Comic Culture: Cullen Bunn
Harrow County and Deadpool writer Cullen Bunn discusses pitching a comic, avoiding friends who need a sofa moved, and the discipline needed to be a professional writer.
- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.
I'm Terence Dollard a professor at the Department
of Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina
My guest today is Cullen Bunn.
He's a writer of may interesting comics including
Harrow County, Deadpool from Marvel, and the X-Men.
Cullen welcome to Comic Culture.
- Hi Terence, thanks for having me.
- Let's get started with Harrow County.
It's a book about,
I guess it's almost a coming of age book
that involves those creepy sounds
that we hear in the middle of the night that kind of
put a chill up our spine.
An yet it's a book, that is very light
and very engaging
because of the,
I guess the approach you have to the characters.
What were you thinking when you were coming up
with the ideas behind Harrow County?
- We wanted to tell a story that has the trappings
of a horror story.
And there are definitely horror elements
in Harrow County.
But we also wanted to capture that sort of sense of wonder
and that sense of--
that sense of fun
that kind of surrounds
all those crazy ghost stories you might have heard
when you we're growing up.
These strange rural legends that you hear about.
They're creepy and they're at times startling,
but they still have this sort of fun feel to them.
And I think we did that mainly through--
The story is mainly seen through the eyes
of this character Emmy,
who approaches everything with this wonderful sense--
sense of wonder and astonishment and excitement
over these horrible things she's encountering.
We kind of wanted it to be--
Something just fell over there.
- See, super natural forces.
We wanted it, almost to read like a fairy tale
in a lot of ways.
And that's how I started describing it early on,
was sort of a Southern-gothic-fairytale,
rather than saying it's a straight horror story.
- What's really interesting,
and I guess ties into that is
the style of art that Tyler Crook is using in the book
which seems to be in addition to pen and ink,
- Yeah, yeah.
- Which is something we generally don't see in comics.
It's usually those brighter more saturated colors,
and it's a very delicate storybook like,
color palette that he's using.
So again, this is something that the two of you,
I guess conspiring onto, to give us as the reader.
- Yeah, let's just take a moment to talk about
how amazing Tyler Crook is.
He does this all by hand.
Nothing is done digitally for Tyler.
He pencils it.
He inks it.
He watercolors it.
And he letters the entire thing.
He was very instrumental and that was the style he wanted
to do the book in
when we started talking about the story,
and the direction we were going to go with it.
And yeah, it's mostly sort of these soft colors,
sort of a pretty story in many ways,
and then suddenly when you get into
the real supernatural elements.
Like in the first few pages of the first issue,
the colors change and it gets very bright
and sort of
garish in a lot of ways.
And you'll even see that lighter--
We encounter ghosts and instead of having these ghosts
be ethereal and misty,
Tyler was really set on they had to be flaming
and had to be really bright.
And he really wanted to play around with the look
of the book.
And you can look online too.
He's posted a lot of time lapse videos
of him doing everything.
From thumbnails to the final art.
So it's kind of interesting to see
everything just kind of come together on the page
with him working on it.
- And again, it's a beautiful book to look at.
And I guess between the way
that you're approaching the characters
and the way that Tyler is approaching the art,
it kind of lulz you into a sense
of being a little comfortable at times,
and then it pulls you into that dark corner where
we hear those sounds.
In our case, it was Superman blue falling off of
his podium over here on our set.
We have haints.
As a creator is this,
is there a risk in your mind to have a book,
that looks one way but twists another way?
Or are you expecting that the reader
who is going to pick it up is sophisticate enough
to go along with it?
- There is always a risk with that sort of thing.
I mean, there is a risk in telling a story like
Harrow County, which is kind of slow.
It's very deliberate in its pacing.
There is always the chance that comic readers
won't stick around for that.
As we're working on it,
we kind of have a fairly good feel
for who our audience for the book is.
And we know that they trust us enough to stick around
for what' next.
And I think they--
I don't want to say they expect what's going to happen,
because I think Harrow County is a book that really
throws some real curve balls at the readers,
as the story progresses.
But they know--
I think they trust us to tell the story
and we have to trust them to stick around with it
and they have to trust us to tell a story
they're going to enjoy.
This is a book--
We have an ending in mind for Harrow County.
We know where the series ends
and we're working towards that.
And there is some stuff in the later issues,
that's going to be pretty jarring.
And it could even upset some people
when they read it.
I think in the end,
it will all make for a good solid story.
- In the first collection of issues from Dark Horse,
in the back there is some chapters that
you had written of an actual prose novel
of Harrow County, but with a different protagonist.
I believe Maddy was the character.
- At what point do you decide that this would make
a better comic than novel.
And how do you get together with Tyler
to sort of put this idea together before you pitch it
to Dark Horse.
As a novelist, honestly, it kind of died on the vine.
It was kind of an experiment.
It was just something, I was posting a chapter a week
online and it just--
I got busy with other things.
And I just couldn't continue the story.
But that story was something that always stuck with me
in the back of my mind it was always,
Years later, I had worked with Tyler on a couple
of issues of The Sixth Gun
and Dark Horse asked him if he was interested
in doing a create-our-own book with him.
He reached out to me and we kind of pitched several ideas
back and forth.
There were number of story ideas that we kind of thought
would possibly work for Dark Horse.
And really on a lark, I sent Tyler--
I said check this out, and see what you think.
And I sent him the chapters I had written,
for the book,
which at the time was called Countless Haints.
And he liked it.
He loved it.
The biggest thing he said was
he asked if we could change it to,
the time period.
He wanted to change the time period from--
The novel had been set in modern era
and he wanted to change it to a 1930's era.
Because he thought that would give him some more visual--
Some interesting things he could do visually.
And I was all for that.
And that's really--
From there it just kind of steamed roll our course,
really latched on to the idea
and we went from there.
- You mentioned The Sixth Gun and you mentioned
changing the time period from the current date
to the 1930's.
I was going to ask you about that.
It seemed you're playing with time periods
in American History that are,
well there is less technology.
So we're not.
I guess as writer, does that give you a chance
to do something that isn't as convenient
as taking the phone out and calling 911,
when your characters get into trouble?
- That is absolutely a benefit of telling a story
that takes place pre-cellphone.
when I was writing it as a novel,
I was thinking of places where my parents lived,
that could very easily--
You go into that area and you felt like you were traveling
back 30, 40 years back in time.
The real reason was not necessarily--
to give us that benefit,
the no cellphone benefit,
was because it would give Tyler something
very interesting to draw.
He wanted to draw clothing from that time period,
and vehicles from that time period.
And I think that really.
It opened some doors for us that I wasn't expecting.
I think it helped us with some of the attitudes
of the characters and helped us define
some of the characters, in some more interesting ways.
It doesn't hurt that Emmy can't Google,
whatever ghost that she's encountering to figure out
how to best it or to get rid of it,
but that wasn't necessarily the reason we changed it from
modern day to 1930's.
- When we met in Charlotte at HeroesCon this year,
you had mentioned that your father was from North Carolina,
and that he would tell you
tales of his childhood
and that sort of impacted you as a storyteller.
So I was wondering,
if you could just expand upon that a little bit.
How hearing stories at home
sort of made you want to tell stories as a professional.
- Yeah, my dad was just always telling stories.
He was never--
He never aspired to be a writer or a storyteller,
professional storyteller in any way.
But he was always telling stories
about things that had happened to him when he was a kid.
And things that he had seen.
And I think that just--
I just picked up on it
because then I was telling stories to my friends.
And then I've always told stories,
since I was very young.
And I guess maybe--
It was the combination of my dad
telling me all these stories and doing all these things.
And I was reading, books and comics, pretty heavily.
And I just wanted to contribute to that
and tell my own stories.
And I wanted to find ways to get people
to share these ideas,
and these stories with other people.
Because from a very young age I was writing.
I was writing and drawing my own comics.
And I was writing a novel
when I was in fifth or sixth grade.
It's terrible but--
I still have it somewhere around here somewhere in a folder.
It's really awful novel.
I was always trying to put stories together.
And I felt like it just was a way
of contributing to those stories my dad was telling.
This is my way of telling those stories.
And sharing my own version of those stories.
- You are a reader of comics,
but the comics that we're talking about today are
more those kind of folk stories comics.
Harrow County in particular but--
You've also done work for Marvel, D.C.
with super hero stories.
I'm wondering, how that sort of more action genre
fits in with your style,
which is at least in your create-your-own work
is more character driven.
- They definitely scratch different itches
for me creatively.
If I'm being honest about my work.
The super hero stuff is a little more difficult.
And probably takes a little more work,
than the create your own stuff.
Not just because,
I don't have an editor who is--
I have editors but they're not necessarily making me--
They don't have as strong a voice in guiding the story.
In superhero books,
for D.C. and Marvel.
The editors are going to be a little more
hands on in the work.
Different editors have different levels
of comfort with that.
I think I struggle sometimes with just finding the right
pacing for the super hero audience.
And that audience is changing.
And that may honestly be a little bit of the
stuff that is contributing to this learning curve for me,
because when I was reading super hero comics,
they were something very different
than what you're getting today.
When you're getting stories that are much more--
The stories in super hero books are much more character
driven then they were say, when I was a kid.
I was probably, at least early on,
definitely writing to
the comics I read as a kid.
And I don't know that those trends--
that that voice translates as well to modern reader.
- It's interesting.
I've spoken to a lot of the--
I guess the silver age writers and artists,
who say that,
we used to do things back in the day in two issues,
that today's writers are taking a year to do.
And I guess that is because they're looking more into the
character development and making the--
I guess the story with more impact.
Is that a result of television and film's influence
- I kind of feel like it has to be.
We've seen television move into this
Where it used to be, you get episode of the week.
And you could watch an episode and be out of the series,
watch one episode this week,
and skip three episodes and watch one in another week,
and still follow along.
more and more shows
have a continuing storyline.
Those are the shows that I gravitate to.
Those are the ones I like most.
I think it's just a--
I think that's definitely impacted comics,
to some degree.
The level of decompression is shocking sometimes.
I don't necessarily think about it too often.
But you think about stories like X-Men Days of Future Past,
when I think back on that story, from the 70's.
It was a massive story, it had to be 10 issues long.
It was only two issues.
And I remember I was hired once to write a
100 page graphic novel,
which was the retelling of Spiderman's origin,
in 100 pages.
And I picked up the first, telling of Spiderman's origin
and it's 11 pages.
So I was basically adapting an 11 page story
into a 100 page story.
Because they felt like readers wanted to take their time
with it and really become invested with those characters.
- It seems like, especially in your work,
there is that more novel style to the writing.
When I was reading Harrow County,
I found myself sometimes skipping some of the panels
just to keep reading the captions and the balloons.
As writer you're taking that approach.
How does that work with the Marvel style,
which traditionally would be Stan Lee telling someone,
Okay, the Fantastic Four fights God, go!
- My scripts have never been that Marvel style.
I think I may have written, one or two issues of a book
in that style.
But never a Marvel book.
I write full scripts for everything.
When the artist I'm working with,
gets the script,
it's broken down by panel.
They see exactly what text is going to be in that panel.
But they're never really kind of thrown into,
thrown out like,
here is what I want happen on the page, go!
The only times I've done that have been at the request
of the artists because they wanted to do something
special for a specific issue.
And then we went right back to full scripts after
they got that out of their system or worked on that issue
in that way.
But typically, like I said, I write a full script.
And the artists knows exactly, text-wise,
at least what I envisioned to be on that script.
Sometimes the artist will add panels,
or combine panels.
So after the art comes in,
I will usually go back through my script,
and sometimes rewrite some of the dialogue,
or the captions or move things around.
Sometimes if I feel like something isn't clear in the art,
I'll go in and try to use dialogue
to make that a little more clear.
But for the most part, when the artist gets the scripts,
they know exactly where everything,
at least where I intend everything to be.
- Seems like with the number of books
that you're working on a month.
I know you're working on something for IDW now.
And your own creator work.
Now we had talked before we started taping about
it being a gloomy day.
in Missouri where you are.
It's not like you're working in an office where
you've got the boss or the foreman who is
making you get back to work.
How do you keep yourself disciplined,
to hit all those deadlines,
to get those stories written and how do you keep it,
from just turning out and you know--
You're just turning out trash instead of the
art that you cans see in your head?
- The non-artistic answer to that is,
the need to pay my bills keeps me pretty motivated.
There is a lot of truth to that.
I have to produce work in order to get paid.
I also have to produce work in order for other people
to get paid.
If I don't write scripts.
The artists who are working with me
don't have work to draw.
There is a sense of, other people are counting on me,
to get these things done,
in order for everybody to be gainfully employed.
Keeping it from being just a grind,
and just sort of milling out
or work that I don't care about.
I generally love what I'm doing,
and that' a big motivator.
If I didn't love comics I wouldn't work so hard,
and work as many hours as I do.
There are other jobs I can do,
that don't take as much time.
If I'm going to do something that I don't love,
there is many jobs I could do that would pay.
And I wouldn't have to invest as much time in it
as I do comics.
I work more than a 40 hour week.
Maybe it's a little bit of a sickness.
I work long hours and long days,
and I work weekends and I don't take vacations.
The only way I can do that without it becoming,
torturous is that I genuinely love--
I love telling these stories and I love these characters.
- It's interesting to--
when people start talking about being a writer or an artist,
they always talk about the discipline that it takes.
I think a lot of people on the outside,
always think of it as,
well you have it easy.
You don't have to go to the office.
You don't have to sit in the car
and have that long commute.
You don't have to stare at the machine
and make license plates,
or whatever it is that people do these days.
I know for my point of view working in television,
that there is a heck of a lot of work,
that goes into it that no one ever sees.
You find that you work a lot longer,
than you wanted to on something,
but you have to get it right.
When people talk to you being a writer.
Do you often get that,
well you've got it so lucky kind of thing?
I thin there is a lot of misconceptions,
about what it means to be a writer.
I have a friend who just recently became a full-time writer
and he's startled at how many people
are asking him to help move.
Help pick up couches from the store,
and help them with the projects around at their house.
Things like that.
And he's absolutely right, you get that stuff all the time.
Because people don't think of writing as a job.
I've had to tell this friend of mine several times.
You're just going to have to cut them loose.
You just have to tell them, leave me alone.
Lock the doors.
Don't answer your phone.
It's the perception of what people think
They think it's--
Again, I think it's a fun job,
and I think if I wasn't having fun, I wouldn't do it.
Bu that doesn't mean it's easy.
It can be tough.
It means planting my rear in a chair,
and sitting in front of the computer.
For long, long stretches of time.
It's a great job to have.
And it's a much easier job than lot of jobs out there
in the world.
But it's still a job.
And that's the thing that I think a lot of people
don't necessarily see.
- It seems that with
comics becoming more popular than
probably at any time,
with shows like The Walking Dead,
and the films Marvel on the big screen,
are there any plans for Harrow County or The Sixth Gun
to end up on the big screen or the little screen?
- We'll have to see.
The Sixth Gun, has been under development
at a number of places.
They shot a pilot for NBC
that wasn't picked up as a series.
Harrow County is right now being,
being looked at by Sci-fi Channel as a TV series.
They're working on scripts for that show.
It's a possibility.
The book I did for Boom! called the empty man
is being filmed right now, as a feature film.
It's one of those things,
it's a little surreal.
Bu I also can't think about it too much,
because I don't want to get so obsessed with it
that it derails me from my actually writing books.
- Is this something where other people are coming up
with the ideas or are they involving you in it,
or are they just using your source material?
- It's a mix.
They have, at least so far.
Everything that has been in development.
They've kept me very involved.
Much more involved than,
than I actually expected them to.
So that I'm seeing scripts at every stage.
And I'm offering feedback,
at every stage, including casting and things like that.
But they definitely--
These projects have been kind of spearheaded by other people
who've worked in television or in movies.
So they've had success in that area.
And we've let them kind of take the ball and run.
Although they've definitely kept us in the loop,
more than they probably have to.
- That's fantastic.
- Let's talk about your writing for different publishers.
It seems like you've gone from Marvel, to D.C., to IDW
to Boom! to Oni,
to your own Dark Horse work.
Is this something where you've got to work this all out
ahead of time or is this--
something where you're a free agent
and you can go where you like?
- Yeah, I'm a free agent.
Early on, when I first went full-time as a writer
a few years back.
I was under an exclusive contract with Marvel.
And that basically meant--
I had to work solely for Marvel.
I had a certain number of books I had to do for Marvel.
There were some carve outs for books that had already been--
that I had under contract with other publishers.
But for the most part that locked everything down so.
I was working solely for them.
When that exclusive expired,
at that point I can work with anybody.
And there was a moment of sort of terror there,
Oh oh, now Marvel doesn't have to give me any work.
But I'm doing more work for Marvel now,
then I was even when I was under an exclusive contract
And yeah, I can work with pretty much anybody.
The only thing I have to keep in mind now is,
if I were working on several big projects for Marvel,
and let's say,
this isn't the case,
but let's say D.C. came to me and said,
hey here is a big project we want you to work on
it may affect, impact my schedule with Marvel,
and I have to balance those things out,
and talk to editors and make sure,
everybody is comfortable with it.
I have sort of a nice situation where I'm not late
on any projects, and I've never been late on any projects
They can trust that, if I'm going to do work for Boom!
or work on a new create-your-own--
They never get worried when they hear that I've got
another create-your-own project coming out.
Because I've never been late with any of this work.
- I see we have about a minute left in the show.
It's probably not enough time
but could you tell us how you got Marvel's attention?
This is what I tell everybody who asks how you break in
What I did was--
I did a book for a smaller publisher.
It was The Sixth Gun.
And it was published by Oni Press.
Editors at Marvel and D.C. read that book,
and then they reached out to me.
And that's what I tell anyone who wants to break in
Do your ow thing first,
whether you self publish it,
or go with a smaller publisher,
You Kickstart it, whatever.
Do your own thing first
and if the work is good,
and it shows off who you are
as a creator.
Other editors and other publishers are going to take notice.
- Cullen, I've been told that we are out of time.
I'm just surprised how quickly this half hour has gone by.
I'd like to thank you so much for joining us today
on Comic Culture and I'd like to thank those of you
at home watching the show.
We hope to see you again next time.