ERIK LARSEN DESTROYS THE SAVAGE DRAGON'S UNIVERSE
Note: Adult language in the following story.
If stagnation is dangerous for comics, so is shaking things up. For every Woody and Rebecca replacing Coach and Diane on "Cheers" -- to make a sitcom analogy -- there's several cases of Laverne and Shirley moving to Los Angeles.
Erik Larsen making the Savage Dragon's world go boom seems to be an example of a successful shakeup.
"In terms of helping, the book has always been relatively healthy," Larsen told the Comic Wire Friday afternoon, as he took a break from pencilling Marvel Comics' "Defenders" #1. "Certainly, the people who were reading it, were enthusiastic about it. In fact, those people are pissed off at me now, because I came in and said 'you know all this? Forget about it.'"
Well, not forget it entirely: "For those older readers, every now and then I'll have an issue. … I'm hoping there's enough there."
While the shake-up was intended to make things new reader friendly -- or simply new reader accessible, after years of famously long storylines and a cast in the hundreds ("I've probably introduced 200 villains, 40 cops and tons of supporting characters … Dragon's on eight pages out of 22, and the rest is supporting characters … and whose the hell's book is this?") -- there was another reason for the change, Larsen said.
"To keep me interested! Seventy five issues, man! Or more like 80 issues, with the initial miniseries, once I'd added all that crap to it, was about five issues. … It's been eight years of doing the book."
The genesis for changing the Dragon's world by killing a time traveling supervillain before he could inadvertently lay the groundwork for the way things are (or were) was an image that came to Larsen.
"I got the storyline going to such an extent that I had this image of Super-Patriot holding a gun on this kid who he knows he grows up to become this villain. And I said 'whoa, that would be a cool cover.' … It was something that I had mulled around a long time.
"And then, in the middle of all this, someone wrote me a letter asking why Marvel changed all of reality, and it's cooler, and then they change it back," in storylines like the "Age of Apocalypse" and other reality-altering events. "I don't know who wrote that, who that was, but it was just what I needed to hear."
Taking the idea as something of a dare -- change the world, dramatically, but don't change it back again -- has paid off, Larsen said, with sales increasing up on the title since the change.
"I've gone in the other direction before, and this is a good direction to be going in. I like this."
Of course, with a passionate fan base already in place, not everyone was likely to love trashing so much of what had come before in favor of a post-apocalyptic setting, and Larsen has the outraged letters to prove it.
"I would get those letters anyway, you know? … And now I'm also getting letters from people who never read the book."
And while Larsen had hoped making the book more accessible to new readers would attract them, in the current comic industry, it certainly wasn't guaranteed.
"I guess I'm a little surprised. What's really weird is that some of the mail don't translate into reality. The guys who just hate it are so passionate, I figure 'god, sales much be plummeting.' But, no, that's not reality."
Shaking up the setting and cast of the book aren't all that Larsen has done, though. He's also changed elements of the narrative style, the front cover design, trimmed the length of stories and more.
"It seemed like I could do this piecemeal, but … I had made a stylistic decision early on that I wasn't going to do any internal monologue, but it got so impossible to write, as it would with any comic, as the characters move and live and grow. It couldn't be explained in dialogue. There needs to be an impartial narrator to clue people in. … Especially in this situation, where I changed the world, and … there's pages and pages of the Dragon wandering around, looking at all this stuff. Do I have him talking to himself?"
Larsen also draws a distinction between this book and others that have changed reality, where the faces remain the same, more or less, but things are changed around fairly dramatically otherwise.
"Some of it gets to be retarded if you just start changing everything. … Some people have compared it to [Marvel Comics'] 'Mutant X,' but I look at 'Mutant X' and it's like the regular Marvel Universe … but the characters are changed for no reason. Spider-Man calls himself Man-Spider. Why?
"In this, the world's screwed up, but the characters stay the same. … There's going to be some changes, but it all follows in some sort of logical way. … I think for someone who's read it for a long time, I think it's kind of cool, 'cause they can see how things were changed."
That means the Dragon still began his career, apparently, by waking up naked and amnesiac in an vacant lot, eight years ago. The why and how still remain to be told, someday, maybe.
"I'm not opposed to it. I don't have a good place for it yet. But I don't think it's important," Larsen said. "And you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. You can't change his origin, once you've said it, without being fucking retarded. … I have to decide it's worth doing, and will make for a better comic book.
"A lot of people don't think I have something. … It's been the same since I was about 19. I'm not going to change it from what it was when I was 19. Now, you may think what I came up with at 19 was really stupid, so it's better that I don't say it."
Of course, "The Savage Dragon" isn't the only title Larsen is working on. As mentioned, he's handling art and co-writing the new "Defenders" comic from Marvel with Kurt Busiek. Larsen, whose chicken-headed supervillain Powerhouse is one of the most popular in "The Savage Dragon," says he and Busiek won't shy away from making the Defenders' adventures as weird as they were in the book's long original run.
"I think we can make it more weird. I mean, the Headmen are coming back. We can make it more weird, since that's the reputation of the book. The idea isn't to make it to make it goofy as possible. I'll get my fill of goofy!"
While Busiek is one of the most successful and acclaimed writers of mainstream comics working, he's not the first person one would think of for a historically weird team of superheroes. As it turns out, the Defenders relaunch wasn't originally his idea.
"Kind of what happened was that I was pitching 'Defenders.' It was my idea, it was my book," Larsen said. "But for whatever reason it wasn't gelling, it wasn't working. … And the big problem with the book, besides them all being brought back from the dead, was that they don't particularly like each other, especially when you get the Sub-Mariner into the mix.
"And Kurt's enough of a continuity geek … and came up with a way. … When it's like 'how do we do this? How do we fix this character?' he can come up with this stuff. … Plus, I think he wants to do some different tone stuff."
With two weird series running at the same time, Larsen says the books won't be interchangeable by any means.
"We don't have a Dragon in the group. … We don't have anyone I can look at the book and say 'I have one of him over at Image.' … Well, I have a Hulk," he laughed. "There will be some of the goofball stuff that I haven't done in the 'Dragon' that I'll be able to do here."
And goofy only in the way so many Silver Age comics were is Larsen's other major monthly commitment, the "Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" maxiseries from Marvel Comics, which starts in December and adds a year's worth of stories to the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby "Fantastic Four" stories, with a battalion of artists imitating Kirby and Larsen doing his best Stan Lee.- Erik Larsen