platforms, indie games, casual games, MMORPGS.
6) We'd need to add a dot for internet video. If someone told me they'd never seen an episode of TWO AND A HALF MEN, I'd think nothing of it-- I'd congratulate them-- but if someone my age told me they'd never seen the Star Wars Kid-- that would be a little odd to me. One instantiation of the Youtube version of the Star Wars Kid has been seen about 21 million times, alone.
7) And comics-- let's decrease in size to reflect decreases in sales, but let's add in a dot for literary comics. And let's add a tiny, tiny dot for webcomics. The Penny Arcade dot, basically (which is being generous).
8) Is that everything? Nope-- almost forgot the very activity you and I are engaged in right this second. We've forgotten that each of those dots has in its orbit a cluster of podcasts, blogospheres, web-videos, tumblr accounts, facebook fan-groups, and twits. We'd need to add a fog around each and every dot to represent that.
So taking all that into consideration, here's what our culture looks like in 2011:
And here's what my ridiculous and pointless new map looks like:
2011 looks like someone vomited pepto bismol on top of a bag of skittles. Feels that way too some days, am I right or am I right? Or am I right? What lives in that white dot anymore...? For about a week, Charlie Sheen. For thirty glorious minutes in 2004, Keenan Ivory Wayan's WHITE CHICKS.
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"You never know what's in the cards. I'm really doing my best not to think about it too much. I became obsessed with the possibilities for a while, and it doesn't do anyone any good as a creator. My best bet, I decided, was to concentrate on making the best comic book I can and be pleasantly surprised if any of the Hollywood stuff comes together."
-- THE SIXTH GUN writer Cullen Bunn.
We don't know what impact Oni's efforts to "find creative partners" may (or may not) have had on THE SIXTH GUN's contents, publication or reception by its comic audience, and can only speculate as to what its reception would be outside of the comic audience. Oni pursued a strategy of focusing on genre-but-not-superhero-genre books in the hopes of growing the comics audience beyond superhero fans. In the case of the SCOTT PILGRIM book series, that strategy may have proven extremely successful, notwithstanding any disappointment to the box office returns of the movie version. That strategy seems laudable, what's more.
So, what in pluperfect hell does any of this b.s. have to do with THE SIXTH GUN???
Well but okay-- my little map of 2011. Where am I on that map? What is my relationship to all those blurs? I still watch television and movies, sure. Though-- for television, mostly cable television. But besides that, maybe in equal amount, maybe in an increasingly greater amount, comedy podcasts-- the WTF podcast is two hours of out every week for me, say, and that's not the only one I listen to. More movies from Netflix Instant Watch than from a theater, certainly. Web video-- huge chunk of my time. Even comics-- my comic time is split up now between traditional paper comics, webcomics, reading essays about comics, that Oh Wait podcast. Music, I learn about from blogs, and listen to almost exclusively from youtube-- and as is the case elsewhere, I chase fleeting whim. About four months ago, I spent a week listening exclusively to calypso music-- I was just in one of those places in my life where I really needed to hear songs about rum and imperialism, you guys. And a huge chunk of time following the lives of arbitrarily-selected strangers on tumblr, which has really become my entertainment of choice more than anything else.
If you were to be given my media consumption, you would likely rebel because it is becoming, with every day, increasingly tailored to my ever more narrow interests.
You may like movies but you probably prefer snuff movies to whatever the hell it is I watch on Netflix. You may not have my interest in comedy podcasts, or may have that interest but for entirely different podcasts than the ones I listen to. You probably listen exclusively to snuff podcasts. The Sound of Young America Being Snuffed. You may not want to know what happens in the lives of random 20-something girls with tumblr accounts as eagerly as I do... or you may follow the lives of random 20-something girls but an entirely different group of them! Let that blow your mind. Either way, I think those ladies should be afraid because you will probably someday snuff them.
So, now more than ever it's easier to go not only into niches, but, like, hyper-niches. Except: well, there's Pixar right? But I know with Pixar even, one of the most common compliments I hear for their work is "anyone can like it." Which-- isn't that a weird thing to compliment? It seems like it should be, at least if you grew up with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE, movies that I don't think were age-specific...?
How does all of the above affect how any of us consume something like THE SIXTH GUN? Does it?
When it's a specific comic, but not specific to my peculiar set of tastes-- (e.g. when it's operating within the four-corners of the Weird Western genre, and I'm not a Weird Western fan), does that make me less excited about it than I would have been before this fragmentation? Or when it's trying to be a big crowdpleaser, with massive zombie battles and dull, pretty-boy heroes-- is that somehow more offensive to me now than before, now that I'm ever more effectively a crowd of one? And to what extent am I limited in my ability to communicate anything meaningful about THE SIXTH GUN's virtues and/or demerits in light of that? Or does what I was saying about Pixar above apply equally to THE SIXTH GUN? Am I actually more enthusiastic about THE SIXTH GUN than I would otherwise be because I do sort of admire how THE SIXTH GUN seems like it could appeal to kids of "All Ages?" Or am I unaffected by any of this at all, and when I sit down with THE SIXTH GUN, it's just me and the comic, fuck the world...?
I'm not sure what the answer to any of these are because I'm not sure how much I'm lying to myself fundamentally about what it is that I want. There are things I might say that I want from future volumes of THE SIXTH GUN-- for it to be weirder, MUCH scarier, a little sexier, maybe a little bit more ... about something? I might say those things, I might think that I want this comic to be more specific to my tastes, to make me feel less interchangeable by virtue of the fact I'm consuming something less interchangeable. But if it did those things, if it did every single one of those things, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be at the expense of being a "crowdpleaser," at being universal, and maybe what I actually want is that instead, to feel connected to some great mass audience, more connected to my fellow man and/or lady. Which one of my neurotic and sad needs will win? Oh, the suspense of it all.
Probably, however, there's a third answer. And probably it's that I want things to be tailored to my narrow tastes-- but that I want the rest of you to share my narrow tastes identically.
...But-- but SHIT, why wouldn't you want that anyways? I ask you!
Comedy podcasts and videos!
Strangers on Tumblr!
Erotic games of cat & mouse!
How great does sharing my narrow tastes identically sound? Sounds great to me! Try to disagree if you want, with your Oni comics and your misery, but logic, reason and deduction tells me one of us is walking away with a trophy, and that's probably going to be me.
It's your move.