We are pleased to welcome comic creator R.M. Rhodes to Need Coffee. He will be serving as our resident French comicsologist. Here, he starts off with perhaps the most recognizable imported product…
The other day, my co-worker asked me “What’s that?” when I mentioned Twin Peaks, so I’m certain that there are readers who don’t know the history of Heavy Metal–only the legends. Some of those who have followed up on the rumors and picked up the current incarnation of the book are perhaps wondering what all the fuss is about.
In 1977, the first issue of Heavy Metal hit newsstands (in the days before the direct market). Over the course of the next decade and a half, it presented translated editions of many contemporary BD (bandes dessinÃ©e–basically what the French call comics) in a serialized anthology format. This was standard printing practice for French comics at the time: stories were serialized in magazines first and the most popular stories were collected and resold as albums.
For the first time, French comics really broke on American shores. Some material had made it over in the past–Tintin and Asterix, mostly–but it was the first widespread commercial push that BD had on these shores. Some of us are still wandering along the high tide line, looking for what washed ashore.
What is very interesting about Heavy Metal is that it came from a French magazine called Metal Hurlant (“screaming metal”) that was itself an experiment in producing BD that were utterly unlike anything that was being produced at a professional level at the time. It was not the only experimental BD magazine in production at the time, but it was the only one being translated into English and sold to an international audience.
The experimental BD at the time were very much in the same vein as American underground cartoonists and comix makers: reacting to the times and producing material that spoke to them (and of them) as people in a turbulent, weird world. The principle difference is that the Metal Hurlant crowd were in an environment that allowed for professional publication of subversive and experimental BD.
Along the way, the adult sensibilities of Heavy Metal influenced an entire generation of comic book readers and creators. In Europe, magazines like Metal Hurlant offered a maturation of the BD, which the comic buying public wholeheartedly embraced. In America, Heavy Metal was eventually purchased by Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
If you are lucky enough to run across a pile of old issues of Heavy Metal, do yourself a favor and look through them. If you see anything with a cover date before 1990, pick it up.
Just keep in mind that reading back issues of Heavy Metal from that time period does not make you an expert on (or even a fan of) French comics. Instead, it’s like discovering Yes and deciding that you like all kinds of English music, when the truth is that you really like Prog Rock. More contemporary creators like Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and David B have very different sensibilities and so do older creators like Rene Goscinny, Pierre Christin and Peyo.
It’s all good stuff, but Heavy Metal is generally reckoned to be better than most. Which is where the reputation comes from. And now you know.