By RM Rhodes
Strange but true, it can be fairly said that Heavy Metal would not currently exist without the following:
- The Diner’s Club card
- Harvard Lampoon
- Metal Hurlant
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
In the February 1985 issue of Heavy Metal, the ongoing review feature Dossier ran a paragraph-long blurb by Matt Howarth about an up-and-coming black and white comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
(Dossier February 1985)
Seven years later, that same Kevin Eastman bought Heavy Metal for half a million dollars. From a certain point of view, Heavy Metal helped bring attention to a phenomenon that provided the funds to purchase itself in the future. It's got a nice frisson of determinism. It's very likely that TMNT would have done just fine without the mention in Heavy Metal. But it's very unlikely that Heavy Metal would have survived without that purchase.
Heavy Metal is, and has always been, a weird patchwork hybrid - a translated adaptation/spin-off of a magazine made by four revolutionary artists, published as a wholly owned subsidiary of a parody media empire whose brand rested on a foundation of identity theft. Later, it was bought by the creator of a satire of a mainstream comics property. The spiral of influence is dizzying.
In my opinion, the best part of Heavy Metal’s origin story goes back to 1950, when Leonard Mogel and Matty Simmons created the Diners Club Card, the first all-purpose charge card. The Diners Club Card was followed by The Diners Club magazine in 1951 and 21st Century Communications publishing in 1967. One of their many properties was National Lampoon.
The short simplistic version of the story goes that Mogel encountered Metal Hurlant in the mid-70s and licensed some of their work for what became Heavy Metal – but as a subsidiary property under National Lampoon. There's a more complex version that delves into a strange proto-Heavy Metal artifact, but that would make this article longer and nobody wants that. The important part of the story is that Heavy Metal is tied at the hip to National Lampoon.
By 1982 National Lampoon was losing money. In 1989 Matty Simmons sold the whole property to Daniel Grodnik (a producer) and Tim Matheson (an actor, who is best known for playing Otter on National Lampoon's Animal House) for $760,000. Within a year, they were losing so much money they sold it on to James Jimirro.
Jimirro was the founding president of the Disney Channel and Walt Disney Home Video, as well as his own company, J2 Communications. In both sales, the purchaser was only interested in the National Lampoon IP - Heavy Metal was just along for the ride. Jimirro separated the two properties and sold Heavy Metal to Kevin Eastman for $500,000 in 1992.
According to an interview in The Comics Journal in 1998 discussing that period, Eastman admits that he was at a point where Tundra Publishing was going up in flames and Heavy Metal was more or less bought on a whim.
By that point, the magazine had been owned by four different owners in four years. They had only recently undergone a significant change – the reduction from monthly to quarterly in 1986 – and they were still finding their feet. The purchase in 1989 could explain the abrupt and obviously unplanned shift from a quarterly to a bi-monthly schedule in that same year - the first issue of the year is labeled Winter, the old naming schema, and the second issue is March, the new naming schema.
In such a turbulent business environment, it’s difficult to identify precise points “where things changed,” but I’m going to focus on the span from 1989 to 1995 as a key transitional period, separate and distinct from the short quarterly period the came before and yet heavily informed by it. The period is notable, not only due to the number of owners, but due to a common look-and-feel that crept into the publication during this time.
Despite the fact that her father no longer owned the magazine, Julie Simmons-Lynch was retained as editor in chief in 1989 and stayed on, even after Kevin Eastman purchased the magazine. Long before that, certain items fell by the wayside; for example, her last editorial ran in September of 1989. It was the last editorial for years and, from that point forward, text features were few and far between. It had become a more purely art magazine.
That same issue (September 1989) is where John Figurski makes his first appearance as the Art Director, a title he retained until May of 1993. The job of the production staff was, if you will, to provide a consistent look and feel to the publication; to provide a commercially viable magazine-shaped product to the newsstand for sale; to minimize the fluctuations created by behind-the-scenes machinations; to maintain the status quo. And, to those points, they were successful. Except for the initial glitch in 1989, it's very hard to tell where the change in ownership occurs just by flipping through the issues. Even the content catalog and ongoing schedule were retained from owner to owner. But the masthead tells the tale.
(March 1991 Contents page)
Even after Eastman took ownership, it took a while for staff changes to occur – most probably due to the turmoil at Tundra. Julie Simmons-Lynch left after the January 1993 issue and was replaced with Debra Rabas in the next issue. John Figurski was promoted to Designer in July 1993, over a year after purchase.
One of the biggest changes were the specials. There had been special issues during the 81-86 period, but they were discontinued when the magazine went quarterly. There was a one-off fifteenth anniversary best-of issue in 1992 that may have sparked the idea for regular specials. Two additional "Special" editions a year became an annual tradition in 1993, was increased to thrice a year in 1999, and stayed on the schedule until 2012. This changed the number of issues printed per year from six to eight (or nine, after 1999). This added to the publication schedule without tying the releases to a certain time of year (at first). For the most part, only the occasional anniversary specials were a best-of compilations; the vast majority were made up of fresh material.
A significant innovation was the feature Strip Tease, which was added to the regular publication (but not the Special Issues) as of November 1992. Edited by Mark Martin, this featured the likes of Jim Woodring, Peter Kuper, Chris Ware, Rick Geary, Kaz, and Michael Kupperman – among many others. The format for Strip Tease fluctuated somewhat throughout its run, but it bears a strong resemblance to Sideshow, a sampler feature in the back of Arcade the Comics Review (a short-lived anthology published by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman in the mid-70s). Where Sideshow had half-page strips, Strip Tease had mostly single-page strips. But the demographic makeup was very similar – marginally known cartoonists from a variety of underground and post-underground communities.
Unfortunately, this feature first appeared in the same issue as Creatura, one of Serpieri's most notorious features. Jim Woodring's very cartoony Frank feature
is printed very near
a hyper-realistic gang rape (trigger warning), which produced a hefty degree of aesthetic whiplash.
(Strip Tease intro September 1993)
November 1992 is also the same month that advertising for Eastman's Tundra Publishing showed up for the first time. Over a fairly short period of time, significant portions of the magazine's advertising was turned over to Tundra and, eventually, Kitchen Sink Press when it acquired Tundra Publishing in 1993. This was, perhaps, indicative of the limited scope of the advertising that Eastman mentions in his Comics Journal Interview in 1998 (above).
One of the major changes that occurred when Heavy Metal went quarterly in 1986 was that longer stories would be printed in full in each issue. Generally, the main feature ran 40-60 pages and were accompanied by a handful of shorter stories, usually less than a dozen pages each and occasionally much shorter. Eastman’s magazine continued this practice. The overall quality of the stories as a whole was not great, but it never really was to begin with. With lowered expectations, the good ones stand out.
The impetus behind printing full-length stories was the idea of a one-and-done issue – no dangling plot threads that required chasing down the next issue. The first nine years of publication had ongoing serials in the French serialization idiom, where several pages of various ongoing stories would run each month. Arguably, this provided a sense of continuity that drove readership, as readers would return each month to see what happened next. The editorial team argued that they had a lot of complaints about precisely that model. Fair enough.
However, if the main feature isn’t very good – and many weren’t – that’s a good third of the issue. Significantly less if the episode is only 8-12 pages. Heavy Metal has always had a “you get what you get” attitude towards providing consistent content from issue to issue, so there has never been an expectation that subsequent stories or chapters would show up in sequential issues. But it was more likely in the early years. In later years, one has to look up which issues the Waters of DeadMoon ran in if one wants to read the whole story.
(The Waters of DeadMoon by Adamov and Cothias May 1991)
The table of contents in the February 1985 issue lists fifteen features – some were only a half-page long, but none was over 12 pages. Six of them were multi-page ongoing serials, two were single-page recurring features, four were house features and the other three were multi-page one-and-done features. There were a lot of chances for a reader to find something they liked.
Ten years later, the table of contents in the March 1995 issue lists seven features – including Strip Tease, which has eight one-page strips. One of the other six is Gallery – the only house feature to survive into the present. The other five are multi-page one-and-done features. One of these is over forty pages long and the other four are between 8-12 pages. The main feature is a follow up to a main feature in an earlier issue and two of the one-and-done are in a larger series that have shown up before, irregularly.
The “each story stands alone” rule (instituted in the first issue of 1986) was broken four issues into the experiment, in Fall of 1986, when they published The Trapped Woman, the third book in Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy. Having read the previous two books was key to understanding the third; funny thing – they had both been serialized in earlier issues of Heavy Metal. Everyone pretended that the one-and-done rule was a thing, but it never really was. And certainly not by 1995.
The kinds of features that thrived in this environment were of the nature of “buy and translate everything by a single author/creative team and run them for years – especially if they are a series of short novels or short stories.” It wasn’t exactly a new policy, nor was it always successful. A lot of the material by Daniel Torres was printed this way, as was Prado, Serpieri, Drooker, and Jiminez. Jodorowsky, Manara, Crepax, and Pratt. Kuper was a regular contributor. Corben and others made guest appearances as well.
As a result, Heavy Metal printed a great deal of serialized material. They just did it in great big lumps and on no fixed schedule. With no expectations, it's easier to maintain a sense of wonder at what's going to be in the next issue. And when the stories were good, they were often very good.
Two features by Segura and Ortiz - Burton & Cyb (about two space opera mercenaries) and the Hombre/Attila stories (about a post-apocalyptic couple) showed up sporadically during this period. All of the Dieter Lumpen stories by Zentner and Pellejero - hands down my favorite features in Heavy Metal
, ironically – were published during this period. And the entire run of The Waters of DeadMoon by Adamov and Cothias also ran during this time.
(Caribe: Dieter Lumpen by Ruben and Zentner July 1989)
There was an increase in sexually oriented material during this time – Serpieri became the house artist in the same way that Moebius was the house artist when Heavy Metal was published monthly. Serpieri probably bears the most responsibility for the idea that the magazine was a T&A publication – which also became part of their identity. They were never shy about turning into the skid on that one.
In spite of cranking up the explicit prurience of the art, there was still a significant amount of not-so-subtle self-censorship. Some portions of Serpieri’s later stories are heavily censored, but his weren’t the only stories where art was changed. There were a fair amount of minor (and not so minor
) changes that had to be made so that the publication would get past censors at Canadian customs. Flipping through the magazine looking for censored bits (usually bondage and erections) is a great way to pass the time.
One of the best parts of very early Heavy Metal - until John Workman left, really - was the fact that every issue felt like it was its own thing. An art object that was created from scratch that was more than just a wrapper for cool stuff, predicated on the understanding that the wrapper itself could be as cool as what’s inside of it. As the text features moved in, they were incorporated with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, it was a well-produced magazine – eclectic and weird, but well-executed.
Long before mid-1993, this was no longer the case. It is very difficult to tell one issue from another during this transitional period. As I mentioned before, this homogeny sustained a brand in turmoil, but eventually that stabilized under Eastman - which meant the requirements changed, but the approach didn't. The magazine began to look safe and, worse, boring. Not a good look for a magazine aimed at adolescent revolutionaries.
Clearly, someone recognized the need to mix things up, which is implied by Figurski's change in title in 1993. But that really didn't work and, by early 1995, Heavy Metal was straight up asking readers what direction they wanted things to go in. At one point, the return of the letters column is announced, but never actually materializes. Additionally, production values had slipped considerably by the beginning of 1995. Many stories were printed without the magazine’s pagination and increasingly, the art and dialog in many of the features (especially the text features) were printed in the crease of the perfect binding, which made things difficult to read. In retrospect, the overall effect comes across as sloppy.
Strip Tease last appeared in July of 1995, as Heavy Metal rethought its approach to content and production. The very next issue, September 1995, featured a Druuna story as well, an odd framing indicative of how radically diverse the content really was. In these kinds of publication decisions, it appears like the magazine was trying to be everything to everyone, and not successfully.
Financial changes were afoot. In July of 1995 – the last issue of the Strip Tease feature – the cover price increased from $3.95 to $4.50, the first increase since Heavy Metal went quarterly in 1986. Figurski was no longer on the masthead two issues later, in November 1995, and the look and feel of the contents page was completely different for the first time in years. That the three events – the price increase, the end of Strip Tease, and Figurski leaving – almost perfectly coincide gives me confidence to mark Figurski’s tenure as a logical bracket for the transition period, if only because Figurski was there near the beginning of the changes in 1989.
It’s interesting (but probably not that surprising) that Heavy Metal really started to go through a slump, quality-wise, at about the same point that Tundra collapsed. It’s also too bad that the slump took two years to climb out of. Some might point to this era and say that’s when Heavy Metal went off the rails a bit, and they’d probably be right. I’m not entirely sure if anyone really knows what those rails were to begin with and I’m fairly sure I don’t know when they got on any rails again. I haven’t read that far ahead.
I will say this, however – I’ve just had occasion to flip through the entire run as I was writing this article. Heavy Metal during the 89-95 transitional period seems to have set the template for what Heavy Metal looked and felt like until mid-2012, if not longer. It looks very much like Grant Morrison’s run has returned to the concept of the individual issue of Heavy Metal as art object for the first time in decades. I can’t say for sure if the quality of the stories has improved – I’ll know for sure when I read them four or five years from now.
Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch.
When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes.
It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.
In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area.