Dream Come True (Part 3)

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Greetings and salutations, fans of the Unspoken! Tis I, your loyal Symbifan, back as promised to deliver the third and final part of my look back at the “Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare” storyline! Well, it didn’t take me nearly as long to get this part out to you as part 2, but I do apologize for the wait. I know how beloved I am by all of you out there on the net. (You may roll you eyes sarcastically starting….now!) Anyway, shall we finish this puppy? Let us begin.

RCO004_w_1467649128-1.jpgLast time, despite the odds, the Justice League found each other in a universe gone mad and banded together! The final issue begins with the soon-to-be-JLA fighting a group of everyday people granted with superpowers. The metahumans are being schooled by our heroes, but time grows short. They must discover if Dr. Destiny is in fact behind this or if a new threat has emerged. The metas may have no chance of winning this battle but they do have the numbers. To be blunt, this is taking forever to beat a bunch of cannon fodder. (Hey, Superman called them that, not me! I know, right?! And he’s usually such a goody-two-shoes!)

So, what does Martian Manhunter do? Only the most awesome Martian mind trick ever! He performs a mass telepathic assault that causes all assembled, except the good guys, to suffer seizures and pass out! (Don’t tick off a Martian! Well, unless you have a Zippo lighter. Lol! Ah, I amuse myself!) Moving on, after this display of mental might, the group discusses whether or not they even have the right to stop the world from gaining super-powers. I mean, they have tons themselves. Hardly seems fair. But it’s finally agreed that letting everyone on Earth posses godlike powers just might be a bad idea in the long run. So to stop this, they need to discover the root of the problem. But how to locate the villain in a world of powered-up peeps?

RCO012_1467649128-1That’s when Martian Manhunter comes to the realization that only one man knows Dr. Destiny’s location….Kyle Rayner AKA Green Lantern! After all, wasn’t he drawing this in a comic book all the way back in issue one? Manhunter then invades Kyle’s personal space and does his whole Martian “laying-of-hands” trick with poor Green Lantern’s head and enters his mind! He does find out exactly what he wants to know, and faster than the Flash does dishes, they’re off! It doesn’t take long for them to reach their destination.

Superman wants to rush right in swinging, but Batman reminds him that no one on this Earth knows who they are or that they are, in fact, good guys. He talks them all into staying put while he does his thing, and in no time they have access to the installation. (Never ceases to amaze, does he? Except when keeping the inmates of Arkham off the streets! Ooooooh! Burn!) The team is faced with several illusions along the many corridors but soon make it to the most secured room. Smashing their way in, they discover Dr. Destiny, held captive and being drained of his power! With little effort,  he is freed and starts to spill the beans on who has been using him to make the world the way it is when….the villain arrives!

RCO022_1467649128The being calls himself Know Man! (I know! Sounds like what Sheldon Cooper from “Big Bang Theory” would call himself  if he became an evil mastermind!) But I digress. The heroes begin their assault, but to no avail. Even Supes is knocked into the ionosphere by the guy! That’s when Batman comes up with a risky plan. He removes the mind-reaching equipment from Dr. Destiny and slaps it onto Martian Manhunter and Aquaman with the hopes of mentally reversing it’s evil effects! (That’s right! Aquaman has telepathic powers that can be used on more than just fish! He’s a total badass! That said, I expect an autographed picture any day of Jason Momoa for my girlfriend for typing that sentence.) As the two heroes reach out with their minds to an entire planet, the others are getting seriously kicked around by the villain!

RCO027_w_1467649128-1That’s when Know Man performs his most heinous act….he monologues his origin story! It turns out that the guy used to be an honest-to-Flintstone caveman! You heard me right! Long ago, a race called the Controllers decided that the universe was such a dangerous place that an anti-war deterrent was needed in every sector of space to keep everyone safe. One of these Controllers crash landed on the Earth and was discovered by the being that would become Know Man! The caveman was chosen to continue this mission, as the Controller was dying. He soon gained entrance into the spaceship and began to evolve, both mentally and physically. He was even gifted with immortality! Know Man witnessed many horrors throughout his long life. And when superbeings started surfacing, he decided it was his time to act. He would me remake the Earth into an entire world of super-powered humans. He would make the heroes and villains of old obsolete! (Whew! Long-winded fella, huh?)

RCO029_1467649128The group listens to all of this in near silence until they decide they’ve heard enough. Superman leads the charge! But before an attack can be made, the heroes suddenly find themselves transported into their own personal Hells, based on their own fears about themselves! All seems lost until Martian Manhunter frees himself with the surprising help of….Dr. Destiny! And, just like that, the people of Earth begin to return to normal! Mission accomplished, but he still needs to free his friends. That’s when he spies Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth! Using its power, combined with his mental willpower, he reaches out to each hero and makes them see the truth about themselves. They are heroes. Superheroes.

RCO042_1467649128-1Returned to their senses, the heroes attack! But Know Man no longer wishes to fight! Even though they have thwarted his plans, they have only succeeded in dooming the human race to a future threat he has forseen! (Yeah! Like that’ll ever happen! It’s not like comic writers lie in bed at night and dream up new and more powerful villains all of the time! Right?) Anyway, Know Man then disappears, leaving the big question: Where do they go from here? It is decided that if bigger threats do in fact exist out there, they are way stronger together than they ever were apart. And so, The Justice League of America is born! Yes, to us comic fans, it truly was a dream come true.

RCO047_1467649128(Dedicated to my bestfriend, Tim Osborn, for showing me the wonder of the traditional superhero.)

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Dream Come True (Part 2 )

MidsummersNightmareThat’s right! The Symbifan has officially come out of retirement to bring you not one, but two parts of the monumental storyline known as Justice League: A Midsummer’s Nightmare! (In two articles that is. I’m  not a machine!) Umm…sorry about that. Now, where was I about six months ago? ….Ah yes! I was about to give my insights on the second installment of this titanic tale. (Talk about a long build-up! Sheesh!)

We last found ourselves with the “World’s Finest” as they were slowly beginning to regain their memories. It was decided that this new threat would require more than just the two of them this time. It would require a team with experience and abilities the likes of which the world has never seen before. (See how I did that? I just excited you with my words! You’re welcome.) Anyway, that said, we join a green alien child, presumably on Mars, scratching typical children’s artwork into the side of a cliff. The father calls to the child to rejoin him at the top. Being a good little Martian kid, she does so without hesitation. (Ahh. If only this worked so easily on Earth! Am I right, parents?! These kids today….) But I digress. As the girl meets up with her parents topside, there is a back and forth about alien worlds and the lifeforms or lack thereof that might inhabit them. It’s then that a lens falls from the father’s telescope thingy. As he drops to the bottom to retrieve it, he sees his child’s artwork. The symbols seemly oddly familiar to the martian!

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Meanwhile, back on Earth, we find ourselves in the Batcave where Batman and Superman decide their next move. It is still unknown exactly which villain they face, but they decide it would have to be a telepath of the highest order to affect the entire world so completely. As if the population of the planet were dreaming in unison. They then wonder where on Earth the Martian Manhunter could be. After all, who better to fight a telepath than another telepath? Batman brings up a list from his computer listing the whereabouts of the “big-hitters” in the superhero community. (Convenient, huh? I want a super-computer like that! Maybe if I’m a good little Symbifan this Christmas….Nah. you’d probably have to be an adult version of a spoiled rich kid to get toys like that. You know, the type that is in his thirties and still can’t cope with the deaths of his parents from age eight! I mean, come on, Bruce! Grow up! Oh, slam! I just insulted everyone’s fav “bat-guy”!) Well then, back to the story. The two decide to assume their civilian identities and seek out their super friends.

It should be noted here that the long-time Justice League villain known as Dr. Destiny is pictured sitting in a high-tech chair of some sort with several wires sticking out of his armored headpiece. He speaks to himself of growing quite full on the dreams of everyone the world over. But, he then speaks of another he calls “Know Man” who seems to be pulling even his strings! (Insert shocking/dramatic music here!)

RCO019_1467649047The first candidate on Bruce Wayne’s list for the most epic of superhero teams is Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman! Bruce, never being one for wasting any time, forcibly dunks Arthur’s head into his fishtank where, to Arthur’s amazement, he can breathe! This seems to do the trick and Aquaman returns to his senses. (Score one for being straight to the point, eh kiddies?!)

We then join Wally West as he tries to forcebly enter the apartment of Kyle Rayner. West begins shouting at Rayner that he hasn’t slept in weeks and that Kyle’s comic book, Green Lantern, has something to do with it. Kyle, thinking Wally to be a crazed fanboy, starts to get angry at this intrusion. (Ah. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, fellow fanboys?!) The situation grows heated until, to both of their amazement, a beam of green energy blasts from Kyle’s ring finger! Instinctively, Wally dodges this attack, but he does it at super speed! The Flash and Green Lantern have returned.

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Meanwhile, the world has gone completely nuts as everyday people the world over suddenly develop superpowers. This of course causes mayhem and carnage. As the news reports on this in all languages and networks, a strangely garbed man smiles. Yes, things are going completely as he has planned. While this is happening, Clark Kent pays a visit to Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman. Being Batman’s polar opposite, Superman takes a more peaceful approach to awakening Wonder Woman to her true identity. He simply shows her that she can fly like him. (See Bruce, things can be done nicely. Damn!)

 

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Anywho, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman meet up atop a skyscraper and discuss their present situation. They come to the common consensus that this all has to have been perpetrated by their old nemesis, Dr. Destiny, and that the Martian Manhunter will probably  be needed to defeat him. The only problem? No one can locate the green-skinned powerhouse! (Seriously, have you Googled Martian Manhunter’s list of powers?! It’s insane! I mean, Superman ain’t got nothin’ on this guy!) Just then, all hell breaks loose in the city streets below! Being that they are heroes, this gives them little choice but to help. They leap into action against some new superpowered humans and do what they do best! But the numbers are against them and they soon begin to falter. That is until The Flash and Green Lantern arrive on the scene! The soon-to-be-complete team makes short work of these super wannabes and take a moment to catch their collective breath. Just then, Superman shoots off into the sky. The others follow and soon discover the source of the Last Son of Krypton’s haste….he has found the Martian Manhunter!

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The thing is, he is discovered not on Mars at all, but hidden within an Air Force base on Earth! The heroes are relieved to find their Martian friend and offer him freedom not only from military custody, but from this lie he has been living. There’s only one problem….he doesn’t want to be freed! Having lost his entire species once, he is unwilling to surrender to reality. Who can blame him? In this dream, he is a husband, a father again. Before the others have time to protest his decision, the base is attacked by superhuman terrorists. Springing into action, our heroes begin to prepare to battle. But, before much can happen, an explosion sounds throughout the base. Looking, all concerned see flames erupt from where the Martian family is housed! That’s right. Fire. The weakness of the Martian race! (And y’all thought a green rock was stupid for a Kryptonian!) All of them then hear an unearthly cry of anguish. Martian Manhunter holds the remains of his “family”.

He then turns to the attackers, enraged! He marches past his allies and demands who has done this. The superhumans not only don’t deny it, they proclaim credit proudly! Big mistake! With the addition of the Martian Manhunter, the Justice League stands united and ready for action!

TO BE CONCLUDED….

Dedicated to my sweetheart, Renee Grill, without who this article would never have been written. I love you and happy anniversary!

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Image @ 25 : The Savage Dragon

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In late 1991 a group of Marvel Comics’ hottest artists gave Marvel (and later DC Comics) the collective middle finger and struck out on their own to form Image Comics.  The following summer, Image took the comic book world by storm. I’m looking back at some of the books that changed the industry forever, starting with Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon.

In the summer of 1992, I was a couple years into collecting comics.  I started with the usual: Spider-Man, The Avengers, occasionally some DC stuff.  The comics industry was growing and publishers were bringing out countless new characters and concepts, throwing the proverbial crap at the wall to see what would stick.

Boy, was there a lot of crap.

But, hey, I’m not here to throw stones.  I’m here to throw some praise on what I love.  And I loved some of those new guys on the block.  I’m looking at you, Darkhawk!  This guy still loves ya, Sleepwalker!

Y’see, the great thing about the new guys was they were all mine.  I got in on the ground floor and was able to watch them grow from the beginning.  Spidey had been around for near 30 years at that point.  Batman was over 50!  Beat it, gramps, there’s some young blood here to take us into the next Millennium!

Speaking of Youngblood…

The feeling of “All New Heroes Just For Me” took a big leap in 1992 with the launch of Image Comics.  At the time, I was wholly unaware of the inner workings at any comics publisher and had only just begun to appreciate different writers and artists.  So when the much-ballyhooed Image split took place, I didn’t even know about it until I realized that the Youngblood comic was drawn by the guy who used to do X-Force, Rob Liefeld.

While I can’t remember specifically, I suspect it was Wizard Magazine that eventually gave me the scoop on Image and all the badass comics that would soon be coming my way with a bevy of all new characters from artists I loved.  Spawn, Shadowhawk, Cyber Force – they were all in my wheelhouse, and while Youngblood was initially my favorite Image book, it would be a green-skinned strong man with a badge that stood the test of time.

Erik Larsen had followed Todd MacFarlane on both Amazing Spider-Man and then Spider-Man before again following MacFarlane (along with Liefeld and several others) out the Marvel door and into forming Image Comics, the biggest game changer the industry had seen since the release of Watchmen in 1986.

Larsen separated himself from the Image pack right away with The Savage Dragon.  While many of the Image founders relied on what worked for them at Marvel and cribbed heavily from those characters and concepts, Larsen went waaay back to his roots and brought a boyhood creation into the spotlight.

At first glance, it was easy to dismiss Dragon as an obvious Hulk clone.  Upon further inspection, however, the similarities are almost entirely cosmetic.  Aside from the green skin and super strength, there wasn’t much to compare.  The Hulk has gone through countless changes in his decades of existence, but the core concept remains a Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, the brute having little interest in the world around him.

Dragon was always Dragon. He took great interest in his world, which had a large supporting cast, including many he called friend.  Dragon was a Chicago cop committed to the job.  He was a thinker with a strong sense of right and wrong.  He had no patience for ignorance or cruelty.  He was a fully developed character from nearly the beginning, despite having no knowledge of his own origins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before diving into the early Dragon years, I want to take a quick look at the first issue of The Savage Dragon mini-series.  Most of the Image guys launched their new books as a mini-series, before starting again with a new #1 (Savage Dragon, Cyber Force) or just continuing on with the numbering once the series was proven to be sustainable (WildC.A.T.s).

Savage Dragon #1 was released in the summer of 1992 (July is the listed month, so it likely was released in May), and I had already been enthralled by Image thanks to Youngblood and Spawn’s debut issues.  I had pretty much decided to get every Image title I could afford, and thankfully my older brother was buying up Image books in speculator fashion, so what I couldn’t get for myself, I still had access to.

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The cover is a bit plain but still dynamic, right?  The Dragon, all muscled up, leaping at the reader, fangs bared.  And TWO TAGLINES!  A lot of early 90’s comics seem to have that going.  “1st BRUTAL ISSUE!” was an effective hook for a 12-year-old, I’ll tell you.  Wisely, Larsen’s name is prominent on the cover, which was rare before Image.  The creators were the draw, not the characters themselves, so it was a smart move.

The fin on his head was a bit of a mystery.  I don’t think I had ever seen the likes of it before.  Mohawks were not cool in this era, but given Larsen had dreamt Dragon up years prior, maybe that was an influence.  Regardless, it helped distinguish Dragon from ‘ol purple pants at Marvel.

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Page one starts us out right in the middle of the action, Dragon leaping at a ridiculously 90s bad guy.  Cutthroat, how I love thee.  A black dude with dreads, an eye patch, absolutely covered in spikes and skulls and knives and knives with skulls on the hilts.  Not only that, but poor Cutthroat is an amputee, missing his right arm from the elbow down!  “Don’t worry, just slap a giant-ass sickle on there, doc!”  Did he cut his own arm off so he could do that?  I think he might have!  I need to know!

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Cutthroat also has the standard scantily clad henchwoman, or partner, who goes by Glowbug.  She never uses her powers, if she has any, but does get clocked by Dragon one good time and is down for the count.  I don’t recall Glowbug ever showing back up again, but I can’t guarantee it.

Dragon gets sliced up pretty badly, but still makes short work of the two losers.  As he escorts them outside, a fellow cop asks if it’s a rough day, to which Dragon replies, “I’ve had worse.”  This leads to a flashback sequence with Dragon lying in a burning field, naked and unconscious.

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When Dragon wakes, Lt. Frank Darling interviews him and we discover Dragon suffers selective amnesia.  Weirdly, Dragon seems to know everything, from who the President is to who won the ’45 World Series, but has no knowledge of his own past.  Early on, he doesn’t know why he’s green and super strong, or even the extent of his powers.

Frank sets him up with a job, and the reader is soon shown how dire the crime situation is in Chicago.  The whole city is pretty much at the mercy of The Vicious Circle, a mob of “Super Freaks” who do as they please because the police force just doesn’t have the firepower to combat them.  Frank asks Dragon to help him out, but Dragon turns him away at first.

Looking at these pages, you can get a sense of Larsen’s writing style.  I think he’s great at dialogue, even if sometimes things get overly talky.  It’s obvious how much Robert Kirkman is influenced by Larsen (a fact Kirkman freely admits).

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It’s just a matter of time before Dragon sees how bad the Super Freaks can be.  A couple of them (including the aptly named Skullface) give his boss some shit, and Dragon has to smack them around.  Look at Skullface, by the way.  LOOK AT HIM!  Red and gold armor, a crazy demon skull, and he’s a ginger to boot!  He’s beautiful.

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Soon enough Dragon is on the force, kicking all kinds of Super Freak butt and even handling the normies when need be.  Take a look at some of these panels in this shootout.  So much energy in the artwork.  I still appreciate it now, but as a 12-year-old?  There was no way I could keep from salivating when I read this stuff.

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Issue #1 ends with Dragon promising the public he’ll deal with the Super Freak problem while the head of The Vicious Circle (unnamed here) gives his lackeys permission to take the fight to Dragon.

Much of the first three issues focus on flashbacks to Dragon’s early days after waking up in the field, mingled with the present day.  It flows smoothly enough, but later Larsen would put everything in chronological order for the trade paperback.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an artist, and have no knowledge of how to properly criticize art, so I won’t.  I just know what I like and what I don’t.)

Larsen’s art seems to be divisive, and I’m firmly on the pro side.  His balls-out action scenes are great, but he can handle the little moments too.  In the bedside interview, he nails some facial expressions, and the lightning effects from the storm outside are a great touch.

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In the back of the first issue is a page-length letter from Larsen to the readers, and it may be the contents of this page that cemented Larsen as one of my heroes.  He goes on at length about how he grew up making his own comics and how Dragon was his favorite boyhood creation, one he would re-invent on occasion but always keep focus on.  Now he was getting the opportunity to publish Dragon professionally, and through Image he would own everything he published.

As time went on, other characters and storylines from the comics he produced as a kid made their way into the regular Savage Dragon series.  Erik Larsen was (and still is) literally living his dream, and I think that’s amazing.  There would be many Savage Dragon spin-offs and ancillary series, but every issue of The Savage Dragon has been written and drawn by the man himself. (Although Jim Lee did Issue #13 as part of the Image X Month event, Larsen later went back and produced his own Issue #13).  He’s still putting the book out to this day with Issue #225 on sale now.

In preparation for this article, I went back through all my Savage Dragon trades and re-read the first 11 volumes, which covered up through Issue #58 of the regular series.  Volume 2 starts out with Dragon sporting a wicked sleeveless trench coat, Fu Manchu stache, and some lame-ass spectacles, with the tone and artwork getting extra dark and violent.  The job is proving too much for one Super Freak to handle and some other super powered folks join the department for a short while, but it doesn’t last.

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The next few volumes are a tour de force of insane action and outlandish characters.  Aside from a couple epic tussles with Vicious Circle head Overlord, he confronts one of the most unique rogues’ galleries in comics history.  A shark man (Mako), an ape with Hitler’s brain (Brainiape), and a chicken-headed powerhouse (uh, Powerhouse) to name a few.

Also among the superfreak villains Dragon faces on the job: Dung, who utilizes giant shit-cannons and Heavy Flo, who… um… well, here’s a picture.

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After several years of working as a cop, a few team-ups with the Ninja Turtles, a trip to Hell and back, defending the earth from a Martian invasion, and fathering a child with his super-powered girlfriend, Larsen eventually transitions Dragon into an actual superhero, costume and everything, around Issue #40.  In this role, as part of a government-sponsored team of heroes, he gets caught up in inter-dimensional travels and battles with the gods of legend.

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Also, one time Dragon beat a dude with his own severed arm.

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In the mid-90’s there was even a short-lived Savage Dragon cartoon on USA Network, but it’s…not great.

The trade paperbacks make for generally swift reads, but Larsen made the decision early on to let the characters (at least the ones who survive long enough) age in real time.  As a year passes in what we have to settle for as reality, a year also passes in Savage Dragon land.

My Savage Dragon collection has some holes.  In the early 00’s I lost interest for a bit, partially because Larsen’s art style seemed to change slightly in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, and partially because my local shop wasn’t consistent in getting the issues in.

As years passed, the status quo and cast of characters took on drastic changes, Dragon’s origin story was eventually revealed in the Image 10th anniversary book, and Dragon’s son Malcolm grew up and took center stage as the star of the book.  While I’m not as big a fan of Malcolm, the fact that Larsen is able to do this is so satisfying.  I’m collecting the title now, but while I’m current on buying them, I’ve only read up to Issue #208.

For a number of reasons, the book now is not on par with its heyday of the early to mid-90’s, but I admit nostalgia may well be coloring that opinion.  The focus on Malcolm and more space-faring, dimension-hopping adventures aren’t as appealing to me as the semi-grounded beat cop approach of the early days.  Even still, the book is fun as hell.

Erik Larsen also has always been a fan of drawing well-endowed, scantily clad females, and he made no secret of it.  He likes big, bodacious boobies on his babes and giant, rippling muscles on his dudes.  That’s part of the appeal of his art, overly exaggerated proportions on the men and the women. As time went on, more and more sexuality made its way into the book, including some occasional nudity.  There’s been some press lately about Larsen’s decision to start including some, for lack of a better word, pornographic material in the book.  I actually don’t like it, but it’s Erik Larsen’s book, and I whole-heartedly support him doing whatever he wants with it.  He won’t lose me as a reader over it.

If you’re a fan of comics (especially the outrageous 90’s variety) and haven’t ever read The Savage Dragon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  The early back issues and trade paperbacks are inexpensive and fairly easy to find.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  If you dig it like I do, consider adding the title to your pull list at your local comic shop. Independent comics always need support.

Comics is a shrinking medium, but 25 years in, Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon has soldiered on.  Here’s to 25 more…

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The Gimmick Era Has Never Been Covered So Well.

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