by Brad Nelson
“There was no message to be found anywhere in sight / Inside or out”
- Stevie Nicks, “Blue Lamp”
In 1995, W.G. Sebald published The Rings of Saturn, a novel that describes a walking tour of Suffolk, a county on the east coast of England bordered by the North Sea. In the course of this tour the unnamed protagonist endures a nervous breakdown, a source of which is his conviction that human endeavor is drawn inexorably toward death and destruction. The penumbral threat of annihilation contaminates the German author’s considerations of time and memory. “We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains,” he writes. “All that is certain is that night lasts far longer than day.” The novel’s ten chapters consist of wildly discursive histories—the slow erosion of towns that formerly decorated the Suffolk coast, the atrocities of the Belgian Congo and how they merged with the life of writer Joseph Conrad, and the still living rawness of the Holocaust. World War II and the Holocaust, the details of which he discovered had fallen out of German memory, especially glow around all of Sebald’s histories of senseless death, as peripheral and incomprehensible to one’s experience of the world as the endlessness of space at night, a tide of dark flowing over the curve of the earth.
For a long time when I was a kid I would experience regular episodes of insomnia, disconnected, shapeless nights where the hours would slow and gather together mindlessly. The atmosphere of 4 a.m. faintly echoed that of 3 a.m., on and on, like a canyon bouncing sound off its walls, building an inescapable drone in the air. I would watch television for hours and eventually hear English phrases as foreign language; they’d stream entirely through my systems of understanding, which had been compromised by my unresolving nearness to sleep. It was as if I had slipped into a new system of logic that was emerging from the vivid blur of the TV. At this point in my life my chief concern was music, in both past and present mutations, so I would inevitably cycle between MTV and VH1 as my comprehension drifted. During these hours VH1 would sometimes air the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal in edited form; they’d either surgically deleted the generous nudity or dressed it in crude blurs of underwear. Preserved were the dense ribbons of blood which whistled readily from everyone’s body.
Heavy Metal was directed by Gerald Potterton, a British animator who worked onYellow Submarine 13 years before. Leonard Mogul, publisher of the science fiction magazine from which the movie draws its name and essence, co-produced it along with Ivan Reitman, who had previously collaborated with principal writers Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum on the Bill Murray comedies Meatballs andStripes. Heavy Metal the movie was intended to be an animated digest of Heavy Metal the magazine, which began publishing issues of violent and sexually explicit science fiction and fantasy comics in 1975, and was itself the American embodiment of the French magazine Métal Hurlant, which translates as “howling metal.”
The movie consists of six vignettes, each assembled by different Canadian animation studios, and a framing story from which the vignettes flow. The stories revolve around a glowing green orb known as the Loc-Nar, who describes itself as “the sum of all evils” and whose power radiates through time in recursive and expanding rings. When it first appears, the Loc-Nar melts the astronaut who brought it to to Earth, then from its immersive glow projects the film’s different stories at the astronaut’s daughter.
There’s a recurring image in Heavy Metal of bodies dissolving, the arc of human life reduced to nothing but eyes and bones draped senselessly in fathoms of goo. This dissolution happens twice in the first vignette, where a noirish New York cab driver engages with the Loc-Nar. A group of scientists extract the Loc-Nar from the desert, and the evil glowing sphere decomposes the first scientist to touch it. Meanwhile, cabbie Harry Canyon has a silent alarm installed in his car which vaporizes in a beam of light any passenger who would threaten his life. Like most dystopian visions, this first story is actually a narrow reflection of the time in which it was written; future New York essentially resembles late-’70s New York with floating cars. Canyon is seduced and betrayed by a woman who comes into possession of the Loc-Nar. He vaporizes her as well.
The second vignette is inspired by Den, a lengthy, elaborate comics saga byHeavy Metalcontributor Richard Corben. A boy discovers the Loc-Nar in his backyard and takes it up into his room. Weeks later, during a thunderstorm, the orb harnesses a bolt of lightning and launches the boy through innumerable bruises of nebulae, into a swollen, medieval realm called Neverwhere. His body blooms with muscle, and he is suddenly transfigured into an adult named Den. Robed figures gather around a dark pool to sacrifice a woman to the god Uhluthc, which is “Cthulhu,” the name of the H.P. Lovecraft deity with the mouth of a squid, spelled backwards. The remaining elements of the story seem just as considered. Den rescues the woman, who has also been augmented, but from a Gibraltar girl named Katherine Wells into a woman with enormous breasts and distended, floral nipples. It’s uninspired male fantasy even as an endless and confusing comic, but what fascinates is the dimensional quality of Corben’s drawings, the way Den’s galloping dick and an infinitely flowering field can each exhibit tremendous muscularity, bodies and landscapes twisting into dazzling helixes.
In comparison, the Den of the movie feels barely animated or detailed. The underdeveloped features of Heavy Metal’s principal characters, the way their cheeks kind of drift around bonelessly, combined with the slow, almost frozen qualities of the animation, give their eventual actions a sinister dimension. No one seems capable of expressing more than one emotion. Lines appear and dissolve on their faces, as if their skin is constantly regenerating.
An exception to this is Hanover Fiste, lackey of interstellar criminal Captain Sternn; when he makes contact with a marble-sized incarnation of the Loc-Nar, he grows intricately veined as an insect wing. The Captain Sternn vignette is based on characters initially created for Heavy Metal magazine by Bernie Wrightson, who also designed the character of Swamp Thing in the early ‘70s, conceiving him as a muscular, sinewy elaboration of a swamp. Wrightson’s characters tend to share this aspect; even his Batman is overgrown with weeds of shadow. His imagery is often as gorgeous as it is disturbing or absurd. As the newly muscular Fiste pursues Sternn, he reduces elaborate spaceship interiors to soft ribbons of steel.
The way speculative exteriors crowd almost baroquely with imaginative detail is the enduring appeal of the art in Heavy Metal, both movie and magazine. The most buoyant of Heavy Metal’s vignettes, “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” draws its concept from a series of the same name by Angus McKie, which appeared in early issues in the magazine. It only faintly resembles the comic it’s drawn from, abbreviated here to its most juvenile form; aliens get high, a mousy robot has sex with an Earth woman. It’s also responsible for the most gorgeous individual scene of Heavy Metal, where a spaceship, rendered in glossy, primary colors, and designed to resemble a cartoon grin, resonates over a government building. The spaceship is illustrated in the tradition of McKie’s best work, which largely depicts crystalline spacecraft adrift in vividly pulsing galaxies.
The final story, “Taarna,” which also draws the framing story into itself when the title character destroys the Loc-Nar, is transparently indebted to Arzach, a comic written by Jean Giraud under the pseudonym Mœbius. It first appeared inMétal Hurlant in 1975 and was serialized in Heavy Metal’s early issues. In the comic, a warrior in a pointed hat speechlessly rides a prehistoric bird through deserts that are almost lunar in their cratered emptiness. The Arzach comics were collected in 1987 and included Mœbius’ notes on their origins: “When an artist puts himself in a state where he wants to draw what exists at the deepest level of his consciousness, just on the edge of the subconscious mind, then strange things begin to happen,” he writes. “The defenses erected by your conscious mind start crumbling, and the intellect’s direction yields to messages from the subconscious.”
Giraud’s subconscious mostly illustrates itself unevenly and irreverently. In the first issue, Arzach glides by a window in a tall, hollowed stone and witnesses a woman undressing, her face obscured by the fabric of her dress. He flies to the top of the colonized rock, resolving to lasso the alpha male and hang him from the skeleton of an enormous dead animal. When he returns to the woman, he regretfully discovers her features are bear-like, her tongue amphibian.
My favorite single page in the comic depicts not Arzach on his pterodactyl but another, nameless character, a green figure in an aviator hat, who walks into a strange phallic temple filled what appear to be convalescent lepers. Though they technically populate an interior, the lepers uncoil within uncanny space, an endless white plain flowing into a horizon.
In retrospect, Giraud sees a kind of darkness and sadness in these images, grown from the dark dreams at the edge of consciousness. “At that time, the only way that I had to open myself to the subconscious plane, and free myself from the direction of my intellect, was to go ‘below,’ in those darker zones of myself which, at the time, revealed someone who was suffering, someone who was not living a happy existence, someone who was surrounded by a hard and terrible world,” he writes. “When you open those doors inside yourself, the only pictures that you find are images of death and fear.”
Readers were attracted to Heavy Metal magazine for the intricate illustrations of elsewhere such as the ones found in Arzach; they were environments that appealed to people who also found depth and imaginative richness in Roger Dean’s album covers for Yes, alien landscapes designed around innumerable vanishing points. The soundtrack for the movie reflects this sensibility unevenly, presenting a somewhat askew continuum of hard rock circa 1981. The guitars are often produced to a bodiless chug, especially on the songs provided by Sammy Hagar and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, though Cheap Trick’s guitars retain the texture of lasers. One of the singles released from the soundtrack was Devo’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” a cover of the 1966 Lee Dorsey song, which like other Devo covers (especially their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”) reorganizes the song into discrete patterns. It sounds faintly like the original, but disembodied and newly geometric.
Tucked into the end of the soundtrack is the first song Stevie Nicks recorded outside of Fleetwood Mac, “Blue Lamp.” It refers to a literal Tiffany lamp Nicks’ mother purchased for her after Nicks had initially joined the band in 1975. “I carried [it] on an airplane home with a friend of mine,” Nicks said in a radio interview from 1981. “They didn’t want us to take it on the plane because it was too big. Well, we got it on the plane, by screaming and yelling and crying.” The song revolves around the lamp’s ominous and magnetic glow.
My favorite song in the movie is Donald Fagen’s “True Companion,” which inhabits some wasted seconds of the “Harry Canyon” sequence. The track is five minutes long and has few lyrics, as if it were content to gently drift like the gleaming spacecraft it describes. When it expands to fit a evolving guitar solo the mutation is so natural as to resist notice, and it relaxes back into its regular shape just as smoothly, like a ripple in water.
Blue Öyster Cult also feature on the soundtrack, and they’re maybe the most direct musical embodiment of the spirit of Heavy Metal magazine. They actively wrote about science fiction and horror properties—Godzilla, the specter of Death, the reanimated corpse of Joan Crawford—merging them with their own visions of evil. Many of the songs on their 1981 album Fire of Unknown Origin were intended for the Heavy Metal soundtrack, among them “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver,” which seems to describe the death of all matter, and “Vengeance (The Pact),” which condenses the plot of the “Taarna” vignette. Blue Öyster Cult’s most horrifying songs are rendered with an irreverent, almost campy distance from the scenes they convey, which oddly deepens the atmosphere of menace and horror. This is felt particularly on their third album, 1974’s Secret Treaties, which contains indirect echoes of Nazi Germany. The album cover is an illustration of the band arranged around a Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, a German aircraft that was the first functional jet fighter plane; on the Secret Treaties cover the Me 262 is piloted by a skeleton. They deliberately inhabited this imagery even though lead singer and “stun guitar” player Eric Bloom is Jewish, as is manager and producer Sandy Pearlman, who wrote lyrics for the band drawn from a collection of poems he wrote in college called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. The Doctrinesconstruct a kind of occultish and unstable shadow history that begins in the 19th century, and from which World Wars I and II eventually generate; the band fragmented these poems and scattered them throughout their first four albums. In an interview with Uncut, guitarist Buck Dharma explained, “I never thought we pandered to the occult or violence or any of that. We would deal with these themes much like an author or a filmmaker would. We were hammered as being Nazis or devil worshippers, we like to create mindscapes with our music but it’s not like we lived [them].”
In researching this essay, I watched “Neverwhere Land,” a sequence deleted from the final cut of Heavy Metal. The sequence depicts not the Neverwhere ofDen but the history of our world, which evolves from the Loc-Nar’s impact in a primordial sea. Animals and people murder and consume each other from the amoebic birth of life to the dawn of World War II. The version of the sequence available on the DVD has a workprint quality—characters look like sketches, and their tendency to dissolve into a chaos of lines causes them appear like squids feeding on each other. The sequence is scored with “Passacaglia” by Krzysztof Penderecki, who would often arrange his compositions for choirs in semitonal clusters, members of the choir singing only slightly differentiated notes, breeding a dissonance that over time begins to resemble an evolving vortex. “Neverwhere Land” was intended to precede the vignette “B-17,” where the Loc-Nar reanimates the corpses of World War II bomber pilots, viscera still hanging from the branches of their ribs. These sequences weave the doom of human history into the otherwise speculative fantasy of Heavy Metal, its immature visions suddenly enveloped in nameless shadow.
Horror does not necessarily express itself as a malevolent universe. It can be an indifferent one, and often is. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks evil has no intrinsic nature, nor any motivation beyond survival. It has a discrete body, and swims through people like a virus. As an adolescent awake in raw, disorganized hours I could not begin to apprehend the horror I felt at the idea of the Loc-Nar. It was the senselessness of it, the idea that people despite their goodness or badness could become enraptured and unwoven by its gleam. Criticisms I’ve read ofHeavy Metal tend to characterize a mindlessness animating the film, but this mindlessness is crucial to the way evil operates in the movie. It’s arbitrary and accidental as fate; people can just dissolve into nothing, for no reason, without a trace. Trying to understand this, trying to hold it in one’s mind is like assimilating antimatter. Throughout The Rings of Saturn Sebald is consumed with the writings of the enigmatic doctor Thomas Browne, whose work dwelled in the metaphysical as much as the anatomical, and “who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.” “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” Sebald writes. “For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.”
Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice.