When Nerds Collide: A Brief History of Metal and Comics

From 'Heavy Metal' to Ghoul, the strong connection between comics and metal comes down to fandom—and the power of genre.

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Oct 13 2015, 3:24pm

Image courtesy of Chuck BB

Characters in ridiculous makeup and costumes. Bitter enmities that spill over into actual violence. Forays into the shires of Middle Earth, the void of deep space, the very depths of the Inferno. Sure, metal is awesome, but it's not the only popular art form that has those things—plenty of comic books have been known to as well. The two forms have been intrinsically linked since heavy metal was born way back in the 70s, but now that so many younger musicians and comic fans have grown up steeped in the cultures of both, the connection has never been stronger.

There's long been overlap between heavy metal and comics. Metal didn't really become a thing until the 70s, but back in the 50s, before the Comics Code Authority was enacted and snipped the balls off of everything, there were some pretty gnarly comic books. Early EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt, Eerie, etc.) provided a lot of subject matter for later bands like Acid Witch and Ghoul (the latter of whom recently contributed a song for the Image title The Humans).

Ghoul's guitarist Digestor explains, "I've been a long time fan of 50s pre-code horror, sci fi, and humor comics. I especially like the EC titles, but also enjoy some of the trash that companies like Fawcett and Harvey put out. The tone, imagery, and aesthetic of those comics has informed almost everything we do."

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Even though heavy metal was born in 1970 with the eponymous debut album from Black Sabbath, the relationship was initially more of a one-way street (with the exception of the tangentially-related Heavy Metal magazine, which may or may not have been named after the music genre). Proto-metal heavy blues band The Groundhogs hired legendary penciller/inker Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow) to design the cover of Who Will Save the World?, fuzz rockers Dust licensed EC Comics contributor Frank Frazetta's striking fantasy paintings – and, of course, there was KISS, with their superhero personas and their infamous blood-infused Marvel book.

The late 70s and 80s further cemented the relationship. A few major factors came into play here. First, the decade saw the rise of a darker breed of comic book, ushered in by Frank Miller's groundbreaking run on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Across the pond, there was 2000 A.D., with its bleak humor and rich post-apocalyptic environs. October File bassist/Candlelight Records owner/Werewolf Press founder Steve Beatty found that publication indispensable as a kid.

"I read comics as a kid in the late seventies, like Warlord, Victor and especially 2000 A.D. 2000 A.D. was like the punk of the comics world so it really changed things." Thrash metal musicians naturally gravitated towards that material: Anthrax's "I Am the Law" (based on the 2000 A.D. character Judge Dredd) and Megadeth's "Holy Wars… The Punishment Due" (partially about The Punisher) remain some of those bands' most beloved songs.

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The 80s also saw the rise of the most metal band to ever metal: Iron Maiden. Their mascot Eddie may not be from an actual comic book, but he was damn sure inspired by them, and their intricate cover art both drew from and inspired comic artists. Veteran comic writer Joe Kelly (Deadpool, I Kill Giants) recalls, "My brother got into metal because of the album art - specifically Iron Maiden's stuff. A lot of metal—especially the earlier stuff carried iconography that comics fans could tap into immediately. Fantasy art, all the Frazetta sort of stuff, etc. The album covers I'm thinking of that stick with me told a story with one image. Immediate appeal and crossover for a comics fan."

Artist Chuck BB (Black Metal, Stone Cold Lazy) feels similarly. "I think when you close your eyes listening to like some Mercyful Fate or what have you, one can't help but visual something really fantastic and horrifying. Comic genre stuff is usually loud and in-your-face with its ideas and visuals, so that sort of goes hand-in-hand with metal."

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The 90s saw real collaboration between the two forms. Alice Cooper worked with Sandman writer Neil Gaiman and artist Michael Zulli on a tie-in series for his The Last Temptation album. Iced Earth released an authorized concept album based on Todd McFarlane's Spawn, The Dark Saga. Top Cow put together the companion piece Songs of the Witchblade: A Soundtrack to the Comic Books, which featured hard rock/heavy metal luminaries like Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland, Type O Negative's Peter Steele, the Melvins' King Buzzo, and Megadeth. The quality, uh, varied, but the bridge was in place.

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Now, you can find metal and extreme music references all over comics (as well as vice versa) – from independent series, like Rick Spears and Chuck BB's Black Metal and Stjepan Sejic's Death Vigil, to books from industry behemoth Marvel, with the Inhuman character Gorgon doing karaoke to Sepultura's "Arise" and Bucky Barnes visiting a planet called Mer-Z-Bow in Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier. Anthrax's Scott Ian wrote a Lobo series for DC (Highway to Hell), Rob Zombie has created multiple series on his own, and Glenn Danzig and Candlelight's Beatty have even started their own publishing imprints. Metal Blade publicist Kelli Malella, who organized the Metal Blade booth at New York Comic Con this year, also notes, "Even now you can see bands using artwork from today's comic book and graphic novel artists or even creating their own comics/graphic novels to accompany their album (Coheed and Cambria, Cannibal Corpse)."

The shared history between the two doesn't just run long, however; it also goes deep. The creators of both share a lot of the same influences, whether it's books or movies or general subject matter (I'm referring to more genre-oriented comic artists here, not indie folks like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine). H.P. Lovecraft has his tentacles all over both. Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian has not only inspired many characters, stories, and songs, but also straight up appears in a lot of them as well. Michael Moorcock's Elric saga, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, any number of Stephen King doorstops – their fingerprints are all indelibly imprinted in four-colored ink and smudged on shiny silver discs. Slasher movies; The Twilight Zone; Dungeons & Dragons; zombies, zombies, zombies. You could do one of those Buzzfeed-style quizzes on this: comic book plot or metal song?

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According to Beatty, "I think a lot of the themes collide, and in [Werewolf Press title] Realm of the Damned they really collide. Extreme metal is dark music, so I can see why metal fans like the horror genre. I don't know any metal people who aren't into horror stories and movies." Or, as Digester puts it, "The average metal fan is a rock-headed brute, incapable of anything resembling a normal human relationship. They work in jobs that are unfit for prisoners, and are generally looked down on by the rest of society, and rightly so. These lackwits need stories about space robots and fantastical monsters to escape the stultifying reality of their meaningless existences. At least, that's why I read them."

Both forms handle negative emotions like grief, fear, and rage in brutal, vivid ways that other media can't. According to Kelly, "The power and speed and raw emotion of metal meshes really well if you're a comics fan of certain genres —especially fantasy and horror. But the themes of isolation, truth to power, rising up, darkness, etc.—this is all stuff that we deal with in superhero comics as well."

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Image courtesy of 'Realm of the Damned'

And, of course, there's the power fantasy. Malella theorizes, "I believe part of it has to do with the fact a lot of metalheads feel like or have been treated like outcasts, which is how a lot of comic book characters start out as at the beginning of their journey, so we find them relatable." Young metalheads can relate to nerdy Peter Parker, put-upon Kamala Khan, and mild-mannered Clark Kent—but listening to the music allows them to imagine that they're Spiderman, Ms. Marvel, or Superman. Both species of fan tend to be misfits or outcasts, and so they gravitate towards things that appeal to misfits and outcasts.

And that brings us to the obvious reason for the cultural crossover: metal lifers and comic fans are usually giant nerds. Not only are a lot of their interests the same, they tend to be the same kind of nerd. Malella points out, "Metalheads and comic fans are not only extremely dedicated, but we wear our love for the artist proudly on our sleeve. Be it a battle vest, a metal band or comic shirt, or dressing up as your favorite character at a convention (I've been seeing cosplay of everything from comic characters, movie characters, video game characters, and we've even seen a Papa from Ghost and a dude dressed as Corey Taylor of Slipknot). There's a lot of pride and support in these scenes." That passion about their respective subcultures goes a long way towards perpetuating both fandoms. Chuck BB also notes a growing correlation between the fanbases: "The more comic conventions I show at, the more metal shirts I see—which is great, because I can call them over to my table based on the band name on their shirts and have a good shot of converting them into a fan of mine!"

Kelly thinks it all comes down to that shared passion as well. "Genre work of a certain type does attract people like us. I don't know if I would personally say misfits and outsiders—I prefer to think of it as people who want to explore the power of raw emotion and visceral entertainment. Again, we might get that itch scratched by some of the mainstream stuff, but we feel a deeper connection to art that's more raw and more specific. That's why you can get such rabid fans the smaller the focus of the art is—a singular voice speaking directly to the listener/reader as opposed to 'something that's for everyone.' Genre work really hits those buttons for me personally. I meet a ton of fans at cons who love what we do and are covered in hardcore tattoos. It's all the same for them because it's personal—a voice they relate to. That's the power of genre."

Jeff Treppel can be found pissing off Nazi black metal dudes and posting hamster pictures on Twitter.