Monday, March 11, 2013

Cyber Monday: METAL HURLANT CHRONICLES (2012)

If you were some sort of sadistic enabler or, more to the point, an deranged corrupter of youth, you might have held two hands out in front of my wide pre-pubescent eyes. In one hand a Penthouse magazine, in the other, a copy of Heavy Metal. Can you see the sweat breaking on my brow? How in god's name was I supposed to choose between the two? I should write a book around that scenario. It would be the cruelest story since Steve Martin's first novel.

When I was in my pre-teens and even in my teenage years, Heavy Metal Magazine was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. My mind was blown by the fact that it was a comic book, but the art was not the clean, nice art found in Marvel and DC, it was gritty, violent and frequently had impossibly gorgeous women in various states of nekkid. The stories weren't simply about a guy in tights doing nice things, they were complex and aesoteric to the point where my young mind would frequently be completely lost. It also, more than occasionally, had male nudity and while in my naiveté I didn't get why you'd want that in the first place, I perceived it as very edgy and daring. Which it turned out to be, and still is to a degree, at least here in the US.

As I learned later, Heavy Metal, was in legend and in fact, Metal Hurlant. A french magazine created in 1974 by the Les Humanoides Associés, a publishing group that included the now iconic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud) as well as Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. In addition to featuring Mœbius (who would later work on the production design of highly influential films such as 1982's TRON), Metal Hurlant provided a home for writers who pushed the envelope as well. Famed cinematic lunatic Alejandro Jodorowski wrote more for Metal Hurlant than he ever did for movies, and his joint vision with the artists that he worked with were not limited by flaky backers, tiny budgets or prima donnas. After experimenting with a comics-only format, the magazine featured a format of short comic stories, interspersed with pop-culture articles by journalists about music, movies and novels, all of a sci-fi or underground bent.


In 1977 National Lampoon published an American version of Metal Hurlant known as Heavy Metal. Starting out with translated versions of Metal Hurlant's stories, after a few years Heavy Metal sought out its own identity by utilizing more American talent to make original content, much to the chagrin of the French publishers, who, being French, could not understand why you wouldn't want French stories. Interestingly, while Metal Hurlant began succumbing to an over-saturation of the target demographic with several other magazines created by former Metal Hurlant staffers, in America, Heavy Metal continued to flourish. By 1987 Metal Hurlant had burned very brightly, but with artists and writers turning to other outlets, Metal Hurlant was rendered silent.

That is not to say that Heavy Metal never missed a step. They had various change-ups in publication schedules, leadership (finally being bought out by Mr. Ninja Turtle himself Kevin Eastman, for better or for worse in 1992) and a little competition from Marvel's Epic Illustrated (1980-1984) which featured the likes of Frank Frazetta gracing their covers. In spite of that, Heavy Metal never went out of publication and is still in print today. In 2002 with the help of US-based publisher / film producer and owner of the the Humanoids publishing group, Fabrice Giger, Metal Hurlant was revived in France (with English, Spanish and Portuguese editions) sporting a new format that featured only the comic aspect (arguably the most popular part) and served as a platform for aspiring artists or as a showcase for excepts of graphic novels. This lasted only four years before fizzling out again.


Due to it's cutting-edge popularity in the US and Canada, a US-Canadian co-production brought to life an R-rated animated anthology film in 1981 that stayed true to the source material. Although minor tweaks were made to help accommodate a new wrap-around segment and perhaps a few less penises were rendered, the movie stayed incredibly faithful to the original stories and artwork, something of a rarity for a production with Hollywood backing.

Since then, there has been an ill-conceived "sequel" titled HEAVY METAL: F.A.K.K.² (which stands for "Federation-Assigned Ketogenic Killzone to the second level", in case you were wondering), written by Kevin Eastman as a vehicle for his then-wife Julie Strain. Based on a single story from a more recent American issue, "The Melting Pot", it went through a decade of development and production issues before finally being released direct to video in the year 2000 as HEAVY METAL 2000. With Saturday morning cartoon-style art and an embarrassingly insipid story, it proved that Eastman should stick to what he knows best: publishing other people's work. 2007 saw rumors that David Fincher and James Cameron were interested in doing a proper all-star HEAVY METAL sequel (since Guillermo del Toro was involved, this was clearly doomed from the outset) and in 2011, brace yourself, Robert Rodriguez picked up the rights. Rodriguez has stated that he and Eastman are working on "a large scale media project" and an animated film. And you thought that Eastamn and Strain project was bad. I shudder to think of what Eastman and Rodriguez might do.


In 2011 a French production company, with the backing of Fabrice Geiger, announced that it would be releasing an anthology TV series on French TV with European distribution to follow shortly thereafter. After yet another delayed production the series was broadcast in late 2012 in it's entirety on two days, in a late night slot.

Consisting of six 25 minute episodes, this modern METAL takes its inspiration from the pages of the 2002-2004 revival and sports a razor-thin wrap-around segment that echoes the 1981 film. The opening of the series starts with a grave narration: "The last fragment of a once living planet, it's body blasted into dust by the madness of it's own inhabitants, while its head was cursed to roam aimlessly through time and space screaming in pain and sorrow. In legend and in fact, it is known as... Metal Hurlant", while a meteor that looks slightly head-like blazes through the cosmos with some synth and crunchy guitars in the background. Damn, I'm sold already! The opening credits are a montage of live-action (though heavily digitally rendered) concepts of Metal Hurlant style: a girl in black leather using a laser blaster to shoot ninjas under the moons of a futuristic city, ablaze with blue fire; a female cowboy cutting down some grizzled outlaws with a samurai sword on an alien desert planet and the like. Rocket fuel for your inner 16 year-old.


Shot on what is obviously very low budgets, in English, the stories are essentially like modern Twilight Zone episodes. I know that is sort of a hackneyed analogy, but this series really embodies that phrase like none before it. The stories are tight, concise and feature a twist at the end that throws the viewer's conceptions on their respective ears.

The first episode, "The King's Crown" (based on the same story from Metal Hurlant #142 by Jim Alexander and Richard Corben), has the Metal Hurlant screaming past a planet where the corrupt and bloated king lives in a floating castle above the unwashed masses. A once technologically advanced race has now returned to a feudal era with the remnants of its high-tech past on the periphery. The king is dying and as is the custom, a tournament is held to find a new successor. The warriors fight to the death until there is only one man standing. That man will be crowned king. In this event is Guillame (Scott Adkins) a ferociously just fighter who wants nothing more than to win the crown so that he can take his people out of their slums and bring back the technology that they have lost during the reign of the tyrant king who gluts himself on drugs and kidnapped concubines. Also in the fight are warriors with much less noble intents, including Michael Jai White, Matt Mullins and Darren Shahlavi (who played Kano in the woefully under-promoted and distributed MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY). While series director Guillaume Lubrano doesn't get the same firepower out of this fantastic group as say, John Hyams might have, just remind yourself that it's a TV show, and a French one at that, and it suddenly becomes quite an impressive thing indeed.

Other stories are a bit more cerebral: "Shelter Me" has a teenage girl waking up in a sealed bomb-shelter with her strange neighbor; some a bit more political: "Red Light" tells of a man being held by an alien peacekeeping force that has supplied arms to his people and their enemies, ensuring mutual destruction; some more epic and flashy: "Master of Destiny" originally written and drawn by by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Adi Granov for the final issue of Hurlant in 2004, boasts what appears to be half of the budget of the entire series. Embracing the feel of old school Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, but presenting them in a modern way, only one story out of the seven (one episode has two stories) falls flat. "The Pledge of Anya" with Rutger Hauer, has a theme that has been done to death with a twist that is more than a little obvious at the halfway point. Other than that one misstep, the series is a lot of fun, simultaneously feeling fresh and yet familiar. I wish that we could have television shows like this in America. Sure, the SyFy Channel could do their own Heavy Metal series, or even someone else, but it would never be based on actual stories from the magazines. It would have to be "inspired by" so that some hack TV writers could dumb it down, fill it with wisecracks and turn it into the one thing that it shouldn't be: mostly harmless, like the awful MORTAL KOMBAT: CONQUEST series. Granted, this French series has no nudity and only the barest trickle of blood at best, and the digital effects are in no danger of overshadowing THE HOBBIT (2012), but then again, it's not homogenized baby pap either.
It may have some shortcomings due to the budget and the intended medium, but I feel that METAL HURLANT CHRONICLES is some of the best genre TV I've seen in ages. Apparently someone with France 4 (the station that aired the series) didn't have high-hopes for it and decided to make sure that it would not do well. In spite of the mediocre ratings, much like the magazine that it is based on, the series seems to be more popular outside of France. In spite of this a second season has been announced. The good news is that Sony Pictures has purchased the rights for European distribution. The bad news is, nobody seems to be interested in it here in the US, which I find somewhat baffling. It could easily be re-edited into a (rather long) feature film and given a DTV blu-ray release or shown on the SyFy Channel (this would seem like a no-brainer). Maybe they're just concerned that it would make their other programming look worse than it already does. In the mean time while we wait for the suits in American board rooms to figure it out, the complete series has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in France (the deluxe edition comes with a hard-back volume containing reprints of all of the original stories that are in the series). While I do wish that this have been given proper backing and made into an epic feature film that would get proper distribution, I am really looking forward to seeing what they have in store for season 2.


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