Interview: Cullen Bunn Discusses The Empty Man

BOOM_Empty_Man_001_ACullen Bunn is a popular writer having penned books for what seems like almost every major publisher out there. On top of his current various ongoing gigs, Bunn will soon get you to say “the Empty Man made me do it.” The Empty Man is his new series from BOOM! Studios. The series debuts in June with art provided by Vanesa R. Del Rey.

It’s been one year since the first reported case of the Empty Man disease, and no drug has been able to slow its progress. The cause is unknown, and the symptoms include fits of rage, hideous hallucinations, suicidal dementia, followed by death, or a near lifeless, “empty” state of catatonia. As murder cults rise nationwide, the FBI and CDC enter a joint investigation of the Empty Man, hoping to piece together clues to stop the cult and uncover a cure.

Though the comic doesn’t debut for a few months, we  got a chance to talk to Bunn about how the series came about, and what we can expect!

Graphic Policy: For those who don’t know what the series is, how would you describe it to them?

Cullen Bunn: The Empty Man is a J-Horror police procedural. It’s the story of this terrifying new virus—a kind of contagious insanity—that is sweeping across the world. It is the cause of ghastly hallucinations and terrible acts of violence. There’s no known cause and no cure in sight, and many people have started to view the disease almost as if it were a deity.

GP: Where did the concept of the series come from?

CB: The first inkling of this idea came to me while on a road trip. While my mind was wandering, the phrase, “The Empty Man made me do it” popped into my head. For whatever reason, I couldn’t shake that phrase. It spawned a number of strange ideas, some of which fused together to become the initial story of The Empty Man. The first scene that I wrote for the series was put to paper several years ago. Even though the series has gone through some changes, that first scene still remains pretty much the same.

GP: The series is described as J-Horror and Contagion meets Law & Order. From what I’ve seen so far, it has a bit of an X-Files vibe to it too. What are some of the influences to the story and vibe of the series?

CB: I think all of those influences are valid, for sure. Others might include the old show Millenium or movies like Jacob’s Ladder or The Ring. After the series was announced, I heard a few people compare it to True Detective. I can see the connections, actually, even though I first started developing this series years ago. I have, however, been watching True Detective in the last couple of weeks, and I think there are obvious comparisons, especially in terms of mood and the more surreal moments.

BOOM_Empty_Man_001_BGP: From the little that’s been released, there’s a cult that seems to be helping spread the Empty Man disease. That has a bit of a vibe as far as anti-vaccers and reemergence of some nasty diseases due to that movement. Has that influenced this at all?

CB: I wondered if anyone would pick up on that! Yes, the whole anti-vaccine movement was one of the initial influences on the idea of how illnesses might be viewed. And when I started thinking of The Empty Man as having religious qualities, that opened the floodgates in terms of where I might go with it. Of course, this is all taken to an ultimate extreme. In this world, there are dozens of cults/religious movements that have sprung up in the wake of the virus, all of them with their own take on the disease. Some are strange. Some are very dangerous.

GP: What can you tell us about the main protagonists? In the solicitation, we know one’s a CDC agent and the other FBI.

CB: We experience this story mostly through the eyes of Walter Langford, an agent of the CDC, and Monica Jensen, an agent with the FBI. Because the Empty Man has characteristics of a disease and a dangerous cult, the two organizations have put together a special task force to engage in the investigation. They’re a bit of an old couple, and not just because they work for different governmental branches. Walter is a little disillusioned with his lot in life… and with how the government is handling the Empty Man. He’s a little laid back and plays things a little more loosely. Jensen, on the other hand, is all business. She follows the rules.

GP: How much did you look into as far as how the CDC or FBI might work, and work together, in a situation like this?

CB: I did some research, but at some point I realized this is really a “fantasy” world I’ve created, so that let me break away from that and focus more on the story of these characters. I suppose you might say I did enough research to make me dangerous, but I’d say I did just enough to make the world seem kind of realistic. The rest I made up as I went along.

GP: How much of the story is the team trying to track down patient zero versus finding a cure or vaccine to protect everyone?

CB: The story we’ll be following will actually be a little more immediate. We’re not focusing on finding patient zero or finding the cure. Those are stories I’d like to tell, but for now I was more interested in using that as a backdrop for another story of these characters. We’re picking up at the beginning of the investigation of a new Empty Man incident. This one, though, is a little different than others. What we find is that the disease has started to change (as viruses tend to do) and is becoming more dangerous.

GP: Vanesa R. Del Ray is providing art for the series. How’d she come aboard the project?

CB: A while back, I started searching through comics to find artists that I might want to work with. Vanesa was one of the artists on that list. Still, it was BOOM! that suggested her as an artist for this series. In that way, it was a happy coincidence.

GP: How long have you been working on the project and how much of it do you have planned out?

CB: As I mentioned earlier, this is a series I’ve had in mind for a long while. I have the first six-issue series planned out in what I think will present a satisfying story. But there are many, many more stories I’d like to tell in this world if I’m given the chance.

GP: You’ve got a lot of projects going on this year, what else can folks expect from you in 2014?

CB: Well, I’m writing Magneto for Marvel and Sinestro for DC. I’ll also be continuing the story of The Sixth Gun, which is rapidly approaching its 50th (and final) issue. I’m also writing Brides of Helheim and Hellbreak, both series with lots of action and horror. There are a few other projects in the works, too, but I’m sworn to secrecy!