I hope I’m not giving the wrong idea with the scattering of highfalutin’ comics I’ve covered so far and the artsy-fartsy mission statement in the About post that I only like comics that are inscrutible, political, or both. I also like a good genre comic, and Next Town Over is exemplary of the form. (Full disclosure: Next Town Over is written and drawn by Erin Mehlos, my partner for the only-on-hiatus-we-swear Dear Stabby. Also, this is a review of the first two print issues, rather than the webcomic.)
For a while in mainstream comics, it was in vogue to do superheroes mixed with some other genres in an attempt to freshen up the genre. Powers was a superhero story with a police procedural twist. Noble Causes superhero story with a daytime soap opera twist. So on and so forth. As a form of outreach to the mainstream, it was (to steal a line from Dirk Deppey) like the Monty Python sketch where the waiter tries to sell the man on a dish that’s “not got much spam in it.” A crime fiction or romance fiction fan picking up those books wouldn’t be especially well-served by them, because of all the superhero tropes getting in the way of the tropes they come to the genre for.
The challenge for any book like Next Town Over, which incorporates fantastical elements into its chosen genre, is to walk the fine line between “a western story with a superhuman twist” and “a superhero story with a western twist,” and I think Mehlos pulls it off. One possible way to dodge the trap would be to push the fantastical elements far into the background, but Mehlos doesn’t take that way out: the first issue pushes the outlaw John Henry Hunter’s control over fire, and the bounty hunter Vane Black’s seeming invulnerability, right into the center of the plot. This is unambiguously a story about superhuman characters at odds with each other.
So why doesn’t it come off as a superhero story, set in the Old West? For one thing, the behavior of the characters lines up with what’s expected of the genre. (So does the dialogue; Mehlos strikes just the right tone for a good Western.) Hunter isn’t just a guy with fire powers, he’s also a charmer and a snake. Black isn’t just an unkillable machinesmith, she’s also a tough-as-nails bounty hunter with less of an interest in the law than in seeing Hunter go down. A typical DC Elseworlds story would take its established heroes and plug them into new settings, but Mehlos gives us character types well known to Western fans first and adds the fantastical elements in on top. It’s the difference between giving Superman a sheriff’s badge and giving Rooster Cogburn superpowers, if that makes sense.
The other big strength is that as cool as the fireworks are whenever Hunter and Vane clash, the driving force of the story is still the mystery of why they’re clashing. There are flashes of history between the two shown here and there, with are enough curveballs in those panels to indicate the story isn’t going to fall into predictable genre ruts. For example, sure, Hunter clearly charmed his way into Vane’s life as easily as he did the present-day marks that we see, but then there’s that shot of Hunter onstage before a packed audience to show that these characters have more facets than the reader might have thought.
Mehlos’ art is every bit the equal of her writing. One of the most evocative things about the flashbacks is noting by the expressions how much Vane has changed, and how much Hunter hasn’t. She can do the action scenes that the genre requires, too. In the first two issues we get a shootout, a horse chase, and a bar fight, all of which are handled expertly.
One thing in particular that catches the eye are Mehlos’ panel borders, which are all more ornate and tactile than a simple bounding box. Here, the panels are all shown as individual portraits with their own frames and filigree that reinforce the story. Panels showing Hunter and Vane’s past are shown as sepia-toned photographed slowly burning away, action scenes involving Vane typically are typically ornamented with clockwork gears and cogs, and one bit of comment from Hunter regarding his horses has hearts and diamonds worked into the corners of the frame.
So kudos to Mehlos for making her larger-than-life elements work for her story and delivering a Western that’s fun and fresh. If this is what she turns out on her lonesome, it’s enough to make me wonder if I even want to shackle her to the next issue of Stabby…!