SDCC ’17 Cullen Bun Tells a Coming of Age Story in Harrow County
If you’ve read comics for any significant amount of time, you’re well aware of the writing of Cullen Bunn. He’s done a good amount of work for both Marvel and DC comics. I am particularly partial to his Magneto series. Bunn has a way of taping into new found territory with characters that we’ve grown to know and love.
For the last couple of years, Bunn has also been collaborating with Tyler Crook on a series for Dark Horse called Harrow County. On the surface, Harrow County seems to be a horror comic book. There are witches, haints, demons, black magic and everything else you would expect from a horror story. But when you look closer you see it’s really the coming of age story for the main character, Emmy. Emmy is a young girl who finds out that her whole life has been a life and that she has this great power locked inside of her and she has to decide what kind of person she wants to be. But before you can figure out what kind of person she wants to be, she has to figure out who she really is.
What makes Harrow County such a great read is that while on the surface it seems to be drastically different from Bunn’s other books like Magneto or Darth Maul, at its core, they’re all very familiar. Bunn’s approach to writing is to find what the reader would want to know more about in the characters he writes and build on that. I sat down with him at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss this series as well as his approach to storytelling.
How do you balance telling a coming of age story in Harrow County with it also being a a horror story?
The thing with Harrow County is when I first started, I would have called it a horror story as well. There’s something in [the character of] Emmy, her internal sweetness, that changed the tone of the series and made it less horror story and more of a dark fairy tale. And as soon as we hit on that in the first few issues, that’s the tone we strove to maintain. We wanted to maintain that feeling of a magical story but not so horrific, despite the dark moments, that a teenager couldn’t read it and enjoy it. And that’s what’s surprised me while writing this story. I didn’t expect it to be a story that is not really “kid-friendly” but still teen relatable
I mean there are still pretty dark moments in this. She carries around a fiend’s skin.
*laughs* Yes, she carries around a flayed skin around as her best buddy but it’s still kind of a sweet relationship. And that’s been a conscious effort from us and that is the tone we’ve been trying to maintain. Although, it absolutely gets darker as the series goes on.
In keeping with the coming of age theme, the last few volumes have delved into the conflict between Emmy and Bernice. It touches on the teenage conflict but still keeps the horror/witch craft element.
I was just telling someone else about that arc. We know that Emmy’s not going to kill Bernice. We’ve positioned her as a “good person”. But the danger there is that their friendship might be destroyed forever. And that’s where we wanted to take that. And losing that kind of friendship could be scary in itself especially in their situation where they don’t have a lot of people they can lean on. We wanted the danger to be that at the end of this, both of them could end up being very alone.
In the last issue you bring back Kammi, Emmy twin-sister and I’ve been waiting for that. Kammi’s initial arc was short but I could tell there was so much more story to tell there.
With Kammi, we always knew we were going to take her off the table pretty quickly after she appeared but we knew that she would be coming back. And believe me , Kammi gets her payback in this next arc and she strikes back at Emmy in some pretty painful ways.
One of the interesting things about Harrow County is the short stories done at the end of each issue. It started off with you or Tyler writing them, now you have different people. Are you pulling these stories from your own experiences, cause I know you mention your issue with creepy tress in the first volume.
I definitely have a thing with creepy trees for sure. Those stories come from different places. Originally I was writing all of them but I gotta tell you, one page stories are hard to write. They are not easy at all. So I was very happy that Tyler wanted to write some then Brian Hurtt and Matt Kindt came in and drew some. And then we have other creators coming in and writing their own. And that’s nice because first, it’s other people bringing their own stories and experiences in and on a more personal level, it just means I don’t have to.
So are these little 1-2 page stories also set in the Harrow County timeline/continuity?
So they’re all physically set in Harrow County, well, most. Tyler wrote a couple that were set outside of Harrow County but still involve characters from Harrow County. Now they may not actually be occurring at the same time as our story and so we’re not saying they’re canon or not but there are stories you might hear if you lived in Harrow County
They really flesh out the world because with Harrow County you never really know what’s real. A lot of the people in Harrow County aren’t real and were created from mud. Bernice is from Mason’s Hallow that is its own section. There’s this whole world to expand on that as a reader, you never really know what’s coming next.
And that’s what we wanted. We don’t want readers to ever feel like they know what’s coming next. Every arc we want to turn something on its ear. And it’s really about Emmy’s experience. We talked about this being a story about growing up and coming of age and as you come of age things change so rapidly that your world view can shift on a dime because of some event. That’s the feeling we are going for with each arc. I think there is a bigger world too and there is something exciting there outside of Harrow County that I think at some point would be exciting to explore
So I’m a big fan of your writing. I love your Magneto series, I’m reading Darth Maul now in addition to Harrow County. It seems like your focus is always on the journey of the character. With known characters like Magneto and Maul, characters that we the fans/readers think we know, you really break them down into these really personal stories that brings out a side that we haven’t seen.
Yeah and I don’t always pull it off because it’s a tough line to walk. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not and I mess it up. But I think for a lot of these characters, like with characters like Magneto or Maul, it’s the only thing you can do. For a character like Maul, we know his story. From the movies and then if you follow the animated series, his story is told. So the only thing I can do is to get into his head and show what his personal experience and what he’s feeling inside. And that’s the only way I can get readers. You know in my Darth Maul series that he’s not going to die because you know where he goes next, but we don’t necessarily know what he’s feeling, what he’s going through
With Maul it’s the rage in side of him, with Magneto it’s this feeling of guilt with Emmy it’s this feeling of not knowing how she is.
When I go into write this stories, that’s my first goal. To get the reader to buy into the character on an emotional and personal level. It doesn’t always work, but my goal is to always try to do that. I try to find that emotional hook. For Emmy it’s the “I don’t know who I am” and every time she thinks she knows, she finds out she doesn’t. And I think that’s something we all go through at some point in our lives so I think people can relate to that. That’s the same with like a Magneto and feeling this overwhelming guilt and trying to rage against what’s happened to him. It’s an interesting situation because in that series he was lashing out about things that happened decades earlier. Literally he can do nothing about what’s happened but he’s lashing out and I think we all feel that at some point. Now it’s not to that extreme. We’re not throwing buildings at other people but I think we can get on that emotional level. And it really should be for any comic book character. The reader can’t relate to the idea of having unlimited power but you can relate to the personal story and that’s how you ground it with the reader.
Now there’s been some talk of a Harrow County TV show on Syfy, have you heard any more about it?
There’s still motion. They’re still working on it. There’s a beautiful script for a pilot out there. That’s really all I can tell you. It’s really well done and true to the series but also has some very exciting new things. People who read the book can watch this and get something new out of it. People who have never read the book could watch it and enjoy it. People who watch the TV show could then read the comic and get something new out of the comic. That’s the way TV and comics should work together. It’s different, it has to be. There are things that work in the comics that don’t work on the TV and vice versa. So it has to be a little different but it’s very true to the spirit of the comic. I think it could be real exciting. I would love to watch a show about Emmy and Bernice.
We’ve written for well known characters on Marvel with Magento, Maul, etc and then you have this original story on Dark Horse, what’s the difference in your character process? With the well known characters like Magneto and Maul, you’re limited in what you’re allowed to do with the characters but with original characters, sometimes having too much room can be a problem.
So the big difference is that with a Magneto, Maul or X-Men, I have to run the story by someone. I might pitch a story and the editor or the licenser says “Well you can’t do that, you have to change it.” Then I have to go back and tweak and change the story. And even then, after I’ve finished writing, someone could still come in and ask me to change something. So, I always have to be ready to change something. With creator owned, it’s my own story. And the story of my collaborator. We still have editors and they might come in and make suggestions and say “hey you might be missing something here” from a story perspective. But at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we want to do and we’re going to live or die by the decisions we’ve made.
It’s tough because I’m a huge comic book fan. I’ve loved comics since I was kid. I love X-men characters. I grew up collecting X-Men. So to write X-Men is one of the greatest joys in my life. But I always describe it as like going over to you best friend’s house and he has all these great toys. And you can get the toys and play with them, but you always gotta put them back and they have to be in the same condition at the end. That’s what it’s like when you write for these properties. Now I don’t ever want to give it up, I love doing it and I love contributing to that world and that mythology. It’s still rewarding just a different kind of rewarding from telling your own story.
Last question, do you have an end game for Harrow County?
I do. The series is mapped out and I’m not going to tell you when it ends but we are rocketing towards that ending. And just like everything else with this series, we might surprise you when it ends. We’re moving towards the ending probably sooner than you think.
The next issue of Harrow County will be available on September 13th.