Part One: A Foundation of Metal
The 1960s saw the emergence of a science fiction new wave. The concept of science fiction fandom as an organized population was really beginning to emerge. There was a host of fans, authors, and filmmakers taking the loosely-defined genre beyond where it had been before. Fans of science fiction were becoming creators of science fiction, and the psychedelic imagery and anti-authoritarian sentiments of the counterculture were increasingly pervasive in new works of science fiction. As the ’60s became the 1970s, the science fiction new wave mingled with another new crop of fans and creators, resulting in the sprawling, often surreal style of science fiction that was my earliest exposure to the genre. While I was too young to actually grasp much of what was being said and done, the aesthetic of that era buried itself into my childhood subconscious, emerging years later to color my tastes and influences.
Those early years were ones of impressions more than remembrances. I recall a general sort of ambiance and style, but very little in the way of details. When I was old enough, I began deciphering and revisiting those impressions, and I was finally able to start exploring my obsession with the more outre, bizarre, and phantasmagorical examples of science fiction. I was spending a lot of time at this bookstore in Louisville called Hawley-Cooke. I would camp out in either the science fiction section or the magazine racks. One day, as I was flipping through the latest issue of Starlog or Omni or something, I happen to see the cover of a magazine a little bit higher up on the shelves. It was an illustration of a topless woman in a slinky loincloth, doing what I’ve since come to refer to as “the wizard finger.” She was standing next to a saber-tooth tiger and above her was a fantastic space scene. The magazine was called Heavy Metal, and I knew then and there that I had to have it.
There was just one problem: the breasts. By 1979, budding lad of the world that I was, I’d developed a healthy appreciation for nudity, but I knew that convincing anyone that a magazine cover like that could contain anything within that was appropriate for a seven-year-old would be tricky. Why, to merely get caught glancing at it would no doubt bring down the wrath of disappointed store clerks with well-trimmed beards and wire-rimmed glasses, to say nothing of what my mother might say. But it was obvious from that cover that this taboo Heavy Metal contained untold wonders meant specifically for me and me alone. And so it was that I devised a technique that would serve me and countless other shifty-eyed children for years. I glanced around to make sure the coast was clear and no one was watching. When the chance came, I grabbed the issue of Heavy Metal, quickly sliding it inside a copy of a different magazine. Shaking with the pressure of having committed such a crime — I was pretty sure you could go to jail for it — I stumbled off to a more remote corner of the sprawling store and, with it disguised by another more innocent magazine, opened my first issue of Heavy Metal.
In 1959, two French comics writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artists, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard, founded a comics magazine called Pilote. It featured stories from across the spectrum of typical pulp genres, including science fiction. The magazine’s initial popularity was built upon the foundation of a series called “Asterix le Gaulois,” being the story of a village of Gauls resisting Roman occupation. The magazine’s content expanded over the years, and in 1967, it launched one of its most successful science fiction series, writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres’ Valerian et Laureline. This was the era of fantastic European comic book adventures, with creations like Barbarella tearing up the pages while, in America, we were still saddled with the overly cheery and goofball comics that resulted from the fallout of the Comics Code Authority.
Some of Pilote‘s young sci-fi authors and artists grew to think that the magazine was too restrictive, and that the stories they wanted to tell were too dark or adult in nature to fit within the pages of the largely kid-friendly (by European standards) publication. Pilote made some attempts to change with the times, but it was never enough of a leap forward to keep this group satisfied. So in 1974, contributors Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet, and a guy named Jean Giraud but better known simply as Moebius, left Pilote and founded the publishing house Les Humanoides Associes. In 1975, they published their first book, a sci-fi and fantasy comic magazine called Metal Hurlant.
Metal Hurlant allowed the authors and artists to explore whatever extreme tickled their fancy, which meant frequent nudity and irreverent material. It gained a substantial readership and became an incubator for many of the great science fiction comic artists and writers, including not just co-founder Moebius, but also Alejandro Jodorowsky and Enki Bilal. Shortly after Metal Hurlant‘s launch, the publisher of The National Lampoon in the United States — then considered on the very cutting edge of published comedy and satire — was looking for new material to add to the portfolio. In the slush pile of hopefuls was a copy of Metal Hurlant that attracted more attention than the other submissions. While in France looking to license a French language version of The National Lampoon, publisher Len Mogel met with the minds behind Les Humanoides Associes. The result of the meeting was the licensing of Metal Hurlant for distribution in the United States, under the translated title Heavy Metal.
Beneath the obvious shock aspects, Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal plumbed the farthest reaches of the imagination of the creators’ and their ability to dream up bizarre alien worlds and societies. Sometimes they were silly. Frequently they were childish. There seemed to be a lot of stories about interstellar janitors. But every now and then, they were also absolutely wondrous. Unfettered by the budgetary restrictions one would face trying to create vast and psychedelic alien landscapes in film, comic artists could really go batshit insane.
Over the years, when opportunity allowed, I would sneak whatever peeks I could at Heavy Metal, both for the expansive imagination as well as, admittedly, the titillation. It wasn’t until I was sixteen and able to venture out on my own that I bought my first issue — Fall 1988, featuring among other things my first exposure to the artwork of Italian erotica cartoonist Guido Crepax, whose “Valentina” was, I kid you not, one of the primary stories that made me want to become a journalist. That was a stressful purchase, let me tell you. What if the clerk knew what I was trying to buy? What if she happen to flip through it directly to something like the illustration of Crepax’ Valentina nude and straddling a chair? With trembling hand I decided to go for it, consequences be damned, and when my purchase went through without a hitch I sprinted with glee to my car, vowing to start buying all sorts of dirty stuff. It’s one of the only goals of my youth I actually fulfilled.
Around that same time, I began ingesting a steady diet of “Night Flight,” the late-night weekend compilation show that used to air on The USA Network. Aside from being the programming block that introduced me to punk rock, Night Flight played experimental shorts and weird feature films. One night, near the tail-end of their seemingly endless (which was welcome) parade of bizarre stuff, I caught the animated French science fiction film Fantastic Planet. It was a mind-bender of a movie, obvious even in my semi-rural informational vacuum as a product of the same school of freaky sci-fi thought that birthed Heavy Metal. I was mesmerized by the film, the combination of late hour and lack of sleep making it even more amazing to me.
Not having the research capabilities (read: Google) at my fingertips then that I do now, I didn’t know anything about Fantastic Planet beyond what I could read in its credits, and that was restricted mostly to knowing that it was directed by a guy named Rene Laloux and drawn by someone named Roland Topor. I didn’t know a thing about either of them at the time. What I did know was that Fantastic Planet was exactly the sort of science fiction I craved. It perfectly captured the astounding strangeness of some of the best Heavy Metal had to offer — even though it actually predated the founding of the magazine by a couple years. It was tapping into the same zeitgeist. In time, I discovered that director Rene Laloux had worked with Moebius himself in 1981 on a film called Les Maitres du Temps. Like Fantastic Planet, it was a very Heavy Metal style of science fiction, only without all the naked people. And then, just around the same time I was finally tapping into all this, I read an article about Laloux’s most recent film, 1988’s Gandahar, which I knew then under its American title, Light Years…