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