The “Change” You Want to See

by Matthew Derman

5 February 2015

What really pops out and smacks you in the face about Change is the art by Morgan Jeske and Sloane Leong.
 

Change is a challenging comic. It may only be four issues long, but it packs in the content, producing something thick, hearty, and deliberately messy. The narrative is arrhythmic, shifting in time, following several threads at once, and leaving gaps on purpose in some places, prioritizing mood and momentum above overly expository storytelling. Yet it remains easy to follow, largely because the evocative imagery creates a kind of visual whitewater effect, carrying the reader’s eyes along with its forcefulness and energy. There’s a crazy amount going on in Change, so much so that I freely admit to not understanding all of it, but that’s part of the appeal, too. There’s always something new to discover, or something old to rediscover or see in a new light, every time I read the series. More comics should be that way, impossible to fully digest on a first pass, shooting for explorability instead of accessibility.

What really pops out and smacks you in the face about Change is the art by Morgan Jeske and Sloane Leong. Jeske handles the linework while Leong provides the colors, and it’s a very cohesive aesthetic they create together, each of them clearly aware of and able to play into the other’s strengths. Their best moments come when they draw something up-close and intimate; by zooming in and adding detail and style, they can make the disgusting attractive. And there’s a lot of disgusting material in Change, the whole book being an exercise in the unsettling, a gorgeous tapestry of creeping and/or lingering dread. Often it’s something as innocent as a knife slicing into an orange, where Jeske gives the orange the texture of flesh, and Leong’s colors it like a blood orange, so the ultimate effect is a tight shot of a deep stab wound, disguised as fruit. Then there are the intentionally disturbing elements, like seeing a character’s body unravel or a sentient tumor the size of a human head being ripped off its host’s back because of a falling spacecraft. Though fantastical, Jeske and Leong treat these scenes with gravitas, asking us to seriously consider the hypothetical reality of them, and thus drawing us deeper into the narrative.

When called for, the art can do the widescreen, larger-than-life stuff just as well, though it happens less frequently. The end of the story does involve a gigantic Lovecraftian monster rising from the sea in all its bloated, squid-like, majestic horror, never entirely contained by the comic’s pages. That’s the single most enormous image, and Jeske presents it perfectly, devoting a two-page splash to the creature’s lower half, rising from the water while a lone human approaches it, for scale. Leong also gives the beast a more muted color than much of the rest of the book. In general, he uses a sickly neon palette, but the monster’s hide is more reminiscent of a rhinoceros, lifelike in a way that makes it stand out from the rest of the world.

Aside from all the eerie, under-your-skin horror aspects, the acting in the art is impressive in its own right, and would be in any context. Every member of the cast has a tremendous capacity for emotion, and there are many silent panels that still say an awful lot. In particular, Jeske does strong work with expressions of fear, able to capture slight nervousness just as precisely as intense terror, and everything in between. This in turn stirs up the reader’s own fears, as does so much of the artwork for so many reasons.

Laid overtop of this storm of fear is a strange atmosphere of focused calm. Though it seeps into the art, the real source of that mood is Ales Kot’s writing. He can describe and discuss melancholy, sadness, and every other shade of blue in a way that makes them sound comforting, and that dulls some of the comic’s visual edges. The words are not always clear, but they are evocative and inviting, pulling the reader in with the same strength as the art. Kot is the kind of writer who trusts his audience, treating us like we’re intelligent enough to fill in some holes ourselves, to read between the lines and pay attention to the details. As such, Change is written like we’re all already in on the secret, like we’ve been following these characters and waiting for these events since long before the start of the first issue.

Kot tells a few stories at once, all of which converge or collide with each other by the end. The main plot centers on W-2, a successful rapper who wants to get into the movie business, and Sonia, a struggling screenwriter who wants her big break. The two of them work together on a “Lovecraft-inspired movie” and then of course become the enemies/victims of a real-life Lovecraft cult, worshippers of The Old One (a.k.a. the monster I mentioned above). Sonia and W-2 have a violent, almost action-packed adventure as they try to survive and defeat the cult simultaneously. Things do not go well. At the same time, the story regularly checks in on an emaciated astronaut, whom we’re told was the first man to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and is now on his long, slow trip through space back to Earth. His is a story of loneliness and impending doom; as the astronaut gets closer to Earth, he sees The Old One as a shadow moving through the water, and understands immediately the danger it represents, the scope of its evil. Spliced into these two Old-One-related tales is a tragic romance story, a man who falls in love with a woman too damaged and unstable to fully participate in a committed, monogamous relationship. The man tries his hardest to make it work in spite of the struggle, but his patience isn’t infinite, and her unpredictability becomes too much for him, her baggage more than he can carry. For much of the series, it’s not clear how this love story is going to connect to the rest of what’s going on, but the man ends up being the one to face, enter, and eventually come out the other end of The Old One, somehow sending it away or undoing it.

Ed Brisson’s letters match Kot’s narrative voice to a T. They resemble handwriting, but more uniform, a distinct inhumanity underscoring their personality. There are smooth edges and soft corners, but the lines are solid and sturdy, as self-assured as the writing and also as just as soothing. Like with the series’ scripts, the lettering plays off the darkness in the art and plotlines, lightening up the unending dreariness of the plots themselves, making them easier to slip into and enjoy. That’s the case for the bulk of the characters and captions, but there are a few exceptions, most notably the dialogue of the primary villain in W-2 and Sonia’s storyline. He talks with extended, hissing S’s, and Brisson plays with the size of the letters to display how the character’s drawn-out words rise and fall as he speaks them. It’s a well-done flourish to make an antagonist all the more despicable and memorable.

To break Change down piece by piece like this, setting the art apart from the writing apart from the letters, is something that can only be done outside of the actual reading of it, an after-the-fact analytical exercise that the comic itself doesn’t allow for while you’re in it. Everything hits you all at once, a beautiful, heartbreaking, horrific whole. Each member of the creative team is very much in a groove, but they produce something much bigger, an almost shockingly singular vision considering that it’s the result of collaboration. That speaks to the power of the ideas that drive this title, their appeal and potency working on the creators just as they do the readers.

I’m not positive I could tell you the significance of every scene in Change, or even if I know for sure what it’s all about on a thematic level. My takeaways always have to do with the isolation of existence, the empowerment that comes with making yourself vulnerable to pain, and the awesomeness of monster stories in any medium, comics most of all. Does my interpretation line up at all with the book’s intentions? Am I misrepresenting it here, 1500 words that only highlight my failure to decipher a mini-series I’ve read multiple times? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t even matter if that were the case. Change is big and ambitious enough to take on every reaction, appropriate and inappropriate alike. That’s why it works, because it’s equal parts fluid and dense, hard to keep up with but even harder not to chase after. It’s not the greatest, or most moving, or even weirdest comic I’ve read, but it has the rare quality of never entirely leaving my mind. There’s so much going on, and it’s all so interesting and impactful, one aspect of it or another is rattling around in my brain almost constantly. I doubt if I have yet grasped its exact importance in my life, but I know it must hold some, if only because I can’t completely let it go.

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