Friday, November 6, 2009

Savage Dragon

I've wanted to write about Erik Larsen's long-running comic book series Savage Dragon for quite some time, in part because I never see anyone else discussing it, and also because my own relationship with the series is somewhat unique among my comics reading, and has changed over the years I've been following it. I wanted to sketch my own history as a Savage Dragon reader, and in doing so, sort out those elements of the series that continue to make it, for me, one of the most entertaining and unique comic books currently published.

I picked up the first issue of Savage Dragon when it was first published, in 1992. I was twelve. Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I believe it was my brother, two years my junior, who actually purchased the comic, but we both read it, and loved it. This was the first issue of the initial three issue mini-series that preceded the ongoing series. For a while I think I read my brother's copies, and then we both purchased our own copies of every issue. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As I'm sure was the case with the majority of Savage Dragon and early Image Comics readers, my brother and I had been primarily fans of mainstream Marvel and DC comics. Mostly Marvel. I think I had been reading superhero comics for a year or maybe a couple of years when Image Comics happened, and I was just beginning to differentiate between artists and writers. I had my favorites, particularly John Byrne (whose excellent run on Fantastic Four I was then discovering via back issues), a major influence on Erik Larsen. We knew Larsen's work, too, from an excellent run on Spider-Man following Todd McFarlane and featuring the Sinister Six. I remember thinking Larsen's art on that storyline was some of the best I had ever seen in comics. It looked so sleek and modern to my eyes, and the story contained everything a twelve-year-old could want out of a Spider-Man story. All of the major villains, cyborgs, monsters, big-name guest stars from across the Marvel Universe, lots of action. Lots of violence. The Sandman was turned into glass at one point, shattered, and then he came back as a guy made of glass shards. It was that kind of comic.

We hadn't seen anything yet.

We were vaguely aware of the behind-the-scenes drama that would lead to the formation of Image Comics around this time. Mostly these glossy new books that began appearing were understood to be new creations by many of the "hot" Marvel artists. They were edgier, darker, more "grown-up" somehow. Savage Dragon was pretty much a more violent version of the type of superhero story Larsen had done for Marvel. There was a lot of blood. The women were more voluptuous and more scantily clad. I think there was some swearing. The pages were glossier. It felt a little dangerous.

The story and characters were tremendously appealing. Larsen had a real knack for impactful character design, and the heroes and (especially) villains he filled the book with were so cool looking, so original, so unlike what you would see in a Marvel comic of the time. Another great feature of Savage Dragon was the letters pages. These were often very lengthy, and Larsen would answer fans' questions with a frankness that was completely unlike anything I had encountered in comics letters pages up to that time. This was pre-internet (at least for us), and I was just beginning to read Wizard, so the kind of all-access, behind-the-scenes quality of the Savage Dragon letters pages was a revelation. I remember Larsen talking once about that Spider-Man story I mentioned earlier. He spoke about how he had thought Doctor Octopus had been coming across as a goofy weakling in his recent appearances, so he had the idea to change that by updating his look and giving him adamantium arms. It sounds simple and obvious now, but I remember being really delighted by an artist discussing the ideas and intentions behind his work, and then being able to see that work realized on the printed page. Amazing! These comics were made by real people!

One of the signature qualities of Savage Dragon is Larsen's commitment to his project. He has stated numerous times that working on a series like Savage Dragon had always been his goal (indeed he had created the character as a teenager), and his intention was to continue to chronicle Dragon's adventures in the series for the rest of his life. The characters would age in real time, marry, have children, grow old, die. I think it was this quality of the series that lead me to at one time consider it "the ultimate comic book." It just seemed kind of perfect, you know? A talented creator working on a creator-owned series, utterly committed to the long term development of the characters and their world. It seemed to me in those early years as though Savage Dragon encompassed all of the best qualities of comics.

Okay, so here's where the changing nature of my relationship to the series comes in. Obviously, I no longer consider it "the ultimate comic book." If I had to apply that goofy, adolescent designation to something, it might be to something like Los Bros. Hernandez's Love and Rockets. Basically, what happened was, I discovered comics beyond superheroes. I discovered, as so many others have, the wider world of comics, and all of the different ways artistic expression can be filtered through them. I discovered artists like the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, others. I started looking seriously at comic strips. I stopped reading Wizard and started reading The Comics Journal. You know this story. You've heard it a million times before, and, if you're reading this blog, have probably lived some variation of it yourself. I grew up.

I kept reading Savage Dragon, though, even though Larsen's work no longer looked the same to me. I began to see his influences more clearly, and understand that some of the qualities I had once considered so original were not that original at all. Larsen is an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve, and doesn't always synthesize those artists he admires (Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, John Byrne, Walter Simonson, Frank Miller), into a cohesive style of his own. Larsen, an artist I once revered, began to seem to me to be a little naive. It was an odd period of adjustment for me, but I kept reading, I kept buying the new issue every month.

The thing is, I think I enjoy the book now more than I did then, if not as much as I did when I was twelve years old. I've often wondered if the primary reason I keep reading the book is habit or nostalgia. Certainly, I am still very attracted to the idea of Larsen's total commitment to the series. I love the fact that Dragon's son, who I remember being born, is now a teenager. I don't think, though, that nostalgia/habit/loyalty/whatever is the primary reason I am still a Savage Dragon reader. I know it's not. There's a lot that Larsen does really, really well. The kind of things I can't really find anywhere else. What once seemed cutting edge now has a delightful, "retro" quality. There is a pure joy to be had in reading Savage Dragon, the joy of a superhero comic that aspires to be nothing more than a really, really good superhero comic. I still love those character designs. Larsen does action very well, moving his bulky characters across the pages with a kind of grace and energy that a lot of current mainstream artists would do well to emulate. He is not a great writer, but he is a gifted cartoonist and a capable storyteller. He does great covers. I still enjoy the violence. While his ideas are not as unique as I once perceived them to be, he continues to combine familiar comic book story elements in surprising and sometimes thrilling ways. It is, perhaps, the ultimate superhero comic.

I particularly enjoyed a recent storyline, the latest "Death of Dragon" sequence (yeah, there've been a few at this point), wherein Dragon fought a monster capable of absorbing people's appearances, powers, and some aspects of their personalities and memories, leaving his victims lifeless husks. Dragon's memories and powers were absorbed by the creature, and the skull of his lifeless body was crushed. However, because of Dragon's healing factor (something Larsen has taken full advantage of over the years), his personality was able to dominate that of the creature, and the creature effectively transformed into a new Dragon, with all of Dragon's powers, memories, and personality, and no evidence of the monster left intact. Dragon's dead and decimated body was put in stasis, just in case. Then, the "new" Dragon was "killed" by the villain Overlord. The remains of that Dragon's body reassembled as a monstrous version of Dragon, while the original Dragon's body was brought back to life via a blood transfusion from his son, albeit without his memories since his brain had been destroyed. Pretty cool. I mean, I'm glad there's a place I can still read stuff like this, you know?

That's the cover to the latest issue up above. I'm looking forward to reading it, and whatever comes next.


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