Look at that would you. Done? Now know that this is not a cover, a pin-up or even a splash page; that image my friends is just one panel among the many in this one hundred-plus page graphic novel. You’d be forgiven if looking at it you assumed it was actually a pristinely stylised photograph and not a panel because aesthetically Changing Ways evokes Fincher more than it does, say, anything done by Moore or Morrison; in fact it almost feels wrong to compare it exclusively to comic-books because it stands so singularly outside the obvious ties of that medium. So it’s ok if you were wondering whether I was reviewing a book or a film, because at times while reading Justin Randall’s locally published book I wondered much the same thing myself.
Ok, not really. That confusion was just some rhetoric I contrived for the sake of structuring the content of this review, but you know what isn’t a rhetorical contrivance? Randall’s art. Now that may sound like faint praise indeed but that’s not the case at all, I’d praise his art till I faint but that obviously wouldn’t convey well over the keyboard. See, like Fincher, Randall is something of an auteur (a term that very rarely gets thrown around accurately in comic-book circles) in that he both writes and illustrates his novels; so it would almost be forgivable if the images were mere placeholders of plot, but instead he has given us the best in-book artwork that I have ever seen. Life really isn’t fair.
What makes Justin’s art so amazing is its juxtapositions: the content veers from deep, dark and dreary backgrounds into these sharp slivers of alien colour – as seen on the literal signs above and some less obvious ones within – which leaves the setting feeling intrinsically banal but very far from boring. The most radical pairing though is in the style which, as I noted previously, appears almost photorealistic, but this isn’t actually the case. Upon close inspection all of the images are, in fact, fictionalised – some even obviously so with almost cartoon-esque character models and obvious brushstrokes – but something about them tricks you into ignoring this fact. Randall’s art spans the uncanny valley by being both ultra-real and impressionistic depending on what the particular drawing requires; it’s risky and takes a real deft touch to do it right but he does so with ease.
The thing that really brings these images to life, that makes them read more as a living, almost literally, breathing thing than an average book is an element that I usually skim right over, sound effects. I don’t know what it is about them exactly – whether it’s the arrangement of letters, the font or the colouring – but I truly believed and actually heard the sounds they signified, which is a rarity for me. Even something seemingly simple, like the bugs that flitter through this fictional turn, becomes utterly entrancing because of this almost animated onomatopoeia. In a way these noises, both natural and unnatural, are all the audio we need; the story is spelt out just as well with the art alone. I wonder though if this is only a good thing? And if Randall is a writer or artist first?
Regardless of the ratio Randall’s writing is really interesting, even if it’s not entirely as impressive as his art. Half the fun of his fiction is figuring out just what the hell is going on, so I would be remiss to synopsise the story here and half the reason I am so desperately looking forward to Volume Two is that i’m still so very far from deeming any of my answers definitive, so I couldn’t even if I wanted to. At its core though the story is an inventive merger of the medium’s two biggest mainstream sellers, zombies and superheroes: the people of a small town start developing powers and losing their minds after ‘catching’ a virus that had been spreading through the local fauna. That much is made clear early on, but the when, what, how and why are all still a mystery to me (Though playing ‘Spot the Crucifix’, especially during the final few pages, provides one possible answer) .
While the arcing story is all a little ambiguous (positively so) the content of the comic is not; the graphics, while beautiful, are also … well, graphic. That i’ve complained about gore in all three of the Gestalt novels that I’ve reviewed makes me think that maybe I’m the one with my maturity out of whack, but here my problem is not so much with the violence itself but rather the narrative structure behind it. For me the story of Changing Ways is one that would have worked wonderfully with a sense of slow-burning tension: the signs appearing, the animals starting to act strange, chaos ensuing and finally, the reveal of a human sign. Instead though all of that is dealt with in the online-only preamble, the book itself jumping right into the story and from there escalating its pace exponentially with the passing of each page; events spiralling to their most extreme ends long before the ten year jump into the future suggested by the epilogue and current promotional material.
I wonder though if this is only a bad thing. I have to assume that Randall knows what he is doing in speeding us through many of the stories narrative steps in such a fashion; if he has a truly epic plan in mind for the series than better to get right to it than spin his wheels here on the local level. I have this faith because the script we do have on the page is brilliant, abridged as it may be. It’s repressive and explosive, dark and droll, fun and very, very frightening, it’s everything you could want from an instinctual read except never-ending. Perhaps this is my real problem, that the book is over, in which case the criticism then becomes more praise to add to the ever-growing pile of accolades that the title has already received.
Whatever the explanation and whatever future entries do or do not bring this book would stand as the best I read this year, if only I could honestly say that I read it. That word just doesn’t seem right because it implies activity whereas the story seemed to move independently of me, only slowing down when I begged for more time to appreciate the art. Perhaps that is the best term to use, appreciate; I appreciate Changing Ways. Which brings me to my final point, this book is not cheap nor is it an easy sell. I myself passed it up the day of the Gestalt launch for that very reason and have regretted it ever since (Sorry Randall, but thanks for forcing a free signed cover slip of me anyway. I treasure it now); the thing is though, you will get your monies worth. The more you look at it, the more you hear it and the more you think about it the more it means to you; Changing Ways appreciates to you too. So buy it already; I mean compared to most pieces of modern art it’s actually quite cheap.