After a year of looking for the right contractor, my wife and I finally got bookshelves custom-built for our library. In addition to the narcotic effect usually generated by the potential of naked storage space, I was also buzzed about having room to store my father’s collection of Heavy Metal. Just the idea of having this formative collection in my home made me deliriously happy.
The family narrative is that my father had a subscription to the magazine since issue 2 or 3. I also like to assert that exposure to this archive of magazines has provided an open-minded approach to what comics are and can be. One or both of these may be true, but the physical evidence supports the first story: he bought every single issue from April 1977 through sometime in the early 1990s. It’s hard to pin down the end of the subscription, because the point at which I started reading it regularly was at about the same time and some of those issues were in my collection, not his. My personal collection spans most of the 21st century, which leaves a sizeable gap in the late 1990s–which my cousin has offered to augment from his collection.
[ad#longpost]A very small handful of the issues are missing covers. The second anniversary issue’s cover also has an unfortunate bunch of scribbling that was probably done by me, aged five. Aside from that and some random loose pages, the collection is in remarkably good shape. Sometime in the mid-1980s, my mother bought several of the commemorative binders that were being sold by the magazine (with or without a complete run of 1978 or 1979, in one ad), which accounts for the good condition of the archive.
There are two different batches of binders, based on the material that the holding rod is made from. The rods are a silvery material from 1977 to 1981 and a coppery material from 1982 through 1985. Based on the evidence, I’d say the first batch was archived in 1982 and the rest in 1986. At the end of 1985, Heavy Metal went from a monthly saddle-bound magazine to a perfect-bound quarterly. The quarterly phase lasted until 1989 when it went back to monthly, but it remains perfect bound to this day. The binders are not optimal for perfect-bound material, so I’ll have to figure out a different way to collect those issues.
I have very vivid memories of the binders, lined up on the top shelf of the family library, white monoliths of information that promised worlds of entertainment. Having them in hand is like taking a step backwards into my family’s history–a batch of magazines from mid-1982 onward have our home address on the brown paper wrapper. I can track when our family moved cross-country and when we moved into the home that my mother still lives in. The wrapper for December 1985 announces the new quarterly format.
One of the things I have discovered from interacting with my father in this past decade is that he is a collector. Significantly, my father offered to let me have this particular collection as an early inheritance. He loves sharing and showing off the things that he collects and this was a great thing to receive from him. The material in the collection is important and worthy of scrutiny, but it is also arguably the most important and best memory I have of my father, and it feels very adult to have the responsibility of stewardship.
This past weekend, I picked up the collection from him. When I got it home, I spent three hours cataloging and rearranging things so that magazines I found out of order were stored in the proper sequence. In addition to the valuable early issues, I found other treasures: a few Moebius books and a copy of Love and Rockets #1 from Fantagraphics (second printing, 1982).
When I was younger, my first real foray into the entire collection was in search of breasts. This time, I’m happy to report that I’m actually excited about the prospect of diving into the archive because it means I can read The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. Going through the first nine years, it’s easy to spot when the magazine really started to sell itself as pornographic material (check out the cover from December 1980–there on right), even though the stories continued at a very high level of quality for at least the next decade. I also unearthed a lot of memories of half-read storylines – Rock Opera, I’m Age, The Bus and Galactic Geographic.
Even better, I know the field of artists well enough to recognize more than half the names in the table of contents of issue 3: Druillet, Schuiten, Corben, Tardi, Moebius and Bode. Other creators jumped out as I rearranged the binders: Mezieres, Manara, Crepax, Moreno, Chaykin, Steranko and Bilal. Reading through the online guide, I see that Bissette and Totleben showed up in the late 1970s, along with Wrightson, Eisner and Neal Adams. There are also classics that I’m very much looking forward to re-reading: The Hunting Party, Cody Starbuck, Polonius and Valerian.
Of course, when I started researching past this material, I expected more French comics to be like what I remembered from Heavy Metal growing up. When I got the Belgian and Parisian comic stores, I was amused to discover that it was like listening to punk and expecting all British music to sound just like that. Heavy Metal is a snapshot in time, a great window into a time and place in both French and Anglo-Saxon comics. It has become such an institution (and clichÃ©) these days that it’s easy to forget that it was meant to be revolutionary–the creators were literally rebelling against the French comics establishment in style, tone and subject matter.
French comics experienced a seismic shift during the Metal Hurlant years. Anglo-Saxon comics were provided with an unique insight into the outcome and were influenced by the exposure. It is possible to argue that it was the most successful example of European comics penetrating an American market to date.
And, of course, it was the place that Moebius got good and got famous at the same time. And that’s always worth celebrating.