Wide World of Webcomics: Steampunk Western NEXT TOWN OVER

 

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best of the web! Today, we’ve got an action-packed webcomic that will take you to the wildest West ever.

Erin Mehlos’ Next Town Over (www.nexttownover.net) is the simple story of Vane Black, who’s chasing the outlaw John Henry Hunter across the Western landscape. Well, it’s simple except for the fact that Black has a steam-powered horse and grappling-hook guns (and goggles, natch), while Hunter happens to have abilities that allow him to conjure up the likes of a flaming lasso and an equally flaming horse. And there’s a mysterious past between the two of them, as the reasons for their chase are slowly revealed…and all those who come into contact with them risk paying a deadly price.

 

We got up with Mehlos to talk about Next Town Over, the process by which she creates her elaborate pages, her favorite Western and steampunk tales, and more.

Newsarama: Okay Erin, I'll bite -- how did you come up with the concept for Next Town Over, and what led to the steampunk/supernatural elements seep into the story?

Erin Mehlos: I always kind of wanted to do something with a Western flavor, and I used to doodle manga girls in cowboy hats from time to time as a kid. The seed for the NTO plot, though, actually started off as a jokey criticism I was giving my sister about a story she’d written, where the action was just moving from place to place for no apparent reason as her protagonists just wrecked town after town.

 

Incidentally. none of the towns were developed whatsoever or even had names; the characters just referred to them as “the next town over.” I was just being a jerk, really, and said that should just be the core of the story: nemeses just destroying place after place with zero regard for all the collateral damage, and any effect it might have on the people unfortunate enough to live in their path.

And that became NTO, but obviously I’ve sort of ruined the, uh, purity of the original concept. The story got a little snarled in the writing, but three books out, I don’t know how apparent that is.

Nrama: Tell us about your process for creating the story, i.e. scripting and illustrating a page.

Mehlos: Well NTO’s been pretty much written for years, now, so apart from some minor tweaks the fun part’s done already and now it’s all just drudgery. Ha.

 

Looking at the script, I try to thumbnail everything in advance and pin down paneling ahead of time, but I hate doing it, and my thumbnails often accomplish very little or are flat indecipherable when I come back to them.

So my pencils are really, uh, multilayered, because I end up solving a lot of compositional problems as I go, or not! I lay out in non-photo blues and then draw over that (with) regular old HB pencils on Bristol. I don’t ink NTO, so those get scanned into Photoshop directly, cleaned up and colored digitally.

 

Most of the backgrounds get painted in when I’m coloring; I don’t usually pencil much there, except really rough perspective guides so people aren’t floating in space.

Nrama: How'd you come up with the characters for NTO?

Mehlos: Well two people in knock-down, drag-out conflict was sort of at the core of the idea, so really Black and Hunter started as kind of a glorified Spy vs. Spy in my head – they’re even still black and white. Except they’re not -- readers don’t seem sure whose side they’re supposed to be on, and that’s working as intended.

 

More individually, Hunter is basically the product of me growing up playing RPGs where the casters were always girls or slightly-built dudes and wanting to make my magic user physically imposing while Vane, who’s the more physically, mechanically violent character, is small. And she’s pointedly unfeminine, 100% unconcerned with anything but her objective.

Nrama: What do you feel is enduring about the concept of Westerns, and why do you feel they still loom large in the public consciousness in so many different forms?

Mehlos: I think People are drawn to Westerns for the same reasons they’re drawn to sci-fi. Both deal a lot with the spread of civilizations and their sometimes-violent encounters with alien terrain and alien cultures as people try to make new lives in an alien frontier, invariably bringing with them incompatible and unsustainable ideas about law and order.

 

Both genres usually grapple a little bit with the explosion of new technologies, too, and how they change the way people live and interrelate. I think people living with big change are always informative and relatable, and the atmosphere of exploration and innovation is always exciting.

And everyone likes horses, right? Han Solo has the Millennium Falcon and Vane Black has Diamonds.

Nrama: What's been the most interesting/inspiring reaction you've had to the strip so far?

Mehlos: I mentioned before that readers don’t seem sure of whose side they’re supposed to be on. I’ve really gotten a kick out of reading discussions people keep having about why they think Black or Hunter is the “good” one.

I actually put a poll on the site for awhile asking “Whose side are you on, anyway?” and Vane won, but then people went on to qualify all over the place that they don’t actually like her at all – they like Hunter – they just think Vane is probably “right.”

Nrama: You're developing the first NTO collection, and are talking about plans for a Kickstarter in the future. What is the biggest challenge in doing a hard-copy version of the strip, and what are your goals for production of this version?

Mehlos: Well I’ve been releasing print issues all along, and the comic is really designed for print, so most of the challenges with this first collection are going to be the move away from print-on-demand – if I can actually swing it – and a bunch of straight-up boring logistical hurdles, like “Seriously, where do I keep 1,000 NTO trade paperbacks until I can unload them?” I’m a self-publishing rookie, and boring questions like those keep me awake at night.

 

No, seriously, if folks help me fund the collection with Kickstarter I want to be sure I’m properly thanking them for the support. I mean, the comic is basically all out there, for free, so when I sell people a collection, I’d like them to be getting something extra, something just plain cool.

Nrama: What's the biggest challenge in keeping the story going, or at least coming up with more ways for things to go boom? Because you've proven quite creative with your boom.

Mehlos: Ha. Thanks. Like I mentioned, the story’s already written, but when I was writing it there were a few places where I felt like needed to pad it out because it was unraveling too quickly.

 

One of those spots is coming up – Chapter 4, Baron’s Crossing, is probably one of the leanest stretches in the whole narrative as far as advancing any kind of macro-plot. We’ll see how the comic weathers a chapter that’s basically nothing BUT “boom.”

Nrama: What's coming up for Black and Hunter? You think those crazy kids will ever work it out?

Mehlos: You could say that.

Nrama: You're quite a video game fan -- ever given any thought to doing Next Town Over over as a game?

Mehlos: Ha. I can't say it hasn't occurred to me. But I really lack the ambition and expertise to make it happen. So I guess if any would-be developers out there are looking for a project...

Nrama: What are some of your other favorite Westerns and/or steampunk stories? Bonus points if you watched Bravestarr as a kid.>

Mehlos: [laughs] They recently put Bravestarr on Netflix Instant, and I tried to revisit and it just couldn’t. I watched enough to relive the insane wink Bravestarr/Thirty-Thirty give each other in the intro, and couldn’t get much further.

 

No, I always liked straight-up Westerns when I was a kid, but my mind was pretty much blown when I was first exposed to the idea of marrying them to fantasy, my then-favorite thing, which – don’t laugh – probably first happened with The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and its totally obscure and short-lived cousin, Legend, which I think only lasted a season.

Most of my favorites are pretty obvious stuff: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Unforgiven, Silverado. And I have a real soft spot for the bizarre, overly-long musical train wreck Paint Your Wagon!

Nrama: How long do you see Next Town Over running?

Mehlos: Thirteen chapters, which, unless I can double my output soon, is going to take me like five more years. Oof. Saying that is daunting.

Nrama: Something I've asked everyone in this series -- what opportunities do you feel have opened up as a result of such new media as iPads and smartphones, and what do you feel individual creators and larger companies can do to take advantage of these opportunities?

Mehlos: Selling digital comics is great for independent creators -- it’s practically free money. I’m finding that way more people are willing to buy in and support you at 99 cents for a digital comic than for the $4 plus shipping you’d have to charge for a floppy, and there’s no wrangling inventory or paying a printer.

 

And personally I’m not a huge DRM fan; if someone buys a digital comic from you and then shares it with their friends that’s more exposure for you. Kids used to trade floppies; now they can trade PDFs or CBZs or whatever.

Your comic is probably available for free on the Internet, anyway; people aren’t getting rich sharing your book. Or, like Brad Guigar says, if they are then that’s not a pirate -- that’s a business partner.

Nrama: What are some of your other favorite comics and creators, online and off? 

Mehlos: Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant recently wrapped -- that was a phenomenal bit of webcomicking. I found him originally through the Flight anthologies; I’m a big fan of all those creators and Kazu Kibuishi especially. I really liked Daisy Kutter too, his Western.

 

I owe quite a debt to Mike Mignola and Chris Ware for getting me into comics in the first place and showing me their range and potential. Oh and my good friend Jon Cairns, who draws Alpha Flag. He’s entirely too good at this comic stuff.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Mehlos: I have a lot of other ideas I’d like to get through and I’d actually like to get back to trying to write prose at some point, but for now I’m gonna keep on keeping on with NTO.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Mehlos: Yeah. Kids: no matter how often it features in my comics, horse murder is never okay.

Next Town Over updates every Saturday at midnight at www.nexttownover.net.

Next: Take a trip to the neon noir of San Hannibal! Then it’s time for some toddler melodrama with Max Overacts, followed by the evolutionary action of Hominids! All this plus Delilah Dirk, Lilith Dark and many more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!

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