Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Venus Interface

The Venus Interface
Heavy Metal magazine graphic novel

In January of 1980, Heavy Metal editor Tim White decided to emulate the magazine's French counterpart (i.e., Metal Hurlant) and add monthly review columns for books, comic books, music, and films. The 'Muzick' column was assigned to Lou Stathis.

Lou Stathis, NYC, Summer 1986

[Note to modern-day readers: nowadays, the occupation / pastime of 'Rock Critic' has all but vanished from the cultural and media landscape. But back in 1980, 'Rock Criticism' was still a major component of pop culture. Although the genre would not survive the arrival of the Internet in the 90s, in the 80s, the magazine shelves contained a number of titles devoted to the topic. The foremost, and still surviving, example was Rolling Stone, but there also were Creem, Circus, and a sizable, ever-changing lineup of other, more fleeting titles.]

Stathis (1952 - 1997) wrote columns that were not very different from those being produced by other rock critics of the era. Like those other critics, Stathis adopted an arch, too-hip-to-be-fully-understood tenor in his writing (for example, he used the word 'rok' in place of 'rock'); and his columns were less about actually reviewing music, and more about showcasing Stathis's exquisitely jaundiced, world-weary attitudes regarding a variety of cultural topics. 

Stathis - like every other rock critic of the late 70s - early 80s - routinely praised performers in the Punk, New Wave, Electronic, and avante-garde genres, while disparaging 'mainstream' acts. 

Stathis was particularly prone to showcasing 'alternative' rock groups that were laboring in (often well-deserved) obscurity, since for him, searching out and showcasing these bands was a potent reminder to readers as to just how cutting-edge Lou Stathis could be.

Here's an excerpt from his column for the May, 1980 issue of Heavy Metal, in which Stathis waxes eloquent about a single from the New Wave band 'Fad Gadget', issued on an obscure UK label called 'Mute Records'. 

Note Stathis's use of phrases such as 'electrotunesmiths', 'manic minimalism', 'aggressively optimistic electropop', and 'counterpointed synthesizer melodies.'  That's how Rok Criticism is done !

[There actually is a surviving Fad Gadget video clip posted to YouTube, titled 'Collapsing New People'...........!   While it's unintentionally funny, it's no better, and no worse, than any other New Wave / Synth Band song issued on the indie labels in the UK back in that era.]

Later on in the decade, Stathis was eventually promoted to Associate Editor at HM, and when the magazine dropped the review columns, he began writing some of the comic / graphic content of the magazine. 

Which brings us to 'The Venus Interface'. Released as a 'Heavy Metal Graphic Novel' (although in reality it's a just typical, square-bound version of the magazine) it was issued in 1989. The story was written by Stathis, with the artwork is supplied by a team of 7, including well-known HM contributor Arthur Suydam.

In his Author's Note, Stathis indicates that (inevitably) William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick were his literary inspirations, while the New Wave band Joy Division's track Interface was "........a song that helped set my mind during the writing."

Without revealing any spoilers: the heroine of the story, named Sheldon, possesses the ability to take the shape of any of the hundreds of races populating the galaxy. When not shape-shifting, Sheldon (conveniently for HM readers) is a lithe brunette who wears little - if any - clothing.

Sheldon's ability catches the attentions of the Director of the Coca-Farben conglomerate. The complex life-extension treatments that have kept The Director alive are failing, and his only hope for survival is to collect various tissues and essences from a number of the galaxy's races. Once collected, the tissues will be extracted to create a formula for eternal youth.

Sheldon has misgivings about the assignment, but the pay - and the prospect of getting her own dose of the rejuvenation formula - lead her to accept.

The bulk of the story deals with Sheldon's efforts to acquire the needed specimens from some of the galaxy's more bizarre, and unpleasant, worlds. These efforts require Sheldon to adopt the forms of lubricious teletubbies, robots, fish, and insects....

Stathis's writing isn't very original, using the first-person narrative of the world-weary private-eye who is taking on what they know will be a dirty job. There is a determined effort to mimic the writing style of Burroughs; most of the dialogue is a stream of cynical quips, and tart one-liners. The plot also shows the influence of the Cyberpunks, which isn't surprising.

The artwork in 'Venus' is, overall, pretty good. Arthur Suydam's contributions are particularly's yet another case of outstanding draftsmanship and coloring buoying an underwhelming story.

Mark Pacella also contributes some pleasing artwork.

I found the section contributed by Peter Kuper to be unimpressive.......

That of Kenneth Smith is a bit too garish and cartoony for my tastes, but it does work......

Michael Uman's art strikes me as being too derivative of Bill Sienkiewicz........

While that of Jim Fletcher - which bookends the opening and closing segments of 'Venus' - holds up well.......

Summing up, I read 'The Venus Interface' with the expectation that it would mirror - for the worse - the self-indulgent, pretentious writing style Stathis employed for his Rok columns. But all things considered, 'Venus' is better than I expected it to be, mainly because the majority of the artwork is fine enough to buttress the plot.

If you are a fan of the Heavy Metal issues of the 80s, and you can find a copy of 'Venus' for $5 (which is what happened to me), then it is worth picking up. Compared to contemporary sf graphic novels, like The Manhattan ProjectsBlack Science, and the over-praised Saga, it fares well.


Will Errickson said...

I've never heard of Lou Stathis but oh do I think I know him.

aopaul said...

Heh, actually, looks like he was definitely on the cutting edge of music, all be it one specific style of music. While you might not like the style of Fad Gadget, I still hear that song played in clubs here in LA. And 'obscure label Mute records'? Ever hear of a band called Depeche Mode? New Order? Nick Cave? God, what I would have given to learn about interesting counter-culture bands like them back then. I would have actually read his music column growing up in a musical wasteland that was the Ohio River Valley! I didn't learn of Depeche Mode until I was about to graduate High School in the late 80's. Music exposure was so controlled back then I would rather listen to soundtracks than hairspray bubblegum top-20 like Bon Jovi, overplayed 'classic rock' or plenty of Country music.