When people start writing comics there are many different paths they could take in their journey of getting their comics published and distributed. Whether it be self-publishing, getting a series picked up by a creator-owned publisher, or working for hire, comic creators with a passion for storytelling want readers to engage in their stories. I recently had the opportunity to speak with one comic writer who has been involved with each of the above mentioned forms of publishing, Cullen Bunn, writer/creator of The Sixth Gun and The Damned published by Oni Press, writer/creator of Harrow County published by Darkhorse Comics, work for hire writer of Sinestro and Lobo for DC Comics, work for hire writer of Deadpool Kills Deadpool (and many other Deadpool mini-series), Magneto, and Uncanny X-Men all for Marvel Comics. Cullen has literally done it all in comics–he even has an awesome tab on his website dedicated to his process of writing and creating.
This interview is definitely geared towards learning about Cullen Bunn’s career and is also helpful for anyone trying to break into comics as a writer. Without any further ado, here it is:
Sal Brucculeri (SB): Let’s start with the basics, how long have you been writing comics and what made you decide to get into the world of comics as a professional?
Cullen Bunn (CB): I’ve been a professional comic writer for 10 years, writing as a full-time professional for the past five years. I’ve been reading comics and even writing comics since I was a kid. Somewhere in my office I still have a copy of a comic I wrote and drew when I was in fourth or fifth grade. When I was in fifth grade I did a weekly comic book that I printed copies of and gave it to all my friends.
SB: Okay, you know I have to ask… What was the name of that comic?
CB: (laughs) X Lazer Knight, laser with a “z.”
SB: (laughs) Of course, because why not?
CB: (laughs) Exactly! My dad had a copy machine in his office, so I would create my comics and take them to his office and make a ton of copies to pass out to my buddies at school. The other one I did was a superhero comic called Matter Man. (laughs)
SB: That actually sounds like a Jack Kirby character.
CB: He was not as awesome as the absolute worst Kirby character. When I was in sixth grade I did another comic titled Captain Cosmo and Fat Man. I took that comic to little comic conventions and sold it for twenty-five cents an issue.
SB: Wow, so you’ve been self-publishing since you were about eleven year-old?
CB: Yeah, I always wanted to tell stories and comics is one of my favorite mediums.
SB: Did you know who the creators were that you liked as a kid or were you more of a character reader?
CB: Definitely characters. Although, I gravitated towards Bill Mantlo work. I wasn’t necessarily going to the comic shop to buy his books because of his name, I just coincidently always bought his books. As I got older I got into Chris Claremont and Jim Starlin, they were names I looked for. Bill Mantlo was definitely my favorite when I was younger.
SB: Do you think Mantlo had influence on your style as a professional writer?
CB: I thought a lot about this… The thing, I realize now, that I love about Mantlo’s style is his world building. He did a lot of licensed properties, the Marvel Micronauts series and a bunch of comics based on the characters from the toy lines. Unlike the toy lines of today, they did not pre-packaged with a lot of mythology. He created these worlds and characters in this universe that was based around the toys. Mantlo created the entire mythology for those characters. His ability to build these worlds always excited me.
SB: That’s awesome. Did these stories guide you towards a career in comics? Did you go to college for writing or choose a career path that would guide you to comics?
CB: While I loved comics, reading comics did not have a direct impact in my career path, nor did it help me get work in it. It didn’t make it easier for me. I really had no clue how to break into comics. When I was trying to break in there wasn’t as clear a path to become a comics professional as there is now.
I do have a degree in Creative Writing. There aren’t a lot of day jobs you can get with that degree. I actually went into a lot of different jobs before I landed a job in Marketing. I had that job for a while before I transitioned into comics. It took me a long time to become a professional comic writer.
The lucky break I had into the industry took a while to hit. I realize now I was doing things wrong in trying to get work for Marvel or DC.
SB: How did that break come about? Honestly, I’ve never heard the “break in” story told the same way, and part of my column Outside The Panels for Comic Crusaders is a guide to helping people learn about the creation of comics. So what’s your “break in” story?
CB: I didn’t know how to get into comics. I was sending proposals to Marvel and DC for a whole bunch of series. I was trying to get their attention. I was cold-calling trying to get work and I got a whole bunch of rejections.
As far as my “break in” story–I was working in a comic shop with an aspiring comic artist by the name of Brian Hurt. He was trying to break in as an artist and I was trying to break in as a writer, we frequently talked about doing books together while working at the shop. Eventually, he moved away and actually got a job doing an issue of Queen and Country for Oni Press. Some time went by then he moved back and we got together and decided to give it a go to make a comic together.
We pitched a couple of things to Oni Press, they passed on everything. After a few pitches we finally pitched them the idea for The Damned. The liked the premise but they needed me to write a few pages of script because I was an unproven writer.
SB: Your pitch was just a concept? Did you have sequential pages of art or character designs at least?
CB: Just a concept. They liked it enough to ask me to write some pages of script to see if I knew what I was doing. They read the script and accepted it. At the time, I figured my career as a comic was set as it has officially started. I thought to myself, “The world is now my oyster!”
SB: I sense the sarcasm and… I’m guessing that wasn’t the case? (laughs)
CB: (laughs) Yeah…more work didn’t come. I was still going to conventions. I actually went to a convention in New York City and I met with a couple of editors from Marvel because the convention set up a pitch session. I met with a couple of editors one of those editors was Axel Alonzo, who later went on to be the Editor-In-Chief of Marvel. No work came from that. What it did do, however, was open a line of communication with Axel. I still wasn’t getting any work from Marvel or even DC. I continued to do my own book with Oni Press and Brian Hurt and I created The Sixth Gun, which has been going on since 2010.
The Sixth Gun started to get some attention from editors around the industry. An editor at DC sent me a Twitter direct message asking me to contact him because he really like what I was doing. That led to a four-issue run on a book.
SB: During this time of you pushing The Sixth Gun how much of the marketing and promoting of the book were you doing?
CB: Whenever you do any kind of creator-owned comics those responsibilities fall heavily on the creative team. Oni was doing a bunch of promoting within their budget, but then that’s where I was doing the song and dance of promoting and marketing.
I was miserable at my job. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I swallowed my pride, after a while, and asked some friends who wrote for Marvel to put in a good word for me. Axel remembered me from when I was pitching a few years earlier, he read The Sixth Gun and liked it and called me.. Things snowballed from there.
SB: Would you say your success in editors from Marvel and DC came directly from The Sixth Gun?
SB: Okay, so what would you suggest to someone who wants to break?
CB: If I’m telling someone to break in I would say make a comic.
Let’s say I was telling someone how to break into Marvel or DC… I would tell any new comic writer the best way to do it is to do your own comic first. Self-publish or get a creator-owned publisher to accept a submission, whatever. Just make your own comic. Create a book that is uniquely you and make sure it’s the best it could be before you do the next step, which is find a way to get it into the hands of editors at the publisher you want to work for. If the book is strong enough then editors are going to find it because people will talk about it or write about it online.
SB: Solid advice. When you finally did exactly that, what was it like making the transition from working on your own story where you have creative freedom of doing whatever you wanted to moving to work-for-hire properties and characters? Specifically, what was your first experience like?
CB: (laughs) My very first project with Marvel was very difficult. I filled up an entire notebook for a little one issue comic. It had the ideas I brought to the table on a few pages, some script stuff and the general plot. What filled the notebook were notes from the ongoing feedback and conversations I had with the editor of the story. The editor of that project and I never saw eye to eye. It wasn’t a pleasant project, actually the editor left the company midway through the project. It a tough gig for my first real opportunity. and after it was done I didn’t get any work from Marvel for a while.
SB: Was it a clash of process or a clash of storytelling between you and the editor?
CB: I think the editor and I just didn’t have the same view of what makes a good story. Neither of us is right or wrong, it’s an opinion thing.
When I start scripting the editor knows exactly what I’m going to write because I do such detailed outlines. The outlines for this project were approved. Then I scripted the story and the editor didn’t like the way it worked. I was doing “my thing” on this project and the editor didn’t like what “my thing” was.
This first time was actually the last time I ever had a clash with an editor in my career and had a bad experience. Of course I still bump heads with editors but it’s because we both want what’s best for the story and in the end we come out with the best story we can.
The biggest change from creator-owned to work-for-hire is I’m working with characters I don’t own. With creator-owned there is no one who is going to tell me what I can and cannot do with my story, characters or plot. It’s all on me, though I do ask for input from the artist. What you see on the pages of The Sixth Gun is always exactly what I intended to do. However, with Marvel or DC I’m working with corporate mandates, plans for characters, and characters are shared among multiple books and writers. There is a lot more back and forth with editorial.
SB: You have and still do work on multiple Marvel comics at the same time, which means you work with multiple editors simultaneously?
CB: Yes. I work with multiple editors at a time–around three to four right now with Marvel. There are editors I’ve worked with who feel comfortable with giving me more work. A comic writer should always do their best to become a reliable professional in order to get as much work as possible. Some editors I would work with more frequently than others, but usually that’s because I’ve spent years developing a reputation as a reliable writer.
SB: Earlier, you mentioned you have been writing comics for ten years but you’ve only been writing professionally for five. Could you explain how that worked out for you? What was your level of comfortability in making the decision to quit your job to become a full-time writer?
CB: Sure. There was absolutely no level of comfort whatsoever (laughs) I remember very vividly… A week or two weeks before I decided to leave my job I was at a signing. I remember thinking about what I could do to make things happen, I remember looking over to Brian Hurt, who was there with me, and I said, “Money wise I will never be able to write full-time.” I wholeheartedly believed that. Two weeks later I got into a bad disagreement with my boss and I just had to leave her office. I went into my office to call my wife and told her that I had to leave my job. I said, “I just want you to know I’m quitting my job, and I hope you are cool with this.” She said she was was okay with it and she supported my decision. I remember telling her to give me six months to to become a professional writer. Before I went and did anything crazy and quit, I walked into the accountant’s office and asked when the yearly bonus was getting paid out and they said it got got paid out tomorrow. So then next day I got my bonus, waited for the check to clear and then I went to my boss’s office and I gave a thirty day notice because I knew they couldn’t get by without me. I have never looked back.
SB: What were those six months of trying to make writing your full-time job?
CB: Something interesting happened early on; DC started offering me a lot of work. This was right before New 52 launched. I was also doing stuff for Marvel, so I called them to tell them that I would be doing a lot of work for DC and I wasn’t sure what my workload would be or how many titles I could handle. A little bit of time went by and Marvel offered me an exclusive deal. They had “x” amount of titles for “y” amount of time. Guaranteed work with the possibility of more work on top of that.
It took a bit of an adjustment period learning the pay cycles and when I would be receiving my income. I still can’t figure it out. (laughs)
SB: Did you ever consider an agent to help you find more work?
CB: Not at that time. It was a lot of me emailing or calling editors telling them I had more time to work on projects. I was offered a bunch of co-writing a bunch of projects at that time, so that definitely gave me the ability to work on more projects.
SB: When you were into your exclusive deal, what was it like juggling Marvel work and your creator-owned work? You were, and still do, work with a bunch of different artists, how does that play into your workflow and scripting style?
CB: As far as scripting style, I write the same style of script, full-script, for all of the artists I work with. I’ve only done Marvel style (plot first) script once or twice on creator-owned projects.
SB: Are your script pages one-page of script per one-page of comic or do you have overflow?
CB: I don’t really keep track of that. My script for an average comic of 20-24 pages usually runs around 35-40 pages of script. I always make sure the artists can see what I see in my head.
SB: These days it’s tough to talk about Marvel without mentioning Deadpool due to the amazing success of the movie. It seems that, for the past few years, you are the go to guy for Deadpool Mini-series with Marvel.
CB: Yeah, it would, wouldn’t it? In the beginning of me working for Marvel Axel Alonzo would call me and ask me to do short Deadpool series. That was basically my try-out. After a few of those shorts I was contacted by a Marvel editor to write Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. Of course, I took that project. I was never a really hardcore fan of Deadpool, but I when I started writing him I really had a lot of fun and gained a lot of respect for the character.
SB: A congratulations is in order, you are the writer of Uncanny X-Men! How did you land that series?
CB: A while back I had pitched a series for X-Men Legacy that was denied, but that pitch actually put me in touch with another editor at Marvel. A couple years later, that same editor was looking to cast a writer for the Magneto series. I was able to pitch for it and I was assigned the project. That book was a lot of fun and I really had a an excellent experience writing it. I think my time on Magneto led me to getting the offer to write Uncanny X-Men.
SB: Your current team of Uncanny X-Men include Magneto, Sabretooth, Fantomex, Psylocke, and Mystique, how did that come to be? I mean… they are a bunch of Brotherhood of Evil Mutants…
CB: When we were preparing there were a lot of people on the phone. I had a few teams written up for the pitch. The only thing I didn’t want to do was repeat any characters from Extraordinary X-Men written by Jeff Lemiere, but a lot of my ideas were for characters in that book and other X-Men who are in other Marvel books. I wanted to use character that I didn’t have to worry about sharing with other books and creators.
I’ve seen a lot of success with Magneto, and I’ve always enjoyed making an anti-hero a hero. I like the challenge that comes into play with making readers get behind characters they may have always seen as a villain. I figured this book would be really different if I could make a whole team of anti-heroes as heroes. Marvel and I wanted to make a book that would stand out from anything else in comic shops.
If the team changes then it changes, but right now I really like the foundation of the book.
SB: That’s amazing. The title has been awesome and I can’t wait to see where you are taking it. So, a lot of writers and even new writers are trying to find their styles. One word that always gets thrown around by people in all of creative writing mediums is “voice.” People always say that writers need to find their “voice.” What does that mean to you?
CB: (laughs) I’m almost never sure what “voice” means in writing. If I had to explain it though… I would say that a writer’s “voice” is what sets them apart from other writers. You don’t want to seem like you are stealing someone else’s style. You have to tell the story you enjoy and tell it the way it gets you excited. “Voice” is hard to describe but I know it when I see it. Books need to seem genuine, I guess that’s what “voice” means.
SB: Where did the idea for Harrow County come from?
CB: The idea came from me growing up and doing things with my dad and uncles, and when we did certain things they would somehow get into telling me ghosts stories or stories of strange happenings. Well, a few years ago I tried this thing where I would write a serialized pros novel and post it on the internet, the series was called, Countless Haints. Unfortunately, I had to put that project to the side due to other writing responsibilities.
When Darkhorse approached Tyler Crook, the artist, –he did some Sixth Gun fill-ins here and there– about working on a project he presented them the idea of working with me and they were interested. We pitched a number of ideas, I sent Tyler Countless Haints and we came up with Harrow County from there.
SB: Final question… you ready?
CB: I’m ready…
SB: If you could make any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie an ongoing comic series what would it be?
CB: WHAAAAAAAA!!T?! (laughs) That is a great question! Let me think… wow, good question. Obvious answer is Terminator because of the massive world to explore. I think there is a lot of story there that could be done well in a comic. The next choice is Last Action Hero. Great question.
SB: Thanks for your time!
CB: Thank you!