The “Change” You Want to See

Matthew Derman

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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