A review a day: <i>Changing Ways</i> Book 1

Oh dear, it's another first volume. I love them and hate them - love because I appreciate the ambition of the creators, hate because you have to wait longer than just a month to get your next fix! Confound it!!!!

Changing Ways is a nice thick comic by Justin Randall, who lives in Perth, which is far too sunny a place to produce people like him and Ben Templesmith.

What the hell are they putting in the water there? (Perhaps friendly Aussie Kris Bather can answer that.) This comic is lettered by Nathan Martella, published by Gestalt Publishing, and costs $17.95.

Randall is telling a horror story, which means we get weird things going bump in the night, lots of rain (this is why you never see horror movies set in Arizona - too much sun), and unexplained phenomena. In the town of Grey Oaks, David Barrot lives with his family. He was once a corrections officer until something bad happened that gives him nightmares and cost him his job (we find out what it was in this book, but I won't spoil it). One night, his pregnant wife Lucy discovers a strange scar on her abdomen and suddenly her hearing is heightened, so much so that she hears the crazed dog that smashes into their bedroom long before David does. The dog belongs to a neighbor, who shows up looking for it - and the neighbor also has a strange scar, this one etched on his face. According to David, the neighbor wrests David's shotgun away from him and blows his own head off (Randall does a nice job not showing us this, so we're not quite sure if we believe David's story).

It turns out that David also has a scar, on his chest (see, it's right there on the cover) and he's had his about a month. As we learn a bit later, it gives him tremendous strength. These brief scenes set in motion a chain of events - David calls the police about the death but is of course suspected of murder; David takes Lucy and his daughter, Jessie, to a motel because he doesn't think they should stay in the house (especially as the police are dealing with a lot of weird incidents and might be a while); David visits his neighbor's house and finds his (the neighbor's, that is) wife, dead; Lucy and Jessie flee the motel when crazed pigs do something horrible to the night clerk; and it appears the dead are coming back to life. This last moment disappointed me; I do hope that this isn't a simple zombie story - it doesn't feel like one, and Randall doesn't make too big a deal about it, but the fact is that the dead come back to life in this book, and it remains unexplained. Who knows where he's going with it?

We get some tantalizing clues, especially when it becomes clear that a religious cult on the edge of town had something to do with it. Much like the presence of zombies, the presence of religious fanatics doesn't fill me with confidence, but again, Randall leaves this open-ended and we're not quite sure exactly what their involvement is. In the meantime, we get a pretty cool horror story. We don't see a lot of the scary stuff - we barely see the pigs at the motel, and Lucy only hears what happens behind a closed door. Randall shows a little of the gore, but not too much, and that makes the book more effective. He also does a nice job with the family dynamic of the Barrots.

David is haunted by his past, as is Lucy to a certain degree, but she's pregnant so she's more concerned with that, especially as she goes into labor at the end of the book. Lucy is fiercely protective of Jessie, naturally, and it comes out very well throughout the book. Jessie is also a puzzle, as she knows more than she's telling. In these kinds of stories, you can't really rely totally on the horror - you need to have good characters. Randall doesn't give us the greatest ancillary characters - they veer close to stereotypes - but the Barrots anchor the book and raise it a bit higher than a generic horror tale.

Randall's art is interesting, too. He's obviously influenced by Ben Templesmith, who's quoted on the back of the book and is also from Perth, a city of approximately 26 people, so they all know each other (I'm an expert on all things Australian, don't you know). He does the same thing Templesmith does, with the edges of the panels almost black and even the lit parts not terribly bright. How is that accomplished? I don't know, but it's something that both Templesmith and Randall use to very good effect, as it adds a patina of creepiness to the artwork. I've heard some people find it annoying, but it doesn't bug me, because, well, it doesn't. The interesting thing about Randall's artwork is his figure work is much more realistic than Templesmith's, which is not a bad thing. It actually highlights the weirdness when it occurs, because the people look like they're just living their lives and suddenly all sorts of terrible stuff starts happening. Randall switches out of this style well, too, when he needs to. At one point Jessie tells her parents something that happened to her in the past, and in the flashback the art is skewed, giving us a child's-eye view on the scene, almost Skottie Young-like. It's an interesting shift.

Although Randall does some of the things Templesmith does (the blurry action scenes, for one), for this kind of book, where the horror is more muted, his differences help make the book much more unsettling.

I don't want to reveal too much about the rest of the plot, because it's fun following along with what happens. There's some action and some tragedy, but we don't get too many answers about what's happening. Randall drops a lot of clues, especially with the strange scars on everyone's bodies, but he strikes a good balance between revealing too much and not revealing enough. The book leaves us wanting more, and the fascinating thing about the next volume is that Randall is jumping ahead ten years, when the family dynamic has shifted dramatically. I'm keen to see what Randall will do with it. I don't know how available Changing Ways is, given that it's from a tiny publisher, but if you can track it down, I suggest giving it a look. It's pretty keen.

Tomorrow: We shall see, won't we?

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