Despite having about a 150-year head start, comics matured roughly at the same time videogames did. The independent anthologies of the early ’80s, such as Art Spiegelman’s RAW and R. Crumb’s Weirdo, laid the groundwork for modern graphic novels and journals like MOME just as Nintendo parlayed a string of arcade successes into their console-as-post-crash-industry-savior, the NES. But while most comix grew up, the aforementioned cartoonists and their collaborators going on to contribute to the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, some refused. Out of that early bunch of alt comics collections, only one remains: Heavy Metal, a snarling, tit-filled fusion of genre fodder and erotica whose impact on videogames, for better or for worse, is unmatched.
First published in the United States in 1977 as the stateside edition of French mag Métal Hurlant, Heavy Metal was a response to the silliness of pre-Dark Knight capes and cowls: strictly for adults (as its black-bagged gas station distribution will tell you), self-serious to the point of being somewhat cringeworthy, with a focus on lowbrow high fantasy, dark fantasy and science fiction. Think: a wicked-rad van painting of a huntress riding a cyberpunk shark – naked. Despite its mixture of nudity and ultra-violence, a string of incredibly talented contributors throughout its lifespan, including Moebius and H. R. Giger, have kept it beautiful, if even a bit heady.
Sadly, the magazine’s profile has declined in recent years. While 1981 saw the release of the big-budget animated film Heavy Metal, often considered a small masterpiece of ’80s adult animation, 2000 was saddled with the direct-to-video release of Heavy Metal 2000, a vanity project by the magazine’s current owner, Kevin Eastman, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame. But while the magazine’s relevance to film waned, its influence on videogames only grew.
Two games spun off from the brief resurrection of the franchise in the early Aughts thanks to the DVD release. The first was Ritual Entertainment’s Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.². A direct sequel to the events of Heavy Metal 2000, F.A.K.K.² featured protagonist Julie – whose character is based on, and voiced by, Kevin Eastman’s wife, Julie Strain – fighting an evil entity named GITH in a third-person, Quake Engine-powered shooter. Though it was often bogged down by its heavy-handed anti-conformist backdrop and clunky platforming sections, it was nonetheless a beautiful game. It played to the strengths of Heavy Metal‘s (tit-filled) world and made for the perfect followup to SiN for Ritual, who had seemingly taken the “dude shooter” mantle from 3D Realms before being swallowed by casual game developer MumboJumbo in 2007.
Decidedly less boob-infused was Capcom’s Dreamcast brawler Heavy Metal: Geomatrix. Essentially a repurposed port of the publisher’s other arena-based fighting game, Spawn: In the Demon’s Hand, it was Heavy Metal in name only, a cheap cash-in whose violent cyberpunk exterior could have easily belonged to any number of musclebound shooters. It somehow managed to be a worse iteration on the Spawn title, with fewer characters and an unappealing aesthetic that made its precursor’s world seem almost inspired.
It’s telling that one of Heavy Metal‘s videogame spin-offs looks totally derivative, because no medium has embraced the magazine’s aesthetic like games have. While the anthology certainly didn’t single-handedly create Frazetta-style heavy metal fantasy, it has been its torch bearer for over 30 years now. That signature combination of fantastical, dark settings and childish brutality, sexism and “baditude” have both helped and hindered the gaming landscape. It’s made its way into innumerable titles, from Altered Beast to Devil’s Crush, from Demon’s Souls to pretty much everything Epic has done after Jazz Jackrabbit. There’s even a little Heavy Metal in World of Warcraft, as any person that’s ever spent an evening in the World’s End Tavern in Shattrath City watching the The Artists Formerly known as Level 80 Elite Tauren Chieftain (or TAFKAL80ETC) jam out can attest to.
In a medium that works hard to legitimize itself, approaching conversations about racism in Resident Evil 5 or homo-eroticism in … well, everything, with a groan-inducing air of Newshour seriousness, it’s nice when everyone can take a step back and revel in the silliness of it all. In fact, two of 2009’s best games did just that by presenting endlessly entertaining tongue-in-cheek summations of what makes Heavy Metal simultaneously enthralling and appalling: Zeno Clash and Brutal Legend.
Zeno Clash, the first-person fighting game by Chilean developer ACE Team, may very well have been based on a near-silent strip running during Heavy Metal‘s heyday, its psychedelic foreignness and graphic violence drawing comparisons to fellow director, writer and fellow Chillean Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky, a constant collaborator with artist (and co-founder of Métal Hurlant publisher Les Humanoïdes Associés) Moebius, has a penchant for the violent, the sexual and the mental. Zeno Clash taps into the most primal elements of their collaborations, its beautiful Jim Henson’s Creature Shop rejects crashing and gnashing under the equally exotic locales that earned the game a nod as a finalist for the 2009 Independent Games Festival’s Excellence in Visual Art award. It’s also self-aware, hilarious and happens to be rather disturbingly tit-filled, which I’d like to think is not a coincidence.
Brütal Legend paints a bigger picture. An ode to all things metal by creator and headbanger Tim Schafer and an expansion of many ideas he toyed with in Full Throttle, if it’s not what everyone wanted after four years in the oven, it’s what Heavy Metal needed. The game’s demonic vistas, inspired by metal covers (a lot of which were probably illustrated by Heavy Metal contributors), had long been languishing on the front of Mastodon albums. The game’s Aquarius Records-curated soundtrack brims with ’80s metal acts, while the vocal talent consists of aging rockers that were presumably thrilled to participate. In an interview with GamePro published last December, Schafer said:
We wanted to emphasize that the game’s main story was a wish fulfillment for this character. It’s about a roadie who wanted to live in an earlier time when the music was real in a medieval combat fantasy. That’s our story, and we wanted people to understand that was what you’d be doing in this game: swinging an axe, playing a guitar, driving your car around and eventually commanding an army of headbangers.
Brütal Legend isn’t about good versus evil, but Eddie Riggs’ unwillingness to grow up. It’s about his refusal to get a real job as much as it is our refusal to stop sitting around in our underwear on cold Sunday mornings pretending to be dwarves or superheroes.
But we knew that. Videogames, much like Heavy Metal, refuse to grow up. The magazine has had such an indelible impact on the gaming landscape because we allowed it to. It fulfills our childish and sometimes childhood fantasies. It never went anywhere; everyone else just moved on. While those other guys traded LSD for parenthood, Heavy Metal just kind of did its own thing. And while similarly “dumb” games will continue to be marginalized as the medium grows into a legitimate means of expression, they’ll always be here. Videogames are only as serious as gamers take them, something you would do well to remember the next time you gloat over killing someone in a knuckleheaded war game, your windswept mane blowing majestically as you stand atop the mountainous, tattered corpses of your meek opponents.
Jonathan Glover is a writer living on the East Coast.