Black metal isn’t exactly linked to humor in most people’s imaginations. While much of what’s been dubbed “black metal” since the term was coined is certainly over-the-top, tongues are firmly directed away from cheeks. Whether it’s the monstrous black masses of Gorgoroth, the frightening majesty of Ash Borer’s soundscapes, or the philosophical Satanism of Deathspell Omega, there’s a prevailing seriousness that underpins this diverse genre. This is particularly fascinating in light of the fact that King Diamond and Venom, certainly no strangers to camp, are cited as key influences on the genre-defining second wave of black metal. What strange alchemy transformed the title of Venom’s 1982 record — which includes “Teacher’s Pet,” a song with Miltonian poesy like “Pulled me down towards her mound / teacher tasted sweet / sixty-nine – I don’t mean lines / this was teachers treat” — into one of the most notorious musical movements of the late 20th Century? How did a song with the lyrics “freaking so wild, nobody’s mild” inspire the real-life death dance of Mayhem and the church-burning, criminal excess of Varg Vikernes? Thousands upon thousands of words have been spent tracing this evolution,* but for the purposes of our current discussion, readers will have to be satisfied with a bit of hand waving and assurances that “it’s complicated.”
*Special shout-out to Feral House for releasing two superlative volumes on the subject, Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground and Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult.
Something strange happens when an aesthetic movement takes itself extremely seriously: this very stoniness of mien opens its adherents to caricature. Granted, most black metal parody is piss poor because it’s made by people who’ve never spent time trying to understand what makes the subculture tick. It’s easy to look at crazy face paint and shrieking music and take the beigest, most Buzzfeed approach towards exploiting a topic for cheap laughs,** but successful parody has to come from a place of understanding. Take, for example, Horde’s self-dubbed “un-black metal,” which applies the musical stylings of its anti-Christian progenitors to songs like “Invert the Inverted Cross” and “Release and Clothe the Virgin Sacrifice.” There’s also the thriving cottage industry of black metal parody videos like those put out by Woods of Trees and Vegan Black Metal Chef. The 2015 horror film Deathgasm took many of its visual cues from black metal, including the use of corpse paint, heavily spiked accessories, and thorny, unreadable band logos.
**Remember those “[X] ist krieg” memes that were funny for a hot second? This is what happens when beige people think they grok a thing.
While successful parodies don’t necessarily have to be affectionate, there’s something to be said for humor that’s made for fans, by fans. It can be easy to forget that what inspired most of us to get into our weird-ass music of choice was a sense of wonder, a sense that a strange thing exists that resonates with our uniquely twisted sense of aesthetics. Even the crustiest elitist didn’t spring forth from the womb a fully-formed metalologist*** and had to have his or her eyes opened to the potential of extreme music at some point. Black Metal, the comics series written by Rick Spears and illustrated by Chuck BB, is the gleeful product of genuine metal fandom, combining a misanthropic, extreme metal worldview with literal childlike wonder, all while injecting plenty of first wave cheekiness into the proceedings. It is the most bizarrely joyful black metal parody imaginable.
***I’m pretty sure this has something to do with metallurgy in the world of science, but let’s pretend words don’t have meanings and just roll with this new and exciting definition for now.
Black Metal traces the story of Sam and Shawn Stronghand, twin brothers orphaned at birth whose devotion to the grimmest, kvltest metal imaginable has been the defining feature in their lives. While some of you may be turned off by the notion of spending time with tween characters, fret not–just enough pages are spent framing junior high microdrama and it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly that this book doesn’t dwell on Scott Pilgrim navel-gazing but rather favors splattery, Satanic mayhem. The brothers team up with a group of lovable losers, and while I realize that “lovable losers” is usually another narrative yellow flag, a self-aware sense of humor prevents things from getting saccharine. After the true destiny of the Brothers Stronghand is revealed (thanks to exposition provided by an Immortal-inspired band named Frost Axe), the story is freed to go completely off the rails into supernatural insanity, ping-ponging between Hell, Heaven, and even Valhalla over the course of its three volumes.
Creators Rick Spears and Chuck BB are quick to display their status as metal insiders, peppering their comic with references that will resonate with fellow fans. In addition to subtle name-dropping via posters and t-shirts, there are some delightfully clever dialogue snippets that are directly quoted from metal lyrics (the exclamation “you are so Black Wizards!” was a favorite moment, referencing as it does Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards”). The series is never inaccessible to non-metalheads, however–Black Metal has enough manic charm to win over readers who might flee from the seething aggression of the music that is its namesake.
Chuck BB’s black-and-white artwork has a jagged, expressive energy that propels the story from page to page. Off-kilter panel layouts and prominent halftone dots show the influence of manga while the simplified, angular character designs are a nod to the ultra-flat animation style of American fare found on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. The juxtaposition of ridiculously dark dialogue with the ugly-cute drawing style certainly earns laughs early on, but the story’s escalating gruesomeness–which includes eye gouging, decapitations, disembowelments, and flying limbs–takes on absurd humor when rendered in this style. The level of violence might be overly X-rated if splashed across the page in garish color, but Chuck BB’s linework keeps the demonic ooze and rotting flesh of the visuals well on the lighter side of splatstick.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Black Metal is its feel-good heart. As someone who grew up on 80s tween adventure fare like The Goonies and Monster Squad, there’s a chamber of my blackened, ossified heart that really loves an underdog story with an improbably happy ending. Not to give too much away (part of the joy of this particular comics series is in its ludicrously convoluted plot), but after a series of cliffhangers, betrayals, shocks, and tragedies, there’s a remarkably heartwarming ending to the story of the Brothers Strongheart.
Next time you need a break from the non-stop misery parade of life, and being pummeled by extreme music doesn’t feel like the kind of catharsis you need, consider spending a few hours with this different kind of Black Metal. It’s a book that will remind you why you fell in love with metal in the first place.