Comic collectors are fond of first issues, and a big #1 printed on the front cover can do wonders for the sale of a book. A side effect of this, however, means that title changes, relaunches and other numbering gimmicks presently abound in our industry. It also means that it has become rare to find a comic that numbers over 100 on the racks of your local comic book shop. So the fact that Erik Larsen's "Savage Dragon" reaches issue #200 this November is a cause for celebration, both for numerologists and for those who seek longevity in their comic titles.
As longtime fans know, "Savage Dragon" was one of the first titles published by Image Comics in 1992. The title began as a miniseries and quickly proved popular enough to justify an ongoing monthly series in 1993. Since then, Larsen has written and illustrated every issue of the series, making the book the longest running American full-color comic to feature a single artist-writer.
As the sole voice of his book, Larsen has taken his main character and the world he occupies in some very interesting directions. Realities have been destroyed, new timelines have popped up, and, most recently, the protagonist of the book is no longer the Savage Dragon -- well, not the one that first appeared 200 issues ago. Larsen's creation is still around, but he now sits de-powered in prison while his son Malcolm has taken center stage. And for those who think this might be a temporary change, the book's creator assures you, it is not.
"As far as I'm concerned, the change is permanent," Larsen told CBR News. "The baton has been passed. That's not to say that daddy Dragon can't have an occasional adventure and temporarily be the focus again, but it's Malcolm's book. And any shift in focus like that would be akin to Omni-Man having an adventure in the pages of 'Invincible.' It happens, and it's happened, but the understanding is that it's Invincible's book, not his dad's. For 'Savage Dragon,' it's Malcolm's book."
This change suits Larsen and his comic well, as "Savage Dragon" has never been about predictability or maintaining a status quo. The creator likes to present challenges and grab unique opportunities whenever they present themselves, whether it's in one of his ongoing monthly issues or a 100-page bonanza celebrating a landmark achievement.
"I try to make every issue special in its own way," Larsen said. "I'm drawing an all 2-page spread issue now for #199, which is a totally unannounced surprise. It's just a visual feast, and that's the kind of thing I do all of the time.
"As anniversaries go, #200 is a tough one because Malcolm just inherited the book from his Dad this year. So this is his issue #8, which is a bit early to throw together his greatest foes for an epic battle. But his Dad is in the issue and he's back in action, along with Malcolm's step-sister, to help. There really haven't been a lot of stories with all three of these characters fighting side-by-side, and for Malcolm, this is a big moment -- a real coming-of-age type thing. It plays well. Plus, with 100 pages to play with, there are a lot of other stories to tell."
For these "other stories," Larsen has recruited some outside help. Issue #200 will feature work from Chris Burnham ("Batman Incorporated"), Herb Trimpe ("Incredible Hulk") and even Jack Kirby. And for those wondering how Kirby's involvement is possible, Larsen's answer is simple.
"I've worked somewhat closely with the Kirby Estate and Museum for a while," Larsen explained. "A short time back, I did a print for them so they could raise funds -- it was based on a Kirby Captain America drawing. Part of the understanding there was that I could use it later on for a Savage Dragon cover, and that's what this is. I wrote a story that Herb Trimpe is penciling and it goes along with this image, where a young Malcolm Dragon and his dad go back in time and fight Nazis. So the cover does end up having some context -- it inspired a story. And having Herb, who worked with Jack a couple times, be involved made it that much more special."
When writing a book starring a long-existing character, there is always a fear of repeating what has come before. This challenge grows exponentially when you are the only writer of said character. Larsen, however, hasn't had this problem, and from the sound of it, he doesn't appear worried about this situation ever arising thanks to his 'real time' storytelling approach.
"Setting the book in real time helps. It forces change on me and the characters," he said. "Right now, I'm doing a book about a high school senior; in a year, he won't be in high school. Things change -- characters grow and age and change. It keeps things fresh, and even if I do travel down a familiar path, I'll take an off ramp that heads me in another direction. In a way, that kind of thing sets the readers up -- like the original Dragon rejoining the Chicago Police. With that, readers came with a lot of expectations based on what they'd read before, and I could veer wildly from that and pull the rug out from under them.
"Nothing is done completely unconsciously. There's thought put into every line I put down, but at the same time, I'm constantly trying to build on the foundation I've poured for myself. And it's just fine to play with this stuff and play it out. I tend to put these characters in the more dire situations and then watch them struggle to get out of it."
After 200 issues, one might wonder how long Larsen intends to write and draw "Savage Dragon." And, if he ever did decide to stop working on his creation, the writer would have to choose whether to end the Dragon's tale, or allow other creators to present their vision for his character. When asked if he has ever pondered this scenario, it becomes clear that it's not a decision Larsen wants to make anytime soon.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. At this point, I'd rather not ever read an ongoing 'Savage Dragon' book by anybody else. This isn't Batman -- it's 'Peanuts.' It's one guy's vision, and if you're not into that -- that's fine.'
With so many issues to his credit, Larsen has much to be happy about. But as with any journey, there have been a few regrets. Of those things he wished he did differently, two in particular stick out for him:
"One, paying too much attention to my old stories I wrote and drew as a kid and trying to work that continuity into the new -- it hasn't always been a comfortable fit. And two, blowing up the world and relocating Savage Dragon to an altered reality. It's just made a few things a bit confusing. There are things that are left in a questionable state. We saw how things played out in one reality, but not in this one -- what happened here exactly? I don't know that that can be fixed. I've definitely deemphasized it, and at this point, I pretty much ignore it."
On the flip side of this coin, Larsen has also encountered several pleasant surprises. "Characters have surprised me more than anything. A 'nothing' character that I expected to go nowhere ends up taking on a life of his or her own. Sometimes you have to play with the toys a little before you decide which one is your favorite."
And fans can expect a lot more playing from Larsen to come. While the creator keeps busy with his character's monthly adventures, he does enjoy thinking about the Dragon's future -- from issue #200 to 400, and far beyond.
"A lot can happen and does happen. Malcolm turns 18 years old in #200, and he'll be in his mid-30s -- and Dragon will be closing in on 70 -- when we get to #400. A lot can happen in that time, and there'll be hundreds of characters in the book that haven't even been created yet, which will blow your mind. This is a big, sprawling, powerful epic, and it's just getting started -- with 200 issues under my belt."