‘We Can’t Necessarily Anticipate How Magneto Might Act’: An Interview with Cullen Bunn

Speaking with the comic writer about the history and current state of horror comics, the hot tempers of Aquaman fans, and life as a child hypnotist. 

It’s tempting to call horror a niche genre in comics. Although there are plenty of horror comics, the main one competing for mainstream money is The Walking Dead, which no doubt gets a sales boost from its mildly successful AMC adaptation. And yet, letting Robert Kirkman’s opus stand in for what can sometimes be a nebulous defined genre ignores a crucial fact about modern comics: horror is thriving, and often driving the success of superhero books.

Cullen Bunn can claim some responsibility for this. Bunn, one of the industry’s most prolific writers, made his debut with The Damned in 2007. He’s since gained a reputation for bringing horror to DC and Marvel with successful takes on popular characters such as Magneto, Deadpool, and Venom. Yet Bunn has also maintained a commitment to conventional horror books with his creator-owned indie Harrow County and The Sixth Gun. Horror is where his heart is, even if it’s wearing a cape.

I spoke to Bunn about the state of horror in comics, working with wrestler CM Punk on the new comic Drax, and his voluntary departure from Aquaman that he blamed, in part, on the book’s readers.

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At the end of the first issue of Harrow County, you tell a story from your childhood about a haunted tree. How long have horror stories been a part of your life?

Cullen Bunn: A long, long, long time. I don’t know if when I was younger I would think, “This is a horror story,” but I remember thinking of weird stories and weird happenings and ghosts—monsters and strange things—and I think it all surfaced for the most part while I was living in a little town, Newton Grove, North Carolina. This would have been right around kindergarten age. When I lived in Newton Grove we had a little pond not too far from our house, and my older brothers used to tell me that a boy drowned in it and he still stalked around outside at night. I remember a story circulated about UFOs coming through town and people telling me that even the sheriff had seen a UFO [that] had run him off the road. Stuff like that.

I remember those kinds of stories from Newton Grove, and in one of those issues of Harrow County I tell the story of this man who crawled out from beneath our house one day. I was looking out the window and this guy crawls out from under our house and picks an apple off the apple tree in our backyard then he crawls back under the house. That actually happened—that was in Newton Grove.

How were you not devastated as a child seeing something like that?

That was probably the weirdest. I remember when it happened I wasn’t terrified at that moment— just kind of weirded out. I’m sure my parents were a lot more freaked out than I was. But I guess I trace all this stuff back to when I lived in Newton Grove—when I really started paying attention to horror stories and things of a creepy nature.

Was your family savvy to ghost stories?

My dad used to tell me lots of ghost stories. Some of these stories were things that happened for real and some he was making up. When I think back I’m not 100 percent sure that he wasn’t making up everything. But he was a storyteller. They weren’t all ghost stories, but he loved to tell stories about things that had happened to him when he was a kid, things like that. He enjoyed spinning a yarn. He was also a hypnotist—he was a stage hypnotist for eight years. That’s the weirdest thing I guess he was involved in. I think it all boils down to the fact that he liked telling stories.

What was it like being the son of a hypnotist?

He was really heavily into it professionally when I was very young and I only vaguely remember it. But I know he used to have me perform on stage as part of his act. He would bill me as the world’s youngest hypnotist. He’d turn his subjects over to me for a few minutes during the act. As I got older he was still doing it, more like party favors. “Hey, let’s have Roman hypnotize some people,” and he’d put on impromptu shows at parties. I remember those things a lot more clearly.

When did you start writing horror?

I was older. I still, in my files somewhere, have the first several chapters of a fantasy novel I was writing when I was in fifth grade, maybe. I was more focused on fantasy when I was younger, when I was first dipping my toes into the idea of writing. Around the time I was 17, 18, I decided I wanted to be a special effects makeup artist and that got me heavily interested in horror movies. I was watching them a lot and it just snowballed from there: I decided I wanted to tell my own horror stories, and I’d always been interested in writing prose, so I started writing a lot of horror short stories. It’s been well over 20 years, maybe closer to 25, 30 years. 

Were any authors early influences? It sounds like your life, your family, and your outside interests were already kind of veering toward that. 

There were a few. I was heavily influenced by authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—his horror stories probably more than even Lovecraft were big influences. Joe R. Lansdale and Robert McCammon were both big influences, and Stephen King—I was a big fan of his when I was first really getting into being a writer. I draw inspiration from all those guys. Ray Bradbury, that’s another one. I’m almost ashamed I didn’t mention him right off the bat.

Did you grow up with comics?

I grew up in the golden era when you could go to a flea market and buy a grocery sack of 50 random comics for five dollars. Every week I’d get five dollars from my dad and we’d go and buy a grocery sack of random comics.

It was a mish-mash. I remember reading issues of The Avengers and Master Of Kung Fu. Charleton Comics was another publisher I read a lot of back in the day—I remember those vividly. But those bags of comics were mainly DC and Marvel superhero stuff. I would read an issue of say, Spider-Man, and it would end with a cliffhanger and I would have no clue how that story ended unless I got lucky and somehow in the next grocery bag there was a copy of the next issue. Early on I was reading whatever I could get my hands on comic-wise. A little later I started getting more into collecting and really wanting to follow the stories. I was pretty heavily into it for many, many years as a collector.

It’s interesting reading your more mainstream work, the superhero work, because from a reader perspective, you broke in with The Damned and The Sixth Gun, so much of your writing is about horror. Does it feel natural for you to be writing about superheroes in that genre?

Sometimes no. I think a lot of the superhero stuff I’m most proud of has a little bit of a horror vibe to it. If you look at a book like Magneto, that book was a horror book for most of its run. So I think even when I’m working on these superhero stories, a lot of them have horrific or darker elements I’ll weave into the story. That harkens back to a lot of the stories, even superhero stories, that I like the most. I was a huge X-Men fan, and there were a lot of Uncanny X-Men stories that were really horror stories with superheroes painted over the top. Those kinds of stories have always stuck with me.

I’m a big fan of your Sinestro run. You write a lot of villains.

It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t set out to be a villain writer. It was just sort of a coincidence. I was offered the job writingMagneto around the same time I was offered the job writing Sinestro. When you’re working on those two books, it’s pretty easy for people to say that I’m the guy who writes villains. And yeah, depending on how you look at it, there’s Deadpool and characters like that that could easily be villains. But it was never a matter of me sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write villainous characters.” It’s just a little more natural to me. Even if you look at The Damned, the first thing I did, our protagonist is an awful person. He’s kind of a scumbag. It’s not a conscious decision that I’m going to write villains, but those characters are the ones that I gravitate to.

Is it easier for you to write villains?

I think they’re more interesting, or those characters who are a little more morally ambiguous are more interesting. I think they are a little more surprising to the reader. They are more surprising to me as a writer. They can do things that I might not have expected them to do and go in directions that I might not have anticipated. My hope is that they’re going to surprise me as a writer, that they’re going to surprise me as the reader. We always know what Captain America is going to do. We know how he’s going to act. We can anticipate how he’s going to act in a given situation. We can’t necessarily anticipate how Magneto might act in any given situation.

Back to horror comics for a moment: Horror comics have of course a long history going back to EC Comics’ popularity. Is the genre in a good place today?

I think it is. I think you are seeing more horror comics than you’ve seen in recent years, and I think horror comics are getting a little bit of a boost because readers are seeing stories that paint horror in a different light. A lot of people would say horror is all about the jump-scare you would get in a movie. A comic can’t do that. Even though it’s a visual medium, you can’t get the “boo!” effect. Writers have started focusing more on mood and ambiance and building these long lasting chills that will stick with a reader. Those are the horror comics I think are working and those are the ones that people remember and the ones that will stick with readers and keep people coming back. I kind of feel like we’re in a renaissance of horror comics, but they’re not the horror comics you would have read 10, 15 years ago. 

When I think of horror comics from when I was a kid back in the mid ’90s, I think of something like Evil Ernie, comics that had a lot of camp in them. What effect do you think that era had?

It definitely sort of guided the genre for a while. There’s a place for campy horror stories, and I like campy horror stories. But if that’s the only thing you’re getting, then that’s the only thing people picture. It’s like when you ask someone who doesn’t read comics, who’s not really in the know about comics, “What are comics about?” The average person on the street is going to say, “Oh, they’re about superheroes.” Because that’s what guided the industry for so long and still guides the industry. But there’s a lot more to it than just superheroes. There are other kinds of stories out there, and I think for a while those kinds of horror stories were what really overshadowed everything else. Even in the ’90s we had Hellblazer and Swamp Thing stories, which were horror stories, but I think they got overshadowed by some of the campier things. So I don’t think it necessarily hurt the genre, but it painted a view that might not have been totally accurate.

Is it insulting to suggest that perhaps The Walking Dead has also played a part in all this? That the popularity of the show and comic has boosted interest?

I don’t think it’s insulting at all. It’s wildly popular. I think it’s brought people who didn’t read comics into reading comics. They are walking into the comic book shop and asking about Walking Dead and if the retailers are doing what they should, when they’re done with Walking Dead, they’re pointing to other books that readers might like. And those readers are not necessarily gravitating towards an Avengers book, but they could very well gravitate towards another horror book or a book with a darker, adult edge. So yeah, I don’t think it’s insulting to suggest that Walking Dead helped things out. If you look at Walking Dead as a zombie book, it does a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect in a zombie book. It’s definitely much more character-driven, and its focus is on personal horror. It’s got its moments of gore and death and destruction, but it relies more on the fact that these are characters that they are trying to get the reader to connect with before they axe them in the most terrible way.

In The Walking Dead, the catch is that, despite the zombies, the real monsters are the human beings, whereas in a lot of your work, you’re actually bringing in monsters and ghosts—the horror for you is what’s under the bed or in the closet. Is that something you’re conscious of when you are writing?

You know, I never sit down and say I’m going to focus on a certain theme, but when you say it, it’s absolutely true. I feel like the things that scare me are the things that are outside my control. Maybe that makes me a control freak. But the things that really terrify me are the things that I have no control over, and monsters and ghosts and things like that are really representatives of things that are out there, they come out of nowhere, they surprise you, you don’t know what to do and you’re lost when you are dealing with them. Even though they are monsters in the stories I’m writing, they could very easily be swapped out with some real-world calamity that hits you out of nowhere and uproots you and derails you in a terrible way. For me it’s a way of putting a mask on this unknown fear, these unknown things that can happen to you.

How many comics are you working on right now? 

I just broke it down the other day, it’s six. And when I say that, that means there are six that I’m actively scripting right now—that I’m working on, that there is a script due either once a month or once every three weeks or whatever.

Is that a lot by industry standards? It seems like a lot.

I think yes, by industry standards, that’s a lot. [But] I actually feel like I don’t have enough to do. That’s me looking at my wall of projects and saying I have a lot of extra time on my hands. There are some people out there definitely doing more than I am right now. At one point I would have happily said yes, I’m working on more projects than anybody else, but that is no longer the case. There are definitely people who are doing much more than I am.

Do you think that you’re always going to feel that way? That you’ll never have enough work to do, after the years it took to break in and the process of getting into the work in the first place?

I will never be satisfied with what I’m working on, not in terms of the quality of the story or anything like that. I’ll never be satisfied that I’m doing enough. A lot of that comes down to, it took me so long, and I was doing things wrong, I wasn’t approaching it the way I should in order to be successful at it. And I wasn’t doing enough. While I was trying to break in I wasn’t writing comics, and I feel like I wasted so much time that to some degree a lot of this is I’m trying to make up for [that]. But the other part is, I have a lot of stories I want to tell. I’ve got my eye on the six I’m actively scripting, because a couple are going to come to an end. Either they are limited series or I already know that a book has a definitive end point and I’ve got to think what I’m going to replace those with, and I’m always working on several creator-owned ideas. 

For all your horror writing, I think you are a really funny writer. How easily does that come?

It might come easily to a horror writer, it does not come easily to me. I think it’s extremely difficult.

Is it harder to write than horror?

Absolutely. I don’t know why, but I think instilling the emotion of fear is a lot easier than instilling humor and laughter. It does not come natural.

I wonder then why you keep returning to a character like Deadpool, where readers expect comedy of some sort. There must be a draw for you, even if it’s that hard.

The first Deadpool limited series I did was extremely dark—that was Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe. And then the next one was a little lighter and a little lighter. Every story I’ve done with Deadpool has felt different and has had a different vibe. Some lean more toward comedy stories, and some, like Kills The Marvel Universe and Night of the Living Deadpool stories, those definitely lean more into horror comedy. Those are the ones I’m most comfortable with—those are actually all my favorites of the Deadpool stuff I’ve done. But I do like to do a different kind of story every time I write something with Deadpool. He’s a character that can fit into a lot of different kinds of stories.

At the end of Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe, you have the breaking of the fourth wall. That was kind of the punctuation gag on it all, and it doesn’t seem like you could do that kind of gag with any other character. Is being able to experiment like that a draw?

It is. Even in a story that is in continuity in the Marvel universe, I think you can do things with Deadpool and readers will accept those stories much more readily than they would with any other character. Part of it is he’s breaking the fourth wall. I’ve always pictured Deadpool as a character who does exist in the main Marvel universe, but we have not seen the true Deadpool. We are seeing it through his eyes and the eyes of other characters. I think there’s a story out there—there’s a true Deadpool out there that is what Deadpool would be like without that filter.

The character has a lot going on, both in the Marvel universe and in the greater culture. There’s a movie about to come out; he started out as an X-Force villain in the ’90s from Rob Leifeld, and he was sarcastic, his costume was kind of similar to Spider-Man or Spawn; and now he’s joined the Avengers in one book. What do you think of the direction this character is going?

It’s funny, I would almost fall back to what I just said, which is I don’t think it would work anymore with any other character other than Deadpool. I don’t think people would accept it. I mean, he’s kind of filling what Wolverine was a few years back where he was everywhere. And now we’ve got Deadpool everywhere and … I think because he can fit into so many kinds of roles and there can be so many kinds of stories told about him, I think readers will accept it. It doesn’t hurt that [writer] Gerry Duggan has done some things with the character that have given him real heart. In that book, it’s not just about Deadpool cracking jokes and shooting fools. The character actually has heart and you feel for him and sympathize for him.

He also seems to be Marvel’s way of poking at itself. After the Disney acquisition and with the movies, Marvel’s become much more of a global brand. It’s much more financially successful, but at least it has this one character that invites writers to humble it a little bit.

I think in every issue in some way he roasts the Marvel universe a bit. Believe me, I feel like as readers we need to be reminded that not everything is so serious every page of every comic.

I just read your first issue of Drax and it’s often hilarious. What’s it been like working with [former WWE wrestler] CM Punk 11Real name: Phil Brooks on that?

It’s been great. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I signed on to do the book. CM Punk had already outlined what he wanted to do in the first arc of the series. I’ve had co-writing experiences in the past where I was handed outlines or a bulleted list of items that needed to appear in the comic and just told to go write the script. So I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect with this project. But it’s been very collaborative. One of the first things we talked about was he actually wants to script this comic with me, he doesn’t want it to just be me writing it based on his outline. So I took his initial outline and broke it into issues for the first arc, where things would fall, and then I do some of my initial outlining for the issue, and then we split it. We don’t split it down the middle, we split it by different scenes. He writes half the issue and I write half the issue.

What’s the relationship been like?

I have never met him face to face. I’ve talked to him on the phone several times, texted back and forth with him and emails. But I’ve never met him.

Were you a wrestling fan before you started working with him?

I’m an old school wrestling fan, so I was definitely into wrestling many years ago. And I kind of feel that once you’re that interested in it, you are always kind of at least vaguely aware of what is going on in wrestling. So I knew who CM Punk was. [I wasn’t] watching matches every week, but I did know who he was and was familiar with him. I was doing a signing at a comic book retailer, his store that he shops at, and they were telling me he was a fan of The Sixth Gun. When I found out that, then I looked into who CM Punk was and what he was all about just to see what was going on there. From that perspective, yeah, I was familiar in that way. My son got into wrestling a few years ago. He got into the action figures and everything, so he has a CM Punk action figure in his room somewhere.

You’ve started an Uncanny X-Men run, and you mentioned you were an X-Men fan. What kind of era of X-Men were you growing up with?

The [1980s Chris] Claremont era is my X-Men of choice. I followed them for years but it was the Claremont era that really got me hooked on the series. Someone recently asked me to rank my favorite eras of the X-Men and I had difficulty. It’s always Claremont and [artist John] Byrne, Claremont and John Romita Jr., Claremont and Paul Smith or Claremont and Dave Cockrum. All of those. Those were my favorite eras of the book.

Is this your biggest project so far? I know you’ve written Captain America before…

I think that’s fair. Yeah, for sure.

Is that gratifying to you? 

It’s very gratifying. It’s a little scary. X-Men fans take their books very seriously. But X-Men is a book I collected with my dad. My dad was never into comics; he wasn’t a comic book fan. But once I got into collecting, he was very interested in collecting. He liked hunting for books while he was out of town travelling. He liked going to comic book shops and finding books that were on my want-list. Something my dad and I did together, and to be honest, writing Uncanny X-Men now, I only wish it had happened a few years earlier so he had been here to see it. I would have really liked him to know that after all those years he was hearing me ramble on about X-Men that I’m working on the book now. It would have meant a lot to me.

When did he pass?

It’s been a couple years now.

So was he around to read your early work? Did he read The Sixth Gun? Did he know what you were working on?

He didn’t know what I was working on. He read some of my prose, I think, more than anything. It’s funny. When I first went full-time writing comics, I did a few projects that were adapting self-help books to comic book format, and those were the ones he liked the most. He liked my adaptation of Think and Grow Rich—which was not at all what I wanted to represent me as a comic book writer, necessarily, but that’s what he liked the most, all those self-help books I was writing. As much as he liked telling stories and he was a fun guy, he was also a businessman at heart. He was always starting businesses, and he ran his own business for many years and he was an entrepreneur. I think those books just spoke to him on that level.

The last thing I want to ask you about is comic book fans. You recently announced your departure fromAquaman.

I knew this was coming! 

Well, it seemed, knowing you and knowing what you did to get into comics, it seemed like it would take a lot for you to voluntarily leave a book, especially after such a short run. Were you surprised by reader reaction of issues to Aquaman? I read the books and it’s not like you cut off his hand and put a hook on it.

I should have. It feels like it all got blown out of proportion. I remember the day that Bleeding Cool ran an article on it and I felt like, “This isn’t news at all, this is a non-issue.” It’s not something I was upset about. I wasn’t curled up into a fetal position anywhere about it. It was what it was. And then Bleeding Cool ran an article and CBR picked it up and everybody saw this article about how I was driven off of Aquaman by fans. And the truth of the matter is that was part of the reason I left Aquaman, but it was just part of it. I was surprised by fan reaction to the book. They went insane. Before the book ever came out some people were calling for my head.

Here’s what I think: I don’t know exactly, but I feel like Aquaman fans feel, maybe rightly so, marginalized in the medium. Their character is the brunt of jokes, and has been for years and years. He’s definitely the underdog.

That’s what surprised me about all of this, because with respect to the character, it’s not one of the number-one books DC puts out. But you’re saying maybe because the character has long been the brunt of jokes, dedicated readers might take it more seriously or have an inferiority complex about it?

I think they take it very seriously and their nerves are at surface level when it comes to the character. They are going to truck no insult when it comes to the character. I was also coming onto the book after two very successful runs with the characters; the previous arcs were well loved by fans. I was hired to do a different take on Aquaman, a drastically different take, and that’s what I did. People, they were just unhappy with it. A lot of people were. It’s funny, since that stuff all came out, I’ve had dozens and dozens and dozens of people telling me how much they liked the book. But it doesn’t change anything. It got to the point for me where I think I even said before the book came out, we were getting so much anger over it, I called my editor up and said, “You know what, I’m off the book. I don’t want to do it anymore, I’m not interested in it if this is what I have to deal with every day.”

This seems unique to comic books, doesn’t it? If you’re writing a novel, it comes out and then maybe people like it, maybe they don’t, but the book is out. If you’re writing for a television show, those scripts are done and that show, if people don’t like an episode and, say, a popular character is killed, the show is written and the season is done. No fan can change a writer’s employment or a direction on a show just by complaining on Twitter. Is this something that’s specific to the way comics are produced? 

Yeah, I think we see these preview pages come out, sometimes without any context, and readers react to those. And sometimes the schedules are such that we’re not working several issues ahead like you think we are. That’s the dream, to be several issues into it. The best time for me is when I finish an issue of the book before the first issue ever comes out. But that’s not always the case, so we’re getting this negative feedback and we may only be working on the first issue of the book, and it’s a little disheartening

What’s interesting for me, hearing that reaction, is that you are very engaged with fans. You are constantly answering questions on your Tumblr, you are very involved on Twitter speaking with fans. Do you think that kind of connection is harmful in the long run to writers where fans perhaps expect that they have more say over a book? How do you feel about fan interaction knowing that you do it so much?

You know, when I first started working comics, I said to myself, “If someone asks me a question I’m going to do my damndest to answer it. I’m going to interact and I’m going to talk to these people about these comics, because I would have loved to have had someone to talk to when I was younger reading comics.” When I was most heavily into comics. I would have loved to have had a direct line of communication with these creators. Now it’s getting so murky and weird, because these people feel like they can say anything, because they have the protection of Twitter or the Internet or whatever. They can say it to me anyway, they can say it to my face, I don’t care, that’s fine.

I was glad you mentioned Tumblr. I was answering some questions on Tumblr and then I started getting a flood of anonymous questions into my ask box, all of them saying, “I can’t believe you are promoting this person,” naming a person whose questions I’d answered, followed by a long list of [responses telling me why] I shouldn’t promote this fan. So these are anonymous fans—and honestly I think it was the same person asking me a series of questions under an anonymous guise—but all of them jumping onto the fact that I’d answered the question of another fan and how terrible that fan is.

And here’s the thing: I don’t care. I don’t know them. If it ever gets to the point where when I answer a question I have to research the person and see if a) they are a decent human being, which that doesn’t need to fall on me, and b) is it hurtful for me to answer this question, [then] it’s not a conversation anymore. Then it’s just work. I was just thinking last night, I’m not 100 percent sure if this is worth it anymore. I’m not stopping. I’m going to continue talking to people for now, but if it really becomes that much of a pain in my backside, then yes, I’ll do what I’ve been advised by many, many creators who are more successful than me, which is disengage, disengage, disengage.

I’d have loved to see what Alan Moore looked like when he was getting piles of fan mail in the ’80s, what his reaction to it all was.

That’s when he started growing the beard.

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