Six Guns and Sorcery... and Worms... and Gadgets... and Zombies...
Copyright © 2011 Cullen Bunn
(With Mark off teaching the scribes of tomorrow at the Sewanee
Young Writers' Conference, Cullen Bunn, author of Nexus Graphica
faves The Sixth Gun and The Damned, grabs the reins and delivers
his knock 'em dead survey of inspirational items for writers of the weird western.
How Weird Westerns Can Be Inspirational
One of the perks of writing a comic book series like The Sixth Gun is that I get to read (and re-read)
a bunch of my favorite Weird Western comics, short stories, and novels and watch (and re-watch) my favorite
Weird Western movies and TV shows. This, as they say in the biz (at least in my lonely little corner of the biz)
is research. Even when it's not research, it's inspiration. (One of the toughest battles any writer will face is
convincing his or her loved ones that -- no, really -- watching that movie trilogy all afternoon is work!) But when I'm
stuck or burned out or just feeling low, there's a handful of spooky Western inspiration that helps me do a little
If you're a fan of The Sixth Gun, you can consider the books, stories, and movies on this list to be
the primordial ooze from which my story of six supernatural six-shooters crawled. This isn't everything, by any
means. If I was going to detail a complete recipe, I'd have to include
Michael Moorcock's Corum and Elric books, Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Star Wars
trilogy, a bunch more horror movies, and more comic books than most normal people can easily imagine. For this
column, though, I stuck to Westerns (and a good many of them weird). I also skipped role-playing games, even
though the old AD&D Dungeon Master Guide's mention of playing a game of "Six Guns & Sorcery" has stuck
with me for years. If you don't read The Sixth Gun (and you should), you can consider this a primer
for the Old West with a touch of the odd.
I'll begin where it all started, at least for me.
My earliest forays into the weird west came from watching re-runs The Wild Wild West on Sunday
afternoons. The show is often called "James Bond in the Old West." That's a fair description -- what with the mad
scientists, the gorgeous women, and the clever gadgets. Even the most tame episode had a cool alternate history feel,
and the wilder episodes had invisibility potions, "haunted" ghost towns, clones, and incredibly shrinking heroes. I
recently started re-watching the show not long ago, and I was astonished how well it holds up. It's still enjoyable
as Hell, and I highly recommend it. James West and Artemus Gordon taught me that a gunslinger could be charming and
clever just as easily as he could be dust-covered and unshaven. It's a wonder I didn't give the "protagonist"
of The Sixth Gun a derringer that pops out of his sleeve.
Now, in the same vein (and almost thirty years later) is The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.,
the story of a lawyer-turned-manhunter with loads of steampunk, time travel, and artifacts from the future. It's a
solid show that was pretty heavy on the comedy. But more than the jokes and the science fiction elements, this show
was all about the adventure... the swashbuckling... which is what set it apart from other Westerns in my mind.
If I tried to list all my favorite Western flicks, this would be a long list. From The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
to Unforgiven to How the West Was Won to The Shootist -- Westerns have always meant a lot to
me. But when it comes to The Sixth Gun, there are a few movies that inspired me more than
others. Some of fairly "grounded" (insofar as any Hollywood movie is grounded) and some, like the first couple I'll
mention, are not.
For the sake of space, here's a quick rundown of a few you should check out.
The Valley Of Gwangi -- Cowboys battle a dinosaur in a lost valley. With stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen.
The Outlaw Josey Wales -- Not a Weird Western, but it's full of great characters, terrific gunplay, great
dialogue ("Dying ain't much of a living.") and tense moments ("Now... spit."). This is my all-time favorite Western,
so it deserves a mention. When I heard there was going to be a Jonah Hex movie, I thought to myself, "They've
already made the best Jonah Hex movie ever -- Josey Wales!"
Tombstone -- Not a Weird Western, you say? I beg to differ. This movie starts off with a prophecy of death
from a doomed priest and it ends with a gunfight with Doc Holiday who is, without a doubt, a walking dead man. Forget
all that, though, it features awesome heroes and villains and some great, over-the-top dialogue and action. And
this line, spoken by Billy Zane's character, sticks with me whenever I think of The Sixth Gun's
Drake Sinclair: "Note the lean silhouette... eyes closed by the sun, though sharp as a hawk. He's got the
look of both predator and prey."
Sheesh! Every time I so much as think of this movie I want to watch it again!
Dead Man -- Considered by many to be the ultimate postmodern Western, I consider this one of the weirdest
Westerns. The mood for this one is set with Crispin Glover's brief cameo as a train's boilerman:
"Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and
then later than night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your
head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, 'Why is it that the
landscape is moving, but the boat is still?'"
What the Hell!?
And it only gets weirder from there. William Blake (not that William Blake... or is he?) is a walking dead man who
dodges bounty hunters, goes on vision quests, evades cannibals, and confronts nature spirits, all set to an
off-putting Neil Young soundtrack.
Dead Birds -- This one is, in my opinion, a must-see movie if you like horror mixed in with your
Westerns. During the Civil War, a group of thieves hide out in a house haunted by nightmares straight out of a
Lovecraftian story. And holy cow is it creepy! The ending might not be hold up to the spookiness the early
scenes conjure, but it's well worth watching.
When it comes to comics, there are a number of great books pop into my mind, but it is Jonah Hex
that stands at the top of the pyramid -- especially the Jonah Hex stories written by Joe R. Lansdale. The
original stories were strange enough, yeah, but Lansdale took that to a whole new level when he teamed up with
Tim Truman to deliver Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo, Riders Of The Worm And Such, and Shadows West. First
of all, he made Hex grittier, dirtier, and cooler. Second of all, he added in walking dead men,
giant worm monsters, shape shifters, and half-human hybrids. In the same neighborhood is the Lone Ranger & Tonto
limited series he did, which also features a healthy dose of the supernatural.
Heavily inspired by Lansdale's Hex series is the Saint Of Killers limited series by
Garth Ennis. It's part of the Preacher series (which, Hell, you should go and read, too, because
it's pretty heavy on the Western elements) but it stands pretty well on its own as a story about a gunfighter
whose cold hatred doused the very fires of Hell.
Books and Short Stories
I mentioned Joe R. Lansdale before, but before he wrote those awesome Jonah Hex comics, he wrote a
novella that I re-read at least once a year. "Dead In The West" is the story of a gunfighting preacher who
travels to the town of Mud Creek and battles zombies and an undead shaman. It's some of the most fun you'll
ever have with a novella. It inspired the first short story I ever sold (which, because the magazine folded,
has never been published), "Followers of the Serpent," which featured a gunslinger riding into a town possessed
by a Lovecraftian evil. The tale of Reverend Mercer continues, too, in several other Lansdale short stories
(collected in Deadman's Road). Do yourself a favor. Check them out!
Another Lansdale novel I can't recommend enough is The Magic Wagon. While there's no supernatural elements
in the book, it is heavy on the weird—featuring sharpshooters, apes, medicine shows, and corpses on display. Here's
the first line as a taste: "Wild Bill Hickok, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of
sorts." If that doesn't leave you wanting more, nothing will!
Finally, there is a short story by Karl Edward Wagner titled "Hell Creek" that I absolutely love. I think this
tale of zombies and ravenous pigs is so awesome, so well-written, that I once read it aloud to a bunch of my
friends. The main character, Adrian Becker, has apparently appeared in several short stories. Other
than "Hell Creek," which I found in the Civil War horror collection Confederacy Of The Dead, I've been unable
to find the other Becker stories. If anyone has them and wants to give them to me, please let me know!
Hell-bent for Leather into the Sunset... Where the Bad Things Dwell
There you go! An incomplete list of Weird Westerns that have inspired me! Hopefully, there's something new on the
list for you to check out. If not, find me at a convention or online and I'll throw some other suggestions your way.
Until then, happy entrails, partner!
Cullen Bunn grew up in rural North Carolina, but now lives in the St. Louis area with his wife Cindy
and his son Jackson. He is the writer of The Sixth Gun, a story of high fantasy in
the Old West, and The Tooth, an original graphic novel of monstrous horror. Other projects
include Crooked Hills and various work for Marvel and DC. All writers must pay their dues,
and Cullen has worked various odd jobs, including Alien Autopsy Specialist, Rodeo Clown,
Professional Wrestler Manager, and Sasquatch Wrangler. And, yes, he has fought for his life
against mountain lions and he did perform on stage as the World's Youngest Hypnotist. Buy
him a drink sometime, and he'll tell you all about it.