Polymorphously Inclined: Comics as Influence, Comics Influenced

Image from Lil' Depressed Boy

'Poaching' and 'copying' goes on in the making, reading, and interpreting of all forms of art and expression. The manner in which comics seem to invite connections to other media is what makes them vital artifacts of pop culture.

Recently, I've been taking note of how frequently comics is, or, "are", if you're talking about a specific book, framed by references to other media, and not just in the obvious cases of adaptation, whether from comics to film and television or vice versa, but as a way of understanding or relating to the medium or a particular title.

Film is a frequent frame of reference for comics. Comparisons to film and films are clearly seen by publishers as one way to draw reader interest. To illustrate, among the blurbs on the hardcover collection of Brian Wood's and Ryan Kelly's Local (Oni Press, 2008) is an excerpt from a Sequential Tart review that calls the book, "the coolest short film never shown on IFC or Sundance Channel". More broadly, film and comics are often linked by virtue of both being used for a similar range of genre stories, especially action and action-adventure, horror, spy, science fiction, and fantasy. The intent here seems clear enough: by associating comics with movies, more people will be interested in reading a book.

At the same time, framing discussions of comics by reference to film is not limited to marketing. One reason why I used the blurb about Local to make my point above is that I am currently using the book in my introductory cultural geography course. When teaching formal analysis of comics I, like so many others, will easily and quickly slip into using the language of film to discuss comics. When talking about panels and pages, I will discuss angle and distance as if a panel had been 'shot' with a camera. I might talk about a page as being part of a "scene", a concept that is twice borrowed, having originally descended from theater to film. (see also, "Why Is It Like That Here? Comics As a Medium for Exploring Our Varying Senses of Place", PopMatters, 25 February 2013).

Such references can be problematic, unintentionally implying that comics is subordinate to film both historically and as a form of art, but they are also culturally convenient and the adaptation of terms from film analysis to comics can be an effective way for artists, critics, and readers to explain the meaning, significance, or effect of a particular book, page, or panel. As I already implied, this is how a critical and practical language for film was initially innovated: by borrowing, and bending, concepts related to other, more established and critically recognized, arts and forms of expression.

While seeing similarities between comics and film is driven by how both media are used for visual storytelling, such parallels may also account for another habit: relating comics to music.

Musical references in comics come in multiple forms. In some books, music is a central or supporting aspect of the narrative, Scott Pilgrim (Oni Press), Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics), while in others, musical taste defines characters, Little Depressed Boy (Image), Phonogram (image). In the aforementioned Local, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly include track lists in their commentaries for each issue/chapter.Taking that idea even further, in the conclusion to the second volume of his and Gabriel Ba's Casanova, writer Matt Fraction divides the issue into short chapters marked by song changes, essentially creating a soundtrack for the book.

Music can also be a way for critics to explain the effect of a particular work. In reviewing Bryan K. Vaughn's and Fiona Staples' Saga #10 (Image), for example, Michael D. Stewart uses Explosion in the Sky's, "Your Hand in Mine", to convey the narrative and emotional tones of the comic:

I’m reminded of the sonic instrumental invitations of post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, namely their 2003 track “Your Hand in Mine”. It’s a fitting song for much of Saga, the narrative qualities of each capitalizing on elaborate layers of emotions and listener/reader experiences with other genres. Melodies crash into climaxes. Climaxes showcase raw emotions that thrust us into worlds we had never previously considered. We find something of ourselves. In Saga, we find Izabel, the birth of a new fearsome creature and the possibly of a causality. In “Your Hand in Mine” we find that other hand, that connection to something beyond our singular body and the uncertainty of what’s to come. We are at the height of our senses and then nothing but a loss of sound, of a piece of ourselves. There is an intense yearning for optimism, yet the last part of each piece seemingly dashes those hopes.

The musical references here are used to explain both the emotional content of the characters and the rhythms of the narrative. Like Wood, Kelly, and Fraction, Stewart is setting a comic to music, which here serves both as a form of criticism and also as a way to enhance the reading of a title (see "Inviting us in: 'Saga #10'", PopMatters, 4 March 2013).

The impulse to listen to songs while reading or making comics may be conditioned by the use of music in film, but in much the same way that readers control more of the reading experience with comics than viewers control the viewing experience at the movies, musical connections to comics are always open-ended. Creators can suggest, and readers can experiment, but music to accompany comics will never be overdetermined by a formally authored soundtrack or score.

That comics is more than a proto-cinematic form is also evident in the way certain books inspire more novel references than those commonly appropriated from film and movies.

For example, in another piece on PopMatters, Michael Stewart draws connections between the literary strategies and aspirations of the Beats and those employed by the authors of comics like Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats (AdHouse), Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve stories, and the previously referenced Lil' Depressed Boy by S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace (see, "The Beats, The Lil' Depressed Boy and Populist Literature", 7 February 2013).

Also recently in PopMatters, shathley Q uses a lengthy lead-in on the cultural construction and selling of Robert Johnson and the New Journalism to raise questions about pop culture, commercialism, authenticity, and idealism to frame consideration of writer Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers (Marvel) (see, "Greater Than, or Equal To: "New Avengers" vs. New Journalism", 22 February 2013).

One could see this searching around for references to other media and forms of authorship as a capitulation to the popular marginalization of comics, a medium forever seen as falling short of being 'itself'. Or one could acknowledge not only that 'poaching' and ''copying goes on in the making, reading, and interpreting of all forms of art and expression, but also that the manner in which comics seem to invite connections to other media is what makes them vital artifacts of pop culture.

In offering advice to critics, one of the habits that writer-artist Dylan Meconis (Bite Me!, Family Man) cautions against is approaching comics as if they were made from the residue of more 'respectable' forms of art:

Cartoonists are, in general, not very prejudiced when it comes to their influences. Most of my peers are voracious readers, watchers, lookers, listeners, and players, mostly unconcerned with labels of “high” or “low” so long as the stuff on the menu is good. We don’t collectively put much stock in work that preens over its own elite inaccessibility (having too often been the victims of snobbery in academic settings), but nobody is going to be shunned for liking something and making use of it in their own work. You will quite possibly see the influence of Star Wars and the influence of Ezra Pound sharing a table at your local convention (see, "How not to Write Comics Criticism",, 18 September 2012).

In my interview with him for my documentary on comics creators in Portland, Oregon, artist Steve Lieber (Whiteout, Oni Press, Alabaster: Wolves, Dark Horse), takes a similar view of the variety and range of influences in comics art. (See below.) While describing himself as a "dilettante", his point is that doing comics art requires elements of skills employed in other fields, such as acting, set design, and costuming. So, film again, and also theater, but the insight here is that whereas in film and theater, these are tasks that are most often fulfilled by different individuals, in comics, these elements are "filtered" through the artist. Even where one works in collaboration with a writer or other artists, drawing effectively in comics still requires knowing something about a variety of otherwise distinct arts and crafts.

Both Meconis' missive to critics and Lieber's discussion of his art underline that comics is always already a hybrid form: words and images, parts and sum, art and literature. It should be no wonder, then, that comics prompts reference to other media or inspires makers, readers, and critics to not only read more comics but also watch a film, seek out a song, or reach for prose. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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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