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A “Savage Dragon” Experiment with Erik Larsen

by  in Comic News Comment
A “Savage Dragon” Experiment with Erik Larsen
“Savage Dragon” #144 on sale npw

Any reader even tangentially familiar with Erik Larsen’s cornerstone Image Comics series “Savage Dragon” knows the title is no stranger to experimentation. Aside from massive plot twists and upheavals that have thrown the character and his book into everything from cosmic drama to religious satire, writer-artist Larsen has also presented issues that contain only splash pages, descending panel-to-page ratios, or stories told within the format of newspaper gag strip pacing. You can read up on the full gamut of Dragon experiments in this edition of Robert Kirkman’s BUY MY BOOKS.

This week, “Savage Dragon” #144 hit stands featuring a new kind of twist on the typical comic book package: a story built by 121 single square panels that each represented a day in the life of the main character. Spinning threads from the Dragon dealing with the recent revelation that his wife died to his son Malcolm learning how to go to school; and from multiple team-ups with other marquee Image heroes to a trial for Dragon’s murdering doppelganger. With plenty of running gags and plots, “Savage Dragon” #144 serves as a wrap-up point for many recent storylines. The series renews itself in next month’s issue #145, with the much ballyhooed return of the Dragon to police work. But for Larsen, the comic’s format serves as more than an opportunity to merely tie things up.

“Most of it is to set up a challenge to see, ‘Can I do this?'” Larsen told CBR News. “Some of it can be, ‘Let’s break this up and make an issue different for the heck of it,’ but mostly that’ll mean a story where you’ve got to accomplish something by a particular issue or page. In this case, I was in a situation where I’ve been trying to set the book in real time, but over the months, I’ll have a story where this issue continues into this issue, and then continues into that one, without enough of a break that the real time makes sense. At some point, you’ve got to go, ‘Okay, I’m about three months behind. I need to play catch up.'”

Part of the need to explore so much story — at 121 days, the comic runs from the late summer until mid-January — came with Larsen’s choice to have Dragon and his cast age in real time, month-by-month. “It’s very weird to do real time. It’s one of the things where fans always ask, ‘How come Spider-Man doesn’t age like I do?'” Larsend explained. “And there’s really good reasons not to do that, as it turns out. If some of the characters age in real time, then the subplot stuff can get really weird. But I thought, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s have there be characters that start off as teenage sidekicks and later become adults and later have their own kids who become teenage sidekicks. Let’s have it be this generational comic where characters age and progress.’ At this point, the Dragon character has been doing what he’s been doing for 17 years. In terms of other companies – Marvel, DC, what have you - Spider-Man hasn’t been doing what’s he’s been doing for 17 years in the context of the comic. He was 17 when the book started and at best is 27 now… yikes!”

“Savage Dragon” #144 depicts 121 days in the life of the Dragon, one day-per-panel

Mostly, though, “Savage Dragon’s” formatting and structural idiosyncrasies are the result of Larsen simply wanting the book to be different than anything else on the shelf “It’s doing that while finding new ways to challenge myself,” he said.

Asked about the creation of issue #144 whether he devised a system to tell his story without hiccups, Larsen said, “That’s a good question, and I haven’t a clue on how to answer it. I got to the point where I had a list – and it was a fairly long list – of points I wanted to have take place. His wife, it had just been established in the previous issue, had died. So we started with a big panel of the funeral and took it from there.

“There were a few different things in play here because I wanted every panel to be a square. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to have a long tall skinny panel and then a wide panel or whatever. I wanted each panel to be a square, but I also didn’t want them all to be in the standard six-panel grid, so I came up with as many ways as I could to use squares that I could possibly piece together. And then it was just a matter of making the fairly extensive list of all the events, and then you go, ‘Okay, if this was a fairly bigger day, it needs a bigger panel – because it’s Christmas or because it’s a day that requires more visual information.’ Having a guy talk about how much he loved milkshakes doesn’t require that much information. You say a couple of words and you get the idea. And some of it was just getting the idea across. All you need to know is that they’re going shopping for school clothes, so what can you pare that down to? What’s the minimum amount of lines or whatever to establish that.”

And while certain elements of “The Savage Dragon’ #144 contain stripped down story beats, the comic’s creation was anything but simple. “It was a fun issue to do, but a very time consuming issue to do,” Larsen said. “It required, in a lot of places, that I show more faces than I ordinarily show, or more backgrounds just to establish where things are at - being able to make it very clear day by day by day that it’s a different day.”

Ultimately, all the story points crammed into one space may be easier to step into for non-Dragon readers. “In a way, it’s kind of a crash course in things because there’s a whole bunch of stuff you’re introduced to all at once,” Larsen explained. “As a writer, as a creator, there’s always an argument you have with yourself where you say, ‘How much information is too much information, and at what point is explaining it more making it more confusing rather than less confusing?’ I mean, at a certain point, do you really need to no more than the fact that at the end of the day, this guy’s a hero? In some cases, you don’t. In some cases, that’s all the essential information there is to get across.”

“Savage Dragon” #144 depicts 121 days in the life of the Dragon, one day-per-panel

Looking to the future, that tight focus becomes status quo from “Savage Dragon” #145 on, as Larsen returns his hero to the Chicago police force in an attempt to draw new readers into the long-running series. “I’m trying to not have it be as unwieldy as it has been at times,” he said. “One of the fun things about the book is that it can have a gigantic cast, but the downside of that is that in an individual issue, things can be a little unsatisfying because you’re getting little snippets and not a whole meal as it were. I’m turning that down a little bit so it’s not quite so crazy. I’m also trying to have not so many other superheroes kicking around, at least not initially. If you’re doing the story of this lone cop against the world, it breaks that by having it be ‘It’s a lone cop — **and** his 37 superhero buddies!’ I’m thinking of it as when Frank Miller was doing ‘Daredevil.’ You don’t go, ‘Hey, there goes Thor!'”

Of course, the next issue also features an appearance by President Barack Obama, on the heels of a story arc from late last year where the Dragon endorsed the President when he was still a candidate. Larsen sparked a minor controversy with comments on Marvel’s similar presidential issue of “Amazing Spider-Man.” He contends that his point was to express his crossover with modern politics served as a natural extension of his storytelling. “Just because during the last election I did this big story where Dragon was shoe-horned into running for office, it seemed really awkward not to address it in any way,” Larsen explained. “It’d been such a big part of the book four years ago that it felt like, ‘Well, I should at least mention it. It should be part of it.’

“And then, just as a participant in this country, it seemed important to me that I kind of wanted to take sides this time. Dragon has never stated a political preference before, voting for a third party candidate who never had a chance or something. This really was, to me, an important election just based on what’s happened the past eight years, and it was important to me that we get it right this time. So having my character endorse a real candidate for the first time, doing a follow up on it was just a way of wrapping it up – having him meet Obama and having him saying, ‘Hey, thanks for endorsing me.’

“And remember, when I started all this stuff, it wasn’t as though Barack Obama was being mentioned in the other comics at all. I was just doing this and nobody else was. I think Marvel at the time had Stephen Colbert in their books. It was, ‘Okay, here’s something kind of funny to do.’ But I thought, this time out, it wasn’t something to make fun of. It was kind of important.”

All controversy aside, Larsen remains upbeat about challenging his own methods, and about the stories to follow. “I feel like I can attempt an issue like [#144] because it’s part of a monthly book. If this was all you got for the year, then it might be really awkward,” he said. “But because there’s an issue before this that is grounded and part of an overall big story, and an issue after it which is very much grounded, you can excuse one that is a little experimental and wacky.”

“The Savage Dragon” #144 is on sale now from Image Comics.

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