(Editor’s Note for 12/23/20: This interview has since been edited to include answers from Nelson Blake II)
At this point in his career, writer Cullen Bunn is perhaps best known as a true horror master. From The Damned and Crooked Hills to the hugely popular Harrow County, Bunn knows how to scare folks on a near-molecular level. But for his latest project, Byte-Sized, Bunn takes a different, slightly more wholesome approach. Set during Christmastime, the four-part miniseries follows two siblings who discover self-aware robots, and the slap-dash adventure of corrupted A.I. and yuletide joy that follows. It’s like Frosty the Snowman — if he were a nasty war machine forged by man.
The first issue debuted earlier this month, and issue #2 is set to arrive on January 20. With Christmas cheer still in the air, we reached out to Bunn to talk about the series’ development, his work with artist/collaborator Nelson Blake II, publishing via AWA Studios, and much, much more.
AIPT: What was the genesis of this book? Is there a handy-dandy elevator pitch?
Cullen Bunn: I had been talking to Axel Alonso for a while, looking for the right kind of project to be my first AWA outing. We were talking about doing something for a younger audience, something kids could really enjoy. Byte-Sized was born from those discussions.
In Byte-Sized, a group of highly advanced robots escape from the lab that invented them. They end up at the home of a typical family… in the middle of a blizzard… on Christmas Eve. And, of course, they are mistaken for toys under the Christmas tree!
Nelson Blake II: It started with Axel and Cullen coming up with the general premise. I was brought in to design it from the ground up and from there we just fed off of each other creatively until the world was fleshed out.
AIPT: I get some real Small Soldiers and Gremlins vibes from this first issue (totally a compliment, FYI); am I way off? What are some of the influences at play here?
CB: You’re spot on with those connections! Gremlins was a big influence here. In fact, the dog in the comic is named Gizmo. Small Soldiers, Batteries Not Included, and stories like that… where otherworldly mayhem is visited upon an unsuspecting family… were definitely on my mind while working on these scripts.
NB: Gremlins is definitely a big one. Batteries Not Included, some Short Circuit, and for me, some Big Hero 6, Wall-E, and Next Gen (Netflix.) Basically, anything that had brilliant animation or sympathetic, fun robots got a look from me. There’s very little that I work on that isn’t at least a little bit influenced by The Incredibles. This is shameful, but until I worked on this book, I’d never seen Toy Story. That turned out to be valuable research, and really fun to watch.
AIPT: How would you describe the collaboration between Bunn and Blake (also, that’s the name of a great buddy cop film)?
CB: I’m Chaos. He’s Mayhem.
The collaboration has been great! Early on, we had a lot of talks about what these little robots would look like, and Nelson just blew me away with the “evil-cute” designs he put together. And, while the robots are the stars of the show, I think the family he designed is amazing, too. I mean, they look like a great family to spend Christmas with! Must be why the robots were drawn to them!
NB: Cullen is a really open collaborator. I’ve read a bunch of his books and was an especially big fan of Harrow County, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. Even more exciting is that like me, he’s jumping into a genre he’s not known for. I think he knocked it out of the park and gave me a ton of fun things to draw while doing it.
AIPT: What was it like working with/through AWA? Is there something special about this new studio that’s best suited for this specific book/series?
CB: Working with AWA has been a blast. It’s exciting getting in on the ground floor of their endeavors to publish comics for younger audiences, and it’s gratifying to be working on something brand new in that arena. I love that AWA is willing to take risks and do these unexpected types of projects!
NB: Even though we’re a team and this is a work-for-hire book, collaborating with Axel and Cullen felt a lot more like a creator-owned project, and I mean that in the best way possible. The world building and creativity felt really open across the board.
AIPT: Byte-Sized is only four issues — is it harder or easier to do a miniseries versus something more “long-term?” Could we see more issues in the future?
CB: I could definitely tell more stories about these little robots. I would love to. I already have several ideas for where their adventures would take them next! When those ideas are coming at full speed, it can be tough to keep the story to four issues. But I try to think of this series as the first chapter of something much, much bigger!
AIPT: You’re best known for your horror work. Does this series maybe lean that way somehow? Or is it something separate entirely?
CB: It’s definitely not a horror book! This is a book of fun and adventure and hope and joy! But… I’ll admit… I drew on a few of my horrific inclinations while working on this. I wanted the reader to be a little worried about these robots. I wanted them to be a little menacing, especially early on. That said, it’s not too scary. This is a book for kids and the young-at-heart. So I didn’t want to give them nightmares!
AIPT: People are always afraid of the robot uprising. Is this book just having fun or does it connect (albeit more playfully) with that tradition or “genre”?
CB: There’s a bit of robot uprising in this, but it’s not all that grim and gritty and gloomy. The robots definitely cause a lot of trouble in this book, but maybe it’s more about miscommunication than full-on revolt!
NB: Don’t tell the rest of the team I said this, but I actually see an easy path from this first book into a broader, darker series. I know that’s kind of wild, but we’ve seen it in young reader style books before. Maybe not to the extremes that I can see it here, but I think about Harry Potter, David Eddings’ The Belgariad, and other titles that started out much lighter, but grew up with their audiences as the series went on with the threats getting bigger and darker. I’m not saying we’ll do that, but I see it.
AIPT: Why set this during the holiday season (like so many other great movies)? Is there just a lot to play with and lovingly lampoon about Christmas?
CB: I’m a huge fan of the Christmas season. And, of course, I love stories set during Christmas. I thought it would be an interesting setting for this kind of tale. I thought it would be fun seeing these robots in stockings hung by the chimney with care… in the tree… under the tree and mistaken for toys… And I thought the season gave the story a sense of fun and hope that might not have been there if we had introduced these robots on any other day of the year.
AIPT: Cullen, you wrote a kind of sneak peek letter about your love of robots. Who are the robots here (Socket, Dotty, Twobit, and Otto) most like in popular fiction? Are there challenges to using robots over “normal” people?
CB: My hope is that these robots have their own personalities and flair that sets them apart from others you might have seen in stories and movies. It’s tough, because I was adamant that these characters would not be too humanoid in appearance. I wanted them to be a little stranger, like wild sci-fi Roombas with mischievous attitudes. I think Nelson did an amazing job giving the robots visual character, and I think their little quirks will endear them to readers.
AIPT: Nelson, in your own letter, you mentioned the series as a love letter to “Spielberg and Pixar.” What specifically do you think you’re honoring or paying homage to here?
NB: When it comes to Spielberg, there’s a general spirit of discovery and innocence that I tried to nail. During the chase scenes, I’m thinking of those classic Spielberg musical cues. One thing that I love about Cullen’s work is that coming from a horror background, he has this deft hand with suspense and mystery. Spielberg’s movies had a lot of that for me as a kid as well. Looking back, there’s a lot of fun and magic, but even in the most kid-friendly stories like E.T., there are moments that I thought something scary might happen. That extra color is what makes this feel inclusive of younger audiences without playing down to them, at least for me.
Pixar and Disney are a huge artistic influence. In many ways, studying them is how I learned to draw, so approaching a project with a more “animation” feel, I’m thinking a lot about the principles taught by Brad Bird, Glen Keane and the many great artists from those studios and projects. No matter how cartoony an art style is, comics is very different from animation, so it’s about adapting those ideas to the very unique language of comic book storytelling.
AIPT: Why should everyone pick up issue #1?
CB: This is a great book for kids and adults alike. Grad it for your little ones! Get it for yourself! Read it with your families. This is a story of fun and hope and cheer… and we can all use a little bit of that right now.
NB: I honestly think this is a great chance for families and young readers to get in on comics. I’ve done a lot of darker genre work and superhero stuff, but it’s always been important for me to jump on projects that are not just appropriate for younger readers, but fun for them. I can still remember my excitement getting into comics at a young age, and if I can pass that on, that absolutely makes my day. I think this book will do that for a lot of folks.
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