Sunday, September 03, 2006

Savage Dragon #0

Savage Dragon #0, July 2006, Image Comics
writer/artist: Erik Larsen
letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
colorists: Reuben Rude & Abel Mouton

This weekend I sought to purchase some of the latest issues of series I’ve neglected since the A Comic A Day challenge began. I’ve been so consumed with finding eclectic titles to round out this experiment’s self-intended variety, I’ve frequented some bastions of comic book obscurity, from hobby shops to antique stores to the nucleus of all things pop culturally skewed, the San Diego Comic Con. So, you can imagine my excitement when we visited a standard run of the mill comic book shop yesterday . . . alas, to no avail. I won’t reiterate my disappointment detailed in yesterday’s post, only to comment that the store we visited today was the opposite side of the same coin. In a small, obscure location, this shop in Tustin, California was cramped but well organized, with an entire wall dedicated to new releases, and an extensive back issue collection that was alphabetized and accessible. The staff was helpful when I couldn’t find the recent issues I was looking for, and the new stuff was apparently and surprisingly discounted. I will definitely visit them again.

So, for the next day or two, I will review comics that were actually published this millennium. Believe me, I’m more thrilled than you are. Let’s start with one of the most anticipated issues of my fanboy career, Savage Dragon #0, the revelation of Dragon’s mysterious origin.

Speaking of origins, the beginning of my comic book collecting career began just over fifteen years ago. My dad was working for a moving company in Arizona and he saved a box of comics his latest customer was ready to throw away. When I woke up that morning, the box was at the foot of my bed; I had been a fan of comics and superheroes before, but I hardly acknowledged the consistency and continuity of their monthly adventures. With those forty or so issues, my life dramatically changed. I memorized each issue’s number, month, and year and made a conscious decision to pursue some of those series to their entirety, if within my power. Of course, I shortly realized the fortune I would need to accomplish that goal, so I settled with collecting complete runs of writers or artists. The first issue I devoured with this intent in mind was Amazing Spider-man #347, penciled by Erik Larsen. My young mind was instantly impressed by Larsen’s bubbly style, and since his run ended just a few issues later, I easily snatched up his complete Spider-man library.

Naturally, my obsession didn’t end there. Like many other collectors, I followed Larsen and his peers to Image, where I frantically collected his opus Savage Dragon until my taste for it simply fizzled out. Larsen had a decidedly easygoing storytelling style, with marathons of slugfests and entangled subplots that simply became too repetitive for my broadening horizons. I revisited the series often for nostalgia’s sake and eventually returned on a semi-devoted basis. Larsen is a love-him-or-leave-him artist, and I know many have left him over the years, but I can’t help it. I love the lug. He’s my personal canon for comic collecting. Throughout our torrid time together, one question has plagued his faithful fanboys like me: Where does the Dragon come from? We know he comes from Larsen’s creatively abundant childhood, but in the context of his ongoing adventures, where does he come from?

The origin has become a cornerstone for the superhero genre, a necessary evil that readers need as a reference point for why their champions do the things they do. The core characters of comics’ two largest superhero-driven companies have very definitive origins, from the explosion of Krypton to Peter Parker’s fateful spider bite. At this point in pop culture, if you know who Batman is, you know his parents were murdered before his young eyes, unlike, say, thirty years ago, when this violent sequence (especially reinterpreted through Frank Miller’s harsh lens) fundamentally clashed with the all-audiences Batman of the ‘60s, the incarnation many non-fans still accept as the norm. Image’s flagship heroes somewhat differ from this standard.

Frankly, Image’s characters haven’t been as timeless. For many of the original Image clan, their successful launch of that fledgling company became just another impressive mark on their resume, propelling their career to stellar heights . . . or, in a few cases, eventual nonexistence in the medium. Larsen clung to the effort with a tenacity uncommon in the industry, eventually earning the title of publisher, and he was just as stubborn about the mystery of Dragon’s origin. Who cares if it’s what’s expected of a superhero comic? Image was founded to produce the unexpected. Only on the company’s tenth anniversary, when the original creators came together to celebrate with a commemorative compilation hardcover, did Larsen loosen his grip. Unfortunately, the others’ contributions were expectedly late. Larsen’s piece may have been on time, but its content was unlike anything his fans anticipated, and for those that missed the special book (or for those that could care less about anything but the Dragon’s yarn, like me), the origin tale was offered this month in single-issue form for the first time. If I wasn’t determined to catch up on my favorite comics this weekend, I might’ve missed it again.

Throughout the years I’ve collected the Dragon, he was at various times a cop, a government agent, a bounty hunter, and an inter-dimensional renegade. Despite the twists Larsen took, Dragon was always an admirable hero, just trying to do the right thing. I never would have suspected that he was originally a ruthless alien despot looking for an inhabitable planet for his people. In a mere twenty pages, we witness the Dragon we know and love rape and murder his attendant’s helpless daughter, betray his people and their long-standing legacy, nearly devour an earthen test subject, and yearn for the extermination of the entire human race. Thankfully, his first officers blow his brains out, explaining Dragon’s amnesia, then retie his tubes so he can’t reproduce, explaining his (temporary) sterility. I’m baffled that a character so evil could become such a force for good, and I wonder if Larsen really expected his most faithful readers to buy it. He took a great leap of faith himself by revealing this story . . . faith, and maturity. I underestimated him.

Artistically, Larsen has his toes hanging over the edge of sloppy, the result of his growing responsibilities with the company. Don’t misunderstand; I like Larsen’s art, but I fondly remember those Amazing Spider-man days, and his early Savage Dragon work. As the years waxed, his inking became more diminutive, with thinner, seemingly more rushed lines that result in a Miller-esque imitation. While Larsen’s daring storytelling has grown more my liking, he has decidedly stepped away from the visual style that I was drawn to in the first place. Just goes to show that you can’t really live in the past.

Ironically, the origin story is the very definition of living in the past. True fanboys are a sappy and nostalgic lot, often demanding that their favorite characters remain true to their roots. What would Spidey be without Uncle Ben’s lesson of power and responsibility? How wonderful would Wonder Woman be without her mission of peace in man’s world? How noble is the Dragon’s heroism now that we know about his wicked past? (And does the A Comic A Day challenge seem more tangible now that you know how I began my collecting career? No? Okay, anyway.) Strip these stories away, despite the sixty years between some of them and now, and the most beloved superheroes in our culture become nothing more than spandex-clad mascots for lunchbox sales. The origin is just that important.

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