Mouse Guard #1-6

Monte Williams

Happily for more sophisticated readers, much can be read into the political turmoil these characters are forced to navigate, but on the other hand none of the sociopolitical commentary is so heavy-handed as to diminish Mouse Guard's pleasures as a rousing action-adventure.

Mouse Guard #1-6

Publisher: Archaia Studios Press
Price: $3.50
Writer: David Petersen
Length: 22
Formats: Single Issues
Issues: 6
First date: 2006-05
Last date: 2007-01

I've long harbored something of a fetish for great opening lines. In fact, as my weariness and crankiness increase with age, I find that when I approach a new comic book series I am seldom willing to look any further than the opening line. Like the man in the art gallery from that old comic strip who ignored the paintings in favor of intently studying the EXIT sign ("He's always been text-driven"), I am a man for whom words have more power than images (I'll often reach the bottom of a comic book page only to realize I've read all the dialogue while completely ignoring the illustrations.) I have neither the time nor the patience for literary foreplay, and as such I often offer a new comic only a single caption (or perhaps a full page) to win me over.

Enter David Petersen's Mouse Guard, with its cover featuring a warrior rodent, sword held aloft, cloak billowing heroically, gaze stern and alert as an enemy snake prepares to strike. Here is a case where few will even bother with the Opening Line Test, for when it comes to the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, a cover illustration isn't likely to sway devotees or skeptics, and nor I'd suggest, in the case of Mouse Guard, will its opening caption: "Let me tell ye about the Guard. We mice have little chance in this world, considering all the critters that eats us."

Cute enough to keep me reading (if also a bit too reminiscent of Tolkein), but the true test of any story in the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, once you've committed yourself beyond its first caption or sentence, is twofold: 1) Would the tale still hold up as a legitimately engaging drama if you were to replace the animals with humans? 2) Conversely, if robbed of its other fantasy trappings, would the tale still serve as a compelling glimpse into the world of its chosen subjects, in this case mice?

Mouse Guard succeeds admirably in the latter category; its noble rodents reside in a forest world that is not only intriguing and attractive, but also utterly convincing, owing in equal parts to Peterson's luscious visuals and his thorough and imaginative consideration of how intelligent mice might learn to navigate and conquer such an environment. The fantasy aspects, on the other hand, might perhaps feel overly familiar to swords-and-sorcery enthusiasts (a band of warriors reduced in peace time to mere escorts, a missing peasant, an investigation that leads to unexpected adventure, characters who speak in terse, self-important proclamations and admonishments like "So tell us, why have three of the Guard's finest been dispatched?" and "Speak if yeh wish to keep your life" and "It is not we who are trapped in with them, but they who are trapped in with us!") But while Mouse Guard's genre riffs might seem tired at first glance, Petersen is a confident and efficient storyteller, and his characters and their struggles feel fresh and different. You might further expect that mice would have limited potential as sympathetic or believable heroes, but everything about these characters invites our devotion, from their firm, proud resolve to their consistently persuasive movements and poses. Petersen knows his mouse anatomy; these are not mere human figures with mouse heads but actual mice who just happen to travel on their hind legs and swing swords at one another.

And golly, do these mice ever love to swing their swords! For a title with such obvious promise as an all-ages success, it is surprising how dark, brooding and violent Mouse Guard can be (though in fairness to Archaia Press, I should note that its website does suggest that a Mouse Guard reader should be at least ten years old.) Blood is a common sight in these pages, and many of the characters have such calmly, casually hard-assed personalities; in fact, here's a compromise of my own rule, for if these warriors were human I would find their macho bravado tiring, but instead it feels earned seeing as these wee ass-kickers are such natural underdogs when most any opponent they face inevitably dwarfs them in size. Even so, the cute physiology of a mouse makes for a strange vessel for such honor, determination and violence. It is as if someone had decided to adapt Frank Miller's 300 with mice as the stars. At any rate, I hardly suspect that younger readers will be bothered by Mouse Guard's violent battles. In fact, the seventh graders with whom I shared the series were predictably impressed with the fight scenes.

Happily for more sophisticated readers, much can be read into the political turmoil these characters are forced to navigate ("You are a puppet of many and a ruler of few"), but on the other hand none of the sociopolitical commentary is so heavy-handed as to diminish Mouse Guard's pleasures as a rousing action-adventure, and in addition to my affection for its exciting battles and political wit, I am also (perhaps inordinately) enchanted with the cryptic snippets of philosophy the mice toss at one another. As someone with a tendency to seek not just entertainment but indeed guidance from his pop cultural pursuits, I am always on the lookout for quotes that serve as catchy (and admittedly disposable) self-help instructions. It's a sort of bumper sticker brand of personal pop philosophy, and the best example I've come across since Bruce Wayne's "It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me" from Batman Begins just might be Mouse Guard's "It matters not what you fight but what you fight for." A barely-perceptible fragment of this stirring motto later appears as the background in a long panel of which two-thirds is devoted to a close-up shot of Lieam -- he of the green cloak on the cover -- looking defiant and furious as he faces a towering, terrifying reptile. It is a moment of genuine power that thrilled me more than the tiresome posturing of most typical comic book heroes has done in quite some time. And when Lieam grabs the nearest fang of this same reptile in order to pull himself into its mouth to thrust his sword through the top of its skull, well, that can only be what Dave Campbell would call a "F%*K YEAH!" moment. Fellow Guardmouse Saxon's reply after the fact, a simultaneously bemused and awed "We turn around and you're inside a snake," is just one of the many examples of Petersen's quiet, understated sense of humor.

The scale of the world these mice inhabit in relation to their own diminutive stature makes for some clever, fun and often startling moments, including one scene set in an outpost called Calogero, wherein "It's mid-morning and… still dark… Something is blocking the windows!" The something in question proves to be an invading army of crabs, and by this point we know the world from the mouse perspective, and thus the arrival of the crabs is a truly terrifying moment. (That this scene leads to the second "F%*K YEAH!" moment in as many issues should hopefully not surprise you at this point.)

I mentioned earlier the two rules of success for the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, and a third rule that applies to comics in general is this: if you were to remove the dialogue (as Marvel Comics attempted with decidedly mixed results a few years ago in a company-wide gimmick called 'Nuff Said), would the arrangements of the panels and the illustrations in those panels still move the story forward? Peterson rises to this challenge; Mouse Guard falls "silent" for pages at a time, but the story's momentum is never compromised, and indeed the silence offers an intimacy with the enchanting woodland setting which dialogue might otherwise hinder.

I would be interested to learn how and why Petersen came to the decision to populate his action-adventure with mice. I nearly described Mouse Guard as "his fantasy epic," at which point I remembered that Petersen wisely keeps his focus tight for this tale, which calls to mind something from Robert McKee's Story: "The irony of story versus setting is this: The larger the world, the more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative choices and the more clichéd the story. The smaller the world, the more complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative choices." And indeed Mouse Guard is not a sprawling epic but rather a lean, knowable world, but one with epic possibilities lurking all along its periphery. It could be that Peterson is just a fan of mice, or perhaps he chose to pursue the genre because it has proven to have so many possibilities, for truly Mouse Guard joins a rich, varied and often baffling tradition. The subgenre of Anthropomorphic Critter Warriors alone encompasses such divergent properties as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bucky O'Hare, Earthworm Jim and the Redwall series of novels; lose the warrior component and you open the floor to everything from Beverly Cleary's Ralph series (starring, like Redwall, a mouse), Watership Down, Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, Pooh Bear and his Hundred Acre Wood buddies, Orwell's Animal Farm, the Cowardly Lion of OZ and all the assorted misfits and lunatics of Warner and Disney's respective rosters, plus far too many more to bother trying to list.

Nor is this anthropomorphism by any means an exclusively American phenomenon. Every culture and ethnicity offers its own variations (the Japanese catbus introduced to bewildered American audiences in My Neighbor Totoro is a memorably exotic example.) You could do worse, in seeking a brief but fascinating distraction, than to type "anthropomorphic" into the factually unreliable but always entertaining search engine at Wikipedia; the results delve heroically into everything from religious condemnation of anthropomorphism to its representation in various religions (Shamanism, Hinduism, etc.) to its representation in Artificial Intelligence.

One facet of anthropomorphism which Wikipedia is not equipped to cover is the simple matter of why audiences find animal humanism so endlessly compelling. Anthropomorphism has manifested itself in everything from our advertising (the Budweiser Frogs and their canine ancestor Spuds McKenzie come to mind) to our pornography (and Wikipedia is helpful here, too, with a cheerful glossary of terms including "furvert" and "plushophilia"). From Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat to Marilyn Manson's delightfully absurd "Tainted Love" video (featuring a hilarious hip-hop incarnation of Manson in bed with a number of scantily clad hotties with large, creepy-cute plush animal masks), this imagery and these themes keep recurring in the stories we tell ourselves. Many people I know like to boast that they feel more sadness at the passing of an animal than a fellow human; could it be that it is easier for a reader to sympathize with and root for a character who seems on some primal level more pure or innocent than we poor, flawed humans? Do we secretly long to carry ourselves with the quiet dignity of some of our favorite animals? Or am I perhaps reading too much into a phenomenon which might just as likely boil down to our shared bias for shit that's cute?

Whatever the social, spiritual or sexual significance of this most unlikely yet most enduring of hybrid genres, David Petersen's Mouse Guard, with its well-paced action, subtle and inviting characterization and simultaneously cute and thrilling artwork, is a worthy addition to its history. And while that may seem like faint praise in a genre populated with pizza-scarfing, catch-phrase-spewing turtles and bad feline porn, Mouse Guard would be a standout in any genre, and in any medium.

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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