As many may know, I really love westerns.
They seem to always have a paradoxical moral simplicity and complexity. They almost always have a protagonist with questionable motivations. And yet, the good almost always triumphs the evil, leading to an overwhelming catharsis for the reader or watcher (depending on the medium). Consequently, the simplicity of the fundamental structure of the basic western lends itself to transformation and evolution without losing its core.
After spending some time looking around for the next series to read, I found this list from IGN. Yes, I was a little weary of the source, but I figured I’d at least try to read something that other people are talking about. After scrolling through, I settled on The Sixth Gun, a western set in Reconstruction era America.
The Sixth Gun is an excellent example of a successful transformation of a western. It has the archetypal characters and themes of a western with new layers of horror and the supernatural that could only occur in the comic book, rather than film, form. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the creators of the series, realized that despite their inability to mimic the epic film landscapes and the tense duels in the comic book form, they had the ability to add fantasy elements that could not be captured in any old western films. While The Sixth Gun adds innovative ideas and characters to the basic structure of the western, it also pays homage and reverence to a genre that the creators clearly love.
At the opening of The Sixth Gun Vol. 1 Cold Dead Fingers, we meet the sinister looking Mrs. Hume, a widow of the former Confederate General Oleander Bedford Hume, as she speaks to Pinkerton detectives she has hired to find her husband and some of his possessions. After that very brief introduction, we meet Drake Sinclair, a man dressed like a Pinkerton, as he approaches the prophetic spirits of the Gallows Tree (a really interesting take on the hanging tree motif). Sinclair is looking for some treasure and the spirits of the tree send him to the home of the Montcrief family. From the introduction of the two story branches, we immediately get the sense that Mrs. Hume is going to be our force of evil and Sinclair our flawed and seemingly dubious protagonist.
The story then jumps to the Montcrief farm, where Becky Montcrief, is taking care of her ill father. As her father gives her instructions on how to live after he has passed, he hands her a box and asks her to get rid of it in a place where no one can find it. As he begins to explain why, a crowd approaches the farm, and a shootout begins. The Pinkertons have arrived, and they are looking for the contents of the box, a gun with a small red symbol brandished on the ivory handle.
After, one of the Pinkertons kills the father, Becky picks up the gun and immediately faints. When another man tries to pick up the gun, and it burns him with a green fire, we immediately understand that the desired gun has supernatural powers that must be valuable to Mrs. Hume. When Sinclair arrives at the scene and recognizes the father Montcrief, he gets details about the goal of the Pinkertons from a dying man shot in the gunfight, galvanizing the plot.
The setting then abruptly shifts to a mission with a group of priests preparing for a brutal fight. When an army of ghouls arrives at the mission, they demand for the body of their leader, the former General Oleander Hume. After a bloody battle between the army and the fathers of the mission, the General is excavated from a well, and his ghost-like, demon form awakens and immediately demands his gun.
As the plot continues, we slowly find out more about the goblin General Hume and his army of the undead. We also learn more about Sinclair, who is much closer to Hume’s nefarious army than expected. Most interestingly, we learn about the gun that we are introduced to in the Montcrief home; it is one of a set of six guns which never need to be reloaded and each grant a specific power to the owner.
With one gun in the hands of Becky Montclief and the other five in the hands of Hume’s leading commanders, the complete powers of the collection cannot be harvested by General Hume. On one branch of the narrative, we follow Hume’s hunt for his gun. On the other branch of the narrative, we travel with Becky Montcrief, who is taken under Drake Sinclair and another bounty hunter, Billjohn O’Henry’s wing, on the quest to find the General’s treasure at a fort with a pit leading to the mouth of hell.
The rest of the first volume of The Sixth Gun follows the cat and mouse chase between General Hume and Sinclair. In the process of the chase and the clashes, we meet an incredible spectrum of characters ranging from a giant bird demon who guards the valleys in the canyon to soldiers of the dead killed by Hume who emerge as sand figures. As we encounter each of these fantastic characters and creatures, each one becomes a landmark hurdle and counter forces marking the course of our protagonists’ odyssey.
While the plot sounds like one engulfed in fantasy, The Sixth Gun is not exactly a fantasy or mystical western. Throughout the narrative, buzzards reappear as the storytellers of the supernatural events and as the guides in the transition from one’s current life to the afterlife. Given that the buzzards are often the last witnesses to a disastrous event, they are able to give the final words about life on Earth and are the only ones who are left to explain all of the secrets of our existence. The buzzards serve as a chorus to the odyssey, revealing the mythology approach of The Sixth Gun.
What is great about The Sixth Gun is that it a western Homeric odyssey, with myths conveying a spiritual reverence for nature, an understanding of the thin line between the present life and the underworld, the manifestation of evil, and the plight of hubris. It is a western at its heart, but it also provides an insight into the face of evil and how to avoid and escape it. The Sixth Gun is able to use elements of the supernatural without straying too far from reality, and by the end of the first volume, we are able to step away with a myth about decline of General Oleander Hume from his hubris and the triumph of Drake Sinclair when he finally understands courage, humility, and self-sacrifice.
The Sixth Gun Volumes 1-6 are available via Oni Press.