Friday, April 15, 2016

Recommended Reading for 4/15: The Sixth Gun

The Weird Western genre has had a resurgence in recent years, and while some of that can be attributed to DC's push on Jonah Hex,as much if not more can go to Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's The Sixth Gun, a creator owned western out of Oni Press that proved that original Western content had an audience still hungry for it, this writer included (cool fact: issue one of the series was Oni Press's 2010 Free Comic Book Day issue, for which I am grateful, since that's how I discovered the series. Another case where FCBD has done something awesome for me). While Bunn and heart had both done work in comics before (as a matter of fact, they had done a series called The Damned for Oni), this is the series that shone a spotlight on them, and as the series begins its final arc next Wednesday, I wanted to spend some time discussing why you should check it out.

Set in the Reconstruction era American South, The Sixth Gun is the story of a band of unlikely heroes attempting to stop the destruction and recreation of the world using six magical guns. The two main characters of the series are Drake Sinclair, a roguish gunman with secrets in his past, and Becky Montcrief, the innocent young woman who comes into possession of the eponymous Sixth Gun at the beginning of the series, and must keep it out of the hands of undead confederate generals, witches, serpent creatures, and all manner of monsters, or the world is doomed. Throughout the series, a wide variety of deeply written and interesting allies and enemies have lived and died, but Drake and Becky stand at the center of the story.

Before I talk about more plot and character stuff, I just want to address the title and its eponymous weapon. The Sixth Gun has been a tremendous achievement of world building, which I know is one of my favorite phrases, but it's something that draws me to a story. I love when the creators of a comic, novel, movie, or any work of fiction take time to plot out not only a long game, but to give thought to the world around their character, and the objects and locations in it. The Six, the magical guns that are the driving force of the series, are really well thought out. I want to give the description of each gun drawn from The Sixth Gun RPG as they use phrasing from the comic and show that Bunn put thought into each gun as an object on it own, instead of treating them simply as MacGuffins:

The First Gun strikes with the ungodly force of a cannon shell.

The Second Gun spreads the very flames of Perdition.

The Third Gun Spreads the flesh-rotting plagues of old.

The Fourth Gun calls up the spirits of the men and women it has slain.

The Fifth Gun grants eternal youth and the ability to heal from even fatal wounds.

The Sixth Gun speaks to its wielder, revealing the past and the future.

The opening arc of The Sixth Gun introduces readers not just to Drake and Becky, and details how Becky comes to posses the Sixth Gun, but the the current holders of the other guns of The Six. They are a group of former Confederate soldiers who served under the merciless General Oleander Hume, previous holder of the Sixth Gun, as well as Hume's wife. There goal is to retrieve the Sixth Gun so they can return it to the now undead Hume and begin bringing about the apocalypse. Becky and Drake travel, along with Drake's partner Billjohn O'Henry to the Maw, a prison built by Hume, and there, along with one of the prisoners, Gord Cantrell, face down Hume's army of the Undead and the bearers of the Six.

That first arc captures so much about what makes The Sixth Gun a great comic. Not only do we meet a group of fascinating characters, but it's a tense race to keep the Sixth Gun from the hands of General Hume's men, and the final battle at the Maw is a gorgeous set piece, brilliantly put together by Brian Hurtt and featuring monsters and men doing battle.

The series follows Becky and Drake through many different locales, some real or realistic, some decidedly fanciful. The second arc takes place on the streets of New Orleans, but streets populated by Caribbean crossroads gods and demons. There are towns populated by snake people that serve Griselda, the Grey Witch, the mother of General Hume and a powerful sorceress. One whole arc takes place nearly entirely in a supernatural snow storm, with supernatural wolves hunting out heroes. And when Becky goes on a Native American ghost walk, we see the origin of the Six and how they have taken different forms throughout many different ages,

The balance between the western and the weird is another of the charms of The Sixth Gun. While the villains include witches and undead generals, there are also Pinkerton detectives employed to find out heroes. The Native American tribes are always treated respectfully and realistically in their bearing, but there are thunderbirds of myth and the shrunken head of a shaman that possesses his bearer. And while not dwelt on, the social ramifications of the civil war are present, while the possible ramifications of the end of the world always dog the protagonists.

And now it's time to talk about those protagonists. Becky Montcrief is the center of the series, not just as the bearer of the title Sixth Gun, but as she is the character whose emotional journey rests at its core. When we first meet Becky, she is an innocent who has been living with her stepfather away from civilization. But when she comes into possession of the Sixth Gun (which her stepfather had, having been part of the party that liberated it from General Hume), she has to grow up fast. We watch Becky become part of the world outside her limited sphere, and not slowly. She not only has to deal with monsters hunting her, but the weight of responsibility. We watch Becky become a woman to be reckoned with as we move towards the series ending.

Drake Sinclair's path is one of redemption. Drake was part of General Hume's crew during the Civil War, but when he realized just how evil Hume was, Drake broke ties with the General, and tried to live his post-War years as a scoundrel and ne'er-do-well, looking out only for himself, his partner, and his pockets. But when he is drawn into the web of he apocalypse and the Six, Drake does his best to redeem himself for his selfishness and dark actions, and pays repeatedly with his own blood and hat of his friends. I'm a sucker for a redemption story, and Drake is a man who wants to do better, even if he so often falls short.

But if I had to pick a favorite character in the series, it would be Gord Cantrell. Gord is a former slave and a former prisoner of General Hume's Maw prison. He is also one of he few truly and fully good characters in the series. He had dabbled with the dark arts as a younger man, but now has passed through that crucible to be a trusted friend and ally to Becky, using his knowledge of magic to help find a way to destroy the Six. With a past filled with tragedy, Gord is a rich character who feels his own life is worth the sacrifice to save the world.

The final recurring heroic character, and I use the heroic in this case loosely, is Kirby Hale. Hale is a young gunslinger, handsome and charming, and cocky to the extreme. And you're never sure exactly whose side he's on. Kirby's first appearance sparks a romantic triangle of sorts between him, Becky, and Drake. His feelings complicate his life, as he really develops feelings for Becky, which drives him to be a better man and make choices the previously smarmy gunslinger never would have.

The villains of The Sixth Gun are a little more hand-wringingly evil at the time of the series, as most of them have surrendered much of their humanity to the power of The Six or to other forces of evil, but the spin-off mini-series have given us more of an understanding of their times before evil ruled them. The four men who wield four of the guns at the beginning of the series each get a spotlight issue to see what they were after the war and before they returned to hunt the Sixth Gun. Jesup Sutter, a Pinkerton who served Missy Hume and eventually Griselda the Grey Witch, shares a mini-series and we see that he has tragedy in his background. But General Hume and his wife, Missy, and Griselda the Grey Witch, who is revealed as the series big bad? They are more given over the the darkness, and are much less sympathetic figures, which is perfectly fine, if you ask me. When you're trying to bring about the apocalypse, there's a good chance evil is as evil does.

And over the course of the forty-seven issues so far, there are many more fascinating characters. Members of two rival orders, the Knights of Solomon, who seek the secrets and powers of the magical artifacts throughout the world, and the Sons of the Sword of Abraham, a holy order of priests dedicated to destroying The Six, move in and out of the series, the former led by Jesup Sutter, the latter by the noble but driven Brother Roberto. Towards the middle of the series, Becky and Drake gain two Native American allies, the warrior Nahuel and the medicine woman Nidawi, as well as the totem they wield, the shrunken head of the medicine man Screaming Crow, who can possess the bodies of the living and wield his magic through them. And the most odd character of all, Asher Cobb. Cobb was born with gigantism, and after his death was mummified, and whose corpse is now an oracle. Cobb is another character who I found absolutely fascinating, and whose tragic life makes his choices, both good and bad, understandable. And let me boil that down: he's an eight-foot tall mummy who sees the future; if that's not a comic book concept, I never heard one.

 Brian Hurtt's art works perfectly in tandem with Cullen Bunn's scripts. His work captures both the old west and the fantastic elements of the stories, with large and terrifying creatures, like giant white wolves, as well as gunslingers and saloons. The book wouldn't ring with the authenticity without his thoroughly researched work (and if he didn't research the hell out of the period, he's got me fooled).  On top of his excellent character designs, making all the main and minor characters of The Sixth Gun memorable, the monsters and settings make this is visually outstanding series. And on top of Hurtt's excellent work, one of my favorite artists in comics, Tyler Crook of BPRD and Harrow County fame, did three one-off issues focusing on the backgrounds of Kirby Hale, Asher Cobb, and Griselda, as well as my favorite of the the spin off mini-series, the one focusing on Drake's loyal partner Billjohn O'Henry.

The Sixth Gun is a western tale with magic, monsters, romance, and style. If you're a fan of Stephen King's The Dark Tower, another western by way of magic, or traditional westerns of any stripe, it's a great book to try out, and with the concluding arc kicking off this Wednesday, you have three months to get caught up before the big finale.

The Sixth Gun is collected in eight individual trade paperbacks, starting with Cold Dead Fingers, all of which are readily available at comic shops and on-line, that collect the entire series to date, as well as three trades that collect the spin-off mini-series. There are also three over-sized hardcovers to date, but those have not quite reached the most recent arcs, so if you want to get caught up, the trades are the way to go, or if you like big hardcovers, a final volume or two should finish off the series,

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