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Exclusive: Cullen Bunn Talks His New BOOM! Studios Series THE EMPTY MAN

Cullen Bunn is fast becoming one of the most sought-after writers in comics, and for good reason. His stellar new Magneto #1 for Marvel is our pick of the week and he’s made waves with dynamite runs on books like Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, The Sixth Gun, Helheim, and others, cementing himself as a writer with a deft narrative hand, snappy dialogue, and a knack for making want to read just one more page. Now, we’re proud to exclusively announce that Bunn is going to embark on a new journey into a world of murderous cults, international panic, and suspense in the face of a mysterious global pandemic in The Empty Man, a brand new ongoing series for BOOM! Studios coming this June.

Teamed with artist Vanesa R. Del Rey (Hit), Bunn has crafted a sleek piece of modern horror that combines Lovecraftian madness, religious zealotry, and biological mystery to make a uniquely compelling comic book cocktail. Having read the script for issue #1 and ogled the key art, including two covers from Del Rey, I can tell you that I’m genuinely excited to see the comic brought to life. To take you deeper inside the horrifying world of The Empty Man, I caught up with Bunn over e-mail to talk about his inspirations, the psychology of cults, what to expect from the series and much more.

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Nerdist: So, reading the script for issue #1, I get a sort of True Detective-meets-The Thing vibe from it. It’s got this slow burn mystery coupled with otherworldly horror and unsettling cults, which make for a potent brew. What can readers expect from The Empty Man?

Cullen Bunn: The Empty Man is a horror story that’s been festering in my head for a long while. In many ways, this is a police procedural with a distinct J-horror vibe.

It takes place in a world that is not too unlike our own, except that it is being held in the grasp of a sinister pandemic called “The Empty Man.” This virus, it seems, affects the mind, creating godawful hallucinations. In this world, the CDC and the FBI have created a joint task force to investigate the disease, develop a cure, and deal with a number of strange (sometimes dangerous) religious sects that have sprung up.

So… we’ll be exploring the mystery of this seemingly sentient disease. But we’re joining the story a few years after the first recorded case. And what we find is that the disease is starting to change in some very frightening ways.

N: How long will the series be? Is this a mini-series or an ongoing series?

CB: I typically prefer longer stories. I enjoy being able to take my time and develop the characters, the world, the theme and the plot a little more slowly. A story like this benefits greatly from a gradual layering of interconnecting elements, each a little more strange than the last. So, I see this as an ongoing series. Each individual arc will have its own beginning, middle, and end, but will also be part of a much larger story. That said, I know how the series will end, and I’ll be moving us in that direction. I might like long stories, but I also like stories that know where they’re going.

N: This book seems like product of late nights frantically browsing WebMD after reading H.P. Lovecraft, which I mean in the best way possible. Where did your inspiration from the series come from?

CB: I think WebMD is the greatest horror story ever told, because once you go there, you’re haunted for days by all the diseases you might have. I’m too much of a hypochondriac to read anything on that site.

Maybe that fear of illness was the true inspiration for the book, at least subconsciously, and in recent years I’ve been haunted and terrified by diseases that bring dementia and mental instability with them.

The first note I ever wrote in regards to the idea simply read, “The Empty Man made me do it.” From there, I somehow made the leap to the concept of a contagious insanity, something that would start relatively small, but would continue to grow as more and more strangeness was heaped onto the tale.

And, yes, the influence of H. P. Lovecraft is very much present in this story, as is the influence of Koji Suzuki.

N: What is it about cults and this specific kind of deification and fixation that fascinates you?

CB: Illness can come out of nowhere and take everything from us. It’s terrifying. It’s something that has weighed heavily on my mind for a while. With the power such a disease might have… with the sense of unknown that surrounds such a thing… with the fear such a thing might incite… it’s not difficult to see illness as this kind of vengeful god. And I’ve always been interested in how different groups of people can have such vastly different takes on faith.

My dad made his living doing fundraising for various groups — volunteer fire departments and schools and churches. When I was a boy, he would sometimes take me with him when he went on pitch meetings to these groups. One summer night, he had a pitch meeting at this run down church in the middle of nowhere. The meeting took place after services, and we sat in the back and watched as these folks passed a poisonous snake around the congregation. It was fascinating and surreal and scary for me.

So, in this story, I wanted to show cults as something a little different than what you might normally expect from a horror story. These aren’t cloak-wearing madmen (at least not initially) but different groups that might be seen as misguided, tragic, or insidious for various reasons. But I wanted them to seem fairly realistic for the world we’re presenting here.

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N: I’m a big fan of Vanesa R. Del Rey’s artwork, so I was pleased to hear she was attached to the book. How did you two get linked up and how have you worked together to develop the book’s visual aesthetic?

CB: I couldn’t be happier that Vanesa is working on this story. When BOOM! suggested her, I was absolutely thrilled, because I knew she’d bring a uniqueness to the series. She’s prefect for the mood of the series, and her character designs so perfectly capture the essence of our protagonists.

N: You’re a writer and you’re constantly juggling god knows how many projects at any given time. Do you have a secret productivity trick or a way to conquer writer’s block that you can share with our readers?

CB: Three elements make up my productivity secret: I love to tell stories, I need to eat, and I don’t want to go back to punching a clock for someone else. There’s really not much more to it. I work from 8:30 to 5:00 five days a week, and I try to do a little extra whenever I get the chance. Writer’s block never really enters the equation. When I get stuck on something, I simply write my way through it.

N: Last but not least, what comics are you reading and enjoying right now?

CB: Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder and Wolverine and the X-Men are my favorite superhero books right now. I was a little bummed that Jason is leaving what has become my favorite X-book, but I’ve had the opportunity to read Jason Latour’s first couple of issues, and it is going to be stellar. I’m also digging Lazarus by Greg Rucka, Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt, are great. I just read DOWN. SET. FIGHT!  by Chris Sims and Chad Bowers, and that was so much fun. I just got my Kickstarter edition of Vattu by Evan Dahm in the mail, and I can’t wait to crack that open.

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BOOM! Studios’ The Empty Man by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey is coming your way this June. Will you be picking it up? Let us know in the comments below.

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