When we heard that Grant Morrison was taking the helm of Heavy Metal it immediately sounded like those food mash-ups that are the masterstroke of well-known TV chefs or the misstep of a drunken friend. Heavy Metal was not something we had experience with besides lurid glances in the super market as pre-teens, and we brought that bias well into our adult comic reading years. The reality is that Heavy Metal has been a lot of things over the years, including a counter-cultural comics crossover that brought together transgressive art, film, music, and comics.
Morrison, who has now taken the mantle of most acclaimed living comics writer from Alan Moore, is the resident weirdo, usually taking concepts and injecting them with chaos magick, quantum weirdness, Dada, and anarchism to redefine what was possible with comics. Over the last few years he has kept his creator owned work going, we really like Nameless and Image and Annihilator, but he is also best known for his mainstream superhero work where he takes those known characters down the rabbit hole of post-modern relativism.
A few months back he then announced that he was going to become Editor in Chief of Heavy Metal magazine, and that this would be his main comics focus for the new two to three years. With issue #280 he takes the reigns and the series gets a hard hit back into prominence, but as that issue comes out it is hard to just hail its success on Morrison.
It is true that Heavy Metal was not on our radar until Morrison joined the staff, and we have only joined in on his issue, but it is clear that the magazine has been living in a corner world of some great content for years. In this first issue we get a great deal of self-contained stories and strips as well as first episodes, but there are also later segments of ongoing strips, some of which go back more than a year. Morrison had to consciously decided not to just clean house and start over, but instead he sends a clear message that he joined Heavy Metal because he wanted to celebrate what the magazine is and not just what is was or could be.
Issue #280, with the main cover of a smiley face covering a skull surrounded by naked yellow bowing women, starts with some affectionately incoherent rants about Mars from Morrison before hitting the first story. This first strip, Beach Head, is by Morrison and brings in a classic fifties science fiction comic style by Benjamin Marra to tell an ironic story about aliens on an invasion. This is the first part of who-knows-how-many, and a great way to start us out. “A Mind Bomb” tells an almost poetic story of a girl creating a psycho-sematic world of violence in a doll house, while “Goddess” from Ryan Ferrier and Hugo Petrus has a mysterious woman enter a primitive Celtic village and shows the potential for cosmic destruction. All of these stories set the stage for an incredible issue that continues, including a great number of strips that hail indie comics of the past with spastic storytelling and self-referential cultural violence.
Throughout this the focus has remained on comics, which is something they state openly in their submissions panel, which is something comics fans can count on. There are brief interludes to this, including the “Feisty Eroticism of Phantastique” show of art pieces from Mimi Scholz with a brief interview. The advertisements themselves say a great deal about whom the magazine has been marketed to and you are going to find ads for online art shows and industrial concerts.
In a lot of ways, Heavy Metal under Morrison’s helm is what anthologies like Vertigo Pop hoped they would be: a mature, genre-minded anthology that uses known tropes to challenge you. Island at Image has been an incredible leader of anthology work for indie comics, but Heavy Metal is strong to its fantasy, science fiction, and horror roots, and it never betrays or insults that. Instead, it tries to redefine that, and it seems like Morrison will really build on that over the next two years.
After this first issue we went online and subscribed almost immediately, which is actually even cheaper than ordering it on Discount Comic Book Service. With six issues a year for just over twenty bucks, this is a good bet. What watching Heavy Metal now really reminds us is that there are marginalized corners of comics and alt nerd culture that are easily ignored, and as it has been in the shadows it has cultivated a body of work and perspectives that someone like Morrison can turn into a culture gun.