Métal Hurlant was the daring magazine that broke all the rules and altered the course of science-fiction’s aesthetic forever
A huge chunk of the modern sci-fi canon owes its existence to one thing: a psychedelic, avant-garde, and frequently X-rated mindfuck of a French comics anthology from the 70s and 80s called Metal Hurlant. Literally ‘Howling Metal’ in French, its influence has been cited by everyone from Ridley Scott to William Gibson and the director of Akira. It was so influential, in fact, that co-founder Jean-Pierrie Dionnet said he realised it was an artistic movement on par with surrealism. “I learned it when Alain Resnais was my first subscriber, Chris Marker was the second one, Fellini the fifth,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I learned it when I would ask George Lucas for a foreword, and he would send me it the next week.”
Metal Hurlant’s birth would later be immortalised in the first issue of its still-running American edition, founded in 1977 and renamed Heavy Metal:
“At 4am on the nineteenth of December, 1974, under the mad marksman’s eye of the archer in the sky, on the feast of Bishop Nicasius, who prophesied the arrival of the barbarians who beheaded him, observed by whoknows how many orbiting whatnots, a linkless foursome previously identified as Druillet, Dionnet, Moebius, and Farkas were transformed into the Associated Humanoids. Shortly thereafter, a magazine entitled Metal Hurlant materialized on newsstands. Metal Hurlant means ‘screaming metal’ – whatever that means. It was, and still is, issued by the Associated Humanoids. The magazine appears to be the work of an alien intelligence, as indeed it is. It is French.”
The reality, of course, was not so dramatic, and the linkless foursome was really more of a disaffected reunion. Journalist-writer Dionnet had previously written scripts for two artists: Philippe Druillet, famous for his baroque blotter art aesthetic, and Moebius (real name Jean Giraud), whose Tintin-meets-Salvador-Dali-in-space style would turn him into a Jodorowsky and Miyazaki-approved legend. Because their previous publications, Pilote and L’Echo des Savanes, were unable to print a sci-fi comic anthology, they decided to do it themselves by starting a new publishing company with an accountant named Bernard Farkas, whom Druillet claimed in an interview was “a complete bullshitter” who “asked for a car six months after the beginning” and left to “make a lot of money with the Rubik’s cube thing”.
Although Metal Hurlant no longer exists, having died once in 1987 and then again in 2004 after a short-lived resurrection, its innovative writing, intoxicating visuals and sheer stylishness continue to influence sci-fi today. Here’s why.
IT WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND AND HAD NO RULES
For decades before Barbarella caused a pearl-clutching epidemic with her sexy space shenanigans, the reigning Franco-Belgian comics were family-friendly. Then, in 1960, came a satirical journal called Hara-Kiri. Its tag line was “the stupid and vicious magazine”, and it was essentially a more political, grown-up Mad magazine with a fetish for bad taste and pathology for provocation. The comics were nasty, brutish, and short – scatological fixations, sexual taboos and political dissent coalescing in one hideous orgy. Although banned in 1970 for making fun of President Charles de Gaulle’s death and turning into Charlie Hebdo as a result, it inspired other adult comic magazines like L’Echo des Savanes and Fluide Glacial that embraced a similar aesthetic.
Metal Hurlant stood out. “We wanted to change everything,” Moebius said in one of his last interviews. “We wanted to be completely original and bizarre.” It strayed from the mold by focusing on dark sci-fi and fantasy. Big-name artists created some of the most iconic Euro-comics, eschewing traditional narrative in favor of no dialogue, faulty continuity, surreal logic and meta-fictional humor. Its covers were gothic, pulpy, and prog-rocky, with HR Giger lending one of his Necronomicon works for one issue and fantasy author Jean-Michel Nicollet depicting a dominatrix robot beating a client to smithereens in another.
Inside, the stories were cinematic and exquisitely detailed, with experimental plots and a philosophical, rather than overtly satirical, slant. Nudity notwithstanding (some series’ portrayal of women drew plenty of accusations of sexism), its emphasis on world-building and visual entendres meant readers could spend their acid trips devouring it as scenery porn or searching for metaphysical Easter eggs. Did Metal Hurlant ooze pretension? Sure, but for comics to even be accused of intellectual affectations was groundbreaking.
IT WAS A CULTURAL LIAISON
In the 60s, underground comics flourished in America. Probably best epitomised by the art of R Crumb, they were filthy, violent, explicit, and utterly counterculture. They fascinated Moebius, who said in his first American interview (published in Heavy Metal), “The US sends the best odours around the world as well as the worst ones. America has the greatest conscious as well as the greatest nonconscious (witness the sexuality, the violence, and the aggression in American culture).” Struck by their subversive storytelling, he and the other Metal Hurlant editors combined the countercultural sensibility of the underground comics with the artistic sophistication of Euro-comics.
The exchange was mutual. In 1977, National Lampoon bought Metal Hurlant for an American audience, renaming it as the catchier Heavy Metal magazine and introducing America to Moebius and Druillet, as well as an entire tradition of Euro-comics it had never seen before.
“When the French say ‘science fiction’, they are not (referring to), as you might think, HG Wells or ‘Star Trek’ or even Jules Verne,” reads the intro to Heavy Metal’s first issue. “‘Science fiction’ is a term which can sufficiently define Big Macs, South America, Methodism, or a weird neighbour. Vogue Magazine, anything Belgian, and pop-top cans are certainly science fiction. The Humanoid ‘Moebius’, writing in Metal Hurlant, describes how, while listening to a Johnny Cash album, he realised that science fiction is a cathedral. Are you beginning, dear reader, to sufficiently misunderstand?”
As the newly glossy and full-colour Heavy Metal became a huge hit, it began publishing more American writers and other X-rated avant-garde Euro-fare, like Guido Crepax’s BDSM fever dream Valentina and the Italian RanXerox, a “bizarre Beauty and the Beast tale” about an android made of Xerox machine parts protecting his underage girlfriend in a horror-show of a dystopia.
IT BROUGHT TOGETHER ARTISTIC AND CULTURAL ICONS
Both Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal published articles, but while Metal Hurlant focused more on sci-fi reviews, Heavy Metal turned into “Playboy for geeks”, as dubbed by Entertainment Weekly. Not content with its “Heavy Metal is better than being stoned” reputation, its editors in the late 70s and 80s wanted writing from and about the hippest cultural icons. There were stories and essays from Harlan Ellison, William S Burroughs and Stephen King. In the trippiest partnership ever, Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote scripts for Moebius to illustrate. John Waters, Captain Beefheart and Federico Fellini gave interviews. The December 1981 cover story was by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, about working with HR Giger.
And it was Metal Hurlant that got Moebius gigs designing Alien, Tron, The Fifth Element and The Empire Strikes Back. Had the magazine never existed, the sci-fi aesthetic would look incredibly different today.
“A while ago, SF was filled with monstrous rocket ships and planets,” Moebius told Heavy Metal in 1980. “It was a naive and materialistic vision, which confused external space with internal space, which saw the future as an extrapolation of the present. It was a victim of an illusion of a technological sort, of a progression without stopping towards a consummation of energy. But we’ve completely changed that vision. It’s been a sharp, radical change, and somewhat brutal.”