Now there’s a nice straightforward title! I was originally going to review The Shadow #2, but Diamond Distributors are a bunch of failcakes and shorted my friendly neighborhood comic shop. I was then going to post some creative writing which has finally unstalled itself, but frankly it’s not quite ready for prime time (even less so than the stuff I do put up here). So, musings and excelsior ensue!
In the course (such as there is ever one) of today’s ramblings, I will treat with the subject of Heavy Metal magazine. I’m not going to go too in-depth on the history of the magazine itself, as honestly that’s just expertise I don’t really have. Rather, this is about my relationship with said magazine over the years. There was a time when Heavy Metal was a nerd-culture institution and an almost universal part of a young geek’s transition to *ahem*, manhood. This doesn’t really seem to be quite the case anymore, though. I’d argue that taking a cross section of nerds my age would likely reveal me to be fairly exceptional in having gone through “the Heavy Metal phase.” For one reason or another, I have for most of my life been steeped in the ephemera of the generations immediately preceding my own. Some of this is due to having a young aunt whose popular culture I precociously absorbed, and some is simply due to the fact that my parents had me fairly young by contemporary standards. As such, the debris of misspent youth most parents have tucked away by the time their kids are properly cogent was more readily accessible during my own formative years.
It was in this way that as a bawdy preteen I happened upon a small stack of Heavy Metal magazines, crushed beneath the weight of old issues of Popular Mechanics and a pair of Dungeons and Dragons books (which would ultimately have perhaps an even more profound impact). These Heavy Metals were of the vintage stripe. Crumbling pages of Moebius and Giger. Also, you know *ahem*, women. Also things that ostensibly weren’t human but ‘looked’ an awful lot like women, at least in the areas a kid like me most cared about. Around the same time I was also introduced the eponymous 1981 film, but at this point I can’t honestly recall which came first. I’ll admit, at the time I thought the movie was pretty much the coolest shit ever. These days though I can only really consume it if contemporaneously consuming some quantity of alcohol.
My enjoyment of those older magazine issues however, continued to be profound. It was strong genre material that, for whatever other faults it might have had, resolutely refused to pull its punches. By way of illustration, the story of “Den” (also adapted into the film version) is really just another riff on John Carter of Mars. However, what sets it apart from the pack is its fearlessness in portraying the more lurid elements of Burroughs’ mythology that most other visual representations of the same tend to ignore or back away from. As a nerd coming into his own, this was exactly the sort of thing I had been searching for. Given the circumstances, you can understand my enthusiasm when later in high school I obtained a copy of the current publication. Upon reading it I was… strangely disappointed. “Strangely” I say, in that while all the lurid elements were there in full force, perhaps even moreso than I remembered, the undergirding stories were gauzy and flimsy, the barest excuse to bare skin. That was really what it had become: just a skin mag. I was somewhat deflated in my enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, about a year ago or so I decided on a lark to give Heavy Metal another try, for old times sake. These were also incidentally the first issues I ever obtained completely legally as a theoretically adult person, which was sort of a milestone in itself that had to be reached. I was… once again disappointed, but in a surprising way. The shift in the magazine I had noticed a number of years earlier now seemed to have been completely reversed, all the way to the other end of the spectrum. Gritty science-fiction still played across an illustrated environment, and with greater depth than I had noticed from the magazine’s intervening years. The stories and comics were oddly flat though. Some violence and sexuality was there, certainly. It felt restrained though. Unnaturally tame.
It was in pondering the conundrum of Heavy Metal’s shifting focus and loss of it earlier mystique that I happened on what I consider the reason behind its institutional decline: graphic novels and trade paperbacks. Over the last decade the publication and ready availability of these writ large comic books has skyrocketed, and in concert with an overall “maturing” of the medium, not to mention the rise of adult oriented imprints like Vertigo and MAX, has effectively undermined Heavy Metal’s one time monopoly. The once unique combination of content and presentation that Heavy Metal pioneered has now become so proliferated that it ceases to be exceptional. The “Heavy Metal phase” I mentioned earlier still exists, it’s just that most of those who go through it nowadays don’t spend much of it actually reading Heavy Metal…