Be Exceptional: Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1-3

Be Exceptional: Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1-3

Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon #1-3 was a 1992 miniseries that served to launch Larsen's cartoonist career under the brand-new Image banner. Already a professional, having worked on various indies and as a penciller (and even cartooned Spider-Man) at Marvel, his "Dragon" was also previously "established" in 80s indie publications Graphic Fantasy and Megaton. Larsen takes great

Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1-3 was a 1992 miniseries that served to launch Larsen’s cartoonist career under the brand-new Image banner. Already a professional, having worked on various indies and as a penciller (and even cartooned Spider-Man) at Marvel, his “Dragon” was also previously “established” in 80s indie publications Graphic Fantasy and Megaton. Larsen takes great pains to make it clear that this is a rebooted version of the title; that the character is not the same, his backstory different, that a reader does not need to look out old issues of either comic to “get” Savage Dragon #1-3. The Image Dragon is the third professional rebuild of a superhero name Larsen had been reinventing and reimagining since he was a child. As far as I can tell the immortal concept is this: a big strong guy.

Savage Dragon #1, Erik Larsen, Image via Malibu, 1992

By 1992 and ever after, Savage Dragon was a big strong green guy with a fin on his head. This, allegedly, causes him to remind a nurse of “a dragon” and so she calls him “Mr Dragon.” He takes the name Dragon and keeps it; “Savage Dragon” is the name of the book, not the hero. It’s very pulp, in that way: The Amazing Spider-Man. The Uncanny X-Men. The Savage Dragon. Is he very savage? Not really. Does a dragon have a fin on its head? It’s news to me. I would have called him “Mr Iguana,” or maybe not, because that seems a little rude. Anyway, the nurse doesn’t call him that until issue #2, but she does it in a flashback so it’s his name right from page go. It is not, I must say, a very well structured mini. Events seem to have been put into a bag, jumbled around, and pulled out to be drawn scene by scene. Erik Larsen’s gift does not seem to be—or was not yet, in 1992—for narrative.

Savage Dragon #1 begins like this: in media res, the Dragon, dressed in Police blue, fights with a super villain and his moll. He wins, bloodied, and talks to another policeman. The next page is a nude Dragon who appears to be on fire; a caption simply says “BEFORE.” On the next page the Dragon is in hospital, talking to a policeman— a different one, but are we still “BEFORE,” or are we after BEFORE, and if we are, are we still BEFORE where we began?

Savage Dragon #2, Erik Larsen, Image via Malibu, 1992

What Larsen was good at were men’s comedically shocked expressions, men’s jeans, and assimilation. This comic is cobbled together from various recognisable sources, but mostly it feels like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Frank Miller’s more cinematographic narrative techniques are hand-puppetted onto an absence of world building and plot; the feel and gist of Watchmen‘s black psychiatrist‘s subplot is grafted onto a policeman who makes the Dragon’s acquaintance and recruits him into the police. Both are black men creatively propelled by white men, with younger, resentful wives, compromised by the presence of a nontraditional superhero in their professional, and subsequently personal, lives; the anatomy of Frank Darling’s scenes feels strongly reminiscent of Malcom Long’s. Without Miller’s Robocop newsreader inserts, poorly delineated parodies of “classic” comic heroes mixed in with context-free original creations, and stock use of attractive but narratively unanchored layout choices this would have been unremarkable but with them, and in the absence of a strong story or motivated main character, the book just feels regurgitative and scared.

The parodies of Captain America (Super Patriot) and Captain “Shazam” Marvel (Mighty Man) are established, longterm heroes in the world of the Dragon, and they are mysteriously being killed off. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is: it’s how Watchmen begins. Again this isn’t to say that it’s bad for a story to feature an element that another story also features— I loved Amazon’s The Tick (2017), which ran with this same concept. But when a comic takes too much of another comic, when it takes too much of more than one very famous comics, and when it adds so little of its own: that’s when it’s bad. That’s when it feels uninspired and even mercenary. I can’t stop Erik Larsen from being a cartoonist any more than I can go back in time and stop Hirohiko Araki from making the first five cycles of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. But can I criticise them? Can I feel a mounting dismay when I read them? Can I regard them as bad comic books? Yes. And this, I do. These men may have the ability to draw some nice lines, and they might even do it sometimes! But the sum of the parts I find sinister.

News reports describing these vanquished heroes’ hideous injuries—”both arms and legs crushed beyond repair”—are used to establish that “things” are “very serious,” which is both the most concrete statement of what’s going on in this fictional world I can offer you and what compels a veteran police lieutenant to recruit a homeless, amnesiac, naked green man onto his police force simply because he is very strong. The Dragon, to keep things happening, refuses; then he is blown up and agrees. Whether this blowing-up is the one “BEFORE” or a separate one is initially unclear— either way, he is once again nude and on fire. This scene is followed by the Naked Dragon arriving on Lt. Darling’s doorstep, and agreeing to become a policeman.

Larsen chose to skip the operation of the story that might have covered his training, because he felt it would be boring. What is a story? Oh, just a series of scenes in which extremely beefy men make refusals and demands.

There is a long gunfight, which the Dragon wins. He meets another, apparently established hero, with whom he exchanges unfriendly quips. It is not clear that this is another of Larsen’s childhood superhero characters revamped for publication and because of this I spent some time trying to figure out which iconic hero or heroes he was supposed to be a pastiche of. Maybe Nomad? Seems a reach… The first issue ends with a large panel displaying a group of villains: Cloaked Leader, Large Cyborg, Spiked Man (given name: Hellrazor. Not bad) and Street Shark. They have no design synergy, may or may not relate to the villains previously seen within this issue, and inspire no especial feelings at all. The Dragon himself ends his debut issue with a slight frown as he shares his very 80s lawman’s action-movie fascism—”This city has been […] taken over by vermin who prey on the innocents. I’m here to take it back“— alongside his desire to be regarded with absolute neutrality.

Issue #2 begins with Savage Dragon (it’s really hard not to call him “Savage Dragon”) murdering a corrupt and cannibalistic spider-man (small S, small M). He feeds on children! Hey, remember when I mentioned that Larsen was late of Marvel’s Spider-Man? Remember how Image was formed by guys pissed off at Marvel? “The years have made him soft, fat and lazy. He’d gotten too big for his own good,” says the Dragon. “Hmm,” says I. A few pages later Super Patriot—who is “not” Captain America—is brought back from the dead as a maniac cyborg.

Savage Dragon #2, Erik Larsen, Image via Malibu, 1992

This is where we take a break from the relentless onslaught of random scenes for the Dragon to meet a dully surprised young blonde (how young? It’s unclear, but she lives with her mother and that’s the only fact about her offered) in denim knickers named Debbie. I’m fairly sure I’ve read a Savage Dragon comic where a young blonde with a mother named Debbie gets murdered, so I try not to get too fond. It’s hard, obviously, as she’s so full of personality and vim. Debbie hits on the Dragon, as he maligns superhero costumes and is called away by his beeper.

Fighting ensues, until the issue is over.

Issue #3 begins with a man on fire—we’re trying something new, as this time he’s only mostly nude. “Oh, no! NOT AGAIN!!” cries an onlooker, I shit you not. Our hero smacks him down with a pointed visual assurance that our often-unclothed Dragon is certainly not showing his ass through his hospital gown, even when fighting, even when extremely massive as a person. I don’t comprehend Larsen’s priorities; not why he has them, not what they are. There’s a lot of discussion of mortal injury, and the young policewoman the Dragon has shared a few scenes with expresses anger at his scaring her. By being a violent mutant? No, because she thought he might be dead. Dragons have powerful pheromones. I thought you knew that.

Erik Larsen, it must be said, is not afraid of a high panel count. I respect that about his work, and I appreciate it, though I do not appreciate the choices that he makes within them. After the hot policewoman expresses her fears for his wellbeing, a stranger comes in and offers to have sex with him (upon investigation, this is a woman he saved in the previous issue). Then, on the next page, the nurse who named him “Dragon” needs a hug as she remembers how much she herself cares about his safety. Will we hear from Debbie again in this issue? We will! In the Dragon’s last scene of his own initial miniseries (already confirmed for ongoing, at this point) he finds Debbie alone in the hallway, locked out by her mother. She begs him to let her stay with him, and he does— does Erik Larsen know that finishing that conversation on the closed apartment door after they’ve entered it together suggest, in the language of television, a strong likelihood of fuckage? I think he probably does.

Savage Dragon #3, Erik Larsen, Image via Malibu, 1992

I think that why I think “this isn’t right” is different to why Savage Dragon thinks “this isn’t right”

Before we get to that there are fifteen pages of a Bedrock (of Youngblood— later known as Badrock) cameo. This serves to allow space to be filled, and gives the Dragon another opportunity to express how stupid superheroes are: “THAT’S THE STUPIDEST THING I’VE EVER HEARD!” he says, and Badrock (though here he is still called Bedrock) replies “It happens in Marvel comics all the time!”

There’s nothing wrong with being bitter about a business that didn’t reward your work sufficiently, of course. There’s something wrong with taking otherwise pointless detours in your introductory narrative in order to say “I am bitter about a business that did not reward me sufficiently!” That these three issues all appeared in the top-selling three hundred single issues of 1992 makes this print-preserved strop only pettier. Only one hundred and forty-four single issues sold more than Savage Dragon #3— imagine what else Larsen could have used his visibility to say and draw. Something that told us something we didn’t already know about the character the book is named for, for example. But he didn’t, and his editor didn’t tell him he really should (or if she did, he didn’t listen). Then again that’s not such a shock as that same editor OK’d the additional two month hiatus between issues #1 and #2—a three month wait for issue two—so that they, she and he, I believe (an editor and a wife both called Jannie seems an unlikely coincidence), could go on their honeymoon.

Marvel probably would’t have allowed that, and I’m not precisely on Marvel’s side in this hypothesis, but I do feel like maybe the first issue could also have come after the domestic break. I guess it didn’t matter, all told…and I guess it doesn’t make this mini any worse. It does make both Image’s and Larsen’s initial and continuing success all the wilder. Savage Dragon #1-3 are not good, they are not good comic book and they are not a good story. They are showcase books, for some pretty good colouring from Gregory Wright and for a guy who knows how to use a pen to remember the coolest stuff he’s seen other people use the form for. Savage Dragon is a non-starter, a non-concept, the barest bones of an idea about a cop whose violence is OK because he’s a monster, but whose monstrousness is alright because he’s just a cop with a job to do. Nothing is done with the concept; it’s simply allowed to hang. That that was enough is just nuts.

Savage Dragon #3 Erik Larsen, Image via Malibu, 1992, featuring Rob Liefeld's Badrock

Claire Napier
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