Real Talk: 'Change' is Unique, Sincere, and IdiosyncraticA comic review article by: David Fairbanks, Nick Hanover
Editors Nick Hanover and David Fairbanks discuss just what it is about Change that has left a mark on them. Nick's composed a playlist at the end that touches on some of the many music references you'll find when reading the story.
David Fairbanks: I don't know if it's particularly normal or not, but every once in a while, I purge my media: comics, music, movies, the works. Sometimes it's to clear up shelf space, other times it's on a whim, and in the case of this spring, it's because I'll be moving soon. In the last year or two, I've noticed a trend in the things that I deem worth keeping: I need them to engage me either emotionally or intellectually. Ideally both. This may sound like a no-brainer to you, but if it does, ask yourself how many comics you read and forget about within the next week or month.
I'm not saying that having a stack of comics that let you just turn off your brain and read about Batman punching some criminals is a bad thing – I've been known to put on a Ke$ha album from time to time – but when I am making the decision of whether or not I need a physical object taking up space on my shelf, I want it to be one that rewards multiple readings. For me, that can be anything from Final Crisis to American Elf to King City to Solanin. I am drawn back to these comics for a variety of reasons, and more often than not, this is true of the works of all of the creators behind those titles.
When Wild Children earned a place on my bookshelf instead of in a longbox, despite being the tiniest trade paperback I think I have ever seen, I had a feeling that Ales Kot would be joining Morrison, Kochalka, Graham, Asano, and the many other creators who cause me to revisit their works.
Change is proof positive that Kot is going to be one of the most important writers in the current generation of up-and-coming comics stars. And that's saying nothing of Morgan Jeske, whose style feels almost like a young Paul Pope with the panel composition and page layout skills of a WE3-era Frank Quitely.
Sloane Leong's color choices are nothing short of brilliant, with tranquil greens and blues overlooking the LA skyline or in the depths of space contrasted with violent reds and oranges as the action heats up. I don't know how much involvement Ed Brisson has as letterer, but if it was his choice to go into a typewriter font for back matter like the lyrics to “Four Ways to Forgiveness,” well, he's among peers on this book.
Nick, there's a point that you touched on in your review of Perks of Being a Wallflower that I have felt to be increasingly truer the more I think about the stories that I find particularly resonant. We can get almost any story we want these days, almost any kind of music, and many of us are willing to pay a premium – including forgiving weaknesses – in exchange for a feeling of sincerity. I can't know how much of Change is autobiographical, but Kot has let us know that there may be a fair bit of himself in the text, which could easily account for what it is that has me coming back to this beautifully cyclic story again and again.
Nick Hanover: And yet you and I both know that what we view as a sincere yet idiosyncratic work of intensely personal art is going to be dismissed by quite a few readers as "hipsterism." That's the danger in being a brave creator with eclectic taste and a non-traditional background, and to some extent, Kot preemptively embraces those complaints with a meta-dialogue happening both within and outside of the panels. Change is a comic that has a lot to say about comics, and art in general, and it makes those statements in ways that aren't always immediately apparent or clear. This is a story where a putdown of a Pitchfork review functions as a highly charged and super aware moment, where an unironic love of Shane Black's contributions to The Last Boy Scout shared between the two main characters serves as bonding, where lyrics from songs popular and obscure pop up in dialogue and signs and intros and chapter headings, and none of these things are telegraphed loudly or utilized for cliché– this is simply, clearly, inarguably how Kot as an individual functions.
I know this because at last year's SDCC, my cohort Danny Djeljosevic and I spent time with Kot, and I'm not saying that for cache, either. We were both drawn to him not just because of his comics, but because he spoke our language. Like us, he's of a generation that doesn't usually believe musical taste has to be segmented, who doesn't have a problem admitting a passion for what's often dismissed as trash culture, who lives and breathes pop culture and isn't ashamed of it. At an Image panel I asked him about the musicality of his work and how that fit in to a growing musical awareness at Image in general. It was borne out of the cover art of Wild Children (the cover, apparently accidentally, references Massive Attack's Blue Lines) but everything Kot touches has that musical edge – his dialogue is frenetic and rhythmic and that's particularly clear in Change, which features a rapper named W-2 who is a bit like a hybrid of Shabazz Palaces and Tyler, the Creator in that he's got a hip, literary edge (his album in the comic is called “(f)lowers of algerbong,” after all), a metaphysical bent, and a love for Lovecraftian horror.
When people throw around the hipster card, it's not because that term means a specific thing to them, it's because it's convenient shorthand for a fear of being irrelevant, out of touch and behind the curve and Kot serves as a handy target for that because he doesn't hold your hand with the references he makes or the way he wields them. But the thing is, you don't need to get those references to get what he's doing, or what his aims are. He puts them there because it's his language, because it means a lot to him, because he wants you to feel included, and it wouldn't work if he walked you through it, you actually have to earn it all on your own. Comics are the same way for him, a medium of infinite potential that is often held back because of a need to give the vocal majority what they claim to want: easily digestible but not all that nutritious popcorn, stale and unchanging and unyielding in its dominance of this particular concession stand.
So if Wild Children was Kot's debut 7", Change is the eagerly anticipated album that baffles as many as it converts. My reading of Change provoked a philosophical detour where I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if William S. Burroughs was part of our generation and the answer is, through Kot, he kind of is. Where Burroughs utilized trash culture of his era to create perplexing art, Kot is doing the same, drawing in the pop culture that surrounds and has usurped comics. Change may not be as initially confusing as, say, Naked Lunch, but it's nonetheless as complicated in its structures and language, with Kot even building up a sort of sample-era cut-up technique that has phrasing fighting itself and the rules of language to create trippy vocalizations and unconventional patterns.
Jeske adds to it with his body horror designs, people's proportions wobbly and weird, "glitches" built into the narrative through the introduction of near-future tech like "facial camouflage" and lumpy space bodies, sapphic cultists devouring phallic forms and getting off on the regurgitations that result. I look at any given part of Change and chances are it makes nearly no sense at first glance, but because I'm a recovering obsessive crate digger I just dig more and conduct my own Who Sampled Who search of terms and phrases and coding. So I ask, if Change is a fucked up kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering where Kot and I share the same musical paths, what angle of its sincerity are you taking ownership of, David?
David: Would you believe me if I told you that it was the Lovecraftian monster set to devour Los Angeles? No? The Venn diagrams of our musical tastes probably overlap at least a bit, but you and Kot have both likely got much larger circles than I do, so although I think I picked up on a few of the music allusions, that was not what pulled me in. While I enjoyed and was intrigued by the first issue – I was already pretty confident this would be a comic worth returning to again and again – it was the second issue that added the personal hook, as that's where Change managed to get a bit stranger, with a meta-narrative growing from its single-panel seed in the first issue.
I'm sure there are at least a fair number of other readers who felt some uncomfortably familiar scenes play out between the writer – not Sonia, but the nameless(?) writer that feels like Kot's fiction suit – and his wife. When you're young and dumb and impulsively making decisions that should be much more carefully thought out, you're usually not just doing it because you're young and dumb. You're doing it because you don't have a rulebook for shit like that, because we spend far more time teaching kids how not to get pregnant than how horrible of an idea it is to try to save someone who can't save themselves, who doesn't want to be saved.
So when the third issue opens and just a few pages in, we're treated to the frantic banging on a locked door as your imagination plays out the worst possible scenarios, well, I honestly had to put it down. It was all too familiar, reminding me of times I thought I had already washed my hands of.
Jeske continued to amaze me as the series went on, too, deftly depicting the surreality of childhood memories and carrying a knack for emotionally expressive artwork that is rarely seen in artists who've been in the comics game for many, many more years. Leong's palette choices look like almost nothing else on the stands, eschewing color for nearly black and white pages when the need to feel emotionally sterile seems particularly necessary, then going full blast into vibrant oranges and greens within the next few pages. So often colorists get a bad reputation, but people like Leong prove just how important the role is in delivering the emotional impact of a story.
I can't know how much of Change is fictionalized and how much actually comes from Kot's life; he's been clear that there is more of him in this book than you might expect while still being hazy on the details. But whether or not elements of the story are autobiographical doesn't really matter if they are written in such a way as to feel sincere, as to cause something to stir in the reader and establish that connection that can let us take something more from a piece of creative output.
That said, when I speak of sincerity, I don't necessarily need it to resonate with my life experiences for me to feel as though the story being told is sincere. For me, at least a part of it is in knowing that the creator has put some important part of themselves into it, whether it's in the overt way of autobiographical comics like the works of Jeffrey Brown or Liz Prince or the somewhat less obvious ways that an author's personal philosophies show up across their body of work. That willingness to put yourself or your beliefs onto the page, a message in a bottle that you hope will tell someone else that they aren't alone, feels more important than ever.
Also, you have no idea how jealous I am of that SDCC experience. Having spoken with Kot before, he seems like the kind of person it would be easy to lose hours with, even in a place as busy as Comic-Con .
Nick: You bring up an interesting point when you contrast Kot's brand of autobio-ness with the Jeffrey Browns of the world. There's nothing wrong with either approach, but it's odd that people think personal means comics about everyday activities or watching your cats, yet works like Grant Morrison's The Filth and The Invisibles are arguably just as personal, albeit in a more hallucinogenic fashion. Kot is clearly a Morrison guy and that shows through in his work, but where most Morrison devotees hone in on his epic scope and way of integrating pop culture debris into High Art pop comics, Kot is one of those rare creators who hones in on the personal edge Morrison fills most of his work with. The story from Morrison himself via Supergods is that The Filth in particular was a comics exorcism for him, a way of channeling his issues and exploring his physical and mental anguish during that particular era.
Change fits right in with that because you get the sense that this is equally an exorcism for Kot, even if we don't know the specifics or the angle. In the wrong hands it could have been a mess, an antagonistic fictional furor where we the reader had someone's nastiness inflicted upon us. But because Kot has such a handle on translating terrifying experiences into a beautifully expressive form, and because he has such a superb team of co-conspirators, it's elevated to the status of a unique, intimate trip inside several different facets of his personality.
Similarly, that allows each reader to come away from it with their own unique trip, one that hopefully inspires them to explore their own ailments and obstacles in whatever way makes the most sense to them. I know a year from now, I will pick this up again and come away with a different interpretation and that's not just okay, it's exactly what should happen. Even if you hate this work – and again, it's totally cool if you do, because that's part of the experience as well – you're still bound to be provoked by it. And isn't that what art is truly meant to accomplish?
David: The ideas present in Wild Children were enough to have me making the comparison between Kot and Morrison before I had even finished the book, but I think you managed to pinpoint exactly why it is that I never really felt too comfortable with declaring him the next Morrison: Kot weaves that personal edge into his stories with a finesse that Morrison would've envied this early in his career. Kot is very much his own writer, and his voice is coming out more clearly with every comic, with every other creator he works with. It's the kind of voice that will cause reverberations in the medium if it keeps amplifying the way it has been.
It seems beautifully fitting that the cyclic nature of the destruction at the heart of Change's plot is the kind of thing that would permeate into the lives of readers, giving us something new and profoundly different with each new reading, or rather with each new reading at a different point in our lives. There was an idea that Kot slipped into the dialog in the second issue that I was particularly fond of: “Sometimes all you can do is forget a part of yourself until it's ready to come back.” Although the response was “Why would I ever want to do that?” that kind of willful amnesia is almost necessary for growth and evolution; focus on something intently enough that less important aspects of your life go by the wayside, then look back at them as a changed person and determine what is worth reintroducing to your life.
The best stories are the ones that allow for a similar treatment, focusing more or less literally on aspects, plot points, character interactions that allow the reader to gleam something more about the story, and perhaps something more about themselves as well. Change is one such story.
1. Issue 1, page zero, quote from "Do It Again" is used to introduce the issue
2. Issue 1, page two, "white noise knife" isn't specifically in reference to The Knife's 19 minute noise track (unless Kot predicted the future, since Change #1 predates the release of the track), but the symmetry is too good to ignore, so we added it.
3. Issue 1, page seven, "This is a tale of me...and you" closes out the first section of the issue, and while this song appeared after the issue had already come out, we felt it was appropriate to include Kim Baxter's fantastic single of the same name
4. Issue 1, page seven, Kot names the first issue after the epic track by seminal post-rock pioneers Slint
5. Issue 1, page eight, panel 4 "every circle completes itself"
6. Issue 1, page eleven, panel 8 "the pills don't always help"
7. Issue 1, page fourteen, panels 1 & 3, this song is playing on the radio
8. Issue 1, page fourteen, panel 6, "it never rains in LA"
9. W-2's album and song titles (particularly the number fixation) seem to be in reference to cult rap hero Shabazz Palaces while...
10. ...his horror fixation seems to reference Tyler, the Creator and the rest of Odd Future
11. Issue 2, page two, W-2's ongoing club speech recalls Dillinger Four's "Doublewhiskeycokenoice" and its "no friends here tonight at all" club loneliness
12. Issue 2, page fourteen, panel 1, this song plays at the party
13. Issue 2, page fifteen, panel 1, Eko Stravinsky's look and schtick recalls Ninja of Die Antwoord
14. Issue 3, page six, issue three is named after the xx's spooky "Heart Skipped a Beat"
15. Issue 4, page zero, the issue starts with a quote from "Baby Says"
16. Issue 4, page eight, the issue is named after the Talking Heads classic "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)"
You can preorder Change on Amazon or at a comic book store near you.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.