Welcome back, dear readers! It’s time for another list of recommendations from yours truly! You might look at the title and think “Wait, Halloween’s over. Shouldn’t you move on to a more appropriate holiday?” Perhaps, but in my opinion Halloween isn’t just a holiday! It’s a state of mind, one I always intend on having every season.
By the way, have you ever thought about what happens after you die? Or, even more curious, what if the dead came back to life? Most everyone would think it’d be a Romero-esque nightmare of brain-eating, but don’t forget that there’s more than one way to be undead. You can be a vengeance-seeking ghost or a witch of immense power. In today’s recommendation list, we get both!
The Next Town Over by Erin Mehlos
You know, with all my years of reading and writing about webcomics, I’ve come to realize that there aren’t that many Westerns in the medium. I say that and immediately think of titles like Pretty Deadly and Jonah Hex, not to mention proto-westerns such as Preacher and The Pale. Still, I think it’s fair to say that Westerns are sparse in comparison to other genres. And among the greats, this is definitely one of them.
The Next Town Over is the saga of Vane Black and John Henry Hunter in a tale as old as time. They were once betrothed, but John Henry betrayed Vane and murdered her. If that weren’t bad enough, John Henry is a practitioner of black magic, and somehow his powers have caused Vane to come back as a vengeful spirit unable to rest until he’s dead. Now the two are locked in a never-ending chase that takes them to various towns in the frontier, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction in their wake.
All the elements of Westerns are present here: deserts, small towns, salons, horses, Colt revolvers, the whole order. But this is no ordinary. Magic plays a big role throughout, mostly John Henry’s powers of mind-reading and pyrokinesis. There’s also outlandish technology such as Vane Black whipping out the steampunk equivalent of a freaking grenade launcher!
I’m personal okay with this. The point here, like a lot of speculative fiction, is to use the setting as an aesthetic to fit the tone and theme. In addition, The Next Town Over adds gothic horror for as a bonus. Hangman’s nooses, circling carrion birds, graveyards, pagan symbolism, and referecnes to fire and damnation abound. This includes Vane Balck herself looks like Wednesday Adams wearing the Man With No Name’s get-up if she robbed him and left a bullet in his temple. If you think that’s dark, wait until you see the violence.
Someties it’s presented as flashy and action-packed like a blockbuster, but other times it’s grim as the fate of a cowboy with a dead horse and no water. Much of the violence has heavy consequences, both to people and property. It’s the curse that John Henry and Vane Black both share in their endless battle. Honestly, The Next Town Over would probably be a difficult read if not for just how stunning the art is.
Erin Mehlos’s style has similarities to the heydays of Disney/Bluth animation films: fluid movement, sharp facial expressions, and distinct character designs. It also has a baroque color palette that makes everything pop out at you. For all the comic’s grit and brimstone, it’s oddly pretty to look at. One of my favorite moments is during the first on-panel confrontation between Vane and John Henry. The panel layout is split between colored scenes of the present and black-and-white ones of the past. The contrast between the hate of the former to romance in the latter gives you all you need to know about these lovers-turned-rivals’ story. No dialogue or burdensome exposition needed.
The story doesn’t offer much in terms of complexity. It’s all straightforward. However, that simplicity is what makes it work. You feel the emotions in these scenes. Vane’s cold, black hate for her ex-husband, John Henry’s callousness. It hooks you in and keeps you reading with just how flawless the art and pacing is on every page.
The characters are also varily straightforward. John Henry is the quintessential mustache-twirler, constantly scheming to get what he wants and deriving sick pleasure from the pain of those he betrays. Vane Black is a single-minded vigilante to the point of being callous herself. After her fight with John Henry leaves a town in devastation, she doesn’t help any of the injured or distraught civilians. She just gets up on her horse and rides after him to the next town over (wink). Vane Black may not be intentionally evil like John Henry, but she is no hero herself.
None of the characters in the series are likable or complex. Just like the story though, their straightforward nature makes them flawless. I still found myself fascinated and wanted to know more. Even the side characters grabbed me, such as a Cajun salon owner. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them, but I got just enough I wanted to know more about them. In this series, you get what you get and either enjoy it or don’t. As you can probably tell, I enjoyed it quite a lot.
If you’re looking for a Western in webcomics that is brutal as it is beautiful, clear cut with no complications to the formula except some spooks and spells, then I can’t think of any series better to recommend.
Hel’s Ferrywoman or Scorned by Alice Elizabeth
You know what else is lacking in webcomics? Norse mythology! Er, well probably not so much. After all, one of the biggest series out right now is Stand Still. Stay Silent, but that’s more of a reimagining of Norse mythology as post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror. What about Norse mythology reimagined as Charmed?
Now, I haven’t ever watched a full episode, but I do know the general concept, and that plus Buffy The Vampire Slayer are the first things to come to my mind while reading. I mean, it’s about a group of women with mystical powers that fight the forces of evil all while living together and having hilarious sitcom moments.
If you’re wondering about the two separate titles, well the weird thing is that I was first introduced to this series as Hel’s Ferrywoman. There’s one website hosting the comic under that title, but then there is another one entitling it Scorned. I don’t know what the story behind that is, but it seems Scorned is the more official website and has the most pages uploaded, so that’s the one I would recommend.
Anyway, the main protagonist is a raven-haired witch from Scandinavia, the titular Hel’s ferrywoman. Her name is…Hel, and she had a very, very sad childhood. Born in 900 A.D., she was predicted to be a cursed child and accordingly shunned by her village, even her own parents. Heck, she was never even given a name. Hel is one she gave herself.
Truly, Hel is the type of person “Welcome to The Black Parade” and “Bring Me Back To Life” were written for.
All joking aside, I do love me a broken protagonist, especially one who finds purpose in life with other societal rejects. Hundreds of years later, Hel is somehow still alive and is in a covenant of supernatural women. The additional members are Isabella, an Italian vampire; Phyrra, a half-elf nun with Yahweh behind her; and Muirne, a red-haired witch with…um…assets.
Holy backaches, Batman!
So, as you can tell the magic system of the series isn’t exclusive just to Norse mythology. You assume all types of mythology and magic exist in a Monster-of-The-Week fashion. In this case, there are these things called “ghouls”, souls trapped inside of dead bodies that come back as rampaging monsters, kind of like zombies but without the brain-eating part. Hel’s power is to use a mystical scythe to open a portal to, um, Hel and send them off their way for judgment. I’m sure there are other types of dangers on the horizon, but that’s the most obvious one so far. To be honest, I’m still not exactly sure where the series is heading due to it being in relative infancy. However, I still find it a hell (get it?) of a blast to read!
The main draw for me are Hel and her friends. They are unique, fully-fleshed out characters that talk and act like actual friends. You can tell by the various ways they tease each other.I found myself laughing a lot during these moments. I also found myself impressed by how well the comedy is balanced out with a series that, for the most part, is rather dark. Aside from Hel’s own unhappy background, the current storyline involves a character named Annie, a teenage vampire. She was found on the side of the road, having just survived a horrible sexual assault and with no memory of how she even turned into a vampire. Hel and her friends are now helping the poor girl recover and adjust to her new life, easier said than done.
For the most part, I found this heavy story approached with a lot of sensitivity and empathy. It doesn’t feel out of place with the comedy, magic, and action present in the series. All of these elements naturally blend in with each other, which shows how capable of a writer Alice Elizabeth is.
With all this talk about the story, where would I be to not talk about the art? It’s fantastic! There are strong elements of gothic feminity–appropriate to the story–with absolutely gorgeous costume designs. It’s pretty in a dark way if that makes sense. Probably the strongest element though is the dramatic pacing. Elizabeth really captures the more emotional intense moments of the story. The layouts, shadowing, character expressions, it all works together to make you feel what the character is feeling; mostly angst, but hey what do you expect from Horror?
I’m still waiting for the series to really stride but eager to see what happens next.
That’s it for now, folks! A rather short list in this entry, but hopefully there will be more next time around! Until then, enjoy yourselves and make sure not to bury dead loved ones in suspicious-looking burial grounds.
Read The Next Town Over
Read Scorned or Hel’s Ferrywoman