Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column.
Metal Gods: A Tribute to Judas Priest
Edited by Mark Rudolph
Published by Decibel Books
Heavy Metal is a monotheistic faith. For its followers there is Metal or … Sure, music absolutists are legion, those ‘heads for whom music and lifestyle are inseparable. Metal fans are different, more fervent, self-serious to a fault and yes, harder, heavier. Mark Rudolph ranks among these true believers and so are the thirty-seven banner men and women he rallies to the cause for this encomium of essays, cartoons and comics inspired by all things Judas Priest.
If the words ‘tribute,’ ‘Judas’ and ‘Priest’ aren’t obvious enough, this book is for the fans. The assembled “defenders of the faith” don’t care about recruitment or defending their faith to non-believers. Nor is there much for lapsed adherents to catch a contact high either — dad-rockers sniffing around for a “point of entry” or a “painkiller” to curb nostalgia. Nor is Rudolph et al. keen on the sort of creative wankery and academic rigor required of a 33 1/3 type effort. So no talk about lawsuits, no controversies, no goofy comic about a fictional Tipper Gore witch hunt — and don’t even ask about Tim “Ripper” Owens, ‘cuz fuck that guy. The bigger sin (after sin?) here is a lack of imagination and innovation — the twin turbos that have driven Judas Priest as a band since 1969 — and not a lot to learn, debate or wrestle with. Metal Gods: A Tribute to Judas Priest is only that — a tribute — not what made Judas Priest Judas Priest.
To debate Priest’s influence on Heavy Metal and popular culture is plain stupid — like wanting something more thought-provoking, perhaps, from what is clearly labeled as fan service. Metal luminaries like Phil Anselmo, Robert Garven, Mark “The Shark” Shelton, and Scott Carlson pledge fealty with essays that recall personal stories to remind their fellow fanatics what they already believe. Yes, these illustrated elevator speeches are cool, but too many read like Penthouse letters or a person talking about a party you weren’t at … like a tribute to said party or Penthouse missive.
Two of the twelve essays that strive for relevance beyond wasn’t-this-cool-when-this-happened-to-me moments come from Autopsy drummer/vocalist Chris Reifert and the bass player/vocalist Jarvis Leatherby of Night Demon. Rudolph draws Reifert as he narrates a story about a trip he took with his family to New York as a tennager. He recalls playing Priest tapes over-and-over through “those orange puffy headphones” and how he conned his grandpa into buying a spiked wristband from a street vendor. Reifert’s wit, specificity, and sharpness strike the perfect balance: personal but relatable enough to avoid the slippery slide into solipsism.
A personal anecdote that isn’t funny, quirky or gross is best worn on one’s sleeve. Leatherby writes about an impromptu encounter he had as a young man with Judas Priest’s frontman, Rob Halford. It’s one of those sweet stories about catching an idol at-large and the impression such an encounter has on one’s life. Leatherby provides confirmation that fame isn’t an excuse to be an asshole nor a solution to no longer having to put one’s pants on one leg at a time. It’s also proves Metal folk are good folk.
Two of the comics included here that demonstrate the difference between fan-service and fan-service with brains and a sense of humor are “Before the Dawn” by Rudolph and the criminally underappreciated Rachel Deering and “The Metal (Fashion) God” by Ed Luce.
Rudolph and Deering imagine a dream scenario for Halford to play out his greatest triumphs and anxieties. The comic is built around an in-joke which will be obvious to even the most catholic Priest fans. The comic avoids being obnoxious, something the majority of essays fail at, by maintaining a sense of humor to match Rudolph’s caricature-like cartooning. Metal is serious fucking business, serious fucking music, but it is at its best when it winks at its own silly theatricality and Judas Priest has always been good at the side-eye.
Luce’s contribution goes a step beyond the cleverness and the fan fiction-y aspect of Deering and Rudoph’s effort by lampooning a pioneering aspect of Judas Priest, their fashion sense, 99.9% of which comes from Halford’s S&M shop crawls before he came out. Luce lovingly tweaks Priest’s haute coutre in a way that leather fringe, studded black leather, and a firework spouting codpiece requires, nay deserves. Luce is confident in his talents and his devotion to Priest that he can pull off a runway act that would be as at home on RuPaul’s Drag Race as in the closets of Priest’s fiercest defenders. Luce’s comic is the highlight and his light touch is more of what Metal Gods needs, nay deserves.
The final straightaway in this victory lap is an essay by musician Brian Manley and illustrator JT Dockery, “A Turbo Love Story.” Like Luce, Manley gets at what could have made this collection more than an agreement on the tenets required by the faith. He writes about Turbo, qualifying his bonafides saying, “Turbo was the party album … sneered at by many dedicated fans as the qualified ‘sell-out’ album.” What a Judas Priest fan says about Turbo says everything a fellow adherent needs to know — the mark of the Beast, in Priest’s case. Manley’s defense is funny, smart, and rock solid. He calls out Turbo’s failings and strengths in equal measure and defends the dictum that what is popular can never be good or authentic — he rails against the kind of contrarianism that argues a stab at popular equals selling out, or that a more obscure work in a band’s catalog is somehow more artistic or riskier. It’s the kind of prattle which proves douchiness and coolness sometimes go hand in douche-y hand. Manley ain’t having it. Turbo’s his horse and he’s riding it ‘till the end.
The last line in Manley’s essay delivers a devilish bit of self-deprecation that should have served as the lodestone for the rest of the collection. Manley writes, “Just please don’t ask me to defend Ram It Down.” Yes! Talk about that! Defend that turd. It’s fine to line up on the side of the popular opinion: Priest sold out with Turbo or, even, Ram It Down is shit. But to have the balls to take up the opposing viewpoint separates the true fan from a poseur. This is when the authenticity of experience transcends the personal and becomes universal. Every music fan has a Turbo — not a soft spot, but a belief, a philosophy. It’s about honesty and love and fuck you if you don’t speak up. Don’t be your own personal Judas. That’s not Metal.
True fandom isn’t blind allegiance. A true fan is honest — not only with themselves, but, most importantly, with the band or music they love — and challenges and interrogates both the unpopular and popular beliefs of the community with equal measure and objectivity. Otherwise it’s just a tribute and who wants to read that?
— Keith Silva (@keithpmsilva)