First of all apologies for not getting this up sooner in the day: curating it took longer than expected but it was also tremendous fun and hugely inspirational. I pored over these for hours and will probably go back and pore over them some more in the future. I tried to write up some brief impressions of each -- it was the least I could do when you all turned in such great work and I wish I had time to say more. I really didn't anticipate the sheer difficulty of judging this. Everyone deserved to win, and while I can't afford to send prizes out to all of you I've mentioned to [most of] the entrants that I intend to include all of these in the upcoming print collection. They are so fantastic, and I can't overstate my appreciation for the time involved making all of these.
All images can be clicked and viewed larger (where possible) and I'd urge you to go ahead and do so and check out these folks' work in better detail.
Sef Joosten - Vane
My good friend Sef (ostensibly Reign in Hell's artist but they never update, only tease) started this rad Vane ... and stopped as soon as I told him he was ineligible to win on the grounds of our friendship and his owning just about all the prizes already, anyhow. I'm posting it just the same, for spite. Well and because it's pretty awesome: he nailed wrathful, all-guns-blazing Vane.
Noah Farlee took time out from making the sublimely weird ink-and-torn-paper webcomic The Artist is Dead! to do this fab watercolor of Vane. Just like his comic it's full of great texture and I love the spattered starfield and great use of complements. The moon/sun suggestion of her goggles and the fact that she's plainly staring after Hunter, opposite his reflection, are cool touches, too.
Wahiaronkwas David - Various
Wahiaronkwas David contributed not one but three entries: a nicely moody and contemplative JHH under a big starry sky, a characteristically ruthless looking shot of Vane ready to fire, and a slightly slyer & more scheming portrait of the latter. Apparently there was also a Hunter portrait in the works, but apparently there wasn't quite time for four. I certainly envy your motivation/productivity, overachiever.
Alexander Pei - Hemlocke
Scarred and a little wet, Snake's Ben Hemlocke lives on in Alex Pei's submission. Great muted colors and painterly strokes in this one, and I love the rain effect -- and the fact that someone represented an ... expanded universe character.
Adam Black - Vane
Adam Black shares a last name with Vane, which goes a long way toward explaining why he chose to draw her looking so thoroughly badass, in a classic Clint-Eastwood-as-Josey-Wales pose. I really admire Adam's clean inks and great fill use. You can check out more of his stuff at Locus Comics - NTO readers ought to dig western Silk & Honey in particular.
Laura Kenney - Vane & Diamonds
Four blazing horses ride with Vane and Diamonds through this fiery piece by Laura Kenney. Bright and angry as the fire is the forms of the horses are subtle, which I love. Laura Kenney illustrates and animates at her Tumblr and personal site.
Slinky - Inferno of Revenge
Slinky submitted this entry in text- and non-text flavors, but no one should miss out on the slick art/poetry twofer of the text version. These simplified vectorish shapes are great, and I love the title text treatment. Slinky draws lawnmower-armed funnies at A Terrible Mind.
John M. Jensen - One Town Behind
One of two prose entries, John Jensen's One Town Behind builds eerily on the world of the comic, and I think I've sort of mentally incorporated its necromantically-inclined drifter into NTO canon in my head. I won't spoil its parting visual, but it's awesome.
I was born without a name, my dear mother, bless her rotten heart, never gave me one, not that I blame her. They say that when I left the womb and first let out a cry that my still born twin sat up and joined in the chorus, from that moment I knew only rags and the struggle for survival. I kept the company of drunks and beggars making the rat skeletons dance out of their stew, where they would do the kicks and twirls of dancing girls to help the down and out forget their troubles. I lived like this for year after year, roving from town to town when the people finally decided that beggars and drunks are one thing, but a man who makes the dead sing and dance, should be at the end of a rope.
The town before Lookback was like any other. I played to the down and out so they would show pity on one even lower on the food chain than they. All was good til a drunk ex preacher told me I was the sort the who killed men's souls then attacked me with his bottle. My rats drug him down into the mud biting and clawing he drowned before the blood stopped flowing but no one sits down to stew with what kills their latest source of drink. So I ran to Lookback without looking back, and fell into my old tricks the moment I was there. Then they came to town, the infamous outlaw, John Henry Hunter, and that woman who chased after him like a tail chasing a rat, those two kept me from building something from resembling a life for myself in a moment when they loosed fire and violence killed some but maimed the whole town. Being the survivor I am saw opportunity in this, I met with those that survived the deceased, and brought up their fresh ghosts. Know that I had only done rats for my livelihood but a rat is much like a person at this point, both want to set them and theirs at peace before going silent. One man screamed at the burning from the outlaw and the gold he had hidden on his body, since only the since only the mortician heard his words he wanted much better last words that he actually got. The next a family man,blubbered about the money he left for his family and trying to get his wife to understand where he had hidden the good silverware, then he apologized and left. A miner was brought in by his partner who only wanted to know where the claim papers were or if they even survived. I Identified the bodies burnt beyond recognition, but one thing they all had in common, loved and alone, was that they were all too close to those two when the unfortunate events occurred. Being able to set minds at ease made me the town hero for a bit. I ate well, and had money, and clothes that were not taken off of someone who ended up in the worst of luck possible.
A mind though is a terrible thing to have when things are good, because mine told me that I should try and follow them since good will can only last so long, especially when made their fortune from the mourners. I bought a horse and gave chase, or at least followed the trail, devastation is easy to follow, but even easier is the feel of that woman, she was death only darker and colder, a restless thing that made one think that the reaper had gone through and made a path across the plains himself. I packed my rats and my luggage got on a horse for the first time and rode off in search of more good fortune.
Not too long and I found myself in Sun Prairie there I stayed a while since the woman did too. I was in the frying pan now, though without the fire things felt safe enough no one had died, only a person or two had been injured as far as I could gather, but enjoying the spoils of work without fear of a rope was something I was just getting used to. I ate fresh foods from menus got to know unscrupulous women in a most intimate fashion and slept in beds in single days longer than I had in the rest of my life combined. But in a flash she bolted, with men on her tail, not wanting to to seem too eager or garner any attention from them, I held back a few hours then set off well stocked at a leisurely enough pace, things were good, and the future held only more promise.
I reached Whiskey Bend in a foul mood, vultures had taken to circling me only half way through the journey. The towns folk there were shaken by the events that had just transpired moments before as the two waged their private war, but only one had died, a young farm hand, I asked the family to let me put them and him at ease. But in the the strangest twist they refused with more politeness than I think I was ever pleasure of being within a hundred miles of, then they made a strange request I was to take the body of their son to Baron's Crossing to warn them what would happen if John Henry Hunter and his pursuer, before I could object I was saddled in a fast horse the boy's body strapped to the back and paper money strapped into my vest and for the first time I was expected to beat the clock. I know wonder if I actually had a choice in the matter.
That is how I ended up here, where they do not take kindly to a rich stranger whom fortune has smiled upon. A man who makes the dead sit up and foretell the whole town doom at the hands of the devil with lassos of fire and a woman who rides a horse made from iron. I should have given the boy a script first, or just lied about the whole thing and hidden the body along the way. Now I face down the rope, and thank my mother for not giving me a name since I doubt any person I crossed paths with or even in my death would announce it. My Rats will do a jig around me right up to the gallows and when I start they can stop. I learned this lesson, no good deed goes unpunished.
Nate Lucas - Vane
This almost superheroic Vane comes from artist Nathan Lucas. Great blown out colors in the background not only do a great job of conveying desert wasteland, but at popping out the darks in Vane's new costume and the sweet shapes of Nate's style.
Karyl Lee also went the extra mile with multiple entries and (what looks to me like) mixed media. The festive Vane punkin kind of makes me wish I'd pushed the contest back a hair and made it pumpkin carving, specifically. Karyl has a gallery at Yessy, but as of this writing it seems to be unfortunately down.
Corinne Blair - Diamonds & the Outlaw
I love Corinne Blair's Yin/Yangish composition on this, and the dueling fire & cogwheel elements, all revolving around Next Town Over's mysteriously significant watch. You can find stories, photography and more art by Corinne at her deviantArt.
Nathanael Warren - Startled Girl
This haunted-looking Vane was drawn by Nathanael Warren, a self-described abstract notebook doodler. Nifty, spidery lineart makes for a surprisingly creepy image.
Amanda Barham - Vane
Like most entrants Amanda Barham gravitated towards Vane, but took a speculative look back in time at a more feminine, pre-vengeance (and, I think, objectively prettier) Ms. Black, who nonetheless still looks incredibly sad and introspective. Fabulously simple fire & bloom effects and an otherwise reserved blue/gray palette looks amazing and recalls the sepia flashbacks in the comic. More prettiness to be found at Amanda's site.
Dustin Reese - Rest and Relaxation
Dusty Reese has a name like an NTO character, and opted to give Vane and Diamonds a break for some riparian relaxation. I love the textured look of this one (extra amazing since Dustin did it in Illustrator), and can't help but wonder what Vane's carving ... and what she intends to do with it. You can find more of Dustin's work at Bunny Maelstrom, or follow him on Twitter.
Caitlin Tong - Diamonds
Caitlin Tong braved the third dimension with a sculpted/painted Diamonds miniature, the only three-dimensional object submitted. She chose to portray the dauntless horse at rest, because, in her words: "I feel like Diamonds is always being pushed and never gets to slow down." Heartbreakingly accurate. All those scars, dapples & rivets must have taken forever to paint. I wonder if Caitlin would sell this to me.
Green Traveler - Queen of Spades
Friend-of-the-comic Green Traveler (aka My Little Annie) broke out her acrylics for this painting, her description of which is almost as great as the art itself: "In a deck of cards, red and black suits oppose one another, but are neither good nor evil. The Queen of Spades is the Old Maid, the bad luck card, a bitch with black iron in her soul. However, she's powerful, and in the game of Hearts, she can help you shoot the moon. In the tarot, she's the Queen of Swords, a figure of intelligence, cold judgement and aloofness. Normally, Ms. Black would trump the Knave of Hearts -- but this Jack-John has fire in his hands."
... I just love that. The Green Traveler blogs at North Horse.
Red Moon Rising's Rose Loughran makes Hunter look so amazing it's unfathomable more people didn't make him the focus of their entries. Just like her comic (of which I'm a fan), this take on JHH is clean-lined and texture-rich, with great motion and a subtle palette that makes her super hot fire effects look all the hotter by comparison. I really appreciate Rose taking time out from producing her comic to contribute to the contest!
Piripero - Proem Valley
Like most of the visual art entries, Piripero's Proem Valley focuses on Vane, and it's super interesting (to me, anyway) to read her inner voice as imagined by someone else. This fully fleshed-out short story reads like a lost chapter of Next Town Over. Certainly it'd be a welcome addition: fabulously paced, it really savors its setting and builds plenty of tension before inevitably erupting into good old Western action.
Diamonds was getting thirsty, Vane knew. Diamonds would never complain about it, of course, but Vane had been riding most of the day to make time, and every horse has its limit – that Vane hadn’t yet found Diamonds’ didn’t mean it wasn’t there. But she had to make time.
The twisted pillar of smoke rising from the fire a long day’s ride behind her was well over the horizon by now, but she could still smell the fresh timber and tar blazing away as though it were the product of Diamond’s hooves, rather than the wisps of dust off the trail that she followed. She could still hear the peculiar, unique sound of wind whistling through a hole blown in a man’s skull. What the hell had he been thinking? Well, he’d find no more trouble arising from errant thoughts at any rate. She had been so sure, so sure that it had been him in that tavern.
She didn’t mean to let herself get distracted from what was ahead of her, but it wasn’t exactly a complicated plan, and her thoughts drifted back to that town and what had gone wrong. She tried to tell herself that mistakes were part of it, that he wasn’t going to go easy and that she had to be wily enough to get a little better every time, until she could win like he always won at cards. Of course, thinking about what she could have done better, what she should have done different, turned into just reliving the day in her mind as the miles stretched on.
It had been an especially hot sun beating down on the tall grass yesterday, and Vane had come into Proem Valley to check for rumors among the townsfolk. He certainly left an impression, which usually saved some time when asking questions. She tied up Diamonds outside the saloon and pushed through the doors into the dusty, dim atmosphere. A young farmhand with a shock of dirty brown hair tumbling from under his rancher’s hat (which he likely pilfered from someone else back at his regular vocation) glanced up at her from his card game, grinning at his momentary fortune. His grin faltered a bit as his eyes met hers, but he was well-mannered enough to try and play it off as though he meant to acknowledge a lady’s presence; he kept eye contact a bit longer and gently tugged a bit of the brim of his hat with forefinger and thumb before returning his attention to the game. An older man in ill-fitting clothes took advantage of the young one’s distraction to relieve him of a few crumpled dollars from the winnings. An unkempt white beard followed the young man’s hat tip towards Vane, with shriveled eyes above following closely behind; he genuinely smiled at her in the way that old men do towards a young woman they find fine-looking. Well, it was dim in here.
Vane quickly scanned the few others in the establishment, not seeing her mark, and strode to the keep. He had watched her since she had come through the doors without ever actually looking at her, instead busying himself with cleaning a glass with a rag he appeared to have inherited from a grandfather. He met her stony face as she was just a pace and a half away, his over-large lips framed by a drooping black mustache, orbited by two watery blue eyes and anchored by a bulbous nose.
“Ma’am?” He at least knew well enough not to offer her a tonic or somesuch.
“Don’t need a drink. Looking for something else.” She pointed over the keep’s left shoulder at a poster wedged behind a bottle of whiskey against the mirror. Her cold expression stayed locked to those watery blues; she didn’t need to look at the poster to see the reward, the admonishment of caution, the bland repetition of Arson, Destruction of Property, Murder, Witchcraft. She could feel the eyes on her back as she stood there, arm outstretched; she knew they were just now noticing the holster of the weapon on her right, the goggles on her hat. She didn’t care.
”No ma’am, we don’t have any of that here.” But there was the faintest expression on the keep’s face. Like a twitch he was trying to keep hidden, or like an eyebrow raised just ever so slightly. Her eyes narrowed a bit, and she twitched her eyes towards the stairs leading to the second story.
“No ma’am, as I said, we’re cleared out of that particular brand. Maybe a tonic?” So much for that. But there it was again – definitely a twitch. Vane turned and pulled her hat down just a bit, tucked her overcoat back behind the holster to buy that fraction of a second, as she walked direct to the stairs and looked up. No one on the stairs, at least. The general commotion of the saloon’s customers had quieted a bit to murmuring and ill-concealed whispers and hisses, and she knew this was likely giving her away. Nothing for it but to go up now.
The floorboards creaked under her boots as she quickly moved up the stairs; stealth seemed like a waste of time at this point. There was no dust floating in the sunbeams slanting through the windows, no sounds of the fabric of an overcoat moving slowly against a wall as its owner sneaked along the hall. No drunks snoring away the previous night’s afflictions. No smell of unwashed men or overly perfumed ladies, at least not strong enough to be recent. In short, no signs of life at all save the odor of rodents. And yet… an indescribable feeling...
As she reached the landing leading into the hallway and its four doors presumably leading to rooms for let, her boots came to rest with a soft clomp onto the carpet running towards the lone window at the far end. She couldn’t help but wait for a moment, straining her ears – the folks down below were silent now, watching her – reaching out with her senses, willing them to find their mark. Enough. Go. Finish it. She pulled her pistol out of the holster, the gears gleaming, as she walked up to the first door and tried the handle. The thin door swung easily into the room, revealing a made bed, a flimsy bureau, and a few other minor furnishings – but no boots or other signs of anyone using the room. The next two rooms mirrored the first, save for different patterns on the blanket covering the well-worn mattresses. The fourth door stood before her and again she had that peculiar sensation, almost like someone blowing on the back of her neck. She aimed her revolver at where she knew the chair would be and turned the handle slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible.
Stupid! Of course no one’s here; who waits around in some rundown tavern room in the middle of the day twiddling their thumbs? And yet, hanging there on the chair… could she be wrong? No. It was his. That was his black overcoat, burned into her memory, now draped over the lone chair in the small room. There were very few other indicators of someone’s recent presence in the room, suggesting the room’s occupant traveled light. She entered the room and glanced out the window, checking the sight lines and the available cover if it came to it. She was careful not to touch the overcoat as she walked calmly out the room, leaving only a swirl of disturbed dust behind her. She came back down the stairs, aware that everyone in the tavern was staring at her, and that they were both disappointed and relieved that a gunfight hadn’t broken out upstairs. She came back up to those watery blue eyes and set her face in an expression she hoped conveyed her resigned acceptance that her mark was not present, mixed with determination to continue the search elsewhere.
“Appreciate the tonic, and the invitation of a room. Believe I’ve got some more ridin’ to do before the day’s done,” Vane remarked to the keep. She pressed a crumpled bill to the counter and turned away, exiting the saloon back into the bright sunlight. She hoped her performance at the end was good enough to convince those locals that she was on her way down the trail in search of whatever dangerous criminal was on that poster. She glanced the length of the strip of dirt that passed for a street in this town before walking over to Diamonds, contentedly slurping at the trough while keeping a watchful eye on the passersby. Diamonds knew what they were about, sure enough, and wasn’t about to let a little thing like drinking water get in the way of being ready for action. Vane untied the reins and resumed her position in the saddle, again hoping she was acting obvious enough for people to notice. Diamonds let out a little whinny, are you sure? We haven’t been here that long. “I know. Just go with it for now,” she soothed quietly. “Now let’s head out.” She reared Diamonds, coaxing out a confident neigh as she drew a few looks from the townsfolk on the boardwalk. She made steady eye contact with one or two of them, just to make sure they spotted the gleam from the goggles above her brim, and that they noticed her hasty departure from town. She kicked up more dust than was necessary as she pushed Diamonds down the street, opposite the direction they had entered.
After they had ridden out for a few miles, Vane slowed to a walk and turned Diamonds so that they were making a rough circle of the town. The sun was still high over the gently rolling hills, the long grass waving in the slight breeze in time with her own short orange hair, carrying forward past her ears and chin. She gazed back at the town and smoothed Diamond’s neck, silently conveying her appreciation for the show. Vane brought her hand up to artificially extend the brim of her hat as she squinted up at the bright orb in the sky, then down at the shadow she and Diamonds cast on the ground. “About 5 more hours 'til sundown,” she said to Diamonds. “Then probably another 2 or 3 hours for it to get cool enough for an overcoat, maybe 4 if they keep that tavern full in the evenings. You’ll be fine without me for that long… just don’t wander off too far.”
They had walked around the town until they found a patch of grass that wasn’t overly sunburnt, with maybe a few patches of wild clover to be discovered here and there. Vane had dismounted and grabbed her rifle, opening the stock and examining the mechanism to ensure that all the clockwork was still in good working order. She had begun the walk towards town while the sun still had another hour to give, and waited just before the edge of the high grass for dusk to truly set in before she made the last leg of the hike up to the building on the edge of town, keeping her senses sharp for farmhands taking an unexpected route or a lonely cur wandering towards the smell of food and people. She had reached the flaking white paint of the building rear undetected, near as she could tell, and now she found a drainpipe that would offer a climb to the roof two stories up. Fortunately the pipe had been installed with some measure of care and neither gave way nor squealed as she clambered up like a possum, and she crawled over to the opposite edge of the roof to confirm what she knew she’d see – an unobstructed view into the room at the end of the hall in the tavern. There sat the overcoat, and so she lay in wait. Just a few more hours.
The tavern proved not to be as popular that evening as she had feared, and the dusky twilight soon gave up its last vestiges of saved up warmth. The slight breeze that had earlier soothed now carried a touch of chill, and Vane brought the sights of her rifle up to her eye, slowing her already measured breathing and easing her gloved finger into the familiar curve of the trigger. She was ready.
From her perch she could see the door leading into the room, but not entirely; so as Vane’s eye had begun the merest squint that presaged the final squeeze, she could already tell that the legs following the swing of the door into the room were not her mark. For one thing, they were protected by an ankle-length blue gown of dubious quality but obvious occupation. The owner of the legs came into the room slowly; it was dark in there, after all, and she probably needed to light a candle to be sure of her surroundings… then again, maybe it was better for someone in her position to leave the room dim. She appeared to make up her mind and walked over to the window, drawing the thin shade – Vane caught a glimpse of a woman with an abundance of curly blond hair falling over her shoulders and coming to rest upon a particularly well-endowed chest, with an obviously-girdled figure below. The light from the half moon was not enough for Vane to peer through the shade and observe further activity, and she scowled as she prepared to clamber off the roof.
But in a moment, flickering light appeared from the obscured window, and Vane stopped, then eased her thin frame back onto the hard shingles of the roof, back into firing position. Over her sights she could now make out that a broad-shouldered shadow had entered the room with a candle, and had placed it upon the nightstand next to the bed. Next the new shadow walked up to the girdled shadow and they merged into one. The girdle seemed to put up some good natured resistance to the shoulders, but not too resistant, and she could make out the flutter of a shirt being removed from the man’s wide chest. Vane drew a bead on the man’s head as she waited for the right moment, but of a sudden the two shadows stopped abruptly. Vane had an unnatural fear that somehow, he knew she was out here, that something had given her away, and that she would lose her chance, but then the shadowy movement in the room gave up the forms of mutual companionship for a one-sided struggle. It was clear who would win the fight, and Vane knew the moment was now – hell, maybe she could even save the dubiously worthwhile life of the woman. Vane lined up her shot with the shadow’s head, exhaled, and pulled the trigger. She didn’t even blink as the rifle jolted against her frame, she was too intent on seeing the results of her handiwork.
A scream then, from down below in the street – a local couple out for an evening stroll had escaped her notice. They had obviously heard the shot, and the woman had spotted Vane on the roof and pointed. The man shouted, and divided his concerns between attending to his lady friend and attempting to summon attention from other townsfolk. This complicated things, but only a little. Confident she had at least a few seconds before she was in any real danger, Vane looked back at the window, now easily referenced by a small hole of light, and her breath caught. Those broad shoulders were still standing. Damn!
Vane couldn’t let him get away, not now. Not when she was so close. She rose to her feet and holstered the rifle on her back, then leaned over the edge to gauge the drop – a bit much. She crouched at the roof’s corner and grabbed the edge of the shiny gutter with a reverse grip, then twisted and threw her body over the edge, hoping the gutter was secured just enough for this to work. The metal edge tried to bite through her gloves, but she held on as though he was in her grasp, and she swung down and dangled there for a second. The nails holding the gutter had squealed, but held. Setting her jaw, Vane raised her torso so that her chest was parallel with the edge of the roof, then gave a mighty jerk as she let gravity lend a hand; this time the gutter gave way at the edge, and the whole thing began to come down like an overlong pendulum, with her as the weight. The nails popped free one by one as she swung the length of the building, gaining momentum as she went; at the last moment she let go the gutter and tumbled to a stop, crouched. She began to sprint to those swinging doors at the front of the tavern, revolver already in hand to discourage interference.
As she burst through the doors that same keep was behind the bar, feigning disinterest in the events occurring outside, but the aggressiveness of her entrance at least merited a direct look from him this time. That young farmhand with the rancher’s hat was still there, and he jumped with the rest of the tavern’s patrons as Vane came in; some of them had just started to rise from their seats, distracted from their drinks by the alarm of the couple on the boardwalk and the crack of a rifle. None of them had figured out that the target of that rifle was mere feet away in the rooms above. She noticed the farmhand’s arm drifting to his side as she strode purposefully toward the stairs, and fixed him in place with a grim look. “This isn’t your fight. Stay out while you’re ahead,” she warned him. She took the stairs two at a time and readied herself in front of the last door between her and that overcoat wearing sonofabitch. She pointed her revolver directly in front of her, half-squeezed the trigger, and kicked the door in.
It was one of those moments of eerie quietness that happen at the strangest times, as though a great wave was just about to crash on a beach but was still gaining its head. On the ground lay the woman, a hole clear through her skull – but what had happened to her hair – was that a wig – dear God, was that a man – what could he have been thinking? The thin shade was up now, and the wind chose that moment to blow a fresh draft into the room, making that peculiar whistle as it passed through the moist cavern in that peculiar man’s head. She knew instantly that the man whose strong back was now to her, looking out the window, wasn’t who she had hoped to see – one last time, anyway. He turned in alarm at the fresh violence that had entered his room, hands half raised in unconscious self-protection. And yet...
“That overcoat!” She gestured briefly with the tip of the revolver toward the garment, still draped over the chair and clearly in another county as far as this man’s awareness of the situation was concerned. “Where. Did. He. Go.” Her words came out as a fierce growl, the revolver now pointed square at the man’s bare chest and the brim of her hat framing her tightly narrowed eyes.
The man stammered a bit, “Over… wha…” as his attention went over to the black coat. Vane could see understanding register in the man’s eyes as he turned back to face her. “He, he rode west from here. On a healthy bay dun, I think.”
The man’s eyes flicked just a hair to the right, looking at something over Vane’s right shoulder, as a creak betrayed someone’s presence. “It might not be my fight, ma’am,” came the voice quietly, “but I’ve been staying ahead today by throwing my money in the pot, and I ain’t about to stop now.” Vane spun, hoping to catch the farmhand by surprise as she leapt backwards; the edge of her cloak spun with her and knocked the lit candle onto the bedspread. The young man yelped with surprise and fired wildly, withdrawing behind the cover of the doorframe. Vane didn’t want to shoot him, but he was leaving her precious few alternatives as he was between her and the exit. She waited in a crouch and forced herself to listen for at least a couple seconds for the would-be do-gooder to shuffle back down the hall. The bed started to catch, and the growing light made the shifting shadows unreliable, but she focused on that doorframe. She could hear the half-naked man in the corner behind her, starting to get nervous about the flames but just as nervous about trying to get past Vane, let alone the uncertain safety of a scared farmhand with a gun who had already fired uncontrollably once. There –she could just make out the tip of his gun as it began to edge around the frame of the door, and she realized he meant to fire blindly to save his own skin. She aimed at a point on the wall calculated to frighten but not injure, and fired – and sure enough, that nervous trigger finger squeezed in response, narrowly missing her. Vane took the other option, and dove out the window, shoulder down.
Vane lay on the ground, clutching the shoulder that had taken the brunt of the impact, daring nary a whimper nor a groan. The dust from the boardwalk mixed with the sawdust she had kicked up when she punched through the lumber, dancing and swirling in the light thrown by the blaze now licking outside the second story window. The roll she had taken as she struck the ground had put her in the shadows surrounding the shifting light streaming through the broken boards, hiding the shine of her goggles as she peered out the jagged hole. She watched as the black overcoat fluttered over the edge of the window to wave away the flames for an instant, allowing the owner of the room and the farmhand to spend a glance down at the hole – they couldn’t see her, she knew. As they brought their heads back inside, she could see the next few moments unfold: they would hurry downstairs, the room already half alight and spreading. The farmhand would yell incoherently in an attempt to gather allies as he made for the swinging doors, while the bare-chested man would more helpfully shout “Fire!” to urge everyone out. The farmhand would be first out the door, and the rest would be close behind. The time to move was now. She climbed out of the hole and ran past the building with the flaking white paint, into the darkness beyond the village, not following any of the established roads out of town.
After a few minutes at a sprint, she slowed to a walk, ensuring no one had followed her. Confident she was out of earshot, she whistled for Diamonds, who trotted up presently. Vane refused to allow herself any admission of defeat or disappointment as she mounted up and turned west, beginning the ride to the next town over. Instead she could feel that her determination was as strong as ever, and she was confident that she was getting closer to her goal.
A soft whinny from Diamonds brought Vane back to the present. Seeing that the town ahead was almost upon her, she stopped Diamonds for a moment and made peace with the previous day’s efforts – she now needed to steel herself for today. She barely glanced at the name of the town as she entered, already eyeing the local establishments for a likely refuge. “Lookback”. I already did that… and now I’m looking forward to watching you die, John Henry Hunter.
Marissa Matonis - Vane, Hunter & Diamonds
I can't gush enough about Marissa Matonis' madcap illustration of Vane, Diamonds and Hunter. It's got Ralph Steadman levels of lunatic dynamism but at the same time its coloring and draftsmanship are almost vector clean. So, so incredibly stylish and kinetic, unique and technically accomplished; I really, really had a hard time choosing the eventual winner over this piece. Check out more of Marissa's illustrations at her deviantArt (seriously, go).
And finally, the winner:
Alex Bucur - Next Town Over Go-Round
Alex Bucur is infamous in these parts for, let's say, his attention to detail, here used to great effect to create what ultimately seemed (to me) to be the cleverest ode to NTO of them all. A ton of effort clearly went into all the fiddly linework on this. The carousel theme's not only a cute reframing of NTO's horses (and how cute; lookit Outlaw's feet and Hearts' appropriately terrified expression) but a wry summation of the comic's narrative so far. The little tableaus of the chapter 1 through 4 settings adorning the faces of the carousel itself are a knockout detail, too. Add all of this to the fact that according to Alex he halfway finished a completely different piece and then scrapped it and I think his win is well-deserved. You can find more of his stuff at his deviantArt. Congratulations, Alex!