The Past is the Future Again

Heavy Metal 30th Anniversary Special

I was talking about Heavy Metal with a friend the other day. It was a little odd for the first minute, since he assumed I meant the movie from decades ago. After he realized I meant the magazine, he asked me what sort of stuff they were even publishing these days.

Truth be told, thirty years after it started, Heavy Metal is still up to just about what it was doing in the late '70s. Sure, not every issue is stuffed with nothing but bits and pieces of European comics serials anymore; those early issues practically dared you to keep reading. Then again, I believe there was a time in the late '80s when the magazine didn't publish any serials at all.

But for a long time now, it's been a steady stream of a dozen or so album-length works per year, many of them ongoing series from the French-language market but some of them from English-native folks like Pat Mills, spread out over six regular issues and three special issues. Shorts also included. It's still on most bookstore magazine racks, and in many comics stores. It remains the most visible and easily accessed source for European comics in English.

The quality varies a lot, and I don't buy every issue, but they do manage some interesting stuff. Last year there was an entire special issue (Summer 2006) dedicated to Alessandro Barbucci's and Barbara Canepa's Sky Doll, one of the slicker anime/manga-influenced European pop comics pieces, a style Heavy Metal has been promoting at least since Enrico Marini's and Thierry Smolderen's Katsuhiro Otomo-soaked Gypsy. I'm always happy to see stuff like Alexandro Jodorowsky's and Milo Manara's historical-exploitation-film-on-paper Borgia (March 2005, July 2006), or one of those Stan & Vince/Benoît Delépine batshit epics (most recent: Godkiller, November 2006).

But this brand-new special, out in bookstores now (and comics shops on Wednesday), caught my eye for a different reason. It's the 30th Anniversary Special, after all. What might Heavy Metal do to usher in its fourth decade?

The answer, it seems, is Melting Pot.

C'mon, you remember Melting Pot! A four-issue, 1993-94 miniseries from Kitchen Sink? Collected in 1995? The story of a hulking barbarian dictator on a swordplay fantasy planet (with lasers and spaceships) who catches a fatal sexually-transmitted disease, which prompts him to wage holy war on a society of religious extremists in the hope that the prophesized return of God will cure him of his ailment? And then God comes back and gets pissed at our warlike ways, but then we kill God, man?

From Kevin Eastman, Eric Talbot and Simon Bisley? The same Kevin Eastman whose Tundra publishing concern had just melded with Kitchen Sink earlier in '93, and who's been publisher and editor-in-chief of Heavy Metal since 1991? The same Melting Pot that served as basis for the animated film Heavy Metal 2000?

Eastman admits in his introduction to the issue (and here too) that it's a bit gauche to reprint one of his own comics in the 30th Anniversary issue; there were apparently some other planned projects that fell through. But this new Melting Pot has been simmering for a while, and it's not just a reprint - it's been totally rewritten (by Eastman), relettered (by Richard Starkings & Jimmy Betancourt), expanded by 45 pages (for a total of 170), and now bears the mark of four artists (Rob Prior's the new guy).

And it's not just about adding pages either. Eastman says he's never been totally happy with Melting Pot, as he details here. He and Talbot had been working on the book since the late '80s, but it didn't really take off until Bisley began playing with the 'finished' art in the early '90s. Bisley's credit in the original series reads simply "paints," but it's pretty clear that he painted assertively.

Soon, he and Eastman were putting together new pages, although Bisley worked out of sequence, and had trouble maintaining visual continuity. According to Eastman, he also eventually got bored with the book, which is apparent from simply looking at some of the slapdash pages from issue #4, which are invariably followed by something more energetic, possibly originating from a more interested time. Eastman also cites as problematic his own weaknesses as a writer: "I thought I got too artistic for my own good and I took out half the dialog that I originally had put in and a lot of people who had read the story couldn't understand it unless you were me."

So, the new Melting Pot is all about addition.

There's some all-new pages. A bunch of old pages have been split apart and bolstered with new Eastman/Bisley art. All sorts of pre-existing related art has been sewn into the body of the work, including Heavy Metal 2000 production art, and even one of the original Kitchen Sink covers. There's a new prologue. The ending is totally redone. Eastman's wordcount has to have at least doubled - captions dot former splash pages, several of which have been pasted over with tiny panels and extra bits of business. New artist Prior is credited with "digital artwork, remastering and visual effects," which means the whole thing has been fed into image software and sandblasted with color tweaks and blur effects and blood spatters and flares of light, enough so that the patchwork is throttled into something akin to visual consistency.

If anything, this accomplishes the not-inconsiderable feat of making Melting Pot even more garish than it initially was. Reading it actually gave me a headache. It is a more level work than it was before, although there's still at least one instance of a character's costume changing without warning from one page to the next. And some pages look smeary and indistinct, smothering the original's profound, clay-like Richard Corben influence under a glowy gauze.

Yet there's an interesting thing going on between incarnations of Melting Pot - both works are creations of their times, and rooted in contemporaneous styles.

The first Melting Pot may have dated back to the '80s, but much of its character was built in the early '90s, a period of action/fantasy comics steeped in visual bombast. The early Image books are usually seen as embodying the zeitgeist, and Melting Pot was part of it too. Much of its heart is in the post-underground mainstream 'bridge' work of Corben and others, but the many crushing splashes and jutting character movements mark it as then-modern type of book. Eastman's dialogue is sparse, and prone to short, declarative bellows, sitting like islands in an ocean of wordless battles. Violent visual impact is the foremost concern, supported by terse evocations of social concerns. You don't need to look hard to find echoes of AIDS and geopolitical anxiety - that stuff was in plenty of the early Image books too. It's encoded, albeit without much grace, into bone-crunching clashes.

The new Melting Pot, in contrast, reflects a more word-driven environment for this type of comic, just a ways past the trend for decompression. Eastman has cited both Corben and Frank Miller as the key influences on the work - the many captions dotting these updated pages play out Miller's writerly aspect as much as Corben's visual concern. There is more attention paid to the literary - Eastman adopts a conversational style for most characters, occasionally drifts into biblical-style verse, and even tosses in some textual allusions to other comics works (the world's god has been named Tarim, for example). The art is more concerned with page design and panel beat, with several climactic double-page battle splashes flanked by tiny panels rushing across the tops and bottoms. The coloring conveys mood moreso than tactile immediacy or candy gloss.

This is a Melting Pot for comics as often read through the lens of prose, compared to prose literature at its points of high sophistication, and criticized most often on the levels of plot point and character motivation across the board. The old Melting Pot was faster, harder, and more opaque, for a time of punch and dazzle above most else in pop action comics. Immediacy.

It's still Melting Pot, mind you. There's lines like "Well that was pretty good -- I think I came and shit my pants at the same time! Hah! Hah! Hah!" It's still the story of a muscle-bound badass fighting big-breasted religious fundamentalists over pages and pages of sex and violence. They still kill God (Tarim!) at the end, although now they talk with God too, stating the case of man's warlike ways, then pontificating on living in peace after the big feller goes down. It's still kind of hard to read, but for different reasons. Loud and overindulgent, but in different ways. Onto these walls, though we can project the desires of popular fight funnies.

It won't be hard to find, or sample. Or take an impulse-buy chance on, if you're up for it. It is a magazine-sized, full-color, 170-page comics production, ads at the front and back only, for $6.95. Tucked away somewhere in every mall bookstore you can think of. That's kind of a miracle in today's comics scene, and highlights the advantage of being a 30-year institution - they'll know where to find you.