Cthuhlu Turns On The Radio: Change #1 Review

As I’m writing this, I’m watching a TiVo recording of Lucky Number Slevin I recently got off of AMC, based on a years-old recommendation of the flick by my parents. By the time they saw it and told me that they thought I would like it, it had already vacated movie theaters, and since it came out in 2006, by the time it came out on video the local Blockbuster had vacated my town, and by the time I lived in a place with HBO, HBO had already washed its hands of it. Which means that this is the first chance I’ve had to see the movie, and which further means that I should have learned by now that I should never take movie recommendations from the two people who once advised that my life would change if only I would watch Jennifer 8.

I am about 45 minutes into this movie, and I have no idea what it is about. There is Bruce Willis and Lucy Liu and Josh Hartnett and Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley and a bunch of other people who should have fucking known better, and Hartnett’s in a rotten sweater vest when he’s not in a towel, and there are two mob bosses and a fistful of hired goons and Willis is playing Hartnett from Sin City, but all I know is that, no matter what the writer originally intended, all I see is a story that wishes it was written by Quentin Tarantino when it grows up. From the stilted, stylized dialogue to the violence for the sake of violence to the long, talky sequences, this is a Tarantino knockoff, ten long years after the last Tarantino wanna-be was escorted off the cinema scene by shitty box office returns.

What gives it away is the dialogue. It uses big words when no normal person would. It puts simulated poetry in the mouths of people who, in the real world, would say, “I had an idear,” or perhaps refer to women without breast implants as “grenades.” These characters are not real people living in a real place; they are obvious puppets, being operated from behind the curtain by a writer in love with an old genre and enamored with the sound of their own voice. It is distracting, and it diminishes whatever effect the author might have hoped the story might have.Everything that happens in Lucky Number Slevin happens because of an unlikely, writer-invented coincidence.

A coincidence such as the fact that I read Change at the same time this movie was on.

Change is a Lovecraftian horror story set in Los Angeles at whatever time period it makes sense that a manned NASA mission to Europa might happen, or when fractally modifying facial tattoo technology becomes viable and inexpensive enough for the unemployed. We’ve got screenwriter Sonia Bjornquist, she of the weird facial tattoo, working for hip-hop star W-2, trying to write his motion picture crossover magnum opus, “W-2 Versus Lovecraft,” when they part ways due to creative differences. After that, the Europa craft approaches Earth, and some cultists attack both Bjornquist and W-2, and the astronaut sees Cthulhu from low Earth orbit, and then there are some made-up hip-hop lyrics, any song titles, notable only for the titles, “Attack Ships On Fire IV,” “Stay Frosty (Brother Apone),” and “Passenger No.8.” (That last one’s an Alien reference, in case you’re curious)

If that sounds like a half-assed plot summary, it’s because it is; I don’t really know what is going on or why it matters in the long term in this comic book. It’s hard to keep track, because the writer, Ales Kot, is so clearly in love with the sound of his own voice. His prose and dialogue simply get in the way of a simple horror story; I spent so much time being dragged out of the story imagining Kot being self-satisfied with his vocabulary and poetic musical use of English.

I’m not kidding: here’s the first three sentences of the book. Literally: the first words we get in this story.

Her face was beautiful like drone video footage from Afghanistan. Eyes Stuxnet worms, self-replicating within his soul. The skin of her cheeks made him think of home.

What the fuck is that? The cumshot paragraph from Max Renn’s letter to Penthouse? Tell you what, here’s another opening sentence; tell me if you think it fits in with Kot’s:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Pretty close, huh? That’s the opening paragraph from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. So what we have here is a writer jazzing on language in a distracting way in a story that’s inspired by Lovecraft. And it’s not just the opening few sentences; Lot’s writing is florid and poetic pretty much throughout the book. Phrases like, “Sonia… you are the prettiest horse in the glue factory,” and “Thousands of spinal nerves turning into spider legs,” and “You must look like two sphinx cats trying to form a sex donut. With decorative baroque folds,” is clever writing and sure to earn any bright young person a nice mark in an undergrad creative writing class, but this is a comic story. And the overall effect of the overwriting is to make the writer an unavoidable part of the story; we always see Kot poking around, pulling levers and pulling strings. You can envision Kot sitting back from his keyboard after writing something like, “Did you hear that they want to put the Apple logo on the Moon? I think that’s just bad Feng Shui,” folding his hands across his chest and saying, “I have created art now.” I doubt, however, he is able to envision a comic reader looking at those word balloons and muttering, “Clever, but what the fuck does that have to do with anything?”

Which is kind of a bummer, because if you can ignore the author constantly nudging you and whispering, “nifty writing, eh?” in your ear, there are the guts of a decent Lovecraftian story here. We’ve got cultists waiting for the return of Elder Gods, who have identified our two protagonists as sacrifices to facilitate their return, and the nifty device of Europa being found to be habitable, with the idea implied that touching Europa might have awakened Cthuhlu here on Earth. And the concept that the Elder Gods might turn time itself insane, giving them the opportunity to destroy over and over again throughout eternity is intriguing… but the fact of the matter is that this is a Lovecraft story in a comic book, and it means that it’s an area that has been recently done by Alan Moore. So combine the well-trod ground with a writer trying like hell to add his own stamp to a book written over and over again, in a style done by some of the best. So the whole thing feels like, well, Lucky Number Slevin: a pastiche of earlier classics where every character sounds like the writer. While there’s a germ of a cool story here – one where you can see Cthuhlu swimming through the ocean from orbit clearly is swinging for the Lovecraftian fences – it’s ultimately disappointing.

Morgan Jeske’s art certainly has an interesting look for a Lovecraft story. His work is stylized and somewhat cartoony, in a style that reminded me a bit of Richard Corben’s; his bodies are kind of bulky, and his faces broad, thick and often asymmetric. Jeske often makes interesting use of perspective; there are a few panels that have a focus on something up close to the camera, like a hand, with the arm attached bending weirdly toward the face in the background, which is still in focus. It is a perspective that is strange for comics and impossible in a real camera, and when you see it if gives things a strange look, which helps with a Lovecraft story. Further, he sometimes picks strange, out-of-main-action items upon which to focus, like the sequence of W-2 and his wife talking in a convertible while Jeske plays up a hummingbird eating a fly in the background. All in all, it adds to a generally unreal feeling, which is probably a good thing for a Lovecraft story. If you like Heavy Metal, Corben-style art, you’ll find something to like here.

Look, I’m personally fond of Lovecraft stories – once again, I own a t-shirt that reads: “Keep Calm and Cthuhlu Fthagn” – so I wanted to like Change #1. But there is just too much of the author getting in the way of the story. And maybe there’s a certain amount of that happening on purpose; we get some hints that the writer is intentionally inserting himself into the story, including one unexplained panel of a dude at a typewriter… but even that hearkens back to Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man in the 80s. If I’m honest, this is a story mimicking about three or four other earlier stories by classic authors, apparently hoping to catch lightning in a bottle that was already caught a long time ago. It feels like Kot is trying to use preexisting stories and story structures to showcase his own writing, and that’s fine – Tarantino did the same thing with Pulp Fiction… but there is only one Quentin Tarantino, and only one Pulp Fiction. There are, however, dozens of Lucky Number Slevins out there. And unfortunately, Change feels like one of them.