Comics

'Saga #38' Is Devastatingly Dramatic In the Best Possible Way

An epic, exotic space opera delivers a dramatic impact for the ages.


Fiona Staples

Saga

Publisher: Image
Price: $2.99
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Publication date: 2016-09-28
Amazon

When it comes to epic space operas, an entire generation of sci-fi fans is at a disadvantage. They live in a world where it seems that the only games in town are either Star Wars or Star Trek. Between the box office returns of Star Trek: Beyond and the glut of toys from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there's this flawed impression that there's no room for more space operas. Brian K. Vaughan is out to prove that notion wrong and Saga keeps finding ways to reinforce that proof.

There are few non-superhero-basic stories that garner all the right praise for all the right reasons. Saga proves that great comics need not involve superhero civil wars, constant retcons and reboots, or sterility plagues. It can simply be an epic journey between two lovers from different worlds. That it occurs in an alien world with exotic creatures, including an entire race of humanoids with TVs for heads, is just a nice bonus.

Saga is unique in its structure in that it undergoes various twists and turns. There are times when it focuses on certain characters and side-plots more than others, but resists the temptation to create a spin-off series that would further complicate the narrative. That's a temptation that Marvel and DC Comics are all too eager to succumb to these days. Some plots, however, resonate more than others and help bring out the best in Saga.

The narrative of Saga #38 takes it a step further by setting up a new dimension of drama and capping it off with the kind of emotional gut punch that lingers for weeks. Saga gains much of its strength from heavy drama. Whether it's Marko and Alana being separated from their daughter or adorable furry creatures getting horribly maimed, Vaughan makes a concerted effort to leave a dramatic scar on the audience. The scar left by Saga #38 is sure to fester for quite some time.

The stage for this impact is set with a familiar situation. Marko and Alana are on the run again, trying to protect their daughter, Hazel, from a long list of unsavory and exotic characters. They end up stranded on Phang, a comet that also happens to be one of the many war zones in this exotic world. In a series where trees fly and TVs count as heads, this setting feels perfectly appropriate.

Like many other warzones in Saga, this one has its share of civilians turned refugees. It's easy to sympathize with these characters and not just because the real world has its share of refugee issues. These refugees also happen to be a race of small, furry woodland-like creatures with the sad eyes of a panda. Even the most ardent xenophobe can't deny the impact of such inherent cuteness.

The presence of cuddly, furry creatures who also happen to be war refugees add some new dynamics to the narrative. They don't just become part of Alana and Marko's struggle, they convey a powerful sentiment, helping those ravaged by war. Marko frames it as a lesson to his daughter about helping others, but it's a lesson that everyone of any age can appreciate.

In addition to conveying the real-world lessons that too few heed, Saga #38 uses this new situation to develop Hazel in an important way. For a good chunk of Saga's narrative, she's just the adorable half-breed child stuck between two worlds trying to tear her family apart. Like every adorable child, though, there will be times when that youthful purity gives way to being a little brat.

Hazel, who finally makes some new friends with the refugees, lets this moment come at the worst possible time. As many kids learn at some point in their lives, making new friends can sometimes drive old friends away. In this case, that old friend is Izabel, who has been her ghost / babysitter since she was a baby. This helps set up the dramatic impact that makes Saga #38 a true testament to its admittedly bloated genre.

What happens to Izabel is very much a "Luke, I am your father" type moment, albeit from a different angle. There's no bitter fight or epic light-sabre battle. Instead, there's a tragedy in play, one that begins innocently enough and then goes horribly wrong. It gains even greater weight when Izabel makes it clear how loyal she is to Marko, Alana, and their family. She credits them with showing her a universe that she never got to see in life. That makes what happens to her truly devastating in terms of drama.

The impact isn't just felt by the audience. It's felt by Hazel, too. It's very much a shared impact, one that preys on the connections that these characters have made with one another. It lacks the gratuitous violence and bold callousness that Game of Thrones uses to make an impact. What it lacks in blood though, Saga #38 more than makes up for in heart.

That heart is, by far, the greatest strength of Saga #38 and Saga as a whole. There are other elements at work within the narrative, but some of them are muted. Side-plots involving Gwendolyn and The Will don't progress by much, but at the very least, their presence reaffirms their relevance. It ensures that they are still part of a larger narrative that's hard to keep up with at times, but that's appropriate because the promise of more dramatic impacts makes the added scrutiny feel worth it.

If the true success of any space opera is its ability to inject heart into exotic sci-fi settings, then Saga is already wildly successful. It makes it so easy to develop an attachment and fondness for each character. Saga #38 further supplements these elements by making it feel personal. It may not be personal enough to inspire sequels, prequels, and its own rides at Disney World, but it's well on its way.

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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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Music

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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