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Heavy Metal Magazine: Looking Back on “Phase One”

Heavy Metal: December 1978 Cover

Since I inherited my father’s collection of Heavy Metal last autumn, I’ve been working my way through the magazines, scanning 12 pages of each and posting them, one a day. While I have been enjoying the primary content, I’ve also been paying attention to the ephemera: advertising and editorials. The advertising, in particular, is a great snapshot of the time period and provides incredible insight into what various advertisers thought of the demographic of Heavy Metal (not necessarily what the demographic actually was).

I just finished reading the 32nd issue (November of 1979) and I noticed that it was the last issue put together by the original editors, Sean Kelly and Valerie Marchant. Ted White, the successful editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic–two magazines dedicated to publishing cutting edge science fiction and fantasy stories–became the new editor, taking the magazine in a slightly different direction. This change in editorial guidance made a perfect point to stop and look back on the first two and three-quarters years of the magazine.

[ad#longpost]Ironically, the single best issue of the magazine to that point was the October 1979 issue, which was dedicated to adaptations of and stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. This single issue featured work by Moebius, Philippe Druillet, Steve Bissette, Yves Chaland, Luc Cornillon, Alain Voss, Frank Margerin, Walt Simonson, Alberto Breccia and Serge Clerc (among others). Although this was a very strong issue, not every issue from this time period measured up to this standard; several were just so-so and one issue barely featured any art by Moebius at all.

In addition to these artists, this first period featured the works of Jacque Tardi, Claude “Alias” Lacroix, Philippe “Caza” Cazamayou, Dominique He, Sergio Macedo and Chantal Montellier, Enki Bilal, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Jean-Claude Forest, Jean-Michel Nicollet, Jean-Claude Mézières and François Schuiten.

American (and English-speaking) creators that appeared during this era included Vaughn Bode, Richard Corben, Paul Kirchner, Angus McKie, Howard Chaykin (referred to as “Howie Chaykin in the 2nd anniversary editorial), Rick Veitch, John Totleben, Todd Klein, Larry Elmore, Jim Starlin, Archie Goodwin, Len Wein, Gray Morrow, Trina Robbins, Karl Kofoed, Charles Vess, Dan O’Bannon and Michael William Kaluta. In addition to the comic strips, there were adaptations of stories by Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon.

By issue 5, all of Moebius’s Arzack material had been exhausted and he was well into his new serial, The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. Richard Corben wrapped up Den by issue 13 and started an Arabian Nights story with collaborator Jan Strnad (with whom he is still working). Philippe Druillet’s color work started appearing in issue 11, with some spectacular images that overshadowed his black and white work–which reached a peak in issue 9, an oversized issue containing the entirety of his epic “Vuzz,” the first time Heavy Metal had run a whole story of such length in one issue.

Dawn of the Dead, appearing in Heavy Metal
An excerpt of the novelization of Dawn of the Dead appeared in Heavy Metal, October 1978.

In addition to the primary content, there were features on various films that Heavy Metal felt were worthy of support. Dawn of the Dead got some attention and Alien got several issues of promotion, including concept artwork that included Moebius designs and an illustrated adaptation by Walt Simonson and Archie Goodwin. These features for Alien bled over into ads for merchandise, including a baseball cap from the Nostromo–the ship that Alien takes place on.

Advertising was very important to the look and feel of Heavy Metal during this period. Heavy Metal ran ads for collections of stories that they had serialized in the infancy of the magazine and several of the features that were being serialized were backed up against ads for that same content in collected edition–often touted as limited edition collector’s items. The second issue actually contains an ad claiming that the first issue is a collector’s item and the claim grows as the magazine gains traction, establishing the legend of the magazine and something that everyone wants to be reading.

Ted Nugent Heavy Metal ad

By November of 1979, Heavy Metal was selling in excess of 200,000 issues a month. Naturally, this attracted advertisers that wanted to get their products in front of its readers. Towards the beginning, this took the form of stereo equipment and liquor ads. Later, bands like Queen, Styx, Devo, Ted Nugent, Molly Hatchett, The Cars and even previously unreleased material by Jimi Hendrix showed up. There were also ads for art books, posters, science fiction book clubs, Starlog magazine and even an underground comics publication that featured Sergio Aragones, Joe Kubert and Dick Giordano (among others).

Despite the tagline that “[Heavy Metal] is better than being stoned”–pulled from the letter column–and numerous drug references, Heavy Metal did not see actual drug paraphernalia advertisements until February of 1979, when Bambu rolling papers took out a full-page ad, complete with cut-out mail-order coupon. Club papers followed up the next month and subsequent months saw multi-cultural models telling readers about the awesomeness of JOB rolling papers.

Heavy Metal during this period is best known for incredible visuals presented in new and interesting ways that don’t really hold together as coherent stories. It would be nice to chalk that up to a translation error, but the truth is that just as many English-speakers presented stories that rely heavily on dream logic as the Europeans did. There are some great stories that do hold up and some very pointed problems with the overlap between sexuality and violence.

One of the main themes that runs through the entire oeuvre of the stories as presented is the apocalypse motif. Many of the stories are about life after the collapse or end with the world being destroyed–contextually, these were written during the height of the Cold War, when mutually assured destruction was a common concern.

Tarot card and Tower from Heavy Metal by Kirchner

The other major theme of this period is women (often queens) who walk around with their breasts hanging out–which suggests that most of these stories occur in warmer climates where commonplace nudity is actually helpful. The worst offender by far is not Richard Corben (although he does feature a woman wearing a modesty hood so we can’t see her hair, but is otherwise naked), but Grey Morrow’s “Orion”.

I’m looking forward to reading the next phase of Heavy Metal, the year that Ted White was the editor. One of the things that I’m going to be watching for is how the publication changed with the leadership. At this point, I can saw definitively that collectors who want the pure, uncut viewpoint of the original editorial team could do a lot worse than hunting for these issues from the seventies. There’s a lot of weird stuff in there, but more than enough material to make the search worthwhile.

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