As Joe Keatinge points out, Savage Dragon is the comic book you all want.
Consistent creator? Spontaneous, episodic adventure? Big sequences? Real consequences? Commentary? Experimentation? Artist connection? African American protagonist?
Check, Check, Check, Check, Check, Check, Check, and CHECK!
Shame on you for not paying attention.
Erik Larsen’s pet project means many things to me, but it first and foremost represents an artist’s love of comic books and super hero convention. Larsen’s passion for comics hinges freely open. Just a short stint following his Twitter account and you’ll see the interest and opinion he broadcasts. Twitter is the man’s personal soap box, and by following him you become subject to his care and interest in sequential story. When there’s big news floating around or controversial developments, you can always expect at least a few tweets from Mr. Larsen. Twitter’s a recent development, though. Long before the invention of social media Larsen and a few other hot talents ditched their secure jobs to pursue an unfiltered vision of comics. Image Comics was the biggest risk of its day. If it bombed, the men attempting were surely out a job and possibly blacklisted. A lot rode on the simple desire to create without limits. As the story goes though, Image boomed and took its founders to new levels of fame, but think back to the start once more. Larsen risked it all just to create comics the way he desired. That’s big, and once he became the subject of Image’s success he could have done anything. Larsen had the freedom. His next comic book project could have been a cosmic romantic comedy staring ape squids for all I know, but at the end of the day Larsen created a super hero centric title. It was obviously the genre he wanted to work in. That chance and choice, sir, shows a strong love.
So why write about Savage Dragon? Other than holding my heart as my favorite comic book, I feel Savage Dragon lacks discussion from both casual readers and the critical community. The critics damn it as weak and laugh at its existence, while the mass readership ignores it to pursue the corporate icons. An unfair shun, if you ask me. Savage Dragon may read as quaint and simple when cast a quick glance, but really Dragon is rocking some levels. The content and context make this comic a rare and special work in today’s market, but in true hypocritical fashion moaning, sobbing comic book fans roll their eyes at its presence.
As I point out on a recent episode of The Chemical Box, there are hardly any (maybe none) ongoing comic book series working issue to issue. Marvel and DC possess long running, high numbered series – even though they renumber every month – but most of those series rely on 4 or 5 issue story arcs or chapters. These chapters usually work as smaller stories within the long narrative, and they could honestly be removed from the ongoing series and be sold as finite stories. In fact, they are. These finite chapters traditionally see some form of repackaging before they are sold in trade paper backs as individual stories. In most cases, transitioning creative teams or the need to spice up product completely destroys the concept of long narrative.
An ongoing series like The Amazing Spider-man constantly bears witness to small stories. The years of “Brand New Day” brought forth different artists and writers every three issues, providing a constant inconsistency. These practices question a reader. Am I really reading the same story and the same character’s same narrative as I have been for 15 years? Really, no. Consider story arcs and creative swings a fucking reboot. You might as well. Comics are now written to serve the Hellboy model, but even the Hellboy model works with a solid, consistent creative vision. The ongoing narrative of Marvel and DC heroes is dead.
Savage Dragon keeps the narrative tradition of comics alive. It’s run for 18 years under the same creative vision, from a writer/artist no less, and hardly ever works its narrative through labeled story arcs. Savage Dragon is THE issue-to-issue comic. Never does it lull mid-arc but rather offer high points each and every issue. Every issue tells a complete tale while still belonging to a larger saga. Again, the ideal comic book everyone so wants.
But, yeah, I’ll just quit with the “you’re a hypocrite” act and get to it. There was a cool scene in the latest issue of Savage Dragon, issue #171 (actually #172 will be the latest as you read this as it hits comic stores the day I post this blog post – good timing, right?). I wish to write a few lines on this scene I so dug.
Thunder-Head a.k.a. Kevin Gorelick sits upon his dusty, worn couch as a youngster playing a video game. In storms his father a.k.a. long time Dragon villain Skullface and Larsen provides the audience with a face filled visual. A line of dialogue is bellowed. “Do your homework.”
Young Kevin proclaims that homework is unnecessary, especially in a world where his father is a “bad ass” and homework is not required to pursue bad-assery. Skullface looses his cool and lectures his son on his own terrible life. Skullface wants the best for his son, not a cheap life as a crook. Through persistence, Kevin promises his father to work hard and stay out of trouble.
Skullface lay deceased, and we see Kevin attending to his grave site. There’s an anger in Kevin. Through monologue, he reports of his father’s poor job as a parent yet announces the difficultly of living without his father. Kevin states that these are tough times and that there are “not a lot of opportunities for a guy that looks like” him a.k.a. guys who have a blue, skeletal face. Kevin persists to honor the promise made to his father, though. He says, “I guess you’re still looking out for me” as he walks away from his father’s grave.
Two pages later, Kevin types away at his formal office job when a young woman reports he is being “let go.” Kevin becomes upset and is escorted away by security guards. Soon we see Kevin pursuing his role as Thunder-Head. He’s communicating with the organized crime unit the Vicious Circle. Kevin breaks his promise and by the end of the issue combats with the book’s own protagonist, Malcolm Dragon.
Ok, so maybe it reads just like another, soap opera fueled origin of a super villain. You know, daddy wasn’t there (to change my underwear…) and all that jazz. Really, though, it’s not. In comics, the family aspect can spell out the coming of evil, but in this case Larsen reverses or twists the circumstance of family as motivation. Unlike the usual parent of a evil, Skullface cares. Granted, Kevin makes note in the grave scene that it was hard living with his father, but that could mean a number of things. I mean, it’s hard living with my mom, but that’s just because of her to tendency to annoy me – not poor parenting. From what we see of Kevin and Skullface’s relationship, things seem normal and well. Skulface looks out for his boy and encourages him to do well.
It’s then that the sub plot acts as expectation shifter rather than convention. Larsen, like Tarantino, poses Kevin’s story just right so that it plays with the audience. While reading, we expect Skullface to beat young Kevin when he enters the room, but instead he lectures. While reading, the flash forward instills pre-thoughts of criminal Kevin while it really depicts a white collar, office working citizen. Our guesses as to where the plot is leading land false. It’s not until Larsen takes away the respectable job that he folds to convention and portrays the orthodox, crime happy style.The play on the audience involves more than expectation tease, though. By showing this oddball circumstance of a character becoming a villain, Larsen suddenly brings an extra dimension to the usual 2-D comic book antagonist. Most comic book baddies pertain to little motivation or explanation. They are simply bad to be bad, or because the story dictates them as so. If anything, a usual villain comes packaged with some line of vengeance or goal of world domination for a chosen idea of society. Not here. Kevin wants to be good and has every inspiration to be. The character, though, eventually loses sight and drifts away. The element of falling makes the character a bit more interesting, and Larsen’s choice of such shows his willingness to experiment with hero genre cliches.
For what Savage Dragon is – an analog version of 1960s/1970s Marvel – this move resembles perfect, “oh, of course” sense. Larsen’s book takes great pride in bending and breaking the cliches of corporate hero comics. The narrative always goes after the elements Marvel and DC will not touch, and it does what most readers won’t expect the Big 2 to do. Kevin a.k.a. Thunder-Head is only another classic Savage Dragon example.
I don’t wish to dress Savage Dragon as another super hero comment book, though. I find no problem in stories that simply choose to comment on the comics medium or super heroes, but for the sake of addressing those who do find error in such thing I’d like to point out that Larsen’s use of Kevin is a very real world, social comment. Most crime in our world does not derive from a soul of pure evil or sadistic drive. Most crime is survival based. Hurricane Katrina stands as the perfect example. Looting of retail shops made all the headlines as the flood waters climbed and climbed, but no where among any of those looters were thoughts of evil. The looters looted to survive. Whether food topped the list of stolen items or television sets, the looting became a necessary mean. Food nourishes while TVs provide black market cash. Either way, people need both results to make it.
As Kevin comments, times are tough. The character losing his job and turning to robbery represents many in America right now. People are making rash moves to make ends meat. Even Kevin’s extra incentive to join the way of crime speaks toward a survival instinct. The Vicious Circle mention their new mission as being one to bring Kevin’s father back from the dead, and as you recall Kevin announces how hard it is to live without his father. In some way, Skullface’s absence harms Kevin or inhibits his survival. Bringing back his father could only make it better for Kevin. At least, that’s the thought.
So, yeah. I just typed all of that, 1800 fucking words, to discuss one subplot in one issue of Savage Dragon. It may read as quaint, which I argue is apart of the book’s aesthetic charm, but goddamn, there’s something about Erik Larsen’s 1990s-born Image Comic. Read an issue sometime, and don’t even tell me the comic you ideally want doesn’t exist. You obviously ain’t looking.