Changing Ways – Volume 2
Since my hesitation almost held me back from reading the original text I got my hands on this second volume as soon as i could ( and even tried unsuccessfully to get it earlier than that) but i still had to wait a day before i began reading it, because i wanted to give it the attention and atmosphere that it deserved. So it sat on a shelf, the covers uncracked, while I went to sleep late Wednesday night and from there, like something out of Lovecraftian lore, it haunted my dreams: sweaty visions of shadows and scar-red symbols swum before me as my subconscious manically mulled over the multiple plots possibly contained within those covers.
Of course, my conscious mind can barely comprehend Changing Ways so I didn’t even come close to guessing, the book far too mysterious for that, but I still think this says something about the stories’ power and the potency of my expectations for it. Changing Ways, along with another Gestalt book The Eldritch Kid, convinced me that the comic medium was a worthwhile one, that it was worth the time and money that I now invest in it weekly. How does one follow that up? It would be like creating a sequel to Citizen Kane or some other classic, and yet that is exactly what Justin Randall attempts to do here.
Once the world was quiet, the lighting right, a drink clinking in my hand and the book before me I hit yet another delay; I spent an age staring at the first page, acclimatizing to the art, letting the style sink in but then seemingly seconds later I put the book down finished. Randall’s interiors are like that: mercurial and malleable to the mind of the reader. The comic’s art is clean and cinematic enough that if you want you can simply skim through for the story, but complex and endlessly compelling to those who take the time for a longer look.
It’s an almost indescribable style that he brings to the book, one straddling the line between photorealism and the surreal. The details in the settings, faces and poses are all spot on but the style in which Randall realizes them is an obviously drawn one; the lines and effects big and bold. It would take someone with much greater knowledge of art to express exactly how he manages to hit both targets, but I can say this quite clearly: whatever it is it works brilliantly, just as it did in the original. There was something else that struck me about the first book that continues here; to this day I’m still yet to see a book that does a better job with its sound effects. There is a scene early on that uses plips of pee in a urinal to establish pacing, tension and shock, it’s brilliant.
It is story though that I really read for and so the single most important thing that Randall draws in both books are the marks. Symbols are very important in this series, but in a more literal sense then usual; the story is of course centered around the fact that these strange sigils start appearing on bodies, granting their owners powers and perversions that they could either wield or yield to. It’s a strange mix between zombie and superhero stories, powers spreading rampantly through a population like a plague. Unlike most superhero books though the nature of peoples powers here is kept partially hidden, it is never quite clear what they are capable of while the why and how are barely even hinted at; or at least that was the case before now.
This volume though gives us clear meanings for a few of the different marks and promises many more to come. Protagonist Jessie’s two powers are explained explicitly and while should remove a lot of the fun from them, since mind-reading is something that we’ve seen before and super sight is well… a rather mundane ability dramatically speaking, the way in which Randall handles them prevents this from ever being the case. Jessie can read minds, but we can’t; we aren’t even gifted the internal narration of the first volume and so she holds these conversations that we only hear one half of, while another J hears voices that we can’t, voices that prompt him to perform terrible acts.
Even when it is offering exposition Changing Ways does it from afar, always keeping the audience at a safe distance as if perhaps they too were infected. So, for example we are shown a jagged arrow on Big J’s palm and see the effect that it has on any who touch it, but I couldn’t tell you what it does, nor give an answer for why it spins around in what seems to be a meaningful manner during the one scene he shares with Jessie, the pair presumably holding an entirely silent conversion. Is it a transfer of consciousness, an absorption of memory, a compass to find the chosen few? Who knows? It’s a mystery.
The most interesting symbol in the first volume though was the small solar cross that cropped up in multiple panels on multiple pages. This symbol for the Divine Order of God church was clearly a clue to the greater mystery of the series, though it’s one that Randall is still yet to cash in, the church even more mysterious now then they were originally (thematically though their involvement makes a lot of sense now though). It would seem that within this second volume red lights are the new crosses, well either that or motorcycle cuts; I wonder though if it was supposed to be obvious who that was; if say that prospect is now the president? Questions built upon questions, though there a plenty of answers starting to be doled out here too.
I wondered when reading the first volume whether Randall approached the book as an artist or writer first ( which of his marks he made most use of) and since he is foremost known for the former I assumed that painting was his priority; this second volume though tells a different story. Whereas Volume One of Ways opened like a slow-burn Stephen King horror before turning straight into something much more frenetic and grotesque, this second chapter opens like a play and sticks to that style: characters sit around and talk, the very short beats of horror and violence mostly occurring off page or between panels. Yes what they talk about is very compelling, the book never close to boring, but as an artist I imagine that pages of talking heads aren’t the most exciting to draw, no matter how necessary they may be for the larger plot.
This I feel is where the second volume differentiates itself from the first, with plot and pacing. Much like my reading, Changing Ways started out by using an entire book to depict a day in the lives of its characters – it was small, intricate and intimate – whereas this one not only covers a ten year jump, but multiple days within and a second smaller skip forward at its end and as both the scope and size of the pieces grow bigger so to do their unwieldiness. I don’t feel as if I was as involved in this story or as connected to its characters; the camera had zoomed out a little so to speak. This is a bit of a shock to the senses but it strongly suggests that Randall has a grander plan in place for this book, which is a notion that I find both comforting and exciting in equal parts.
So this is not just a sequel written because Randall was out of other ideas, its not just a tacked on extension but a part of a planned trilogy ( or six part series, depending on your sources). The story then suffers slightly from Second Chapter-itis as nearly all famous examples do; it is the bridge between the small self-contained intro and the crazy stuff that is to come in the climax and so while it is needed it’s also not as strong or satisfying an experience as a single volume. It does though change the way that we read the first volume, its explanations not removing the mystery of that title but adding awareness through its answers and then more questions in their place. This then means that it allows you to re-read that book in a different light so in a way you’re getting two books for your money.
According to the pure text teaser at the end of the tome an invasion is coming and I imagine that it will be pretty amazing to see, but then of course my imagination isn’t much compared to Justin’s. So the story that he presents will likely be very different to that and to anything that you’ve ever read before just as these two books are. There is nothing normal or samey about Changing Ways; in an industry built on repetition it is one of the most unique books being made. So you can’t read anything else and ‘get the general idea’, there’s no generic alternative, you really need to just buy and read the original. Though unfortunately for us fans this also means that there is nothing else that can sate this craving besides the third volume. There is a war coming and I for one cannot wait.