That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Knowing Where You Stand: The Skilled Illusions of The Sixth Gun

I’ve always felt that a key part of writing was establishing what is and isn’t possible in the story. Yeah, it’s fiction—anything’s possible, but there have to be some parameters. Is my story set in the real world? Something close to the real world? Something completely unlike the world as we know it?

It’s important for a writer to know these things because it’s easy for the reader to feel cheated when a story reveals elements that don’t fit in the established world. Imagine the outrage if, in book seven of A Song of Fire and Ice, we learned that Tyrion wasn’t a dwarf but an exiled alien prince inserted into the Lannister family via hypnotic ray. Or if on iZombie we learned that Liv became one of the undead because of a secret voodoo ritual, not a chemical mixture. When we go through a classic locked-room mystery novel and discover, ten pages from the end, that the killer’s a vampire who turned to mist and slipped through the keyhole… that’s frustrating and annoying.

Yeah, sometimes this kind of upheaval can make for great moments if the writer’s talented and clever and careful. We all loved those last-minute Twilight Zone twists, after all. Most of the time, though, finding out this was Earth all along feels like… well, like a cheat.

And nobody likes being cheated.

The world of my story has to be true to itself. Even if I leave things floating in limbo (is it sci-fi? Is it magic? Is it the real world?), it’ll just gnaw at my audience. They may not even realize it, but something about the world I’m describing (or not describing) just won’t sit right.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to The Sixth Gun.

sixth-gunIt’s an ongoing series of comic books/graphic novels written by Cullen Bunn (and illustrated by Brian Hurtt and Tyler Crook, with colors by Bill Crabtree), due to finish up later this year with issue #50. It’s fantastic and you should head to your local comic shop right now and pick it up. Seriously, just bookmark this article and go grab all the graphic novels. You can thank me later.

The Sixth Gun is a weird west story. It’s set in a turn-of-the-last-century United States where there are undead soldiers, evil spirits, golems, and all sorts of dark magic. One of our first glimpses of this world is a tree filled with the ghosts of hanged men, oracle ghosts who will give the answer to any one question. The tree can only be found at midnight using a special map, and it’s strongly implied the map leads different people to different places… but always to the same tree.

And, of course, there’s the Six—a set of sought-after mystical revolvers, each with its own fantastic ability, which become even more powerful when they’re united.

Most people in this world… well, there are probably some folks who’ll never encounter anything supernatural in their lifetimes, but they’re in the minority. Magic isn’t common, but it isn’t exactly rare. It’s a world that’s maybe four parts ours and one part… something else. If you picture Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sunnydale a hundred years ago, you’ve got a pretty solid grasp of the world of The Sixth Gun.

The first six-issue arc, “Cold Dead Fingers,” is a self-contained story set in “the old west,” and it works fine. But then Bunn goes beyond that. Louisiana. Tennessee. Washington D.C. He introduces two rival religious groups which are hunting the Six for different reasons (and also hunting our leads, Drake Sinclair and Becky Montcrief), a voodoo priest who just wants to wait for the apocalypse in peace, a fake carnival sideshow attraction based around a real mummy who sees the future, and even a wendigo. The weirdness is everywhere. It’s lush and pervasive and touches every character in some way or another.

Of course, lots of writers have pulled off this sort of world. Bunn’s woven some fantastic elements into his story, and that weave’s very tight and clean, but it’s not like we’ve never seen a weird west setting before. So at first glance, it’s tempting to say The Sixth Gun series is like a skilled illusionist doing a variation on an old, familiar trick.

But then he does something wonderful.

Did I mention Bunn is talented and clever and careful? Enough so that with just a few words, a little more than a short paragraph, he turns this familiar stage trick into actual, mind-blowing magic. Those words took my breath away and turned The Sixth Gun into the best weird west story I’ve ever read in any format. They make me bite my tongue every time I talk about this series, because it’s such a perfect, well-placed gut-punch and I don’t want to rob anyone else of its impact.

I’ve said too much! Get to your comic store! Now!

Peter Clines has published several pieces of short fiction and countless articles on the film and television industries. He is the author of the Ex-Heroes series and the acclaimed standalone thriller 14. His latest novel, The Fold, is available from Crown Publishing.

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