Interview: Nicolas Labarre

Conducted by Pedro Moura

Nick Labarre

Heavy Metal, l'autre Metal Hurlant by Labarre

Heavy Metal, l’autre Métal Hurlant (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux)











Heavy Metal, l’autre Métal Hurlant (“Heavy Metal, the Other Métal Hurlant”) came out earlier this year by the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux. While there is no English translation of the work, I am quite certain that even for those uninitiated in French, this interview with its author Nicolas Labarre will be an interesting read. Some readers may be familiar with the highly influential French magazine Métal Hurlant, which came out in 1975. This was a magazine that brought together some of the most groundbreaking, then contemporary, strands of independent comics artists, with people such as Moebius, Philippe Druillet, Enki Bilal, Jacques Tardi, Chantal Montellier, Jean-Claude Gal, but also the American Richard Corben, whose career took off in the pages of the French title. While dedicated first to 1970s psychedelic science-fiction, the magazine quickly explored many other genres, from political dystopia to faux nostalgia, and had quite a diverse roster.

In 2005 a French-language book was released, wholly dedicated to its glorious history: Métal Hurlant 1975-1987. La machine à rêver (“Métal Hurlant 1975-1987. The Dream Machine”), by Gilles Poussin, who provides the preface to Labarre’s volume, and Christian Marmonnier. However, while the American counterpart Heavy Metal (launched in 1977), put out by National Lampoon, is mentioned, it was not studied per se. Moreover, there is especially in Europe an ongoing perception of Heavy Metal that is skewed in its relationship to Métal Hurlant and reduces its specific importance. But if in its very first stages Heavy Metal was indeed the American version of the French magazine, providing translated material from that magazine, quickly enough it started not only bringing material from other French magazines (namely Pilote) but also producing home-grown original material, much of it from artists who would become household names, if they were not already (Gil Kane, Howard Chaykin, Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman, Paul Kirchner, and so on).

Labarre is a teacher of American Studies at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne and has published a number of comics-related academic articles, as well as children’s books and novels. The book establishes a very strong contextualization of how Heavy Metal came to be and its editorial, cultural, and social relationship with both the French original project and the American publishers. It then goes on to focus on Heavy Metal‘s contents and production history, with a large number of details and documentation background. Labarre does a terrific job in securing the voices of the people that were actually involved and tries to balance, in a readable way, the many different opinions that have been gathered here, sometimes quite strong and very often contradictory. With short, focused chapters, a generous number of well-chosen images and clear graphs, I am certain that readers will, if not change their opinion, at least have a wider, more nuanced view of the whole project.

The book is not interested in simply “correcting” a view of the magazine as engaging once too often into certain diminished expectations, cheap sexism, and violent fantasies (an opinion still held today in France, generally speaking). Nicolas Labarre is able instead to return attention to the titles that contributed substantially to the development of the diversity of genres, styles and modes of production of comics, especially in the U.S.

His close readings of certain stories and pieces, his interviews with editorial personnel, and his comparative studies with other projects, such as Epic or Raw, show that Heavy Metal should have a more prominent slot in wider historical assessments, especially where the translation/circulation of European comics into English is concerned, a task in which the American title was a groundbreaking precursor. While the main focus are the years in which the relationships – always strained – of Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant were in the fore, Labarre goes well beyond that, as he analyzes also the impact of the related films and other subsidiary projects. Basing himself in a historian’s perspective, Labarre uses adroitly sociological, cultural studies, and artistic frameworks in order to make clear his points. At a a time when Heavy Metal seems to want to turn its page by bringing Grant Morrison on board, it is a great opportunity to visit its past.

This interview was conducted through email in April of 2017


Pedro Moura: The main purpose of this book is a reevaluation of the first years of Heavy Metal, first and foremost especially vis à vis its relationship with Métal Hurlant but also with a wider editorial context, both European and North American. So this is not a story about the magazine itself, but rather a reassessment of comics-related transatlantic relations and the role of the title in the crux of the developments in the 1970s and 1980s. Is this is a fair assessment? That is to say, how important was it for you to make clear that the focus is more on Heavy Metal as a nexus than an isolated object of study?

Nicolas Labarre: The book started as a conference talk on the relationships between France and the United States in the comics field, and that has certainly shaped my view of the subject. Not only did Heavy Metal begin as an American Métal Hurlant, but it also started to draw from other sources very early on, using stories which had appeared in underground publications or in other French magazines. Reciprocally, the original Heavy Metal material started appearing in France, creating even more channels of transatlantic circulation. Just looking at the copyright page in the magazine suggests you have to look to other sources to fully understand it. Later on, the magazine’s willing to discuss and review other comics, and the fact that it spawned its own imitators placed it in yet a different network. Thus, I am not sure it would even be possible to study Heavy Metal as an isolated cultural object.

The book is very much about these circulations, though at one point, I realized I needed to include chapters on Heavy Metal as a thing in itself as well, detailing the changes in personnel and the chronology of the main series it published. Before I had these chapters in, I was so taken by the emphasis on the network that I had somewhat forgotten there was something at the center of it. So there is a bit of that in the book as well.

PM: You start with a debasing quote from J.-P. Dionnet about the magazine, which would be corroborated by many other voices (you also quote from Bill Griffith, for instance). Do you think that this notion of Heavy Metal as a “semi-mental” project (to pilfer a National Lampoon’s satire about its sister-magazine), with nude women on its cover and rudimentary takes on specific genres (sci-fi and high fantasy, mostly) was a narrow view of its overall project, an uncritical prejudice or simply a sweeping statement that lead to an unbalanced, unjust even, view that your book tries to correct?

NL: There is certainly a form of militantism in the book, a temptation to challenge the conventional wisdom and any form of overly broad, ahistorical assumption. Still, in the case of Heavy Metal, it is hard to disagree with the critical consensus suggesting that the magazine dilapidated its initial cultural cachet through two decades of commercial and artistic decline. By contrast, Métal Hurlant disappeared in 1987, and though it too went through a period of decline, it was short-lived and did not compromise the legacy of the magazine.

My point was not to argue for the contemporary relevance of Heavy Metal, nor to try and suggest that the magazine as a whole should be rehabilitated. I was merely trying to suggest that these sweeping judgments are perhaps not the best way to approach 40 years of publication under very different circumstances. In particular, I feel they obscured the role the magazine played in the first ten years, when it provided a vital interface between Europe and the United States.

The quote from Dionnet also had a specific function for French readers, since the poor opinion the Métal Hurlant founders had of Heavy Metal is the core of the available narrative about the magazine in France. Because so much of it was translated from Métal Hurlant at first, it was not imported back to France, and even comics specialists tend to be unaware of its history. It was important, if not necessary, to start with that dominant narrative – a tale of broken promises and disappointment – and examine it carefully, for I knew this would be the basic assumption of most of my readers.

PM: You present a complex, variegated, and integrated editorial landscape, in order to understand Heavy Metal’s emergence, life and influence. Some other scholars have employed this method as well, of course, but what’s your take on contemporary comics scholarship that sometimes focus a tad too much on the authors themselves, or particular works, isolating the subject matter from that “mediascape”?

NL: I do think there is value in close readings of specific texts and authors, and I know I have learnt much from such studies. This is not what I do, however, as I tend to approach comics as cultural history, broadly speaking. I am always wary of essentializing works by losing sight of the various determinants which shape them, from the “house style” at mainstream publishers through the generic expectations informing most “graphic novels.” Because I tend to think of the field of comics itself as a social construction, a set of practices and discourses tying together formal devices which could be put to other uses, I always try to sketch out the specific practices and discourses surrounding the comics I am interested in, and I hope the book reflects that.

PM: Would you say that this “correction” that you bring about with your book acts out a certain resistance towards an emerging comics canon? Quite often, this putative canon narrows down comics history to a number of titles or authors (A Contract with God, Watchmen, Maus, and so on), forgetting about other kinds of development, exchanges and relationships. Was this a situation you thought about when addressing this title, which is more often than not at the margins of larger assessments?

NL: In attempting to replace the popular narrative with a more nuanced cultural history, I do think the book touches on the issue of the canon – and its exclusion of a variety of reading and evaluating practices – but this was not the original intent.

What was more striking to me was that Heavy Metal was absent both from academic histories – with a few exceptions, such as Baetens and Frey’s The Graphic Novel: an Introduction – and from popular narratives about the form. It was thus popular, arguably influential, yet invisible. My hunch, but this is not a question I have explored directly, is that it stopped being part of comics history as the direct market solidified. Because it was not present primarily in comic shops, it got separated from the mainstream of American publishing. At the same time, because it remained a magazine, it was unlikely to be available in libraries, and therefore unlikely to be rediscovered at a later point.

More broadly, it seems to me that one of the functions of a canon is to provide preferred entry points in certain periods of history and certain aesthetic movements. I have not surveyed the field of turn of the 19th century American literature extensively, and I am happy to trust that Henry James and Edith Warton truly represent the acme of “serious” American literature of that time. In the case of comics, the various existing canons seem much more fragile, since the histories and surveys we have are dreadfully incomplete. Bart Beaty’s Twelvecent Archie is a powerful demonstration that even the most popular and visible comics of the 20th century are in need of sustained critical attention.

PM: If I may, and to play with a conference you’re organizing in Amiens [“Eccentrics and eccentricities in graphic novels and comics,” coming up in June, 2017], how much “eccentricity” was there in Heavy Metal? Not only where it acted as an entrance to huge references from European comics but also of locally-produced new material?

NL: I should say that the conference is actually organized by Amélie Junqua and Catherine Mansanti, though I have helped spread the word about it. Regarding Heavy Metal, it really depends on who you are as a reader. At this remove, a lot of it seems eccentric: anything by Druillet and even early Corben have become alien in a lot of ways, not to mention the many artists working more directly in the underground tradition, from Matt Howarth to Steve Stiles.

Eccentricity is always relative, of course, and it is hard to think of a domain in which Heavy Metal truly broke new ground. What it did, however, is displace a lot of work which would be familiar in a certain context – be it France or underground comix – and present it within a slick, widely distributed American magazine, where it did become eccentric.

PM: One of the great points of your book is being quite attentive to the exchanges between North American and European sources (mostly of Franco-Belgian origin, but you also mention Italian and Spanish productions), which became stronger (from France to the U.S.) in the 1970s and for which HM contributed substantially. How fortunate was this exchange? How much do you think changed for good, and how much do you think it was later reversed? Or is this the wrong way of putting the question?

NL: I am not quite sure I can answer this question satisfactorily. When I started the book, I thought I had a fairly good understanding of these exchanges and their ramifications, but I have come to realize that most of my assumptions were wrong. For instance, I have only recently learnt that an underground French magazine, Viper, was imported in the U.S. in 1985 by Rip-Off Press, and undoubtedly presented a different representation of French comics in the US than either Heavy Metal or RAW.

I believe that some of the most self-consciously crafted intercultural events which resulted from these exchanges can now be seen as failures, in that they remained isolated instances rather than harbingers of future exchanges; that Silver Surfer by Stan Lee and Moebius from 1988 was a dead end. Interestingly, the same kind of forced crossover led to a collaboration between Moebius and Taniguchi, Icare, which was equally disappointing as a hybrid between bande dessinée and manga.

On the other hand, this period of intense interplay between various comics cultural traditions provided a proof that some of the most salient achievements from any tradition could find an audience outside their country of origin. This is not the same thing as arguing that all French comics could be read and appreciated by American readers – as suggested by the failures of many subsequent attempts to import popular French series in the U.S. – but it suggested there would be a readership for a Moebius, a Druillet and later an Otomo or a Tezuka, if not for André Franquin. The move to narrowcasting these days, as graphic novels with small print runs can be distributed efficiently through online retailers, means that more marginal or difficult authors can now benefit from this demonstration of compatibility.

Another way to approach this question is the increased circulation of professionals from Europe to the United States, even beyond the much-publicized “British invasion” of the late 80s. There were no French authors producing comics in the US in the late 70s, but there have been many examples since. This does not mechanically results in an increased visibility of French comics – publishing Heavy Metal as a “fantasy magazine from France” and using Spanish artists, as Warren publishing had been doing since the early 70s were very different endeavors – but the two phenomenon reinforce each other.

PM: From my point of view, not being an American or French, I believe that the reception of French/European comics in the US was always weaker than the opposite. Not only where editions and/or sales are concerned, but also in reception, awards, exhibitions, articles and studies, and so on. Of course, this has to do with two completely distinct social integrations of comics (explored in your book). But Heavy Metal (and a few other titles) shows that there was some reception in the U.S., at least in the pages of the magazines, but then it was never turned into something larger. Do you agree with this (necessarily caricaturized) view? What do you think was lacking for a better reception?

EPSON scanner image

NL: I think it is a fair assessment, although again, I may not be aware some of incarnations of French comics in the U.S. The one missing factor, which would have turned this trickle into something larger is probably the lack of distribution channels for books of comics up to a fairly recent date. European albums do not translate well into traditional monthly comic books, if only because the art tends to become cramped in the format. Speaking of translation, the importance of humor in the canon of French and Belgian popular comics, especially among the authors who published in Spirou and Pilote, should also be cited as a factor.

I think another contributing aspect is the relative decline of French comics in the late 80s, which was a period of transition between the peak of adventure/genre comics of the 70s and the more literary output of independent publishers in the early 90s. In a way, once you had published Moebius, Druillet, Bilal and Caza, you were at the end of that specific line. The next generation of successful French-speaking authors, Trondheim, Sfar, or David B., had little in common with their predecessors and could certainly not be marketed using the same channels.

This being said, none of this explains satisfactorily why Christin and Mézière’s Valérian et Laureline, or Tardi’s Adèle Blanc-Sec failed to become popular in the US. I am tempted to ascribe that failure to a cultural defiance towards foreign cultural products, but the popularity of manga invalidates that hypothesis.

PM: This is one of the themes that you have paid more attention to, this cross-Atlantic relation. How much is still to be done on this in terms of comics scholarship? What are the “blind spots” in comics history or critical studies? And how can we understand these blind spots in relation to the canon I’ve mentioned before?

NL: That’s a very interesting question. There is a lot of fruitful work being done about manga and U.S. comics, of course, because there are fairly obvious points contact between the two traditions. There is also a lot of interest in France about the way super-heroes were imported and adapted or “indigenized” in France, to borrow a concept from Linda Hutcheon. This “indigenization” is apparent in the early and often wildly transformative translations, in the creation of French characters patterned on American heroes, but also in the rewriting of the history of the genre in books such as Serge Lehman’s The Chimerical Brigade (La brigade chimérique). These are important undertakings, and they illuminate the fact that the various national comics traditions have long had productive links.

What is lost, however, is the story of personal influences on the one hand, and an economic history on the other. One of the discoveries of the book was the fact that Gil Kane, one of the pioneers of the “graphic novel” among other achievements, took a keen interest in French comics at a time when then institutional contacts between the two industries were inexistent. It may now be tempting to reread Kane’s works of that period – the late 60s – in light of this possible influence.

Simultaneously, finding archives detailing the economic mechanisms underpinning the importations is extremely hard. The Métal Hurlant and the Heavy Metal archives seem to have disappeared, for instance. This lack of archives means that it is nearly impossible to determine to what extent the importation of foreign work was a reflection of economic necessities. One could imagine that translating genre works from Spirou or Pilote could have made a lot of economics sense for American publishers, for instance. Yet, it did not happen, and we do not have usable points of comparison to understand why.

PM: To be clear, you do not argue that Heavy Metal would/could/should become an avant-garde title such as RAW, or that it would fulfill roles as important as certain titles in the underground commix movement did before or other would do, later on, in the alternative comics circles. You do underline, however, its paramount role in feeding a growing trend or at least the transformative forces that would usher in a new generation of creators and readers and their frank positive attitude and openness towards comics. In other words, the mainstream integration of comics as a valid expressive language, and not a niche culture sub-product. Do you hope that your book may help us reconsider its role then within the development of contemporary comics (of course, this is one of the reasons why I think an English translation would be essential)?

NL: I would be very pleased if it did lead to this reassessment. Many of RAW’s choices have been vindicated by the subsequent evolution of comics and graphic novels and it truly is a significant landmark in the history of the form. It was, however, part of an ecosystem and crafted its own identity through similarities and differences with other publications of the time, including Heavy Metal. It seems entirely conceivable that Moebius could have been in RAW, for instance, had he not been strongly associated with Heavy Metal. The magazine also made it possible for Charles Burns to get paid for his work while doing El Borbah, while he was getting next to nothing for his pages in RAW. The work itself could have appeared in either magazine, as demonstrated by the fact that the El Borbah collection was published by RAW (then by Fantagraphics).

Beyond this relation to RAW, Heavy Metal’s attempt to become a cultural magazine as well as a comics publication in the early 80s also demonstrates this willingness to change the way in which comics were perceived and talked about, to make them relevant not by having them tackle contemporary issues – as attempted clumsily by Marvel and DC in the 70s – but by presenting them as part of a sophisticated crossover culture, ranging from Fellini to Blondie and video games.

PM: You are very clear in linking the parodies and satires that were done in a previous generation (Mad, some of the underground comics, National Lampoon’s comics) and the next, “more serious” one within the pages of HM, such as Burn’s El Borbah, Drew Friedman’s work, etc. You also make excellent points when analyzing the sophisticated material included in the magazine throughout those years, from Paul Kirchner’s The Bus strips, to the strangely poetic series I’m Age by Jeffrey Jones, early work by Jim Woodring, Chris Ware, Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman, among others. Not to mention the translated material from European greats too many to list here. Granted, you do not hide the fact that most of the work was sub-par, perfectly integrated in the expected, classic, and constricted genres of the magazine, and that the pin-up covers reinforced a very clear first impression (and you go a long way explaining the convoluted editorial changes of policy and personalities and the economic side of the affairs). At the risk of seeming to be asking the same question time and again, how important was this unpacking, to go beyond that very first impression?

NL: It seemed fitting that the book would be about going beyond that first impression, because this is exactly what I had been doing myself. I remember having been aware of Heavy Metal as an “American Métal Hurlant” in the late 90s, and seeking out the magazine at a newsagents in NYC probably in 2000. I found it and was dismayed by its cover as well as its content, since so much of it seemed to be some form of cheap erotica. In the next decade, I would find sporadic allusions to the magazine which bolstered that first impression.

Then at one point, I stumbled upon a few scanned pages from the early issues, and I discovered that they had published some early work by Tardi. That came from Métal Hurlant, of course, but it was a strikingly idiosyncratic choice, and I realized there might have been some interesting weirdness going on in the early years of the magazine.

When I started working on the book, that weirdness and the fact contemporary readers also found it weird was immediately striking. The letter pages were full of puzzled readers, asking for information, which the editors carefully failed to provide.

I think the fact that I had shared many of the assumptions I then sought to nuance or correct alerted me to the fact that I could not simply reverse the conventional judgment about the magazine.

PM: Speaking of unpacking, do you think that this was a matter of “wrong packaging”? Or simply a matter of paradoxical mixtures of genres and attitudes towards comics art?

NL: I do not think Heavy Metal was ever wrongly packaged. The magazine strove to be profitable at all times, even while pursuing interesting narrative experiments. You could have Chaland and Burns inside, but it made sense to have a pin-up on the cover and a few generic eroticized sci-fi tales if the titillation guaranteed somewhat steady sales. I may dislike most of the covers – though I do like some of the pinups, to be fair – but I recognize they had a specific purpose.

PM: “Ifs” are ridiculous in historical assessments, but do you think that things could have been any different with a little different factor?

NL: I think a second and better film could have helped in the early to mid-80s, while the magazine was trying to become a cultural nexus. The first film had brought exposure and readers, but its effect diminished over time, and it conveyed a misleading image of the content of the magazine.

It is also possible that a simple willingness to take more risks, to invest more money in the magazine at this juncture could have reversed the decline and help turn Heavy Metal in something even more relevant, even for just a few years.

If I am to rewrite history to better suit my tastes, there are many points at which things could have gone into a more interesting of satisfying direction: more Burns, more Montellier, bolder attempts to import manga, etc. Still, it is striking to me that the magazine has now been published for 40 years, remains a strong brand and is even enjoying a genuine renaissance at the moment. It is hard to deny these achievements, and it is quite conceivable that the changes or improvements I have in mind would have shortened that history significantly.

PM: We are living in a time when there are more solid and consequential editorial policies in the recuperation of comics memory, through almost-critical editions, integral series and the relaunch in book form (the contemporary valid, socially acceptable format of the “graphic novel”) of a number of titles (such as those from Fantagraphics, IDW-Eurocomics, Dover’s projects, among others). Recently, P. Kirchner’s The Bus was published in a hefty tome. Do you feel that is much to be rediscovered among the pages of Heavy Metal?

NL: Most of the work of substantial length which appeared in Heavy Metal has actually been republished, though it has rarely received the same critical attention as The Bus. There are however numerous short pieces which would deserve greater attention, but may hard to reprint simply because there are too few of them.

I am thinking of Nicola Cuti’s horror parodies – there were about 9 of them, all done in one page in striking black-and-white – and John Workman’s 2050 – about 30 science-fiction one-pagers, drawn by a variety of guest artists. My favorite is probably “Shakespeare for Americans”, by Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin, a series of playful and striking adaptations, but only 9 of them ever appeared. Come to think of it, a reprint of the John Holstrom video game reviews in comics form would probably be of interest as well.

PM: What would you like to be the main consequence of your book? The inclusion of Heavy Metal in more general assessments? A more attentive analysis of its contents beyond a first impression (prejudiced, perhaps, although not totally unwarranted)?

NL: I would love the book to do what Jeet Heer did for Françoise Mouly with his brilliant In Love with Art, in which he affirmed her crucial role in the shaping of RAW, among other achievements; this is about making sure an important actor is not left out of the conversation out of habit or convenience.

Beyond Heavy Metal itself, I feel the book would be helpful if it led to more studies of publishing institutions, outside Marvel and DC. For instance, I would be greatly interested in reading sustained academic studies of Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach production, of NBM or of Catalan publication.


Check out works mentioned in this interview:

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