Comic books are perhaps the most popular sources of inspiration for moviemakers in this decade. Just think of all the movies of a highly variable quality that have been released since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started on its glorious assault on our pockets more than a decade ago. And it’s not only movies either. From broadcast channels to the most popular and accessible streaming services online are filled with content inspired by graphic novels and comic books – some of them are better (like Amazon’s acclaimed “The Boys” series), others, not so much.
The comics flocking to the screen these days have one thing in common: they are American. Of course, comic books are a typically American form of entertainment – this doesn’t mean, in turn, that they are unheard of in other parts of the world such as Birmingham in the UK. On the contrary.
France too is famous for its wines, cheese, and landmarks – and also, in some circles, for its comics. One of its most widely-known titles is “The Adventures of Asterix”, a series of bandes desinnées created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959. The stories revolve around Astérix, a mighty Gaul (and his oversized sidekick Obélix) and their adventures in defeating the Roman conquerors trying to overrun their village. This proves harder than it seems thanks to Getafix, the village druid, and his magic potion that gives the villagers superhuman strength. The two were the protagonists of countless comics, ten animated features, four live-action movies, not to mention the theme parks, the board games, and the first French satellite named after the mighty Gaul warrior.
There’s more to Francophonic comics than Asterix (and the Smurfs that were born in Belgium), more than the lighthearted fantasy stories above. The hallmark of the French comics’ golden age was a magazine called “Métal hurlant” (Howling Metal) created in December 1974.
Les Humanoïdes Associés
The United Humanoids (Les Humanoïdes Associés) consisted of comic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud), Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, and Bernard Farkas, who acted as the financial director of the publication.
Giraud was already an acclaimed cartoonist and writer at the time, having released several Western and science fiction and fantasy comics in the previous decades, Druillet won the European SF award for Comics in 1972 for his comic series Lone Sloane at the first Eurocon, and Dionnet was a long-time collaborator of the two, writing scripts for them at the comic magazine Pilote.
At first, the magazine was released quarterly – it had 68 pages (18 of them in color), and the first editions consisted entirely of works by the founders, Mœbius and Druillet. These early editions contained several Lone Sloane comics, and experimented with new formats and storytelling methods – they were, among others, home to Arzach, a silent warrior riding a pterodactyl-like creature through a desolate arid landscape. The “Arzach” comics have no dialogue, telling the stories through visuals alone. Later, many other artists published their works in the magazine, like Chilean-French artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Enki Bilal, Francis Masse, Milo Manara, and many others.
The content of the magazine was later expanded to include not only comics but articles about science fiction books and movies, later music and video game reviews. It remained true to its origins, though – it is considered one of the first examples of comic books for mature audiences, focusing on surreal, complex visuals, often cinematic graphics, and complex, experimental storytelling.
Métal hurlant has published 133 issues between 1974 and 1987, then for another brief run between 2002 and 2004, with 14 more.
Heavy Metal was the American version of the original French magazine – at first, it was the licensed translation of the original, later evolving into a publication featuring the works of North American artists like Stephen R. Bissette (Swamp Thing), Alex Ebel (Friday the 13th), Gray Morrow (Man-Thing, El Diablo), and Bernie Wrightson, the co-creator of Swamp Thing. The magazine published a blend of science fiction, dark fantasy, steampunk, and erotica, often explicit and ultra-violent, intended for a mature readership.
The magazine is still published today, albeit the ownership has changed – it is currently owned by David Boxenbaum, and Jeff Krelitz, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman serving as a publisher.
Heavy metal on the screen
Heavy Metal was adapted to the silver screen before it was cool thanks to director Gerald Potterton and producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel (who was also the publisher of the magazine at the time). The animated anthology contained several stories taken from the magazine as well as original stories in the same spirit – and it is as adult-oriented as its printed original. The overarching story revolves around the “Loc-Nar”, a sentient orb that describes itself as “the sum of all evil” traveling across the galaxy, causing harm wherever it can.
The stories in the magazine were also adapted to the small screen in a series called “Métal Hurlant Chronicles” but the English-language Franco-Belgian series, written and directed by Guillaume Lubrano, failed to live up to its name.