Our somewhat irregular series of reviews of The Debut IMAGE Comics from the 7 Image Founding Fathers continues with a look back at the fin-headed long arm of the law, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon.
The Savage Dragon Issue 1 (May 1992)
Image Comics / Malibu Comics
Words and Pictures by Erik Larsen
The Savage Dragon Number 1, cover day date July 1992, swaggers on to comic book shelves ready to follow in the footsteps of Liefeld’s Youngblood and McFarlane’s SPAWN. Both of those books had gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and readers, collectors and speculators alike were beginning to take notice of the books released by the 7 maverick creators.
Larsen was coming in hot of the back of his run on Amazing Spiderman for the House of Ideas. Larsen had a 3 year run on Amazing Spiderman unofficially taking the reins from IMAGE co-founder Todd McFarlane when Todd launched no adjectives needed Spiderman to massive commercial and critical acclaim. Larsen is best known for introducing the world to Cletus Cassidy, AKA Carnage.
The origins of the Savage Dragon, or the Dragon has was originally known, go back much much further than the spring / summer of 1992. In fact they go all the way back to Larsen’s childhood.
Larsen grew up on the West Coast and was obsessed with creating his own DIY Comics from a very young age. In an interview with the Cartoon Art Museum Larsen revealed that the started making Dragon mini-comics at around the age of 9. The character, who was originally little more than Batman in green trunks, would continue to have thwart crime and evil doers all the way through Larsen’s teenage years including appearing in a short lived anthology series, Graphic Fantasy, which was self-published by Larsen and some friends.
Another 10 or so years pass and the character that leaps at us across the front cover of the “brutal” first issue has come a long way from his humble green Batman beginnings.
First of all the name has been changed to the SAVAGE Dragon, apparently as the result of a cease and desist from Dungeons and Dragons publishers TSR due to a perceived infringement on their Dragon Magazine copyright.
The front cover of that first issue is a clear mission statement from Larsen setting the Dragon apart from Liefeld and McFarlane’s creations.
The Dragon himself is a barrel chested; two-fisted every man dressed in a white singlet and blue jeans much like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. There are no pouches full of grenades of impossible big blaster guns and the brooding inky angst of SPAWN is nowhere to seen. The cover is colourful and vibrant promising thrill chills and spills to any reader who has a spare couple of bucks and a half hour bus ride to school of the office.
Larsen already had a clear picture in his mind of the Dragon was and who his readers were. His audience was
“older Marvel readers who are about ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. It’s the missing link between Marvel and Vertigo. More mature than Marvel; less pretentious than Vertigo.”
It’s also interesting to note that Savage Dragon was originally solicited not as an ongoing but as a 3 issue mini-series. It’s unclear whether that was a reflection of the initial story that Larsen had planned, a reflection on the amount of art he had produced, or perhaps an indication that he wasn’t sure whether the Savage Dragon would be an ongoing concern. It’s odd to reflect on this now, 25 years and some 220 issues later that the Savage Dragon one of 2 original IMAGE launch titles which has been continuously released under the IMAGE banner (SPAWN is the other) and the only where the originally created has remained the solve driving force behind the series for two and a half decades.
As Larsen’s comments about the book’s audience suggests Savage Dragon is, or least attempts to be grounded in some sort of reality. Not real, I’m going to shops because we rang out of milk and breakfast cereal reality mind you, but the action movie reality of a late 80s / early 90s Action Movie blockbuster.
The action takes place in Chicago, not the featureless existential void of Youngblood or the gothic New York analogue of SPAWN.
The Dragon is not the grotesquely over-muscled super solider of Youngblood of the Ghoulish Guardian of SPAWN, he’s a cop. A street-level boy in blue looking to protect his city and its peoples from the Freaks, the newly emergency super villain menace. I would say that he’s the future of Law Enforcement but that’s Robocop’s Gimmick and you know you don’t want that guy angry at you.
The issue opens with a splash page and then a double splash page which sees Dragon going toe to toe with his antagonist the villainous Cut Throat, a man who appears to be the mutant offspring of Rick James and one of the Road Warriors.
Larsen slows the pace down after the opening action sequence to fill us in on some background and do a bit of world-building.
The Dragon doesn’t remember his birth name, who was before his transformation into a the Fin Headed Fist of the Law or how his powers first came to manifest. All he knows is that he woke up naked in a burning field in all his green skinned reptilian glory.
Larsen then also daringly attempts a bit of sub text through a series of news stories which inform us that the Golden Age heroes of the Dragon’s world are either missing, dead or dying. Both Mighty Pan and Super Patriot, analogues for Superman and Captain America respectively, have met with untimely ins and the city and possibly America and the World are left with no one protect the rogues gallery of Hell Razor, Cut Throat, Glow Bug and their motley crew.
Who will raise to be the defender of the innocent, the champion of the every man and the hero Chicago and its people need.
I guess you’ll just have to read issue 2 to find out!
What this book gets right
- All Killer No Filler: the pacing of the script and the art is first rate. From the opening action sequence to the final panel depicting a cabal of villain looking down on the city Savage Dragon issue #1 is a fast paced, action packed page turning read.
- He’s Just a Common Man: Dragon is basically John McLane painted green. Although this is a familiar Hollywood trope it’s not something you seen in comics, especially in this time period. Dragon looks, talks and acts like a super hero Harry Callahan.
- A Different Kind of Hero: Larsen also makes it very clear from the beginning that the Dragon represents the dawn of a new age of Super Heroism. He’s here to kick ass and drink milk, and he’s just finished his milk.
What this book gets wrong:
- Derivative Villain Design: while the dragon has a unique street clothes look the bad guys in this issue could not look more generic if they tried. They could easily be the villains from any action figure range including one guy on the last page who is basically just a Street Shark. This may change latter on in the run but the baddies here are pretty forgettable
- Exposition Dumps: The middle section of this first issue is VERY text heavy as Larsen works to recount Dragon’s origin story, introduce the support cast and the world around them. Larsen is usually able to balance this on the page to avoid minimal disruption to the narrative flow but another draft or a skilled editor could’ve helped a lot here.
- No Third Thing: I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel, this is actually a pretty solid comic so I guess let’s just roll into
Final Verdict, should I read this book? This is an easy Yes. Savage Dragon Number 1 is a solid first issue, telling a reasonably self-contained. It’s fun, fast paced high octane fun. If you can find Savage Dragon number 1 on Comixology Unlimited or grab it for a couple of dollars it’s definitely worth 15 minutes of your time.
Next Up: Get ready for some Covert Action as we drink in Jim Lee’s Wild C.A.Ts Number One!