Time builds itself painlessly around them.

Heavy Metal Magazine – Vol 1 no 1  April 1977, Vol 1 no 2  May 1977

The first issue of Heavy Metal is shakily put together by the offices of National Lampoon. Equal parts translated reprints from Metal Hurlant, American underground comics, and new work, which is how the book would eventually move forward throughout the years. The first issue isn’t quite sure of the tone it wants to set or the kind of material they’d be interested in publishing. Metal Hurlant had a very vague definition of “science fiction”, one that the uncredited introductory editorial at the start of the issue pokes fun at. Heavy Metal is just a name for the book, and the material inside may have an emphasis on science fiction it is by no means a collection of science fiction or fantasy. Instead it a showcase of the kind of talent and the kinds of comics that would become the magazine’s standard – here in the first issue are Moebius, Druillet, Corben, Mezieres, and Vaughn Bode. All make their first appearances to herald a defining run on the series where for YEARS in every issue, at least one story was made by an absolute genius of the medium, even if it was a two page gag strip.

Heavy Metal issue one leads with Richard Corben’s “DEN”, which may be the most RICHARD CORBEN of Richard Corben comics, and sets the tone for nearly all Heavy Metal comics to come – in terms of violence, nudity, language, visual style and approach. This first segment of DEN is the story of an idealized man appearing out of the void to stand naked in the desert, narrating his own uncertainty, and stumbling onto an idealized naked priestess and a hideous lizard man, both also alone in the desert, and he deals with both in heated monologue of bodily lust/disgust and lushly illustrated in Corben’s neon airbrushed figures, which are exaggerated in a strange but logical way from American superhero and adventure comics. Corben’s weird, personal and immediately grabbing work is immediately followed by a throwaway 3-page dick joke by Metal Hurlant co-founder Phillipe Druillet. Druillet’s intro to the US is a gigantic alien humping a spaceship and his rabid sperm attacking, stripping, and impregnating a lone astronaut. Druillet’s work is characterized by immense, totemic images, and his art in Metal Hurlant was an interesting counterpart to Moebius. Whereas Moebius’ art is about tactility, Druillet’s surfaces are all craggily physical and all the faces stoic, every inch of his pages dripping in lines and flecks of ink.  In the first Heavy Metal, Druillet’s the first humor stip, puncturing whatever tone established by Corben’s preceding story. This would be the mode of the series going forward, weirdness and humor and darkness never staying consistent. In the next issue Corben would continue DEN but  Druillet would follow with a piece that was mythic, epic, and morbid. There was no stability to be expected and none given.

Jean-Claude Mezieres, known for his gorgeous vistas and ability to create a huge breadth of tone using character design and expression, whose work is kind equal parts Jack Davis and Alex Raymond, contributes a nasty little piece of social satire called Space Punks. Wherein a young punk in a bombed out city is busted by the cops, drafted into the army, sent to a senseless war, made into a killer, and returned home as a fat gun toting family man to the town he used to be a punk in. It is mean, sharp, and illustrated in this absolutely gorgeous lush style full of starship armadas and Viet Nam imagery. American Underground artist Vaughn Bode’s contribution to the issue, Sunpot, is indicative of Bode’s approach to his comics – his story opens with a series of sketched character introductions, detailed ship schematics, and a logo featuring a pot leaf before the first page of comics. For Bode, establishing the concept, characters and world in advanced helped his stories feel more complex than what is ever established in the story pages. Bode’s other great trick was that instead of having word balloons in the panels, he’d have them outside of the panels, so the images never felt eclipsed by his sometimes verbose pages. The first segment of Sunpot is kind of dumb with some weed jokes and nudity hiding the harangued, bickering tone of the characters.

The show, so to speak, in this issue is Moebius’ first Arzach story. Moebius is very much the single artist most identified with Heavy Metal, and more than that one of the five or so most profound and significant artists who ever drew a comic book. Arzach was a project that Moebius would return to decades later, near the end of his career. His introduction to english speakers was ironically with silent comics, the first of four Arzach pieces that appeared in Heavy Metal is a solid statement of purpose for the entire magazine as a whole. Arzach’s most drastic shift, even in the company of like-minded material here, is just how much heft the images carry with them. The story – a man, Arzach, flies on a pterodactyl among stone ruins, sees a woman undressing, is threatened by a man, he hangs man from a gigantic dinosaur skeleton, and Arzach returns to find the woman isn’t human, and flies away again. The execution, and delineation of line, is what moves Arzach from a poetic narrative to a game changer. Down to the clearly dashed-off panel borders, there is a sense from the first image that everything in Arzach (and all of Jean Giraud’s work as Moebius) is all made from the same hand. How every detail of every rock and fold of clothing and curve of bone is one and the same, and yet how wildly different that can be even though everything is of the same hand. Every element of the page and panel and line is all Moebius. The faces and bodies, the clouds, everything is complete. There is a freeness in the storytelling that runs parallel to the denseness of every image, allowing Moebius to have fun with page-to-page expectations — the dog faced woman, the hanged man making lewd gestures, Arzach’s expressions — there is a stream of consciousness feel to the story even as every panel feels deliberate. The end result is 8 pages that devastate, and a watershed moment for everything that would come after it hit our shores.

The second issue of Heavy Metal leads with a bizarre Jacques Tardi cold war satire piece, the majority of its dialog being spoken in untranslated Russian. Tardi’s art is clean and kind of goofy here, with teutonic people and squiggly-eyed robots and monsters, and spaceships shaped like hair-dryers. Two Russian cosmonauts innocently make love, a French space pirate and his purple monster minions (speaking like Clockwork Orange thugs) wreck their ship, kill them, eat an alien baby, and the alien baby expands and destroy their spaceship, and the Soviets back on earth react. Who knows what is said, it’s all in Russian, but it’s pretty obvious what’s being said, and the message of smash and grab capitalism is visible from space.

Druillet (as writer) and Dominque Vallet (as “Alexis”) continue their serial The Adventures of Yrris from the first issue, and next to such bizarre and revolutionary material, it reads like exactly what it is — which is an adventure serial. A well delivered and surprisingly vicious one, especially in this episode, full of bloodletting and orgies. It feels out of place here, though. The same criticism can be applied to The Conquering Armies from Metal Hurlant co-founder Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Jean-Claude Gal, though the tone of that serial feels at least a little more in tune with the tenor of Heavy Metal.

The second installments of Bode’s Sunpot far outshines the first issue’s, which is full of incident and characters that it shows how slight the previous one was. Here there’s chaos and arguments and gunfights and tit jokes, and it’s all so charming you ignore that it’s really dumb. Bode’s art is all small figures and curves and chunky sound effects, and his animated expressions turn his short action sequences into delights. Chantal Montellier’s ongoing series of shorts 1996 is represented here with the bleakest, darkest joke, where a beautiful woman on a television coaxes a staff of miners into suicide. Until Ranxerox, 1996 is the closest to 2000AD that Heavy Metal ever got. Just gallows humor.

The second chapter of Corben’s DEN is kind of a mixed bag, where the idealization of the character is explained away as the result of a young nerd’s travel through dimensions after finding machine schematics in a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Which is a bit of a wish fulfillment clunker that frontloads some of the weird anxieties apparent in the story. But it also features a near perfect fight sequence between DEN and a Lizard Man, choreographed in such a way that it’s a clinic for anyone wanting to do a two-person comics fight scene that doesn’t feel like a Kirby rip-off. The bodies move with weight to them, the impacts hurt, and it’s paced perfectly. You can tell that Corben knows what he’s doing when a 9-panel grid of the fight is broken in the last two panels by a reaction shot from the naked priestess seen earlier, and her expression is one of boredom, of impatience. And it ends with the hero getting knocked out! The short ends on a really gorgeous page of the priestess riding a dragon, too. So I guess too well made for the flashback to kill it.

Caza’s contribution here is kind of the prototypical Heavy Metal comic. More famous for his science fiction book covers than his comics, Caza’s story is completely silent, poetic, and stars a laboriously detailed naked woman and some vague alien fruit impregnating her in an idyllic swampland. Nearly every issue of Heavy Metal has a story like this in it, there’s probably one in the latest issue. It’s great to read a Caza comic, though.

Moebius’ second Arzach story is monumental. Entitled Harzak it is, once again, a silent comic where Arzach soars along an endless landscape on his pterodactyl. Here, he is flying over a horizon-less sea of living cilia. We see it is alive as it consumes his faltering packhorse (or pack pterodactyl), and Arzach battles a gigantic red ape like creature atop ruins, tricking it to fall to its death simply so his steed could have a spot to rest. Like the first Arzach, the special thing is not the story but the way Moebius delivers it. This time, there is still the gorgeous uniformity of Moebius’ hand in each element of the page, from the organelles that blanket the earth to the red clouds that blot out the sky. The pages become more ornamental – the layouts now more specifically designed and sometimes framed, as influenced by poster design as comics pages. But the most drastic change from Heavy Metal #1 is the nuance of expression in the faces and bodies – you see the pterodactyl is tired in wide shot, you see the thoughts run through Arzach’s mind, his mood shifting from anger to desperation to unblinking focus, and the animalistic rage and fear and confusion in the red giant. The final page, metronomic-ally counting down the sunrise to the death of the giant, is as sly and sad an ending as you could ever hope for in this story.

Where the previous issue went to Moebius, this issue is clearly Druillet’s assertion of dominance, as nothing else here is on the level of his piece, Agorn, even overshadowing the 2nd Harzak chapter. It’s the Druillet show, as Agorn is a Bergman film dropped into a Clint Eastwood marathon, it’s so stark a change up. The opening page is dominated by a negative white space and a single, page-length panel of a corpse seated in a throne atop a mountain. The next page zooms in, with two panels, we see it is a carefully hewn throne and sword, and this is the body of a warrior. We see the sunken crags of his face. The figure begins to dominate the page. The third page, a series of three closeups as the face stirs and revives from something clearly dead to something living. Agorn is awoken by the guardian of the world to battle demons and relive his error in life throughout eternity, doomed forever. Druillet draws his characters as not quite human, giving his story more weight. This is more of a legend than a story,  of Agorn being mocked by his brother for loving a servant, the servant being callously given to a magician to sacrifice, and Agorn killing and mutilating his entire family and court while pledging his soul to demons, and finding himself damned to relive the experience again and again for eternity. Druillet’s pages somehow come off as more massive than other works on the same page size — these aren’t really vistas or obscenely detailed, the pages instead feel ancient and totemic. The control of the pacing at the start of the story lends the splashes and double page spreads a sense of unparalleled scope. The “Agorn comes to KILL” spread is shaded like a sculpted altar more than a comics page. The damned eyes peering from the bottom of the spread is cosmic like a Jim Starlin page, but also like woodcut images of Satan. The muddy, impressionistic violence that follows is a foregone conclusion, and has a inevitability and sadness that just isn’t thee in any of these other stories. This is a tragedy, and a parable, and a warning.

In these first two issues of Heavy Metal, a tone was set and a clear presence of something entirely alien to American comics was announced. Moebius and Druillet, and all the rest, were suddenly here and not growing but fully formed. Alien intelligences making contact, for all intents and purposes, and their fingerprints turned out to be permanent.

– Sean Witzke, June 2012

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2 Responses to Time builds itself painlessly around them.

  1. Pingback: Early Issues of Heavy Metal Reassessed | Technoccult

  2. L. Toad says:

    Totally agree with your assessments, especially of Druillet and Moebius;
    two absolutely brilliant artists. For me, Heavy Metal was pretty much as
    necessary as food till about 1985, then things started to decay. But to
    this day there is at least one really good issue a year, though only a
    small handful of artists scale the heights of the 1977-1985 era.

    Very sad that Moebius recently died, but at least we still have Druillet
    and Caza.

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