REVIEWS

Savage Dragon #233

"It looks like a superhero comic, but I just want to have people fucking all the time."

-Erik Larsen, interviewed by Eric Evans, from The Comics Journal #222 (April, 2000)

*

Savage Dragon does not have the highest issue number you can find on an Image comic -- Todd McFarlane's Spawn is presently up to #285 -- but it is the only title from among the original Image lineup that has been continuously written and drawn by its creator: Image Chief Financial Officer (and former Publisher) Erik Larsen. The titular superhero character, a green-colored, fin-headed strongman, has origins in the artist's childhood, and first saw print in small-press form in 1982, but for the purposes of the comic I am writing about here, the 'beginning' came with a cover date of July, 1992 - issue #1 of a three-part miniseries, preceding an ongoing series which began in '93 and continues today. The first issue I read was #3 of the miniseries; I was 11 years old.

Here are some things that have happened in Savage Dragon since issue #225 (July, '17), when I most recently started reading it again:

*The Savage Dragon from the beginning of the series is dead; he exploded. (#225)

*The series' title now refers to the son of the original Savage Dragon, the similarly green and fin-headed Malcolm, whose mother is the superhero Rapture (also dead). Like his father, Malcolm was a superpowered police officer, but has recently been made to flee the United States to Canada following an anti-alien executive order signed by President Donald Trump, and accordant waves of mob violence targeting Malcolm's partner, Maxine, and their three small fin-headed children. (#226-27)

*Incidentally, the Savage Dragon world has recently undergone a Merging of Multiple Earths in which various timelines have collapsed into one; the presence of a President Donald Trump may suggest to sympathetic readers that the Savage Dragon cast is indeed stuck with the 'worst timeline' you've heard about online. (#225)

*One issue is drawn so that every page is laid out with panels of identical sizes, and no two pages containing the same layout. In the letters column, Larsen deems this "a lot more challenging than I would have thought." (#227)

*Settled in Toronto, Malcolm gets a vasectomy, so that he and Maxine will have no more than three fin-headed children. Insofar as Malcolm has a superhuman healing factor, the two of them celebrate immediately with a round of vigorous sex in which, notably, Maxine is launched across the bedroom by a hose blast of jissom. Maxine is uninjured, and the lovers subsequently 'cum swap', which Malcolm finds sort of gross, but it's not a deal-breaker or anything. Overly attentive readers may take an earlier scene, in which a character laments that young people today learn about relationships through online porn, as ironic foreshadowing. (#228)

*At one point, a villain last used by Larsen roughly 15 years ago is thawed out from a block of ice and goes on the attack. "He last showed up in issue #106," Malcolm remarks, because the Savage Dragon world contains a comic book series that corresponds to the comic book series we are reading in our world, which Malcolm can consult for background information. The villain is killed, revealing nothing about himself. (#228)

*One issue has all of its original art drawn at a significantly smaller size than others, owing to Larsen's difficulty in arriving at a cover image satisfactory to him. The linework reproduces as very thick, and, in a later letters column, the artist deems the results "somewhat mixed." (#229)

*A second sex scene again results in Maxine propelled into the air (the sound effect for this is "SQUIT!"). However, not two pages later, she is informed that she is again pregnant. "You were supposed to clean your pipes afterward, you big dope!" Meanwhile, Maxine's visiting mother has begun a relationship with Malcolm's half-brother Kevin, who is not green and fin-headed, but a sort of muscular blue skeleton with white lightning streaks going down his head and back and onto his ass, when we can see it. Maxine's mother also becomes pregnant. (#229-230)

*Various real Toronto locations are introduced, climaxing in a comedic bit where much of the incidental characters' scene-setting dialogue is copy-pasted directly from Wikipedia; Malcolm is confused by this. He also fights a series of monster-of-the-month-type villains, all of them with sympathetic backstories: a toxic sludge monster out to kill its wealthy boss; a group of hacked, possibly sentient sex dolls who rip off men's cocks during coitus (the sound effect for a severed penis hitting the ground is also "SQUIT!") before taking their money; a teleportation vigilante who murders the prominent man who molested him and his sister. This last villain informs Malcolm during their fight that Americans lack moral authority to lecture foreign people on matters of justice, given their own state of affairs; he is killed when one of his teleportations abruptly terminates inside of Malcolm's body, leaving his cadaver lodged inside the hero's torso. (#229-232)

*And, meanwhile, a trio of supporting characters -- all women, and all related to the original Dragon by family, work or romance -- are journeying through Dimension-X to find some means of reviving the earlier Dragon. They become trapped there (also due to Trump's machinations), fight a lot of monsters, and gradually lose all of their clothes. Eventually they run afoul of an evil parallel world version of the aforementioned Rapture (Malcolm's deceased mother), clad in a cape, sandals, and little else, and are rescued by Michael, a parallel version of Malcolm, who gives the women his clothes, but is never quite as undressed as any of them have been. There are some dicks in the comic, often those of freakishly-endowed monsters, but the title character remains modest. In a letters column (#230's), Larsen expresses disinterest in drawing Malcolm's penis, as that would be "a bit like seeing Dr. Doom's face unmasked." (#226-present)

Savage Dragon is a noteworthy comic, but not because of the sex - which, if you've heard of the title recently, is probably what you know about. What's noteworthy to me is that I'm really not sure if a comic book like this can happen again. The letters column of issue #232 finds Larsen in a reflective mood: "By #232 most books had transformed completely, little resembling the books as they started out. On Daredevil, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli were on their groundbreaking Born Again run. On Batman Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams were at the top of their game. Every book had transformed itself from their crude humble beginnings and had become slick and commercial." Many of those artists, of course, later set out to create works that they could own; that they could control. What Larsen has done is what for a long time you were 'supposed' to do as a popular mainstream comic book artist: take the renown you've accrued from corporate-owned work, and use it to build something beyond those economic and creative constraints.

But to do this and still be drawing your monthly serial comic, 26 years later, is unusual. Most American comic book series will see their sales decline to the point where it's unfeasible to just keep going - better to play the market by starting a new series, or at least a new numbering, so retailers will feel more confident estimating how many copies to order; the big work-for-hire publishers are going to be rushing out lots of product, so you'll need any advantage you can get. These problems all existed in 1992 as well, but what does not exist in print comic books anymore is the superhero explosion of the young Image, a revolution that scrupulously maintained so many qualities of the prior status quo: the booming superhero action, the continuing stories... and eventually, the passing off of those projects to hired hands, though Larsen has not done this.

As a result, Savage Dragon compares more easily to comics that are not like it. Popular manga serials, perhaps - a Japanese person who read Eiichiro Oda's One Piece as a child in the 1990s can still read new chapters today. Or maybe Larsen is more like Hirohiko Araki, whose JoJo series becomes a different comic every so often, while remaining consistent in expressing the artist's desires. Larsen even fills the popular mangaka role of a headlining creator/artist with a small staff behind him -- colorists Nikos Koutsis & Mike Toris (the latter does flats for the former), and letterer Ferran Delgado, who took the reins from series veteran Chris Eliopoulos in issue #231 -- though our scene lacks the comparative protections for creators and the publishing economy that makes manga serialization viable, so maybe a better comparison is the world of long-running webcomics - if you find a way to make it work.

There's very little comparison here anymore with American print comic books, and the comic book stores that sell them - longform monthly serialization is something that relatively few artists will find viable to do, or perhaps even very appealing; it's a lot of work for the attrition that rewards your consistency. Most artists who are not connected to an established publisher are so unlikely to see the inside of the vast majority of comic book stores that I don't think 'comic book stores' function as a substantial part of 'comics' for them... do people even think in terms of high issue numbers when it's not some corporate legacy project? A high issue number should denote security, but the direct market functions in almost perfect opposition to any security that does not rise from reliance on corporate IP maintenance, and that is a security that works against the interest of artists. What writer/artist holdouts are there? Fred Perry's Gold Digger is on #252, having combined the numbering of its prior series. Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is up there, though at the moment it's exploring the storyline-as-miniseries format. And then, Savage Dragon, which will always have the advantage of origins in a gilded age - inescapable in '92, and nostalgic today. Or, as Larsen put it to Eric Evans in issue #222 of our print edition: "Image Comics being the hit that it was, I don't have to work another day in my life if I don't want to. I'm doing this because I love comics."

What I admire about Larsen's comic is that it seems more a process than a product; as I've tried to indicate above, a lot of this series feels like it's driven by short-term experiments and small fancies (albeit those that hew broadly to the form of a continuing superhero comic), and this is what keeps things lively for me beyond the particulars of the story. Or, as Larsen points out in a letters page (#230 again): "My approach to this book in general is to simply set up situations and then let them unfold in interesting ways. I plan things out in a very loose and somewhat unstructured way and let the characters surprise me." The structure is not that of a semi-modular, bookshelf-eyeing serial, nor is it very much like older superhero comics with their relay race plotting, where an A plot runs at the front with subplots running behind it, one of them eventually taking the place of the A plot when it finishes and etc. Savage Dragon is rather like a huge boiling cauldron of events, with one sometimes bubbling up bigger than the others, and occasionally popping to reform as something else.

Most issues are comprised of relatively short scenes, sometimes only one page long, often with sharp leaps in time between them - hours, days, weeks passing with page turns, to the point that the storytelling becomes almost elliptical, though Larsen's panel-to-panel work is very clear - given the reputation of the earlier Image comics as noisily incoherent, it's ironic that I never have any problem grasping the geography of Larsen's action sequences, or discerning his characters' feelings from how they are drawn. He draws fun bodies, stretching and gesticulating along starbursts of lines erupting from pummeled opponents, the folds of their clothes all doodled lines and jagged smears of ink; characters' faces reduce in detail the deeper they stand in the background, until they're just dots and ovals, but when mouths open wide up close they're filled with a mesh of crosshatches. Every issue reads very quickly, and paired with the temporal and geographical leaps that comprise many of these recent issues, one starts to feel that a unifying theme is asserting itself: time's passage, with children adopting the roles of their parents, people popping in and out of each other's lives, and realities reconfiguring themselves around those who live.

To be clear, I don't think this is a statement Larsen is constructing in the manner of a sentence with a period at the end; it's something that hovers just above the series as a consequence of the way the serial is kept going, and the way the artist constructs his chapters. The overt goal seems to be monthly entertainment, both for the reader and Larsen as the creator; so relaxed is the process at times that the story almost voluntarily withdraws, and what you appreciate, viscerally, is this fascinated artist articulating the form of superhero comics again and again, every month, in conversation with one quarter of a century of articulations past. And beyond! Do you like superheroes whamming and slamming their way across the page while announcing their names to each other while they fight? Do you like excitable captions and the occasional dialogue balloon on the cover? Ascertaining its own status as the longest-lived orthodox superhero book to be run by its creator, Savage Dragon stretches those mighty arms to embrace a genre entire, and more.

And, for longtime observers, there are some Dragon-specific things that endure. From very early on, Larsen would introduce a myriad of characters into the book, only to kill some of them off quickly, thereby suggesting a vast world driven by capricious fate. The sex was in there pretty early too - I vividly recall a scene with the first Dragon and the aforementioned Rapture naked in bed (though you didn't see any *actual* nudity back then), their reverie interrupted by the sudden erection of the Dragon's recently-severed arm regenerating to its full and bloody length. Hot stuff, if what you were reading was color superhero comics.

Image is still a place where you can take a project and retain ownership, exercise creative control, keep the media rights - but it has a more varied reputation now. The same week issue #233 of Savage Dragon was released, Image also published Michelle Perez's & Remy Boydell's The Pervert - a bookshelf-ready comic with a realistic perspective on sex work told poetically through the eyes of a woman who is also a worker. Savage Dragon is not so radical; it's definitely more explicit than the superhero norm -- if Dale Keown's Pitt did any cum-swapping, it wasn't on panel -- but much of that stuff plays out in the mode of raucous and decadent comedy. Larsen cites Robert Crumb's freewheeling abandon as a recent inspiration, confessing in one letters page (the very informative #230's) that "[s]ometimes I just do stuff because it makes me laugh. The thought of somebody stumbling across [really explicit sex] unaware, while drinking a beverage and doing a spit-take makes me smile."

Anecdotal, I know, but: this seems a longstanding freewheeling comic book shop attitude. It speaks to a particular, very male reader base that will see a cover like the one on top of this page on the new releases rack and laugh rather than wince. There's a sense of old-fashioned boyish fantasy about it all - a strapping man-of-action coming home to his sexually voracious lover: a petite Asian woman, in fact, sometimes dressed in a schoolgirl's uniform, for heaven's sake. These ancient tropes sit amidst a political outlook best described as 'superhero liberalism', whereby Malcolm might gladly endorse punching Nazis, but police are depicted as basically good-intentioned people, with law and order set as a desirable, if not completely uncomplicated goal. Malcolm is half a green finned-headed alien and half a black man, and we are reminded of this sometimes, but never at much depth in these issues. Happy endings are postponed, because there aren't really many 'endings' at all; the cauldron keeps bubbling. The issue numbers climb, but it's not just high issue numbers that remind you that you are reading something reminiscent of an earlier time in comics, and its freedoms speak firmly of a desire to roam among those traditions, and you wonder, again, how many times this will happen for the students of other traditions, at such expanse. It can happen, but not like this, so deathly tilled is the land surrounding this overripe garden.

If you want to know what makes me laugh, by the way, it's the prospect of my not discussing the comic that I am ostensibly reviewing until the final paragraph of this 3000-word post. So! Savage Dragon #233! The cover is actually sort of a fake-out - the image does appear inside, as part of an advertisement for a reality show Malcolm and Maxine are starring in, but there's no sex at all in this issue. Instead, there's a terrific amount of blood and gore! A MAJOR CHARACTER DIES, unless they didn't. It’s a pretty Dimension-X-heavy issue, as the plot over there transitions to a new phase, and Larsen serves up one of my favorite little tricks - introducing a backup feature (written by Larsen and drawn by one Ben Bishop, as colored by Jean-François Beaulieu) that seems to be totally separate from everything, but actually winds up tied into the main story. In the letters column, some comments on movie adaptations elicit a statement of dedication from Larsen: "I don't need outside validation. In this world I have complete control and I have the final word and I don't have to piss away months and months doing shit I don't want to do to make a product I'm not happy with." The process continues, with or without you or me.

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8 Responses to Savage Dragon #233

  1. NO ONE says:

    Your descriptions remind me of another one-man-show indie comic that became increasingly unhinged and disconnected as its creator fell further and further into the labyrinth of his own peculiar sexual and political beliefs and his audience dwindled – Dave Sim’s CEREBUS.

  2. Joe McCulloch says:

    This comic is like Cerebus if Cerebus remained a Conan riff circa “Going Home”…

  3. chuk nyte says:

    last weekend, at free comic book day, i bought a couple of issues of savage dragon that were in a dollar bin.
    my friend, focused more on justice league taskforce and dr. strange, was suprised to aee my choice of picking up random issues of savage dragon; 187, 192, 217.
    they were suprised, “do you read savage dragon?”
    to be fair i’m not a regular reader.
    i’ve read the savage dragon trade from 1993 i aquired as a teenager in the mid noughts, and single issues irregularly purhased since reading those first issues.
    it’s not close to my favorite comic, or favorite creator, but in this article you have written words i could not muster.
    as if i needed fo justify my purchases to anyone, you have seemingly justified them to me.
    you are a goddamn treasure joe mcculloch.

  4. ADD says:

    Holy crap, Joe. I had heard stories, but this review is both epic and amazing. Thanks for explaining that which literally seemed inexplicable.

  5. Chris O. says:

    I couldn’t get past this review’s topic sentence. “Savage Dragon does not have the highest issue number you can find on an Image comic.”

  6. Joe McCulloch says:

    It’s ok, once I saw how many issues of Spawn I’d missed, I had to take a break too.

  7. Tucker Stone says:

    “topic sentence”

  8. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    I give that comment a C+

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