Build to Suit: Guillermo del Toro and the Mythology of Hellboy

The mythology of the Hellboy films is, to use del Toro's own apt description, “…a jazz riff on what the comic book is”.

Mind-bending visual effects. Pulse quickening action sequences. Schlocky humor that embraces the absurd nature of its protagonists. The gritty sense of a world much like our own, and a world of fantasy and horror hidden just below its surface. There are plenty of reasons that the Hellboy films, helmed by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro, have been such an unlikely success story in recent years. But chief among those reasons is the adherence of the films to the feel, if not always the plot of Mike Mignola’s storied comic universe, which is now entering its 16th year.

Where spin offs like the BPRD series and solo adventures featuring Abe Sapien have taken on a darker tone of late, Hellboy, even at his darkest, retains a sort of whimsy, a slapstick goofiness that provides a welcome counterpoint to tales which regularly feature cybernetic Nazis and dark elder gods conspiring to wipe out all life on Earth. It’s this just right blend of baneful mystic forces, freewheeling action and inspired slapstick that del Toro's films import flawlessly from Mignola's graphic adventures.

But the complex and ever evolving mythology that Mignola has spent years crafting in Hellboy and related titles is just too big to fit into a series of films. Instead of Mignola's vision of a world in which no piece of folklore is off limits, film audiences get a stripped down, build to suit version of the mythology of the Hellboy universe. The mythology of the Hellboy films is, to use del Toro's own apt description, “…a jazz riff on what the comic book is”.

Due to del Toro's long held admiration for Mignola's work, the films stopped short of scrapping of the basic underpinnings of the Hellboy comics. Both films and comics explore the notion of a world before our own, and of the blending of science and magic. In each medium, elves, fairies and trolls exist alongside demons and world-ending monsters from beyond the edge of space. And both works pay homage to Lovecraftian themes of long sleeping evils, world striding monsters and the subhuman creatures that worship them, and races of not quite human creatures waiting (sometimes quietly, sometimes not) to lay claim to an earth cleansed of humankind.

Over the years, the mythos of the Hellboy comics grew from a entertaining riffs on a thinly veiled take on the world of Cthulhu into a full fledged greatest hits of world folklore, in which Baba Yaga, Hecate and the fairy folk of the British Isles are all creatures to be feared in equal measure. Mignola has felt free to incorporate creatures and figures from a staggering number of world mythologies, taking bits and pieces from the folk tales and stories of any continent and culture he pleases. By weaving an overarching world mythology in which Norwegian trolls, Appalachian witches and Malaysian vampires are all potential threats to life, limb and sanity, Mignola contributes to an environment where every shadow hides undreamt of terror. The world of the Hellboy comics, even in its funnier moments, is one where horrific creatures lurk around every corner and every thing that goes bump in the night could be the last one you hear.

But while Mignola, an avowed folklore buff, is happy to borrow from stories from across the world, each one is meant to add to the character of the world he has crafted, not to define it. Mythological figures from around the world have their places in the mythos of the Hellboy comics, but each is taken as part of a larger whole that even avid readers are still just coming to understand. And this larger whole is picky, taking only what it needs from each folk tale, a Tengu here, a Mayan demon there as befits the story, and casting off whatever is not needed. This method of taking only the best elements of a story and leaving the rest behind makes for storytelling that pays homage to its roots while leaving room to do new things with the elements it adopts, which explains why it is the same tactic adopted by Guillermo del Toro in bringing Hellboy from the off of the page and onto the big screen.

The folklore and background of del Toro's films takes on a much more generalized feel more appropriate for famously generalist theater-going audiences. For the sake of brevity, the films are compelled to offer audiences a more compressed, less complicated mythology. The breadth and depth found in Mignola's work are sacrificed on the altar of snappy storytelling, chase scenes and romantic entanglements. Lacking the luxury of years that Mignola had to build a fully fleshed out mythology of their own, the films settle for vagaries. The result is a more generic, but no less effective troupe of ogres, elves and many tentacled beasts that play foil to Hellboy and his cohorts. And while purists may bemoan this degree of mythological dumbing down for the big screen, it does make for punchier, more watchable cinema. It also means that, after taking on the basic elements of the Hellboy comics, the films are more or less starting from scratch.

Creating a new mythos out of whole cloth is no mean feat, and the degree of success that del Toro and his crew achieve in this task is laudable. Perhaps more importantly, the director's success in using a fresh out of the box mythology to such terrific effect -- whether in the monstrous demon Sammael of the first film or the endless wonders of the Troll Market that left audiences gawking in the sequel -- is nothing short of amazing. Handily, del Toro's leaner, meaner mythological background is also more prone to end of the world scenarios, lending a sense of urgency and immediacy to the setting that is more in keeping with the nature of a high octane blockbuster.

By keeping the tone of the comic pitch perfect and trimming the weightier and less familiar folkloric elements, del Toro effects an elegant transition from print to cinema. The result is a film that runs with hybrid vigor to spare -- it is faithful enough to please longtime fans without making new audiences feel like they’re being punished for not regularly reading a slightly obscure horror comic book for the last sixteen years. And if there’s a better way to introduce huge new reading audiences to the above mentioned slightly obscure horror comic, I’m hard pressed to come up with it.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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