Next Town Over was supposed to take five years. It took thirteen and change, and it is not an exaggeration to say when I started it I was, figuratively and literally, a different person. 

When I wrote Next Town Over I worked part time in a print shop and part time at a small game developer in what was essentially an intern level copywriting role. I was nearing 30; a perfect storm of residual 20s naivete about paying for the future and a third-life crisis about the fact that I was incredibly dissatisfied with where I was at. I didn’t intend to do Next Town Over as a webcomic; I intended it for an independent press because at the time my ideas around the legitimacy of art hinged [incorrectly] on compensation and traditional publication. I drew the first 10ish pages as part of a pitch to shop around to probably five differently small publishers, and had one taker: a brand new small press that wanted to publish it online, own 50% of it, and give me a page rate of $100/page. (A sidebar for context and transparency: these days I work quite a bit with creator-owned small publishers and in the year of our Lord 2024 I’m lucky to command $100/page; NTO less its supplementals would have paid me $41,000+ in page rates before any royalties or sales, and while $41k is a pittance it’s also probably more than I’ve made off the comic in 13 years.) But I was incredibly naive and ridiculously optimistic about its appeal and my ability to find it an audience – and in my partial defense the creative economy was in a drastically different place than it is today – and I decided that if this publisher could make enough in ad revenue, etc., publishing it as a webcomic, I could surely do it myself while retaining full ownership.

Neither of my then-jobs paid very much but at the time I lived with the person I’d marry a year later, whose job was good money and moreover good insurance.  In the shelter of that headspace I asked that then-partner what he thought of me quitting the print job to focus on cranking out Next Town Over, as a webcomic, since we were sufficiently set financially to take the risk and anyway look at all the money creatives are making off Google AdSense (put a pin in that).

He agreed to this; I slapped together a WordPress-with-Comicpress website and scheduled those first 10 pages to drop weekly. That seemed like a more-than-doable rate at which to buffer a bunch of pages (it was; NTO’s buffer was, for awhile, a now unimaginable 20 pages). This first website did indeed have AdSense advertising (and Project Wonderful ads; remember those?), and it did indeed appear encouragingly lucrative in the early months given its newness. The comic got a few enthusiastic write ups. Kris Straub shouted it out on Chainsawsuit. I became internet friends with a bunch of other creators of similarly-scoped comics (almost none of which ultimately survived). I quit my other job, at the game studio, which didn’t seem to be going anywhere anyway.  (In the glow of this era I like to think fear I helped inspire friends to attempt their own longform comic projects in web form.)

I no longer remember or particularly care how many months into this enterprise Google killed my AdSense account for “invalid click activity”, a ruling I unsuccessfully attempted to appeal about 4 times over the years – a ruling which eventually affected almost every single creator of those similarly-scoped comics. This not only killed most of the revenue on NTO but also locked me out of earning money via Google in perpetuity; I’d go on to have YouTube videos with 750k views I could never monetize, etc.. Project Wonderful earned, but not like AdSense. Patreon was two years away. Next Town Over was now making me basically nothing.  I’d quit my Jobs for Adults because I felt called to make art and it was going about how they warn you it will, and in the absence of any kind of financial validation I was honestly feeling pretty bad about it. Full time comics was supposed to have solved the aimlessness and ennui I’d felt my whole life and it had decisively not. 

In 2011 I had a near-fatal health crisis I’ll decline to get into, but mention because the existential scare forced me to reexamine once again what I was doing, what I wanted to do, what was important to me. The answer to all of these seemed to just be “I don’t know”; I had never had a plan for or even a vision of what my future could look like. But at 30 I felt like doors were closing, and doing something was better than doing nothing. So in rapid succession I asked my partner to marry me, we had a child, and I ran a Kickstarter to collect the first four books of Next Town Over into a print edition.

With a new child it just made sense for me to continue staying home and taking care of him and the house with my ultimately flexible independent artist schedule and relatively terrible earning potential – terrible earning potential that would ultimately compound itself over a decade out of the traditional work force. 

Having a family and focusing on being a stay-at-home parent didn’t fix the ennui, the sense of estrangement from my own life. It made it worse. I assumed because I wasn’t contributing to our household financially in any kind of significant way, an item of increasing friction and resentment in my marriage. I was taking freelance work here and there, but never consistently enough to replace a real job, and of course I kept puttering away at drawing Next Town Over. 

In 2013 Patreon launched, a new paradigm in supporting creators. I was incredibly hopeful I could make enough on this new platform to meaningfully supplement our earnings and, in my thinking, thereby feel validated in what I was doing with my life. At the beginning I shared a lot of sketch and conceptual materials from NTO, a lot of worldbuilding extras and a few process videos. NTO stalwarts were quick to support me on Patreon – many of whom are still supporting me an unthinkable 10 years later, a fact I’m constantly aware of/grateful for – but my monthly support never went gangbusters in the manner promised by the early optimism of the platform (to this day my Patreon is an amount that’s been immensely helpful and allowed me to purchase, among other things, the iPad Pro that transformed my art workflow – I’ll talk about this in a Patron-exclusive, process-focused postmortem that’s yet to come – but I generally make more off a single commission or item of work for hire than I do in a month’s worth of Patreon pledges.)

I continued like this for years, mostly focused on my kid but sidelining comics and occasional work for hire. I thought for awhile maybe independent publishing was my thing, and in addition to a second crowdfunded Next Town Over collection, I curated, edited, and did two stories for a frontier fantasy anthology with some of my friends: Poor Wayfaring Strangers. It funded successfully and my friends’ contributions to it are lovely so I don’t regret making it for an instant, but it proved remarkably sales proof post-Kickstarter. 

From about 2015 onwards I was convinced the great misstep in my life was leaving the little intern level job at the game developer, because my prime hobby and favorite storytelling medium was perennially videogames, not comics, and I really was drawn to making those. I started doing more and more hobbyist game development, mostly with a partner. We did a few game jams, embarked on several too-big projects that were never completed. I became about 70% of a 2D technical artist, and started thinking maybe that was my real calling, the thing I’d neglected all this time. I started thinking when NTO wrapped, and my kid was older, that would be what I’d try to focus on before I was dead. 

In fall of 2018 I started feeling minor numbness in my fingers, which progressed pretty quickly to worse numbness, radiating up my arms and into my neck and head, eventually becoming tingling and then worsening pain. Working in a desk chair became nearly unbearable and NTO started experiencing the first chronic disruptions to its previously clockwork update schedule in almost 8 years of drawing and posting it. We spent thousands on neurologists and rheumatologists, physical therapists and acupuncturists. I had autoimmune disease symptoms including abnormal bloodwork but I was never formally diagnosed with anything. A sports medicine provider told me I had thoracic outlet syndrome and I muddled through the suggested courses of PT but saw very little improvement. My chronic low grade depression worsened tremendously; I felt like shit and moreover I felt crazy without any concrete diagnosis. I didn’t want to move and not moving made it worse. 

I made a bunch of adjustments to how I work, including overhauling my desk geometry and starting to do art more seriously on an iPad Pro (thanks Patrons!), which allowed for more flexibility in work configurations. Over a period of about 2 years the symptoms lessened and I also just got used to a baseline level of low grade neck and back pain; anyone with chronic pain can probably attest that at some point you just sort of acclimate to some background level of it and soldier on but it’s always there like a rock in your shoe, making you irritable, making you exhausted. I’d always felt like that though: irritable, exhausted, an indefinable rock in my shoe. In a way this was nothing new. It was more of the same.  

Heading into the dread 2020 I wasn’t in the best place but I was fairly comfortable, had just started a solo Unity game, was looking forward to Next Town Over’s homestretch so I could focus on my true calling. I resumed working on Patron-only comic Cutter and Ironwood, and started thinking about returning to trying to stream. I was doing more lucrative freelance work. 

But you know what 2020 was like.  

My kid and my spouse came home from school and work. My kid’s schooling was virtual for a year and change. I was banished from the office where my work/dev/streaming setup was as my spouse [needfully] took it over to work from home. Approaching its 10th anniversary, Next Town Over, which I expected to be concluding, was so decisively backburnered the usually 52-updates-a-year comic updated 21 times in 2020. Then 11 times in 2021.  As the comic slid, so did my mood. I had been almost 30 when I quit my day jobs to do NTO. Now I was almost 40. I had an 8 year old. And nothing I’d done in the intervening decade had moved the needle on my creeping discontent. If anything it was worse. 

And after the years of cloistered introspection COVID forced on everyone, at the beginning of 2022 it went critical. 

This could be its own 2500 word memoir, but the cliff notes version is at the start of 2022 I was forced to confront, agonizingly, over the course of a couple traumatic life events, some therapy, and writing the first draft of Every Hole, that The Problem With Me was that I was a trans man. It is now practically a cliché to have understood yourself as trans because of the pandemic, but annoyingly it was the Cinderella slipper that slid with irrefutable ease over the shape of my lifetime of depression and alienation. 

The good news is pretty much the moment I stopped pruning off any new growth to fit in the comfortable, unchallenging container of my previous existence, things started to turn around for me mentally. Over the course of 3 months I wrote the 115,000 word rough draft for Every Hole – a comic (a comic I’ll be eternally grateful to for its role in the Figuring Out) after years of certainty I was done with comics the second I put down Next Town Over. Unbottling my identity simultaneously uncorked my energy reservoirs for making shit – and also my functionally unexplored sexuality, and by July I’d successfully pitched an erotica short to Filthy Figments, to start running that October. Throughout 2022 I transitioned my ass off along with working on Every Hole, on Positive Feedback, on freelance art, and yes: on Next Town Over. It didn’t hit 52 updates that year but it did hit 24, the most I’d managed in years, and alongside over 60 pages of comics work elsewhere.  60 is also roughly how many pounds I lost in the process of becoming Ben; I’m now over 40 but I am also in generally the best shape I’ve been in since my 20s. This has had the knock-on effect of diminishing the still-there neck and back pain to a whisper I can almost always ignore – still more fuel for the accelerating engine of my want to make art again. 

But it did cost me my partner.

In many ways my marriage ran perfectly parallel to Next Town Over. In a tidy bookend to marrying the year after starting NTO – a comic at its core about a dysfunctional marriage – I’m divorcing in the year following finishing it. My marriage was built on a fault line, its dissolution an inevitability, but it has been slow-motion, and largely amicable. 

My future feels precarious in a way I’m not sure it ever has. But I have to admit the precarity is exciting, and unlike the first half of my life where I just sort of drifted on the current and couldn’t picture any kind of future, I can now envision not one but any number of futures for myself. I have been, and am, both Vane, riding off into the wilderness to find and forget, and John, tirelessly chasing his passion at any cost. 

When I started Next Town Over I was an aimless, childless single straight girl who could ride a horse. 13 years later I’m a middle-aged queer man and father with chronic pain and a 12 year marriage in my rearview. (I assume I can still ride a horse, but it’s been awhile.) Next Town Over was the backdrop to such an unbelievable amount of change in my life that when I think about the sum of the change that has inevitably happened in the combined lives of all of you, its readers, in that same span of time, it is nothing short of overwhelming

Thanks for reading, thanks for listening, for commenting, for buying the books or supporting the Patreon, for creating fan works, for retweeting updates or talking in the Discord when the Discord was active because we were all locked up hiding together from a global pandemic. Thanks for coming along. 

For many of us this will likely be where we part ways. My gratitude for those of you is undiminished; if you want a final fix of frontier fantasy and you aren’t a Patron, check out Cutter and Ironwood 0; I intended to do more with these characters and I haven’t ruled it out but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon as I am headed elsewhere, at least for awhile. Watch this space (wherever you’re reading this) if you want to know when I crowdfund a print edition of NTO #9-13, which will be the chunkiest NTO book by far.  

If you’d like to stay on, follow or subscribe to my Patreon if you aren’t already; I have just started Every Hole Book 2; Patrons of all levels get Book 1 for free or you can catch up standalone buying it off my itch.  If NTO was a comic about marriage, Every Hole is a comic about rekindling your power in midlife. I hope to not be working on it for 13 years but if I am I guess that’s fine, too. 

I hope you’re looking forward to or already living in one of any number of futures you envisioned for yourself. 

Happy trails.

Ben
May 2024