There’s been a lot of talk about comic book adaptations recently. Between the excitement of James Gunn’s new The Suicide Squad for DC/Warner Bros, the hints and nibbles of new Marvel movies on the horizon starting with November’s Shang-Chi, and more low-key indie comic titles having been picked up by the likes of Amazon (The Boys, Invincible) or Netflix (The End of the Fcking World, The Old Guard, Sweet Tooth), it’s hard to remember a time when comic book movies weren’t… well, cool. Since Marvel’s big launch with 2008’s Iron Man (or 2000’s X-Men, depending on if you’re wanting to be pedantic), audiences have been captivated — convinced that, if you were around to see these first Marvel movies then, yes, you were extremely cool and surely this was the first thing of its kind to make it to the big screen offering some cool shit for comic fans.
Aside from the obvious neglect this attitude has for movies such as Popeye, Howard the Duck, Dick Tracy, and the meager but hefty indie effort of Ghost World, the truth is that there were heaps of comic movies that preceded those we have come to love and look forward to so much today. It is, however, undeniable — nay, criminal — not to recognize the original powerhouse behind not only the inclusion of animation in comic features (I see you, Into The Spider-Verse), but the precedent that comic book movie must be absolutely badass. I’m talking about the heavily-Canadian 1981 anthology flick, Heavy Metal, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on August 7th.
Rewatching Heavy Metal today, it’s clear that there are so many reasons why the film shouldn’t work, but — for the most part — they are exactly what makes the film so extraordinary and fun. Between its intensely misogynistic themes and utterly chaotic storytelling, the movie, and it’s astonishingly killer soundtrack, have aged about as well as we have, being similarly unapologetically horny and bearing an affinity for whatever records our dads had lying about the house. Despite it’s supposed pitfalls, the movie itself stands… ahem… firm as one of the most unique comic book movies of all time.
Directed by British animator Gerald Potterton, Heavy Metal was always intended to be an animated celebration of the spirit behind the original Heavy Metal anthology magazine — the iconic American publication inspired by French comics anthology Métal Hurlant, founded in 1975 by Leonard Mogul, soon known as the publisher of hyper-sexual and hyper-violent sci-fi and fantasy comics.
Potterton, of course, was no stranger to the word of bizarre animation after having worked as an animator on The Beatles’ animated saturnalia Yellow Submarine just thirteen years prior, so the idea of animating so many different styles turned out to be more than a little appealing. “[…]I couldn’t see doing a ninety-minute film just in one style,” said Potterton in a 2015 interview on the movie. “I really liked the idea of like five or six stories, different stuff, just like in the magazine. That’s what makes it work.”
Even more than the incredibly fun rotoscoping techniques used to translate comics art to animation on the screen, though, it’s the interweaving of stories — almost like the turning of pages — that’s something to behold. Consisting of six vignettes compiled together by no less than six Canadian animation studios, Heavy Metal’s stories all tie together through the somewhat disjointed lens of the Loc-Nar — an ominous, glowing green orb (voiced by uncredited Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez) which describes itself as “the sum of all evils” in the first vignettes, “Soft Landing” and “Grimaldi,” where astronaut Grimaldi lands his corvette from space safely at home to bring his daughter the green crystalline orb. The sphere rises out of its casing and melts his body to nothingness, leaving his daughter to gaze into the Loc-Nar and see the multiple tales of horror that it displays.
Through the stories that the Loc-Nar reveals to the girl, and thus us as the audience, the animation itself becomes the star of the movie. The same can be said of the artists whose ability to emulate different, contrasting art styles brings the movie to life. While the rotoscoping technique featured in the iconic sequences “B-17” and “Taarna” had been around for decades dating back to the early 20th century, both the new stories made for the film, as well as the near identical page-to-screen adaptations of stories that originally saw print in Heavy Metal itself, come to life in a way that still, to an extent, sets the precedent for adult animation and the cinematic translation of moving art.
The adaptations of the work of French artist Jean Giraud — best known by comic fans under his pseudonym Moebius — may be one of the finest examples of this in the movie, with great care taken to depict his work as audiences had come to love it in the pages of Heavy Metal. With sequences “Harry Canyon” and the iconic closer “Taarna” — based on Giraud’s “The Long Tomorrow” and “Arzach” stories of Métal Hurlant, respectively — it feels impossible to not mention the impact of giving Giraud’s art a new, more wide-reaching medium: When looking at the film — long sequences of unironic focus on full breasts, texturing of the faces of both people and cliffs; and a fascinating focus on the strength of both nature and women — the touch of Moebius is there despite the artist not having directly worked on the film itself.
The same can be said for the less “serious” stories of the animated anthology. “Den,” the story of a young geek who is transported to Neverwhere, where he’s transformed into the ideal man, is based on the much-beloved Heavy Metal stories from the late writer and artist Richard Corben; while my personal favorite “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” — based on a fantastically funny drug-fueled robot sex story written and illustrated by British Heavy Metal contributor and all-around sci-fi art God-king, Angus McKie — features McKie’s penchant for star-speckled space stations, quirky robotics, and truly impressive cosmic renderings.
Even after all of that, there’s still the impressive “B-17” zombie bomber plane story from Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, and the hysterical courtroom debacle “Captain Sternn” vignette of Bernie Wrightson’s famed amoral space captain. The list goes on and on when it comes to the incredible meeting of the minds that came together in the making of these stories.
The greatness doesn’t just stop with the animation and badass artwork either. For viewers who may have outgrown their love of globe-like breasts and “I should definitely paint that on my van” airbrushed artwork, the voice talents of the movie offer an entirely different view into a now-popular section of entertainment history: the ensemble behind some of the original Second City Television (or SCTV) sketch groups.
Years before many of their big breaks, names like Eugene Levy (A Mighty Wind), John Candy (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Stripes, et al), Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters), Douglas Kenney (co-founder of National Lampoon), found themselves attached to the vibrant and, for the times, shocking movie anthology. It’s hard not to recognize their voices either, despite many of the familiar timbres coming from the mouths of coke-addled aliens, a naked warrior, and an apathetic space-cabbie. Still, the talents of the SCTV crew manages not only to uphold their reputation for comedy even at the earliest point of many of their careers, but elevates an already-hilarious animated feat into an absolute sci-fi scream where Uncle Buck is a mouse-eared alien hell-bent on screwing a Pentagon secretary. What more could we really ask?
More than anything else, however, more than the voice talents of familiar stars or the killer animation style with memorable figures, Heavy Metal is undoubtedly remembered best for it’s spectacularly perfect soundtrack… one that has landed itself on nearly every Best Soundtrack of All Time list in the known galaxy, in fact.
After watching Heavy Metal again, this seems entirely reasonable regardless of what your usual music tastes may be. While providing a glimpse into the sounds of the era that, much like Heavy Metal magazine itself, defined a generation of counter-culture listening, the soundtrack also acts as a vehicle (a pterodactyl, perhaps?) for the tone of the movie and the movement of the stories. Ranging from the melodic, grooving tones of Stevie Nicks, Grand Funk Railroad, and Blue Oyster Cult to headbanger classics like Black Sabbath, Nazareth, and Cheap Trick, the tunes — and thus the stories they backdrop — come alive in a chaotic whirlwind of… well… heavy metal. (Besides, who among us can say they haven’t had the supreme banger that is Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” stuck in our heads after watching this film?)
To say that all of these factors merely contribute to what makes Heavy Metal such a butt-rock masterpiece would be an understatement — instead, let’s give way to the idea that between the countless cultural influences and references, a track listing that is if nothing else iconic, and a spotlight for some of the funniest and most talented comedians of their era, Heavy Metal is arguably the key to what we hope and expect when we go to see a comic book movie. We are ready to be wowed — not just by some decent CGI and a head-nod at that one story we all know from our childhood comic collection, but by an unapologetic love of the material the movie sets out to bring to new audiences.
It’ll be forty years tomorrow since Heavy Metal burst into the theaters on the silver screen, and has since then rocked out hard with several entire generations of fans eager to go out of this world. So, whether you’re an old school fan who got a bit too into the Taarna clothing scene right there in the theater, an old metalhead who’s just happy to see Sabbath live on, or a newcomer ready to be appalled and delighted by breathtaking art, giant swords, and lots of boobs, Heavy Metal will continue for many more years to come to rock this world and the next.