Callum’s Webcomic Corner
Callum Waterhouse ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Story and Art by Erin Mehlos
Westerns have become a lost art. To a generation of Americans, characters like Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger represented all that was cool. Stories about cowboys, frontier towns, bounty hunters and ten gallon hats saturated every level of American entertainment. And then, one day it all just stopped.
A small, dedicated force of creators have been attempting to bring the Western back. Films like The Hateful Eight and the recent reboot of True Grit have introduced the old west setting to a new generation of moviegoers. As for comics, Westerns have been on a comeback since the nineties, with titles like Preacher and Dynamite Comic’s reboot of The Lone Ranger.
What makes all of these twenty-first century Western’s work is that they do more than just regurgitate the old stories of cowboys and Indians. They attempt to dust off the camp of this old genre and add a layer of nuance more befitting the strange times we find ourselves in. Continuing this tradition is Next Town Over, a sizzling webcomic by writer/artist Erin Mehlos that presents as good a case as we could ever see as to why spurs and six-shooters are cool.
Of course, Next Town Over does not take place in the American West. Mehlos says as much outright on the website. The world of this comic is a strange one, full of steampunk graping-hooks, magical powers, undead bounty hunters and monstrous creatures. In terms of style, in terms of the look of the setting and in the structure of the characters, Next Town Over is a Western through and through. It is not set in the historical old west, but captures the spirit of the old west. Because that is what America has turned the old west into: a magical place, full of imagination and mystery.
The story of Next Town Over is decidedly straightforward. Early on we are introduced to notorious thief John Henry Hunter. Hunter is a dashing outlaw with a $15,000 bounty on his head, but he has managed to stay one step ahead of the law thanks to an ability to control the element of fire that would put the cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender to shame. However, it is not just sherifs and bounty hunters on John’s tail. He is also being tracked by the ethereal Vane Black, a gunslinger and steampunk engineer who has been pursuing Hunter across the frontier with the fury of the devil himself.
The comic is broken up into chapters and most of them play out roughly the same way. In many ways, the comic resembles a gas-lamp fantasy version of the sixties television series The Fugitive. Hunter arrives in a new town trying to accomplish some goal. Vane arrives trying to find him. She takes a few shots, misses and John rides off into the sunset. Rinse, repeat, all that is missing is the one-armed man.
What keeps this from becoming old very fast is that each town has a unique flavor to it. The look, color pallet and even the economic structure of each location is entirely different from the ones that came before. This adds to the sense that theses characters are moving through a fully realized world and not just progressing through a series of plot locations.
For a story like this to work, it has to be built on the strength of its two leads. Fortunately, while Hunter and Black are guilty of many things, being boring is never one of them. Hunter is clearly a self-serving bastard, but he has a roguish charm and world-weariness that makes him hard to dislike. Likewise, Vane Black is about as far as you can get from your standard, white hat heroine. She will, and often does, resort to any method in order to kill Hunter and often acts with little regard of the potential collateral damage. But once again, it is hard to hate even a woman who does some pretty despicable things when she does them all with the suave of James Bond and the brutal efficiency of Jack Bower. As the story progresses, we are treated to little hints of how these two came to where they are and why they are at odds, but Mehlos is decidedly coy about all the details so do not expect any reveals to come early.
As good as the story is, it is Mehlos’ artwork that really sells this comic. Unfortunately, that may be that part that turns a lot of people off as well. Mehlos has a unique style of character models. Her faces are often exaggerated and stylized in ways that would look more at home in a New Yorker cartoon than on a standard three-color comic. This is not a complaint. In fact, this style helps complement the almost hyper-real atmosphere of the story, but many readers used to the standardized art style of mainstream print comics may find this style a bit off-putting. It would be a great disservice to put this comic down too early before giving the art a chance to win you over.
And win you over it will. Mehlos meticulously researches each scene and draws with the careful attention to detail of an old-world engraver. You can see her art style progress over the course of the comic’s run. The art of the first chapter is fine but nothing to write home about. By chapter three, however, Mehlos has found a sense of perspective that makes the action scenes seem to truly come alive. On top of that, she displays a mastery of color and lighting that make some of the more stack panels look like photographs.
But the best part is that Mehlos is not just content to fall back on her great art style and let it coast. The art of Next Town Over is constantly experimenting, trying new things. Her pages have displayed some of the most unique and creative panel layouts we have seen in a long time.
The old west has been at the back of the American conscious for about one-hundred and fifty years now and the Western does not appear to be going away anytime soon. So if you are a longtime Western fan looking for something to scratch that itch, or a tenderfoot who needs some convincing about them boots, or if you are just looking for a good webcomic to pass the time, mosey on over to Next Town Over. You may find yourself wishing you were in the old west.