Wide World of Webcomics: Steampunk Western NEXT TOWN OVER
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!