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When Heavy Metal Soared

A look back an adult-animation pioneer

Fight or flight?

Calling Heavy Metal a cult classic barely scratches the surface. The movie is the definition of cult following given that it grew a devoted fanbase out of taboo material. There’s even that secret society element of shadowy influence shifting the world at large.

There used to be a time the only way to own Heavy Metal involved bootlegging the film off late-night cable. In the age before the internet, sweaty video hunters lurked by VHS machines waiting for the film to start then hit record. As far as theatrical viewings, it circulated on the midnight movie circuit so long filmmakers needed to pull in the prints because they were being worn out. Since arriving in 1981, Heavy Metal inspired an entire generation of animators to produce more adult content, and that’s, in many ways, a grand legacy.

The story begins when print magazines still mattered. Tony Hendra, a satirist working for National Lampoon, expressed a desire to include European comics. Along with the support of then editor Sean Kelly, the two started publishing portions of a French magazine called Métal hurlant. Literally translated as “howling metal” the images and stories within were unlike anything available in the United States.

That’s mainly due to the Comics Code Authority. Established in 1954, the CCA restricted the kind of content allowed in comics. For decades, this meant zero profanity, overt sexuality, graphic violence, or outright ridicule of authority figures such as the police. But whatever moral victory puritan proponents of the code thought they won only inspired a generation of artists to go underground.

Astronaut helmet with visor down reflecting a two-story Victorian house in the distance, from the movie Heavy Metal 1981
Coming home.

Throughout the subsequent years, artists like Robert Crumb drew in defiance of the Comics Code Authority. Sometimes deviant and perverse, these underground comics provided not just more adult content but mature themes. The material readers craved as they grew into adulthood, pondering issues of sexuality and social convention. While comic book heroes upheld notions of truth, justice, and the American way, underground characters like Fritz the Cat got high, rejected the status quo, and had sex.

The odd thing is the CCA didn’t hold any really power to prevent such comics from being made. Most major distributors went along with the Comics Code simply to avoid losing advertising dollars. Without that official stamp proclaiming a book was “approved by the comics code authority” shops and businesses risked the ire of the self-proclaimed moral majority.

Still, a growing market for adult comics inspired Hendra and Kelly to get National Lampoon into the game. European artists like Moebius hadn’t been restrained by the Code or capitalist concerns, so they’re work naturally gravitated to the more mature material Hendra wanted to expose readers to. And sci-fi stories in Métal hurlant, similar to pulp fiction, bred what would become the magazine Heavy Metal.

Futuristic megalopolis, a sprawling New York of tomorrow
Urban sprawl in all directions

Issues featured radical depictions of futuristic settings, graphic violence, and explicit nudity. Yet, these adolescent aspects belie what could at times be challenging content. These mature elements allowed authors and artists to explore concepts which seeded the landscape of several burgeoning sci-fi scenes. For instance, William Gibson, who pioneered the cyberpunk subgenre, wrote in the intro for the Neuromancer graphic novel, “It’s entirely fair to say… the way Neuromancer-the-novel ‘looks’ was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal.”

Heavy Metal the magazine provided an outlet for imaginations desperate to see events unconstrained by moralist pearl-clutchers wailing about the mental corruption of children, and it exposed many to a realm of possibilities rarely seen. That’s why, following the success of Animal House, National Lampoon Inc. decided one of their next forays into film should be animated. The goal would be to craft something for older audiences, and already owning the rights to Heavy Metal’s content made the decision even easier.

Ivan Reitman, who also produced Animal House, ended up producing Heavy Metal the movie. “I thought there would be a good film in it,” Reitman said, “I do like science fiction, and I loved the illustrations… they were different from anything I had ever seen.”

An extraterrestrial being arrested by futuristic police in the animated film Heavy Metal
Aliens under arrest.

Adult animation has endured a stilted evolution in the United States. The last several years have seen quantum leaps in the amount and kinds of content available to mature audiences. However, circa 1981, one’s cup didn’t exactly runneth over. That’s not to say adult-oriented animation never existed. Even as far back as 1928, the comedic cartoon character Eveready Harton appeared in the first animated porno. Still, it wouldn’t be until Ralph Bakshi began making films that anything remotely mature become available.

Adapting Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat into an animated feature, the box office success of the film—$90 million off a budget of $700,000—proved a public appetite for such movies. Although Fritz earned the notorious X-rating when released in 1972, its frank depiction of sex, violence, and drug use served a purpose. As John Grant wrote in Masters of Animation, “generally and too easily dismissed as a self-indulgent scatological romp through hippy clichés of the 1960s. It is, however, something more than that… a portrayal of a particular stratum of Western society… it is often almost disturbingly accurate.”

Still, studios routinely hesitated to finance such projects. Animation remained not only the realm of Disney, a giant no one wanted to fight, but many perceived cartoons as sanitized reality meant only for children. It didn’t matter what kind of surreal social horrors (e.g., murder, prostitution, racism, etc.) that Bakshi depicted in feature films like 1973’s Heavy Traffic, producers seemed to think of animation only in terms of content for kids.

Infamous "Thou Shalt Not" photo by Whitey Schafer featuring images forbidden by the Hays code, made in protest of the Code
Thou Shalt Not by Whitey Schafer

Again, this mainly stemmed from censorship. Kin to the Comics Code Authority, the Hays Code provided similar constraints for motion pictures. In addition, it restricted the release of adult animation from other countries. As such, audiences in the United States remained oblivious to the more mature content emerging in foreign markets. Still, a few shorts trickled out especially as the Hays Code faded away. Flicks like “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” and “Bambi Meets Godzilla” existed as short spoofs, but could be dismissed as outliers. Eventually, though, the Motion Picture Association film rating system replaced the Hays Code, freeing filmmakers to explore avenues in animation previously taboo.

The new system also allowed for the import of those foreign features which in turn made animators aware they could go beyond the bounds of children’s films. Not solely in content but stylization. Animated films no longer needed to be cutesy kid friendly films. They could be ugly, mean, and sexy if necessary. All this emerging freedom arrived just in time for Heavy Metal to hit the scene hard.

To that end, Ivan Reitman employed Gerald Potterton. A veteran animator who worked on projects such as The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (1968) and sequences for Sesame Street, Potterton received the tremendous responsibility of herding the efforts of 1,000 animators in 17 different countriesPotterton said, “I knew about the Heavy Metal magazine in France, and I liked the drawings… but I couldn’t see doing a ninety-minute film in just one style.”

An alien creature gets its head burst open by a mace, blood flying everywhere in the animated film Heavy Metal 1981
Head Banging

He wanted to tell several stories instead of just one. This would allow the inclusion of a variety of techniques to bring Heavy Metal to life. Plus, it’d make the film more like its print variant.

Besides traditional animation, Potterton employed extensive use of rotoscoping. Max Fleischer patented the process in 1917 which could be considered a predecessor to motion capture. Live performers acted out scenes on a minimal set. Then animators used blown-up photos to trace the performances as well as add in details like cityscapes or apartment settings, depending on the scene. While they mostly stuck to the performers’ features, they often exaggerated for emphasis, a smile, or eyes wider than natural. This technique has appeared in a variety of films, particularly those by Ralph Bakshi but Disney used it too, not to mention the Superman animated shorts of the 1940s. It gave animation, particularly in something like Heavy Metal, a life-like quality it couldn’t otherwise possess, but also a surreal essence since the movements are real yet not.

Using alternating visual styles even shaped the movie’s structure. Each variation in animation style is meant to compliment a specific story, while setting it apart from the others. This allows segments to remain unique, yet part of an animated whole.

A malevolent green orb terrorizes a young girl in 1981's animated film Heavy Metal
The Loc-Nar terrorizes as it tells tales.

The film unfolds as a series of vignettes told by the nefarious entity the Loc-Nar. The overall plot to Heavy Metal is that a malevolent, sentient sphere is detailing its evil past to a terrified young girl. It arrives at her home thanks to her father, an astronaut who returns to Earth when a low orbit space shuttle drops him in a convertible sports car out of its bay doors. (Stick with me here.) While descending, freefalling for miles, “Radar Rider” by Riggs plays in the background. Upon landing he speeds home. Unfortunately, opening the case containing the Loc-Nar, Daddy melts away, but now, the movie can begin.

There’s a degree of unabashed insanity to that which is not present in most films. Fortunately, madness continues unflinching throughout the rest of the movie. Composed of several stories harvested from the Heavy Metal magazine, the anthology format utilizes the talents of multiple writers like Dan O’Bannon, most famous for writing Alien. It also does some sleight repackaging, such as in the case of the “Taarna” piece, which used Moebius’s wordless series Arzach as source material.

Tropes aplenty populate Heavy Metal. The buxom femme fatale tries to double-cross a cynical cabbie in a futuristic noir. The nerdy teen is transported and transformed into a Herculean figure fighting to save the day in a sword and sorcery epic. Intrepid pilots of a bomber endeavor to survive when their slain crewmates become zombies midflight. The last member of a race of mythical warriors must battle mutant hordes to avenge slaughtered innocents. These familiar elements allow for abbreviated storytelling, keeping the pace going. If a section falls flat, well, no worries, a fresh scene will start soon enough.

Taarna the warrior heroine from heavy Metal, animated film in 1981, arrives in a saloon.
Heavy Metal 1981

What comes together is a mish-mosh of styles, themes, and stories any pulp fiction fan will recognize. However, not all hit the bull’s eye. The meandering plot doesn’t always feel cohesive. Heavy Metal often teeters on the brink of collapse, but what holds up this house of cards is its audacity.

Elements of it may not sit well with modern audiences. The sexuality is decidedly skewed heterosexual, and the women are all designed for the male gaze. That’s to say, revealing clothes, when they even have any on, and physical dimensions that are shapely to put it mildly. The titular — no pun intended — Taarna even does what could be considered a reverse striptease as she dons the typical lingerie inspired armor seen in sword and sorcery. But there’s also blood, profanity, drugs, and horror that never made it into animated features before. Plus, a juvenile sense of humor that prevents several segments from getting too serious.

Though one doesn’t have to excuse what may be less, if not unacceptable now, it should be considered in the context of its time. This amounted to a subversive form of entertainment defying any ideas of what cartoons could include. The fact it even got made is an accomplishment which paved the way for features and series many take for granted nowadays. Progress doesn’t necessarily start on the best foot, but a blazed trail is just the start of a long journey. Other paths have branched off from Heavy Metal. If we can get full frontal animated vagina, there’s no reason for a floppy dork dangling on screen too. Animation is art, meaning it shouldn’t be constrained. An unbridled imagination is very revealing, displaying the good and the bad, a fact on full display in Heavy Metal.

Horrifying skeletons covered in shreds of flesh come to life in the animated film Heavy Metal
The skeleton crew

Things don’t always age well. Yet, there’s no guarantee what some things will inspire. Consider Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It blew me away,” Eastman said, talking about Heavy Metal the movie. “I saw it nine times at a local theater… after the same old superhero comic schlock, this whole other universe opened to me.”

Finally, there’s the soundtrack. Surprising no one, the lineup is solid heavy metal. Not the caustic murder cacophony of more modern acts, but the slick grooving thunder of early pioneers. There’s Black Sabbath when Dio reigned, Blue Öyster Cult, Sammy Haggar, Nazareth, and Journey. Other stellar contributors include Grand Funk Railroad, Devo, and Cheap Trick. An assortment that easily shifts from psychedelic to sledgehammer but is always in tune with the mood of the movie.

As Sammy Haggar sings, “it’s your one-way ticket to midnight.” Whatever that means, Heavy Metal embodies it all. It’s a midnight movie filled with unapologetic content. By going over the top, it showed the limits don’t exist. At least not for the fearless. Perhaps it has become smirk inducingly out of touch with the times, a bit too cheesy and sexist, but it can still be a source of inspiration. For proof of that notion, look no further than the Netflix series Love, Death, & Robots.

A buxom secretary chats with a mouse-like robot in Heavy Metal
The lady and the lusty machine

For years, director David Fincher wanted to do another Heavy Metal movie. However, the project went through typical development hell problems. Different directors kept being attached then lost, funding troubles, the rights slipped through Fincher’s fingers, until finally, he settled on a different option. Unable to make a Heavy Metal film, he created a spiritual successor of sorts in the shape of Love, Death, & Robots.

About to start its third season on Netflix, the series utilizes what is in essence the Heavy Metal template to tell stories. Granted, critics are mixed on their reactions. Perhaps Wired magazine said it best when their critic wrote the show was “aiming at a particular retrograde subset of genre fans. But sequence the show yourself, and you’ll find an endlessly inventive wellspring of ideas and visuals.” The point is there’s potential within this spiritual successor to Heavy Metal to explore those avenues the initial film didn’t.

The internet is sadly lacking in obscurity. Everything is available in some capacity or another. I often raise an eyebrow in shock not at what’s available online but what isn’t. However, there used to be a time certain content existed on the edge of urban legend.

Whispers in the comic book shop suggested an animated film existed that spilled buckets of blood and wasn’t shy about sex either. It sounded implausible until one day, some friend of a friend of a friend passes along a bootleg video. Then there it is, the mythical Heavy Metal. And even if it didn’t live up to expectations, it certainly changed them forever.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

One Comment

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  1. Would you compare this movie to Creepshow and Pulp Fiction of being similar anthology movie to them?

    Male gaze? sex sells you know. And man does it sell in media even in animation like Taarna or Jessica Rabbit or Hello Nurse and Minerva Mink on Animaniacs and all.

    Let’s face it, today’s adult cartoons like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, DC animated movies, Primal, Undone, Spine of Night, Love Death and Robots etc. would never exist if it wasn’t for this movie, WIzards, Watership Down, Fantastic Planet, Fritz the cat, American Pop, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Simpsons, Futurama, South Park, Spawn TAS, The Maxx, Aeon Flux, Liquid TV, Plague Dogs, Beavis and Butthead, Daria, King of the Hill, Starchaser, Rock and Rule, Fire and Ice, Hey Good Lookin’, Batman Mask of the Phantasm, Ninja Scroll, Akira, Wicked City, Ghost in The Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Golgo 13 Professional, Vampire Hunter D 1 and 2, Princess Mononoke etc.

    And on the nudity and sex in this movie, how do you feel about the infamous animated sleaze feast Urotsukidoji Legend of the Overfiend? it has much worse stuff even tentacle rape as it made tentacle hentai.

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