The next comic over…
As I’ve touched on before in my discussions here of Rango and Deadlands, the Old West (and its derivatives thereof) is a place that lends itself easily to the power of myth; a place where the reality of those crazy tales told ’round a campfire on the dark prairie doesn’t seem too far out of the question. When I commented in response to a friend’s review of The Missing (great film, by the way!), I expressed the notion thusly:
“The Old West is such a ripe setting for horror themes, because of that tug of war between spiritual and mundane, civilization and savagery. It’s a borderland. It’s a Crossroads. And the Crossroads is where the ghosts dwell.”
But we don’t have to necessarily be talking straight-up horror so much as the injection of the fantastic, of characters and happenings beyond the norm. If you’re familiar with the old series The Twilight Zone you’ll know that not every show was based around something spooky or tragic, but it was always at least that subtle left turn from the “ordinary” world. Again, the concept is right there in the title, because what is twilight if not the crossroads between night and day? (well, there’s that other connotation of twilight in the last few years, but we won’t talk of that)
This is why the particular genre known as the Weird West is such fertile ground for storytelling. And today, I’d like to bring up a fine fresh example I recently stumbled across, when I found myself in the Next Town Over.
Next Town Over is written and drawn by one Erin Mehlos, who was nominated for an Eisner award back in 2005 and, if her current work is any indication, has only gotten better since then. The art is gorgeous, with a unique style meshing some of the best parts of American and Japanese comics/animation, lending itself equally well to subtle expressions of face and manner and not-so-subtle expressions of action and violence.
But I’m a writer. Art in a comic by itself might catch my eye, but it won’t hold my attention in the long run; in fact, there’s quite professional comics I’ve put aside in disgust when I felt the art was going out of control and smothering the story trying to be told. I don’t mean by this that there have to be a lot of words (or even words at all), but if there’s a lot of flash that’s not helping the substance, I grow restless. Comics ain’t just about pretty pictures.
Look at Next Town Over, and you’re going to see a lot of pretty, not just in the panels themselves but in the way those panels are arranged and framed. The crucial part is, the pretty serves a purpose. It draws attention, but not in a way I ever felt was working against the grain, and oftentimes in ways that actually accentuate the content. Close-ups of facial expressions are framed in oval filigree, the way you might have seen old photos displayed on your grandparents’ mantel. Right at the beginning, a phoenix-like rebirth in fire fades into red clouds overhanging a lone rider, in a page that also takes wonderful advantage of the need to scroll down when you’re viewing it online.
Even given the short archive so far, the elements of fire and time have already emerged as major themes of the comic. I suppose the abundance of gear imagery might just be a retrofuturist affectation (yes, I’m picky about using the term “steampunk”, and if you must know why, you can read here), but whether or not it was Erin’s intention, it keeps me thinking of clockwork and the inevitable tick of time that represents. Her use of fire plays into the time element, as there are panels where the past quite literally is burning away the present in a sudden heat of memory; as if the events of now were only a fragile overlay of what’s gone before. It also conveys a rage in the protagonist’s soul that no amount of inner monologuing could have equaled. Matter of fact, I do believe I mentioned before that I don’t hold much with stoic Western characters who nonetheless feel some need to air all their inner thoughts to us. Erin shows us all we need to know (for now) about the relationship between her “black hat” and “white hat” through their interactions and some tantalizingly ingenious visuals.
It’s really great stuff, and this before the comic is even much past Chapter 1, with a lot of mystery still to be resolved (hopefully, like the best ongoing stories, many of the answers will provoke still further questions). I can only hope that we’ll be this good after a few more years under our belts, but for now I’ll just put praise where praise is most definitely due, and tell y’all to go give Next Town Over a read. Just try not to judge our own humble efforts too harshly in comparison
Oh, and speaking of those humble efforts, we have some exciting news which we’ll be announcing in the next couple of weeks! In the meantime, though, if you’re around the Long Beach area this Saturday, come by and see us at the one day Comic Expo. Or if you’re around Anaheim the following week, we’ll be there for all three days of Wizard World. Hope to see some of you there, and if not, then we’ll “see” you next Wednesday!