Buying the first issue of Heavy Metal magazine in the winter of 1977 was a life changing event for thirteen-year-old me. An anthology graphic arts magazine that launched in April, 1977, Heavy Metal was published by the same folks who brought us National Lampoon. An American version of the French comic Metal Hurlant, the magazine mostly reprinted European artists who were new to most Americans, but soon became internationalist graphic art heroes: Angus McKie, Philippe Druillet, Enki Bilal and Mobius.
In the beginning, there were only a few Americans being published in Heavy Metal including Vaughn Bode and Richard Corben. Both began their careers in underground comics and Warren magazines. Corben’s airbrushed barbarian series “Den,” was an X-rated Conan with lots of violent men and bare breasted women. Bode’s sci-fi strip “Sunpot” was old work, as the artist had died two years before. However, soon other American comic art vets Jeff Jones, Bernie Wrightson and Jim Steranko, whose 1981 Outland adaption was a standout, became contributors along with (then) newcomers Joe Jusko, Paul Kirchner, Steve Bissette and Rick J. Bryant.
Certainly, Heavy Metal was an introduction for many comic book fans to a world beyond Marvel and DC, but it also served as a gateway to the many alternative publications I bought a few months later at the Creation Convention in my hometown of New York City. Held over Thanksgiving weekend, I bypassed Hulk and Batman, and instead bought various underground comixs (Air Pirates, Zap) fanzines (Infinity, RBCC) and art books (Ariel: the Book of Fantasy, The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta). It was also at that con that I discovered the self-proclaimed “ground level” comic Star*Reach. A California-based publication that began publishing in 1974.
Owned, operated and edited by former Marvel/DC scribe Mike Friedrich, who utilized the talents of traditional comic book writers and artists (Jim Starlin, Dick Giordano, Len Wein and P. Craig Russell) mixed with talented newcomers: Gene Day, Bob Gould and Michael T. Gilbert. While 1980s publications Watchmen and The Dark Knight often get credit for bringing maturity and grit to comics, it was the 1970s alternatives that laid the graphic groundwork for the next decade.
Still, buying alternative books was a money sacrifice. Regular comics cost thirty-cents while Star*Reach was a dollar, Heavy Metal was a dollar-fifty, and smaller, alternative comic fanzines were a few bucks more. However, spending the extra dough was worth it, because in alternative publications creators could explore taboo subjects and complex ideas, depict nudity, contemplate religion, use profanity, experiment with non-linear narratives (and page layouts), be positive about drugs and sex, and basically do what “regular comics” were restricted from doing at the majors, where the Comic Code Authority hovered closely.
At the Creation Con most of my budget went towards buying independents that included back issues of Witzend, which was originally founded by vet EC Comics artist Wally Wood, Hot Stuf’ and Arcade. Working with the smaller publishers meant artistic freedom allowed creators to control their copyrights and properties. Many comic book vets had taken mess for years from the publishers who paid them poorly, took all rights to their characters and offered no royalties.
Since the early 1970s, artist Neal Adams—whose dramatically realistic style on Deadman, Batman and other superheroes had a powerful influence—was one of the main creators spearheading various creator rights campaigns from the offices of his art studio Continuity Associates. He fought Warner Brothers to get Superman creators—writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster—paid royalties, and worked with artists and writers to unionize (Academy of Comic Book Arts/A.C.B.A.), though nothing ever happened.
Continuity Studios was also where Adams (and early co-owner Dick Giordano) started the Crusty Bunkers crew of artists to work on different jobs. While Continuity also produced storyboards and advertising, comics were a large part of their business. The Bunkers were a rotating bunch who penciled or inked comic book jobs as well as advertising projects and storyboards. Many younger artists, including Carl Potts, Alan Weiss and Mike Nasser, learned a lot at Continuity before going on to change the world. Former Adams assistant Howard Chaykin, who occasionally worked with the Bunkers, explained in 2015, “I think what they (Continuity) were trying to do, consciously or not, was to recreate something like Johnstone & Cushing, a company that used comic strips for advertising back in the 40s and 50s.”
In 1977, when Adams was 37-years-old, he penciled the now-classic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, which featured a wraparound cover of an audience watching the bout. In the crowd of celebrities and politicians, he also included the aforementioned artists as well as Trevor Von Eeden, Larry Hama and others who were down with the Continuity crew. After the mega-success of the Sup-Ali book, Adams left mainstream comics and began publishing his own line of sketchbooks, artist portfolios and comics.
Artist Howard Chaykin, who was a former protégé of legends Gil Kane, Wally Wood and Neal Adams, contributed stunning work to various early era alternatives while also doing stories for the majors. In 1977, he was best known for having drawn the comics adaption of Stars Wars, which he hates. However, he became my favorite artist that year when I saw the brilliant three-page noir strip he produced for Witzend #10 (1976) about a serial killer in New York City.
Told from the point of view of the killer, I suppose Chaykin was inspired by the brutal escapades of the Son of Sam, aka the .44 caliber killer, whose murder spree in New York was the cause of much fear. Chaykin’s story didn’t have a title, but forty-four years later it remains a virtuoso example of graphic innovation. A few years before the wild styles and page designs of Bill Sienkiewicz, Jon J Muth, George Pratt or Kent Williams became acceptable, Chaykin broke barriers with those three pages that eliminated borders and utilized a Bob Peak/Barron Storey illustration style.
In present day interviews Chaykin often comes across as self-deprecating and critical of his art from that era. He believes that his work didn’t fully mature until 1983, when he wrote and drew the science fiction political satire American Flagg, but I beg to differ. Chaykin’s 1970s alternative comic pages were exciting, beautiful and hinted at the bold new directions his work was taking (and would take further) in later years: Cody Starbuck (Star*Reach, Heavy Metal), Gideon Faust (Star*Reach, Heavy Metal, written by Len Wein) and “Seven Moons’ Light Casts Complex Shadows” (Epic Illustrated #2, written by Samuel R. Delany).
Hot Stuf’ was another alternative that was publishing quietly and irregularly since 1974, but it soon got a boost from Heavy Metal’s popularity. Published by Sal Q. Productions, a company out of Brooklyn, Hot Stuf’ was also cool with taking chances on non-traditional graphic stories. One of my favorites was the expressionistic “12 Parts” by Mike Nasser from issue #6, published in 1977. A Detroit native, Nasser began his art career as a Neal Adams clone working out of Continuity, as did other young artists (Alan Weiss, Rich Buckler, Bill Sienkiewicz) whose work later became distinctive. “12 Parts” was a stellar artistic departure, though Nasser never built on that style or revisited it in his mainstream work. By the end of ’77, Nasser was having personal issues and stepped away from the American comics for awhile.
Though I was just a high school freshman in 1977, I was also trying to break into mainstream comics as a writer, submitting scripts to editor Paul Levitz foe DC’s horror books House of Mystery/House of Secrets, but was having no luck. Still, encouraged by the numerous indie alternatives I’d discovered that year, the following summer, with the help of fellow amateurs, I published a fanzine/alternative comic called Cosmic Adventures, designed as an outlet for new artists (Edward Menje, George Hartman, Michael Luck), and a place for my own writing.
I’d worked a summer job at a Harlem senior’s building to pay for printing costs and other expenses, but the book was a flop. I reasoned it was because no one wanted to spend money on creators they never heard of, which meant I had no choice but to fill Cosmic Adventures #2 with recognizable names while making it bigger, bolder and badder than the other zines on the block. At the end of the summer I moved to Baltimore, a decision my mom had made a few months before. Still, my grandma was in New York, which meant I could Greyhound or Amtrak my way into town at any time.
Summer, 1979—New York City: the town was broke, but there was a real creative spirit in the air. It was the era of disco, punk rock and the pioneers of rap booming their music in the parks. I had returned to the city determined to connect with professional artists to commission stories and art for Cosmic Adventures #2. Artist Rick J. Bryant was the first person I phoned. I had met him in 1978 at one of the monthly conventions entrepreneur Phil Seuling threw every second Sunday at the Statler Hilton. He was displaying his impressive illustrations when I passed his table while hawking Cosmic Adventures.
Although I wasn’t very familiar with his work, Bryant was one the Crusty Bunkers crew as well as a masterful illustrator who specialized in science fiction and fantasy. He’d also contributed an impressive abstract painting of erupting planets and hovering spaceships that was used on the back cover of the April, ’78 issue of Heavy Metal. After finding his business card in my cluttered wallet, I cold called him and was surprised when he invited me to his Garment District apartment.
Taking the subway downtown the following day to 34th Street, I walked to his place on 37th between 5th and 6th. The building was a weird design and his place was on the third floor. The studio apartment served as both home and workspace. There was a drawing board and shelves cluttered with magazines, books and other reference material. Rick, a medium-height handsome man who wore glasses, was thin and, at 26, still had an innocence about him. He had worked in the production department at DC Comics for two years and then quit to do his own thing. In 1974 he sold his first professional illustrations to Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction editor Roy Thomas; the art was used alongside a Ray Bradbury interview. For the second issue Bryant illustrated a conversation with writer Alfred Bester, author of The Stars My Destination.
In addition, he also illustrated stories for sci-fi/fantasy digests Analog and Amazing, as well as assisting inkers Dick Giordano, Bob Wiacek, Bob McCleod and Joe Rubinstein on various jobs. Rick made me coffee and we chilled most of the morning trading stories. He had arrived in New York City in 1972 after selling his comic book collection. Even then I realized how poetic the gesture was as well as a great example of the sacrifices young folks have to make when following their dreams.
Our conversation flowed easily as we talked about movies, music and his various projects. “Let me show you some of my new stuff,” Bryant said. Although he was a hardcore Frazetta fan, Bryant’s work was the opposite of the visual macho fantasies Frank painted. There were pen and ink drawings of space scenes, mysterious women and a series of airbrushed paintings of dolphins. About an hour into our meeting, we were interrupted when friend and fellow inker Joe Rubinstein dropped by with Gil Kane originals he needed help inking. It was a story for Marvel that was published months later in Savage Sword of Conan #47 (“The Treasure of Tranicos”). I looked through the pages and was amazed how loose the pencils were, basically just layouts.
Seeing Gil Kane’s rough work gave me a new respect for inkers who, as many saw in Chasing Amy, some people think of as “tracers.” An inker’s job was often more than adding flourish and polish to tight pencil renderings—sometimes they had to contribute a lot more than the general public knew. Bryant and Rubinstein, as I later learned, had inked a few projects together, including Mike Nasser’s 1978 Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes back-up short story “Mon-El’s One Man War,” written by my former mentor Paul Levitz. Unfortunately, when the Conan story was published, Bryant’s name was left off the credits.
After Rubinstein left, Rick asked. “So, what kind of work do you want to publish?”
“I want it to be a mixture of comics, articles and short stories,” I explained. “I already have a Led Zeppelin essay from a Baltimore writer J. D. Considine and I’m going to reprint the Samuel R. Delany story ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’” I’d recently discovered Delany’s short story collection Driftglass and fell in love. His bestselling masterwork Dhalgren came out in 1975, but his short fiction hadn’t been anthologized much. I got his number from 411, called his apartment and he gave me permission.
“What about the comics?” Rick asked.
“Well, I saw this great Howard Chaykin story that I would love to reprint,” I said, referring to the serial killer strip from Witzend. “I just don’t know how to reach him.” Rick smiled. “I got a number for you,” he said. “Just don’t tell him that I gave it to you.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
“I have a couple of runs to make, but you can come by another day and select the illustrations. See which ones you might want to use.” I left Rick’s place buzzed off of the caffeine and future plans. The next day, though, I was hesitant about calling Howard Chaykin. Finally, late that afternoon, I dialed the rotary phone in grandma’s bedroom. “Upstart Studios,” a voice answered.
“Yes, um, can I speak to Howard Chaykin?”
“This is he.” These days, people rarely answer their own phones, but back then folks not only picked-up, they might even have a conversation with you. I explained to Chaykin about Cosmic Adventures and the great things I wanted to do with the zine. Chaykin listened to my spiel. “I’ll give you fifty dollars to republish the killer strip.”
Chaykin, who was a 29-years-old native New Yorker, laughed. “That’s less than I got for it the first time.”
“But, it’s a reprint,” I countered.
“Yeah, I know, but I’m not interested,” he said, and hung-up. I stared at the phone in disbelief. That was the first time someone hung up on me, but it wouldn’t be the last. The next time was a week later when I called Heavy Metal publisher Leonard Mogel. I felt I needed a mentor and elected him. I called the main desk and was transferred without a problem.
“So, let me get this straight,” Mogel said. I imagined him sitting in an ultramodern office overlooking the rooftops of Manhattan puffing a huge cigar. “You want me to teach you the magazine business so you can put me out of business?” I thought he might’ve been joking, but he wasn’t; he, too, hung up.
Instead of dwelling on rejection, I began thinking about what artist I could hire to do the cover. I’d considered Red Sonja artist Frank Throne or Rudy Nebres, but then I thought about the work of Val Mayerik and decided on him. Mayerik had worked for Marvel, where he drew Man-Thing and co-created Howard the Duck, but, it was his black and white work for Warren as well as a Heavy Metal cover he painted for the January, 1978 issue, that made me excited.
Through Bryant I learned that Mayerik shared a studio with Chaykin, Jim Starlin and Walt Simonson, and I should simply phone the number he gave me before. I called Mayerik, who came across as a very cool dude. I explained the vision I had for Cosmic Adventures and offered him $50.00 to draw the cover; $50.00, which what I was also supposed to pay for the Delany story, seemed to be my magic number. “That sounds good. Call me at the end of the week, and we’ll set a time for you to come in.” Come Friday, I called the office and Mayerik told me to come to Upstart the following Monday at 3:00 pm.
When I walked into Upstart Studios I was told that Mayerik hadn’t arrived yet. “Just take a seat in his space,” I was instructed. “He shouldn’t be too long.” After a few minutes, I stood up and drifted from one art table to another looking at various works in progress. Walt Simonson was working on Battlestar Galactica, while across the room I spotted Chaykin, who looked as cool as Cody Starbuck. I must’ve recognized him from a convention or fanzine photo. His splendid The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell, written by Michael Moorcock and published by Heavy Metal, was released a few months before, and it was outstanding.
Suddenly his assistant, who had been standing not far from him, took a break. Chaykin, deep in concentration, didn’t notice. Swiftly I moved to that side of the room and eagerly watched over his shoulder as he painted. I’d seen many paintings in my 16 years, but I had never witnessed the birth of one, I’d never seen an artist bringing a blank canvas to life.
Chaykin was working on the second volume of his and Byron Priess’ adaption of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. I had already bought volume one and recognized the style. While it’s not often mentioned, that book was a pioneering graphic novel. Chaykin later complained about the limitations of the page layouts that writer/editor Byron Preiss imposed on that project and Empire, but his images were beautifully gritty, bold and looked like nothing else.
Finally, he looked up. “Peter, can you…” Later I found out his assistant was Peter Kuper, who would go on to a distinguished career of his own. “You’re not Peter.” He paused. “Wrong color.” Chaykin laughed at his own goofy joke. It’s always weird when someone feels compelled to remind you that you’re the Black guy in the room. I wasn’t offended as much as I was shocked. “No, um, I’m waiting for Val.”
As though on cue, Mayerik walked through the door. He spotted me and came over to introduce himself. A laidback guy, he looked like he’d just come from yoga or karate practice. We shook hands and went back to his section of the studio. After chatting for awhile, Mayerik presented me with the picture that was supposed to be my next cover. Though I can’t remember exactly what the final image was, I recall being disappointed. It looked more like a pin-up than a cover. My displeasure must’ve shown, because Mayerik said, “If you don’t like it, you can say no.”
I stared at the picture for a few minutes. “Thank you for giving me the option, but I’m going to pass.” Mayerik wasn’t bothered, he just nodded his head. Days later I was back in Rick Bryant’s living-room drinking coffee. I told him about the disappointments with Chaykin and Mayerik. While we talked, I flipped through his portfolio looking at various pen and ink illustrations. Rick’s favorite subjects were space, rocket ships and women; the dolphin paintings were an exception.
“Feel free to use what you want,” he said. I stopped turning pages when I saw a photograph of a striking spacescape that he’d done in airbrush. “God this is beautiful,” I said. “I love this painting so much.”
“You really should consider doing a color cover,” Rick said. “I can show you a place that can do the color separations cheaply. You could use that painting if you want.” I knew he was correct, but I was afraid I was going over budget since I was basically funding the venture from after-school gigs and allowance.
“I think you’re right, but for now I’m just going to take three of the pen and inks.” One was a planets and stars image I used for an ad I later placed in The Comics Journal. Rick made me a cardboard carrier for the pieces, and ten minutes later we were out the door and headed towards 5th Avenue. The sidewalk was crowded with lunch folks looking for food. “Where are we going?”
“I have to head up to Continuity to pick-up something,” he replied. Although I was trying to carry myself like a young entrepreneur, I couldn’t help grinning like a crazy person at the prospect of seeing so many of my art gods in one place. “Do you think you could introduce me to Mike Nasser?”
Rick chuckled. “I guess you haven’t heard about Mike. He’s not up at Continuity anymore. He went away to become the Messiah.” Rick was so serious I figured he was joking.
“It’s true. It’s been a while now, but one day he told Neal that he was God and then he left for California.” I thought back to the last two Nasser stories I’d read, “12 Parts” in Hot Stuf’, and “The Old, New and Final Testament” in Star* Reach #12, both of which had a biblical slant to them. “That’s wild.”
Ten minutes later we were in front of 9 East 48th Street. Exiting the elevator on the 3rd floor, Rick spoke to everyone he passed. He introduced me to a few people, including Carl Potts and Larry Hama, and pointed to a room on the right. “Whatever you do, don’t go in that office.” I promised I wouldn’t, but as soon as he went down the hall, I was tempted.
Minutes later I was standing in the doorway watching Neal Adams work. His was another face I recognized from fanzine articles. I have no memory of what was on Adams’ drawing board that day as I stood in his doorway, but the thrill of watching the master stylist at work was exciting. When he turned around, Adams was wearing a collared shirt and tie, and looked more like a Glengarry Glen Ross insurance man than the one of the best comic book artists of his generation, one who also had a hand in guiding the next generation.
Staring me straight in the eyes, he didn’t say a word. “Sorry,” I mumbled and backed out of the door.
In 1979, an artist whose work was a straight riff on Neal Adams was young Bill Sienkiewicz, whose art I discovered through a fanzine called Watch Out published in New Jersey. I don’t know if Sienkiewicz published it himself, but I found it at a comic shop before I headed back to Baltimore. Starting junior year that fall was exciting, but nothing beat getting a letter from Bill Sienkiewicz. I had written about Cosmic Adventures, unaware that he’d already crossed over from fan to pro artist, and was penciling a back-up story in Hulk magazine. The character Moon Knight was an obvious Batman bite, but that was cool.
A few days before the letter arrived I’d bought the magazine, and was surprised that Sienkiewicz had transitioned so quickly. Later I learned that Neal Adams had called Marvel personally the first day the kid came up to Continuity and got Sienkiewicz the job.
In his letter Sienkiewicz sent me his telephone number and a quick sketch of Moon Knight. The following day, sitting on the deep freeze in the kitchen, I called Jersey and smiled when Sienkiewicz answered. I broke down Cosmic Adventures, but the only thing that excited him was when I mentioned the Led Zeppelin article. “Do you have anyone illustrating the Led Zep piece?”
“I think I could do that. That would be fun.” We didn’t discuss his rates. Maybe he didn’t know what his rates were yet. “I’ll send it to you in the next couple of weeks,” he promised. For the next few months I imagined what the drawing would look like with Sienkiewicz’s ink defining Robert Plant’s flowing hair, Jimmy Page’s double-neck guitar, banging Bonham in a bowler hat and bass-slinging John Paul Jones holding it down on earth as the others soared into space. Every time one of their tracks played on the classic rock station I often blared, I saw a different illustration in my mind. Though I visualized it clearly, the real drawing never materialized.
The next time I spoke to Sienkiewicz was at a convention in 2011 where my late friend and former Marvel Comics writer Robert Morales (Captain America: Truth: Red, White & Black) introduced us. When I mentioned the Led Zeppelin drawing he had no idea what I was talking about.
Years before meeting Sienkiewicz, the last convention I attended was in 1980 at a hotel in downtown Baltimore where Howard Chaykin was one of the guests. I went to his table and introduced myself. “I was the guy publishing the fanzine that wanted to reprint your Witzend story.” He smirked. “Oh, yeah, I remember you.” Chaykin was doing sketches for fans and I thought I would get one of Gideon Faust, who was my favorite character. When I asked, Chaykin just looked at me and grinned. “All right, but if you publish this in your fanzine I’m going to kick your ass.”
Considering he was thirteen years older than me, it seemed weird that this grown man was threatening me. Maybe he thought I was older, who knows. “You know what, forget about it,” I replied. “I don’t want anything from you.” Chaykin’s bad boy Eddie Haskell behavior didn’t make me love his work any less, it just pissed me off. I was reminded of the stories I’d read about my lit-hero Harlan Ellison’s confrontations with fans; maybe I had a thing for asshole geniuses. “I’m not a very nice person,” Chaykin admitted in an interview with Nerd Team 30 in 2019. “I’m not particularly interested in people’s feelings.”
Of course, I wasn’t the only person inspired by Heavy Metal, and soon there were a few contenders including Gasm, 1984, Eclipse, and, the best, Epic Illustrated. Published in 1980 by Marvel Comics and edited by Archie Goodwin, it was the first book from a mainstream comic book publisher that allowed creators to keep their copyrights.
After awhile, though, being a high school junior got in the way of my mogul magazine dreams and Cosmic Adventures #2 was never published. The following year, a few months before graduation, I sold my first professional short story to yet another Heavy Metal wannabe magazine called Darkstorm. Published out of Greenwich Village, the magazine featured comics by future art stars Kent Williams, George Pratt and Charles Vess. My story “Fading Memories” was illustrated by Howard Chaykin’s former assistant Peter Kuper, who went on to a respected career.
Although I didn’t keep in touch with Rick Bryant, I was pleased to see so much of his art over the years published in various formats. His beautiful WindDreams (1981) portfolio was one of the first projects his former mentor Neal Adams published through Continuity Publishing. While Bryant’s work never received the fanboy acclaim of other illustrators or inkers of his generation, his style added flare to whatever project he worked on. For me, his comic career high was inking Chris Bachalo’s oddball run on Shade the Changing Man in the 1990s.
Into the second decade of the new millennium, with the exception of the always cutting-edge Howard Chaykin, who is currently producing the comic industry insider (but fictional) book Hey Kids! Comics!, most of my old school favorites are no longer in the business. Though I occasionally visit comic book shops, I no longer know or follow the latest artists or the coolest books. Surprisingly, Heavy Metal, the magazine that set me on a path of exploring untraditional comics and wanting to be a publisher, still publishes bi-monthly. Though I haven’t picked-up a copy in years, I am pleased to see that after forty-four years it was still on the shelf trying to make a difference.