When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg announced they were adapting Vertigo Comics’ Preacher for AMC, comic fans had a lot of questions about how the two would pull off the material on cable TV. Source fidelity, the restrictions of a basic cable budget, and what Rogen & Goldberg could and couldn't get away with on AMC were all popular conversation topics. But one topic had me more curious than the others: how were they going to portray the comic's supporting character Arseface?
Because Arseface is based on a real person.
The 1980s was the height of “Satanic panic,” a truly bizarre period in 20th century pop culture history. For much of the decade, parents’ groups and news outlets engaged in some highly visible hand-wringing over the demonic threat posed to the nation’s children by heavy metal music, horror movies, and fantasy role-playing games. Suburban gossip about Satanic cults conducting ritual rape and murder prompted more than a few law enforcement witch hunts. At school, kids traded stories about playing records backwards to look for subliminal messages.
At the height of this era, the hysteria coalesced into a high-profile court case in which the heavy metal band Judas Priest were actually sued for driving two teens to suicide with hidden messages in their music. On December 23, 1985, after listening to Judas Priest's "Better By You, Better Than Me," Ray Belknap and James Vance both shot themselves with a .12 gauge shotgun. Belknap died at the scene; Vance, who put the gun under his chin, survived:
In the wake of the incident, Vance told his family (and their attorney) that after a night of drinking and drugs, he and Belknap heard a message inside Judas Priest’s Stained Class album. "…All of a sudden we got a suicide message, and we got tired of life.” In a message to Belknap’s mother, Vance doubled down. “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized."
The case was huge news. Judas Priest were dragged into a Reno courtroom for a six-week trial to answer for their alleged role in the death of one boy and the horrible maiming of another. The band listened to Vance's testimony and watched their own albums being picked apart by attorneys and experts looking for hidden messages. Singer Rob Halford was ordered to sing on the witness stand.
Ultimately a judge ruled that while there might have been subliminal messages in Judas Priest's record, they were buried too deep in the mix to be discerned by a normal listener. (The band’s manager somewhat cynically retorted, “If we were going to do that, I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.”) But the crux of the judge’s ruling was that music can’t make you kill yourself, and the case was dismissed.
Music would continue to come under fire by the government for much of the decade, charged with corrupting America's youth in one fashion or another. Vance died two years later of a medication overdose while hospitalized for depression. Seven years later, “Arseface” turned up in Preacher #2, and the similarities (in appearance and backstory) between him and Vance are undeniable. At least Garth Ennis gave the character a happier, if much weirder, second act than James Vance ever got.
For some of us, Preacher's resurrection of Vance's mangled visage brings back memories of this horrible period in a surprising way. If you saw James Vance's face during the coverage of that trial, you didn't forget it. And it's a weird irony indeed to see folks online celebrating the magic and wonder of a decade (one for which many of them weren't yet alive) while over on AMC, Preacher has been stealthily spotlighting the bleak, disfigured, heavy metal dirtball face of the 80s we remember.
Dream Deceivers, the great 1992 documentary about James Vance vs Judas Priest, is available to watch on Amazon Prime.