Throwback Thursday: The Historical Impact of Heavy Metal

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important/interesting/fun or all of the above.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I try to base my columns on certain themes, such as, “feel-good films,” “winter,” “The cinematic adaptations of Philip K. Dick,” etc. Occasionally, I will have a random film, but having a theme allows me to focus my genre love and gives me the ability to think out my columns well in advance. My left, goal-oriented brain really appreciates this. If you haven’t noticed, the theme recently has actually been “The Alphabet” and I’ve been trying to share a genre film from each letter of the alphabet. Last week was “G” with Gattaca. This week, I was originally going to extol the virtues of Heavy Metal, the adult animated sci-fi/fantasy anthology film from 1981. So, I re-watched it. As much as my adolescent, horndog mind loves it, it is a hard film to recommend. The majority of the animation comes across as extremely shoddy, the gratuitous T&A seems incredibly out of place in today’s society, and some of the stories don’t really hold up well unless you’ve been taking medicinal herbs. However—there’s always a however—it does have some great things going for it when you look at it from a historical perspective and those are what I want to throw out there for your internet reading enjoyment.

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Heavy Metal theatrical poster

Heavy Metal, the magazine, is based on the French sci-fi/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant. Metal Hurlant started in 1975 and Heavy Metal hit the States shortly thereafter in 1977. It’s been published monthly/bi-monthly (with a period of a few years in the late ’80s running quarterly) consistently since then. It brought a lot of European and underground artists and writers to the public consciousness, including Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Moebius, and Milo Manara. It originally brought an independent ethos (think R. Crumb), mixed with European sensibilities (think “tasteful” nudity), and splashed with American interests (think gratuitous nudity, particularly of the female variety).

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Shown here – not nudity, but Taarna’s outfit still isn’t practical for fighting.

Over the course of its run, Heavy Metal has brought about single-issue stories as well as serialized tales. The great thing about an anthology book is you get a lot of diversity in terms of art and storytelling. The downside with anthologies is you never know what you’re going to get. I admit, there’s not a lot of anthology books out there that deliver brilliance from the top to the bottom; they can be very hit or miss. (One anthology book that I absolutely loved from cover to cover was Once Upon a Time Machine—unique takes on classic fairy tales set in different times/places. Check it out from your local comic book shop.) When it first started publishing, there wasn’t anything like it for adults on the newsstands. Comics were all about superheroes. That has changed over the years and I would hazard a guess that we haven’t seen this much diversity on the comic walls ever. If you want sci-fi, fantasy, detective noir, camping girls, westerns, etc., they are all there for the taking. There’s still a place for Heavy Metal on the shelves and a niche that is being served. It’s even coming up on a ground-breaking 280th issue and they’re getting a new editor-in-chief, Grant Morrison. It’s a great time to jump on the Heavy Metal bandwagon and see what Morrison comes up with to bring us.

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Teaser image for Heavy Metal #280

But, I digress; let’s get back to the film. In the late ’70s/early ’80s, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in animation on the big screen. You had Disney and that was pretty much it. If you were an adult and liked animation (cartoons), there wasn’t really anything that catered to more mature tastes. It had been almost a decade since Ralph Bakshi’s take on Fritz the Cat and that hadn’t been very well received. Bring in Leonard Mogel (publisher of the Heavy Metal magazine) and Ivan Reitman who decided to make that difference. Taking some popular stories/characters from the magazine and adding in a couple other stories and a framing device, they made an R-rated animated film that mixed sci-fi, fantasy, and a little bit of noir.

Avid Heavy Metal magazine readers got to see some of their favorite characters, such as Captain Sternn and Den, on the big screen with a blaring (in the good sense) heavy metal soundtrack with Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, and more. Getting in the way-back machine for context, this was the first crest of heavy metal music hitting the mainstream and it was timed perfectly. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission. It took a long time for the film to be released officially to the home video market because in 1981 folks just weren’t thinking of home video rights and licensing. It was all about the theatrical release. Luckily, rights were sorted out by the mid ’90s and the film and soundtrack were both accessible.

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There’s a noir story set in a futuristic New York.

To this day, there aren’t a lot of animated anthologies, let alone animated anthologies that cater to less kid-friendly material. So historically, Heavy Metal definitely earned its place and can be recommended from that angle, but unless you’re an adolescent boy from the ’80s, there are better animations and sci-fis out there. I would recommend The Animatrix for an animated anthology. There’s even a live-action anthology series based on the French title, called Metal Hurlant Chronicles.

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They’re judging me because I still like the film, but I can’t recommend it.

Heavy Metal can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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