Interview: Writer Brian Christgau talks Six-Gun Gorilla and other wild west monkey business
I’ve said it before, there’s nothing cooler than apes in comics. Comic book publishers know it, readers know it, and even Hollywood has jumped on the ape bandwagon again (see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.) Since Edgar Rice Burroughs first planted poor baby Greystoke in the middle of the Mangani (great apes) tribe off the coast of Africa, spectacular simians have been a huge part of our pop culture heritage; and at the recent Phoenix Comicon I happened to come across one of the most awesome ape adventures of all.
Illustrator Wes Huffor was set up in a corner of Artist Alley at the 2014 Comicon, and upon seeing his booth I was waylaid by a wave of incredibly cool artwork depicting a humongous gorilla amidst classic western action backdrops. (To be fair, Mr. Huffor also does some fantastic horror themed art as well, but as you might guess, his ape-centric work was my focus.)
Huffor is the cover artist for what is the best comic series I’ve read this year, Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance. It’s based on an old west story that was featured in a long lost pulp magazine serial from 1939, about a six-gun slinging silverback gorilla named O’Neil (called Kumba in the updated version), seeking revenge on the men who killed his owner/adopted-father, a mild-mannered gold-miner.
Together with artist Adrian Sibar, writer Brian Christgau has revised and changed-up the classic Six-Gun Gorilla pulp tale, blending it with beloved old school western cinematic tropes that make it an ingenious cross between Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and a wild Twilight Zone episode – only in this case the rider ain’t pale – he’s big, hairy and POed.
Mr. Christgau graciously took some time to answer our questions about his independent comic series, Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance, and we highly recommend that you visit sixgungorilla.com to check it out for yourself. You’ll be happy you did.
Your tagline, “A very big ape with very big guns blowing very big holes in very bad people,” is maybe the most awesome elevator pitch ever.
Thanks! I like to think it gets the point across.
When did you first become aware of the pulp story about Six-Gun Gorilla, and what about the character inspired you to write the comic book?
I first heard about the character sometime in 2011, when I was perusing a website on Golden Age and Pulp superheroes like Doc Savage and The Spider. As a kid I was absolutely obsessed with great apes and was a huge fan of the original King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. I’m also a huge Western fan so the concept clicked with me instantly. I was like, “A Western with a freaking gorilla as the hero!? Sign me up for that!”
Then I discovered that the story wasn’t even available; hadn’t been since its original publication in 1939. The most I could find out about the story was the basic plot: a gorilla hunts down a gang of vicious outlaws after they murder the kindly old gold prospector who raised him.
What initially inspired me about the character was the sheer outrageousness of the concept. The more I thought about it I realized how it would make for a great story about loss, grief, revenge and redemption. That’s just how my mind works. I love taking different genres and throwing them in a blender and seeing what comes out. Of course, you can’t just rely on novelty alone; you’ve got to have a good story populated with characters you genuinely come to care about for the thing to work.
A lot of comic fans are familiar with the very good sci-fi version of “Six-Gun Gorilla,” by Simon Spurrier & Jeff Stokely (BOOM! Studios.) What’s the story (and timeline) behind all of you gravitating towards this same public domain material?
I finished my final draft of the screenplay in early May 15, 2012 and registered it with the WGAW and the U.S. Copyright Office simultaneously. I released the digital version of the first issue on June 5,2013, a little over a week before the first issue of the BOOM! Studios book hit the shelves. So, yeah, not that it matters, but if anybody gives me any grief I can always honestly say mine came out first.
I love that you have kept the character close to his roots as a classic western hero.
It never occurred to me to do it any other way. I took some liberties with the source material – I changed the hero’s adopted human father from a gold prospector to a circus owner – but I wanted to stick true to the concept of a pissed off gorilla prowling the Old West in search of the outlaws who shot his pa.
There’s something really fun about taking a gorilla and just dropping him in this familiar setting where he couldn’t be more out of place. Making that work is a real challenge, but holy sh-t is it a fun one. It’s a balancing act. You want a story that’s played straight, but you also want to make sure that it doesn’t become ponderous and self-aware; that it has a sense of fun and adventure.
What are your old west literature and film influences?
As a kid I gobbled up Western comics along with the horror and superhero stuff that was on TV and on the comic book racks. Western comics, especially the DC ones like Jonah Hex and Bat Lash, reprints of old Jack Kirby stuff like The Two-Gun Kid. What really intrigued me were the Western superheroes like the Lone Ranger and the original Ghost Rider. My Six-Gun Gorilla is absolutely intended to be like them in that respect. Moebius’s Blueberry is another favorite. Kumba’s foil in the story, Giuliano Schmidt, is definitely inspired by that character.
Most of the books I’ve read about the Old West have been non-fiction. As far as novels go, I’d have to say Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Trevanian’s Incident at Twenty-Mile. The villains in those are just so nasty! Evil, cold-blooded murderers who are all the more horrifying because they’re so matter-of-fact about the hideously evil crimes they commit. It’s like watching films of the Nuremburg trials or the BTK killer – it’s the absolute banality of evil that I find so disturbing.
As far as movies go, I grew up watching Westerns on TV – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah – but it was the Sergio Leone movies that just blew the top of my head off. They depicted an Old West that was dirtier, meaner and more dangerous than what I’d seen up to that point. They just oozed style and they didn’t have any of the extraneous stuff that little boys don’t care about, like love and romance. This was a world that was so evil, so messed up that the good guy was pretty morally dubious himself… and yet there was never any doubt that he was the good guy.
In addition to the comic’s artist, Adrian Sibar, and cover artist, Wes Huffor, I’ve also seen artists Caanan White, Shelby Robertson and Chadwick Haverland involved with this series. How will they be contributing on future issues?
That remains to be seen. I’d love to have them all back to do something. Depends on how the rest of the series is received. We’ve got a bunch of amazing talents lined up… but mums the word! I ain’t spillin’ the beans! Suffice it say we’ve got some real heavy-hitters coming up, including one who is a personal favorite going back to my high school years.
When I met Mr. Huffor at Phoenix Comicon, I believe he mentioned a planned 10-issue run. Is that just the “Long Days of Vengeance” storyline? Can you tell us the details of your future plans for the “Six-Gun Gorilla” series?
Long Days of Vengeance is the origin story. It’s the story that formed in my head after hearing the words, “Six-Gun Gorilla”. The on-going series is going to be way more episodic, consisting primarily of “Done-in-One” stories using Detective Comics and the second Jonah Hex series, the one by Palmiotti and Gray, as the model.
That’s not to say I might not do four and five issue arcs here and there, mind you, but I mostly want to tell tight, lean, self-contained stories of Kumba’s travels through the Old West and beyond. Of course, at some point I’ve got to get his fuzzy butt to Africa for some old-school, H. Rider Haggard style “lost city in the jungle” action. I can’t wait to do that stuff!
I would love to see a “Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance” movie.
You and me both!
Have you thought about putting the story together as a screenplay and shopping around Hollywood?
Oh, of course. I originally wrote this thing as a screenplay because I had just come off writing one, a Mexican Horror Wrestling story called Tequila Moonrise, and found the transition back to the comic book format impossible. I just got stymied every time I sat down at the keyboard.
Writing for comics has to be the most unnatural way to tell a story ever. It’s a blueprint, after all, and while a screenplay is also a blueprint you can still have fun with the prose a little and write it in a way that flows nicely for the reader. With a comic you’re not describing characters and action so much as you’re describing *snapshots*. Starting it as a comic, then turning it into a screenplay and then back to a comic again has actually been really useful because it has helped me tighten the story and keep it as streamlined as possible.
So I’ve got the screenplay. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to get people to read your work these days. Not that it was ever easy, mind you, but now it’s just impossible. And comics are almost as rough because unless you’re already an established industry pro or have some movie or TV credits they don’t want to know from you. Being a best-selling novelist, a rock star or a reality TV celebrity is good too. Alas, I’m none of those things.
Right now I’m just concentrating on the comic and building a following for the book, which is going really great at the moment. If it generates some interest from Hollywood I’ll be jazzed, but I’m more interested in creating a solid book than a pitch for a movie. You can always sniff those books out, especially in the indie scene, and they almost always stink.
You offer the books & art prints online, but what are the upcoming convention plans for the book? Will you be appearing at San Diego Comic Con?
San Diego is just way too happening for us right now. It’s just too big. If we did San Diego we’d just get lost in the shuffle. When Paris Hilton showed up one year you just kind of knew the moment had passed.
Right now we’re gearing up for the 2014 New York Comic Con. We’re putting together something really special. I can safely say it’s going to be an amazing collectible. Whether that’s going to be something available on sixgungorilla.com or a New York Comic Con 2014 exclusive is still up in the air.
To say that the critics and fans have been kind and generous is an understatement. The response to the book has just been overwhelmingly positive. People are always telling me to not worry about the critics, but I do because they’re comic book fans first and foremost. Right now I’m just getting a kick out writing this thing and people seem to be getting a real kick out of reading it.
You can purchase the “Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance” comics (both in print and digitally), as well as some incredible artwork, at sixgungorilla.com. Follow the comic series on Facebook HERE.
You can read the original 1939 Six-Gun Gorilla saga in full (and for free) on alternative history writer Jess Nevins’ website HERE.