Scream Bloody Bear: An Interview With Queer Heavy Metal Comic Artist Ed Luce
While heavy metal and comic books have pretty rich and obvious crossover potential, it is rare that one finds a metal comic book that’s fresh and new. Too often, “metal comics” means yet another story about a post-apocalyptic biker trying to fight a bad metaphor for capitalism, or at the very best a series of hokey corpse paint jokes.
This is why Ed Luce is such a fucking gem. His comics escape cliché by presenting a crumb-strewn world cohabited by both bulky bizarro monsters and hairy queer metalheads with Charlie Brown eyes. Besides his work illustrating the back page of Decibel, Ed is best known for Wuvable Oaf, a comic series starring Oaf, a towering cruel-eyed bear with a satanic wrestling persona named Goteblüd who really just wants to meet a nice guy and settle down with his dozens of adorable kitties. Also featured in this world are a slew of subgenre-themed wrestlers, a brutal technical death metal band named Ejaculoid, and, of course, plenty of brolic dudes without their shirts off.
Talking to Luce is like meeting the one other dude who’s into that weird Finnish death rock band you discovered in high school. He rants, he laughs, he pokes fun at himself and metal at large. But there is also no sense that his interest in metal is in any way ironic or fashionable, he just fucking loves this music. He’s the guy who sits with the album, scans the liner notes, stares at the pictures for hours. When discussing how metal hasn’t taken off in the gay male community the way it perhaps should’ve, he says, “They don’t read the lyrics the way I do. It’s funny, because Pantera’s lyrics often lean into this homo territory. It’s all about a guy saying that another guy has betrayed him.”
How did Oaf come about—was he a character you wanted to incorporate into something, or did you start with the idea of a gay metal wrestling comic?
I was a painter for years, and an illustrator, and when I moved to San Francisco, I moved into this tiny apartment and didn’t really have space and time for painting. San Francisco is a great comics city, and has a great comics culture. So, working at an art store, going to local comic shops, I met a bunch of comic creators. I had read comics my whole life, mainly Marvel and DC stuff, but I wasn’t super aware of indie comics, so my indie comics education really happened when I got to San Francisco. The very first drawing that I did was for a paper doll at a paper doll-themed show. I wanted to have a scary-looking guy, and then all these costumes point out that he was a sweetheart. He was into Morrissey, he wore footsie pajamas, all of that. That contradiction in terms intrigued a lot of people. They asked, Who is this guy? Because he seemed like he had a backstory. And having just moved to San Francisco, I thought that maybe this could be told only in comics form. So it was very influenced by me moving to a big West Coast city, and one of the more destination gay cities.
Is there much love for metal among the gay community in San Francisco?
The culture there is much more evolved, especially in the gay male community. When I lived in New York, I was struggling to find what I would affectionately call “rock fags”. But in SF, whether it was the neighborhood I was in or the crowd I was running with, I met a lot of them. So I started hanging out with them, started going on dates with some of them, and eventually to Oaf character grew out of that. It’s a love letter to San Francisco, and specifically the rock culture there, and gay venues like the Eagle, where I got to know the members of Limp Wrist, that queercore band. In fact, I’ve released a couple of records, and the voice of Eiffel, the lead singer of Ejaculoid, is Martin [Sorrondeguy] from Limp Wrist, and the guitarist is Scott Moore. So it all evolved naturally from that.
Can you pinpoint a moment where Oaf went from this paper doll to the character we all know and love?
I had a couple of false starts. After writing a couple of stories which I didn’t show anybody, I did a Zero Issue, which infuriates anyone who’s really into comics. But I wrote some backstory for this cast of characters I wanted to use, and then did one- to three-page short stories about Oaf and his cats. I mapped out all these bullet points: he’s adopted. He’s got friends who trade in all of these shady San Francisco subcultures that represent, say, the Mission District. It was a little test to see what people thought of this character. And initially, I thought it was just going to be gay men. This is really a love letter to bears, especially in San Francisco. But because I put the cats in there, and the wrestling, especially the music stuff, it attracted a real melting pot, a real mix of people. Which is very consistent with my experience in SF. It all organically blended together.
The early Oaf stories really get at the crux of his character—he’s a huge Satanic wrestler who’s really just a nice guy looking for love. Where’d you draw them from?
It was kind of my experience in dating in SF that the first storyline grew out of. I just wanted people to know. I can’t say this about the whole country, but dating culture in San Francisco is a really weird thing. Especially because I was there in the mid-2000s, as the second wave of tech development going on. You’d go on a date with someone, and then just never see them again. So it allowed me to create these transitory characters. It also allowed me to include plenty of pop culture characters as well. It’s hard to describe the first arc, because the spine of it is romantic comedy, albeit an unconventional one. Guy sees guy, stalks guy, ends up going out on a date where this guy is revealed to have slept with most of San Francisco. He’s in a band, has slept with all the band members, is controlling them that way. Much of it is exaggerated, but a lot of it is ripped out of personal experiences.
Something I love about Wuvable Oaf is that, unlike other metal comics where they feel the need to be SUPER METAL ALL THE TIME, these stories invite other musical cultures. There’s the obsession with the Smiths, the love of Phil Collins…
I feel like metal is a color that I paint with. It’s in my palette. Sometimes I’ll paint in metal in terms of a story. I paint with wrestling. The cat stuff is its own thing. And what I feel like I’ve been able to do is play with how those things interact in surprising ways. Some of my biggest fans are this band Harrassor from LA, and they love Oaf, they created a song for me, but if you look at their Instagrams, they’re all metal dudes who love cats and wrestling. So the Venn diagram has totally overlapped for them! So even though it’s a gay story, that’s not a big deal for them. They understand that it comes from a different perspective, and so the gay content isn’t a dealbreaker. They’re also from LA and are listening from a West Coast bubble.
What have you experienced more: metalheads being weirded out by the gay side of the comic, or gay dudes being weirded out by the metal side of the comic?
I traveled to New York a while ago for a queers-in-comics conference, and was hanging out at the New York Eagle. I was wearing a Slayer shirt, the one with the green Root Of All Evil goblin on it. This guy comes up to me, I don’t know him terribly well, and he points at my shirt and says, You’re being ironic, right? You don’t actually like that music. It made me so angry—like, why would I wear this ironically? But they don’t get it. You can show them members of a band like Pantera, and they’ll admit that that’s a type they’re into, but as soon as I try to play them the music, it’s over. And I think it’s because they assume it’s a toxic masculine culture. I feel like I haven’t gotten a lot of negative or homophobic reactions, especially among my comics metal friends. I do Decibel’s back page, and know the art guys at the mag—Mark Rudloph, Chuck BB, Tom Neely—and have never felt anything but welcome among that circle. One of my favorite comic creators is Benjamin Marra, and since I’ve known him he’s begun working weird pansexual stuff into his comics.
The comic does quite a good job of showing the frank sexualities of both metal and wrestling cultures.
I feel like the crossover is really palpable, and it’s allowed me to get not only a lot of straight fans, but a lot of women, who you might not think would be really into metal, or into wrestling. It’s good that you bring up the wrestling, because the next book I’m doing for Fantagraphics is just about the wrestling league featured in Oaf. The premise of it is that, what if WWE was run by progressive liberals? A lot of the wrestlers are female. There’s a girl gang that’s metal-themed; there’s Sister Thrash, Sister Grind, and they’re just a girl gang. Not all of them are biologically female, so I want to get into that, get some trans fans. These are just characters that are not being covered in mainstream wrestling, so I want to get into that. I want to see it. It can’t happen soon enough.
I love that you turn the classic wrestling tropes on their heads. For instance, instead of having a villainous foreigner character, there’s Badass United States Hero, who’s presented as this ignorant villain.
He’s played as a villain in a lot of ways. It’s interesting, because those comics were originally released on Vice, and Nick Gazen, the Vice art editor, called me and said, “I’m sorry about the comments.” I was like, “Oh, did Murican Eagle piss some people off?” He said, “Yeah, people are on there saying, Vice is never political, how dare you?” This was before the whole Alt-Right thing got named, so it was those guys who were angry I’d created this chubby redneck character who wore the American flag. The subtext to all of this, though, is that he’s also played to be kind of lunkheaded and hot, and so there’s the duality of him being objectified at the same time as vilified. So I do like to have my cake and eat it too. If I’m making fun of something, I also want to say, Look how pretty that is!
That’s amazing. I’m sure the same can be said of a lot of metal bands. You mentioned Pantera earlier—even though we think of them as the ultimate bro metal band, I’m sure plenty of gay dudes find them hot.
In my studio, I have my Pantera poster from college up on the wall, long before all the ‘Sieg heiling’ and everything. That was my way of being closeted while at the same time having something pretty up in my room. I had three Pantera posters. My friend took me to Long Island and to all the rocking headshops, and I just got all these bootleg posters of Phil Anselmo right after he had shaved his head. I often joke that even though I’ve always loved heavy metal, because so much metal sounds the same, I occasionally use the look of the band to decide which ones I’m going to get into. In that respect, they’re sort of my boy bands. Nails? That’s my boy band. Todd has a tree neck—that really got my attention before I got real into the music.
Is there an example of metal dudes peacocking that maybe the average metal fan doesn’t always see or recognize?
One of the most fascinating things I think that goes on in metal right now is this litany of YouTube channels that feature these lonely metal guys, who presumably don’t have girlfriends, just showing the other lonely guys their record collections, having unboxings and shit. It’s a display. It’s a peacocking display of stuff. Those guys have their fingers on the pulse of things that are sort of over by the time things get to Decibel. But it’s really strange to see them showing off their stuff. And it makes for great comics content.
Something that’s interesting is that by featuring the more goofy, nerdy, or cute elements of metal, your comics feel far more honest than, say, yet another barbarian story of gorefest.
In the Blood & Metal book, there’s a story about two gay friends, one who’s into metal and one who’s not. The metalhead drags his friend to a technical death metal show, and they end up having a really good time. And it’s basically about my survival technique at metal shows in college—I would go up front and grab on to the biggest guy I could find to keep from getting my ass kicked in the pit. There were no comics about that. And I was like, That’s what I’m going to do. Or there’s a story I wrote called “Kisses, Kerry King”, where two members of Ejaculoid are basically stalking Kerry King in LA, trying to give him their demo tape. And I had just watched a bunch of interviews by him where he—you know, he starts a lot of shit. Does a lot of trash-talking. But I was watching Headbanger: A Metalhead’s Journey, and he just came off like somebody’s uncle. He was giggling, smiling—I was like, who is this guy? So I figured, let me build a story around him. I think the worst thing we say about him is that he likes Beard Papa Cream Puffs.
Oh man, Kerry King peacocks so hard. The head tattoos and chain belt are a huge display to the many, many other dudes watching.
Yeah, dude. It all comes back to Halford. Heavy metal looks the way it does because Halford stopped off a fetish shop and created a look for Judas Priest. It’s funny that more gay men don’t like it, probably because they see this toxic masculinity in it, like they might get beat up by these metal dudes. But if you saw those guys at a gay bar, you’d just think they’re into leather.