We all have gaps in our pop culture knowledge, those omissions that elicit gasps from our fellow funnybook connoisseurs. For me, those gaps are vast and constitute anything outside of DC Comics proper. I’m on a mission to rectify my comics knowledge shortcomings and to provide a fresh take on classic stories that others have known for years. The comics may be old but my mind is still pure, wrapped in plastic and sitting on the shelf, waiting to be opened. Welcome to Mint Condition!
This time: You know, I’ve always been curious about that big cop with the green fin on his head…
The skinny: If you’re reading this, chances are you know about Image Comics and its founding in the 1990’s. Several high-profile creators quit their jobs at the big corporate publishing houses and started an imprint for the little guy. This new creator-friendly publisher had wild success early on with titles like Youngblood, Spawn, WildC.A.T.s, and Savage Dragon.
Issues read: Savage Dragon (miniseries) #1-3 and Savage Dragon (ongoing) #1-50. I was skimming past some of the fight scenes toward the end.
Published by: Image Comics. Although earlier versions of the character did appear briefly in self-published books, this one is the real deal.
Publication dates: The Savage Dragon (in his current form) was introduced in a 3-issue miniseries in 1992, which was followed in 1993 by an ongoing series. That is somehow still…ongoing. This review covers about the first six years of that book.
Creators: Erik Larsen is the creator, writer, artist, inker, and cover artist of Savage Dragon. Like, all of it. This is a character that he has been drawing since he was a child, and wins the award for most easily credited hero. In these first few years he was joined by letterer Chris Eliopoulos and a slew of colorists including Gregory Wright, Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude, Antonia Kohl, Abel Mouton and many others.
My previous experience: Next to none. I’m certain I could have picked the character out of a lineup, but he’s a pretty unique looking dude.
Significance: I’ve been wanting to read something from the very beginning of the Image catalog for a while now. Not only do these comics represent a seismic shift in the industry, they sold like hotcakes and are very widely known. The last few of these reviews have been especially depressing, so I skipped Spawn and went for the gleeful-looking green guy.
Story: A simple, heartfelt story that is saturated with explosive action. Reading Savage Dragon is like overhearing a kid playing with his action figures. Raw creativity flows unimpeded and the pace never slackens. In the first ten pages our hero is found in a burning field, is rushed to a hospital, meets a new best friend, takes on a name, gets a job and a place to stay, and has his first superpowered fist fight. In the next three pages his employer gets killed, his home is blown up by mobsters, and he joins the Chicago police. Don’t blink.
The amnesiac takes on the name of Mr. Dragon, due to the big green fin on his head. Why does he have green skin and a fin? No idea. There’s no time to ask these types of questions and frankly, no one in the story seems to mind his appearance. This is a world full of superpowered mutants (they call them freaks) who come in many shapes, such as walking sharks and half-robots. They squat in abandoned buildings, just sitting around in their costumes, looking for work or planning out crimes.
It’s a violent book. Plenty of blood. Dragon punches his way into our hearts as he deals with issues that aren’t too nuanced. Violence to solve violence. A good guy with big guns taking out a bunch of bad guys with guns. It’s viscerally satisfying, even as it is morally unsettling. The fight scenes get longer and longer, the weapons more destructive. Every five or six pages someone crashes through a wall to surprise attack the hero and he responds by beating them to within an inch of their lives before arresting them. There’s a recurring subplot that touches on the theme of police brutality against minorities that would be a really thought-provoking message if it wasn’t expressed via righteous rage punching.
Savage Dragon is unmistakably a meta-commentary on the superhero comics industry. Several analogues and metaphors pop up throughout the story. Arachnid, an 8-legged freak who shoots webbing from his hands is referred to as a soft, fat and lazy “spider-man” who got too big for his own good. Super Patriot, a hero from the 40’s, is brought back to life but updated and rebuilt for today’s battles. When Dragon rejects Bedrock’s offer to join Youngblood as stupid, he replies “It happens in Marvel comics all the time!” I generally think analogues are a clever way to say something about comics and this book is no exception. Larsen adapts familiar characters to poke an eye at his former employers, changing just enough details to avoid any question of legality. He also shows off his fertile creativity by introducing an unending parade of brand new concepts and designs.
Art: I think “over the top” is a good description. Dragon’s physique is ridiculous. Bulging muscles, body covered in bristly hair, bursting out of his tiny tight police shirt (or more often running around in just an undershirt). The other cops in the force are incredulous upon seeing his unbelievably wide frame, and rightfully so. These pages drip with machismo.
The costumes are too damn busy, which was typical of comics in the 1990’s. Giant shoulder pads with skulls, body harnesses, excessive ammunition rounds on display, spikes studding everything. Lots of pouches. Carrying about 10 too many knives. The men wear too much to be practical and the women wear too little to be reasonable. Nearly all of the female characters have skinny waists and gigantic breasts, with their asses hanging out and plunging necklines that would make Star Sapphire blush. They pretty much all throw themselves at the overly masculine Dragon.
From a technical point of view, the art is solid. Lots of high adrenaline action, with simple backgrounds and a heavy focus on the figures in the foreground. Some pages are dramatic pops of bright colors, others are dark and brooding with pooling shadows. I found myself reminded of Frank Miller on several occasions. I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t a big inspiration to Larsen.
New reader accessibility: For a brand new creator-owned work, the early issues of Savage Dragon had a surprising number of guest stars. They were ones that I wasn’t terribly familiar with: Spawn and the crew of Youngblood and WildC.A.T.s mostly. Seems like Image was supposed to have a shared universe in the early days? There are also a few appearances of the Ninja Turtles for some reason. But the story is encapsulated enough that a first timer shouldn’t have trouble following it. The ongoing throughlines are more complex than they seem on the surface, with important characters and plot points from the early issues revisited much later in the series. The effect is that the tender moments may hit harder than expected for the persistent reader, but someone who just jumped into the story might have some momentary confusion about what’s going on. Such is comics.
Desire to read more: Very glad to have experienced this, but I think I’ve seen enough to satisfy my curiosity.
Final Thoughts: I think it’s important to recognize that I’m coming into this cold, reading the first issues of Savage Dragon almost thirty years after they were created. Given the importance of this book in the context of the comics industry and the number of issues it sold, it’s reasonable to believe that it holds a special place in the hearts of many. Nostalgia is a powerful force and I don’t doubt that reading this book now is a sort of comfort food for anyone who grew up reading it. Personally, I was reading Hal Jordan in the nineties, and this isn’t that.
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