Mehlos Mixes Steampunk-Infused Magic with "Next Town Over's" Western Roots

One mysterious rider pursues another across the frontier, and wherever the duo meet, carnage ensues, leaving bystanders to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. That's the short overview of Erin Mehlos's genre-bending webcomic "Next Town Over," as the gregarious and fire-conjuring mage John Henry Hunter moves from settlement to settlement, always just barely one step ahead of the haunted hunter Vane Black and her steampunk engineering.

Mehlos recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a print trade paperback of "Next Town Over." In addition to the first four issues (issues five and six are already available on the website as well), Mehlos packed the book with nearly fifty pages of extra material, including character design sketches, fan art and a rare short story that ties loosely into the "NTO" world.

With the print version available in her online store and shipping to comic book shops in December, Mehlos spoke with CBR News about what fans can expect as the series' storylines continue to unfold online, its move to print, and the future of her Western anti-heroes.

CBR News: "Next Town Over" is a Western, but one with a different flavor from most. How would you describe it?

Erin Mehlos: Superficially, it's a weird Western "Spy vs. Spy." The protagonists -- if you can even call them that -- are out to get each other at pretty much any cost and so the action is pretty constant, using both steampunk and sorcery. But really, it's more about the reader piecing together what happened between them in the past, from the flashbacks, etc. I've wanted to do a Western forever, but this specific idea actually kind of started as a joke; it spun off from a sort of mean critique I gave my teenage sister of a story she was writing. Her main characters spent half the thing just moving from town to town wrecking stuff -- really screwing people over -- and the towns weren't even afforded names. They were just always referred to in the text as "the next town over." Funnily enough, though, the towns in "Next Town Over" itself not only have names, but named screwed-overs.

Vane Black and John Henry Hunter obviously have a tumultuous history between them, but you've barely hinted at that past. How will that history play out as the series continues?

The mystery of what all went down between them is the core interest of the story I think, and I'll keep revisiting it at greater and greater length. If you look at, say, "NTO" #5, the glimpses at their earlier timeline have started to get longer, talkier and more telling than the single panel flashbacks I used in the earlier books. Even as I add pieces to the puzzle though, I want to keep readers a bit off their footing. I think that's really the fun. It sure has been for me -- "NTO" readers love to argue theories, and I love listening.

They both take tremendous amounts of punishment from one another, almost as much as they dish out on the bystanders they encounter. While their conflict is the series' driving point, it seems that neither Black nor Hunter the "hero" of the story. Is that fair to say, and what drives your story when the readers aren't necessarily expected to identify with either lead?

That's fair. Early on people expected a protagonist, and they expected it to be Vane Black, but I think now they realize they both border on antagonistic most of the time. Somehow though, the vast majority of readers still take sides. There are Black fans and Hunter fans and some fluctuate back and forth depending on who's committed the most recent horse murder. I've actually polled people at a few intervals: the percentage of readers who think both characters are horrible is pretty slim. The ensemble of wronged parties from each town, a lot of whom are also now pursuing the big two, are a bit of a hook, I think, for the fringe that doesn't dig an antihero. And everyone loves the horses, too, I guess.

In addition to their differing personalities, she taciturn, he verbose and flamboyant, they each represent a different source of power. Black uses technology, with an almost-steampunk approach to guns (and horses!), which is very futuristic for her time. Hunter uses magic to control fire, one of the world's the oldest and most primal sources of power. When you were developing the series, were you conscious of creating dichotomous themes and motifs to separate and contract your protagonists?

I was. And while their personalities are an obvious match to their abilities -- the engineer is cold and introverted, the fire-slinger's a passionate extrovert -- I also tried to subvert a few of the tropes that surround those abilities. Like, for example, Hunter is a huge, steel-driver-looking guy and he's the magic user. And I've hinted that the actual sources of their power may be somewhat inverted: Vane is clearly not precisely human, and Hunter has had, let's say, some work done.

The breakout character among your online fandom would appear to be the steampunk-rebuilt horse Diamonds. What do you attribute Diamonds' popularity to?

I think with Diamonds I lucked into a fusion of a couple things. To go back to the question of people not identifying with the principals, Diamonds is, despite being a horse, possibly a more relatable character. Someone said he's the kid in the middle of their terrible divorce and that's kind of apt. People empathize with and admire his divided loyalty. And also he's just an increasingly cool mount. A Millennium Falcon that comes when you whistle.

In the bonus material, you mention several Western films that influence, on some level or another, this book. What is the draw to the Western genre and what makes "Next Town Over" different from all those influences?

I love Westerns because they've got all of the things I really love about sci-fi with none of the pitfalls that bore me. You've got people striking out into a quasi-lawless frontier and coming into conflict with alien geology, fauna and culture, all while trying to deal with each other outside the rule of law and while also coming to grips with rapidly evolving technology that's changing their way of life, for better or worse. But with a Western, I never have to sit through an overlong tangent about a dumb piece of bogus technology that contributes nothing to the story.

Anyway, I'm nervous about tackling a sci-fi story; spaceships are way harder to draw than horses.

I'm a big fantasy fan, too, though, and as much Western as there is in "Next Town Over," it's automatically set apart by the fact that it's maybe more quintessentially high fantasy than it is Western. It's just American West-flavored fantasy instead of Medieval Europe-flavored fantasy, where there may just as likely be dragons as gold in them thar hills.

The slight steampunk style of the technology has been seen in Westerns before, but you've added sorcery to the genre -- were there any particular influences informing to that genre mash-up?

I think I was forever turned on to fantasy in Westerns by playing the JRPG Wild Arms as a kid.

You ran a very successful Kickstarter to fund the print edition of Next Town Over. How gratifying is it to have fans who not only read the webcomic, but put their money up to help you fund a print collection chock full with nearly 50 pages of extra material?

Super gratifying. The Kickstarter was poorly timed on my part (the book hit its funding goal I think literally the day my son was born), and it hit a lot of production snags, but it was so worth it. I just hope everyone who chipped in was happy with the product they made happen.

Your short story, "Snake," which previously appeared in the 2011 anthology "Nobodies Vol. 1," is re-printed in the trade paperback. Will its protagonists Dodge and Hemlocke become players in the world of "Next Town Over," or was this simply about adding another tale to the trade to get it into print and to give something back to your Kickstarter supporters?

Both. Sort of. I snuck a young Dodge and Hemlocke into "NTO #4" (the last chapter in this book -- see if you can find them), but no one really picked up on it. They inhabit the same world, and I have plans for Hemlocke in particular, but don't count on them reappearing in "NTO" itself.

You're continuing "Next Town Over" online. How long do you expect the serial to run, and, beyond the two chapters already online that won't appear in print until the next paperback, what can readers look forward to next?

"NTO" is thirteen chapters long (although a lot of chapters are double-length or close to it; it's all written). It's unfortunately taking a lot longer to draw than anticipated because being a parent is harder than it looks, but I'd like to have it all sewn up within four or five years. I'm planning for four volumes and I hope to make them all available in softcover and limited hardcover like I did with this first one. I think the latter books also happen to be way more intense in every way. The settings are more fantastic, the story is starting to pay dividends, and I'm getting better as a visual storyteller, honestly. I'm starting seven right now, and it's comparatively ambitious, to say the least.

Also, I'm right now working on the side with some of my comics friends on a weird Western anthology called "Poor Wayfaring Strangers." Imagine a book of "Snakes." I think if a person digs "NTO," it'd be very germane to that person's interests, but it's still kind of in its infancy.

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