After Heavy Metal first appeared in the U.S. in 1977, the illustrated science fiction magazine quickly stamped its imprint on American popular culture in the form of its gleaming chrome-plated logo. Originally founded in France as Metal Hurlant, the renamed U.S. version, from the publishers of the National Lampoon, offered a mix of sophisticated Euro-comics by such legendary European artists as Enki Bilal, Philippe Druillet, Milo Manara, and the great Moebius.
The magazine was an immediate hit, filled with bare-chested fantasy barbarian babes; American standout cartoonists such as Vaughn Bode, Richard Corben, and Bernie Wrightson; and cutting-edge cultural commentary, all put together with high production values. At a time when American newsstand comics were still being printed on newsprint, the glossy Heavy Metal warped the minds of a generation of (mostly male) comics fans looking for stronger, transgressive, more imaginative comics material.
Over the next 30 years, Heavy Metal lost some of its luster, as its innovative offerings of European science fiction, steampunk, erotica, and dark fantasy comics material spread in the U.S. market, influencing American superhero comics as well as indie comics publishers. Though the magazine continued publishing on an irregular schedule, the big consumer noise that the brand generated in its early days had mellowed to a dull roar.
In 2019, the owners brought in a new creative and publishing team led by CEO Matthew Medney (who is also a popular author) and publisher/chief creative officer David Erwin, along with an editorial and marketing staff of proven comic industry vets, in an effort recapture the old Heavy Metal magic with an ambitious strategy covering publishing, media production, music, and more.
But in a scenario worthy of the magazine’s dystopian science fiction, Heavy Metal announced a big relaunch just in time for a global pandemic that paralyzed retail and distribution and threw the plans of even well-established publishers into chaos. “That was a low point,” Medney said. “Thirty percent of our revenue was gone overnight. We had a big newsstand footprint, and bookstore distribution in channels like Barnes & Noble. That was cut 35% from the pandemic.”
The company pivoted quickly and began distributing its books, comics, and merchandise direct to consumer, and Heavy Metal online sales grew 65% after an overhaul of its online store in March 2020. It also launched Virus, a creator-owned imprint with the same direct distribution model. Anthology comics in the United States rarely get much traction, but Heavy Metal’s approach more closely resembles the strategy that manga publishers in Japan, where the anthology is simply the springboard for series that are eventually destined for collected book editions.
Currently serialized stories such as Dark Wing (written by Medney), Swamp God by Ron Marz and Armitano, Savage Circus by Brendan Columbus and Alejandro Barrionuevo, and Starward by Steve Orlando and Ivan Shavrin, are all destined to be collected and released as trade books in 2022; along with Segments by Richard Malka and drawn by the recently-deceased legendary European creator (and Heavy Metal mainstay) Juan Gimenez.
Once the marketplace stabilized, the new team began to implement its creative master plan. The comics and graphic novels publishing program established a few core characters and concepts as continuing stories, such as Taarna, the warrior queen action hero, written by Stephanie Phillips and drawn by Patrick Zircher and others; Cold, Dead War, a zombie war story penned by George C. Romero with art by German Ponce; and The Rise, another Romero zombie project, this one with art by Diego Yapur, set in the world of Night of the Living Dead, the classic horror film directed by Romero’s father. All three initial story arcs are now being collected as trade book collections to be published later this year and distributed to the book trade by Simon & Schuster.
The flagship Heavy Metal magazine, which celebrated its 300th issue in the summer of 2020, continues as a monthly full-color anthology title with a focused vision and approach. “We’re debuting a new story or serial every month,” said executive editor Joe Illidge. “In the past, these serials went on for 10 or 12 parts. Now we’re doing tighter installments, maybe six or seven chapters, but each one packed with action, so you get more bang for your buck.”
The publisher is also venturing into prose book publishing, starting with a title by Medney, a prolific and popular author who has written a number of comics series for Heavy Metal. His sci-fi novel, the galactic saga Beyond Kuiper, was published by the Heavy Metal imprint last summer. The book sold out its 5,000-copy first printing. “We wanted to get a sense of how fans would react to a $25 novel,” Medney said. Encouraged by the initial results, the publisher released a special edition hardcover of Beyond Kuiper in November.
Medney said this is just the first book in a growing Heavy Metal prose catalog that will shortly include a Kuiper sequel, Blake Northcott’s sci-fi thriller Arena Mode, and a new, revised edition of cartoonist Bob Fingerman’s 2010 prose novel Pariah, a dark and comedic zombie tale.
At the Virus imprint, the third leg of Heavy Metal’s publishing plan, creators will retain their copyrights. Under the editorial guidance of Keith Champagne, Virus will release about 20 titles in 2022.
Because Heavy Metal has such a big cultural footprint, the team’s ambitions extend beyond the bookshelf. Like every other comics publisher, Heavy Metal has ambitions for media production, including developing Arena Mode into its first TV series, and other projects, including animation. The company is also capitalizing on its popularity in the world of music and street art, with veteran producer Tommy Coriale now heading up Heavy Metal Studios and leading initiatives into art, NFTs, and other projects, including podcasts and music.
“The goal is to extend Heavy Metal beyond the page any way we can,” Medney said. “We’ve been around for 44 years. Heavy Metal inspired Blade Runner, Alien, and so much cutting-edge culture. It’s time for us to own what we’ve given to the genre.”