Larsen Shakes Up "Savage Dragon," Updates "Ant" Status

Erik Larsen doesn't back away from a challenge. The writer/artist was one of the first people to board the good ship Image Comics over 20 years ago when a group of Marvel and DC's most successful artists decided they wanted to write their own rules for comics. Since then, Larsen has been living by those rules, writing and drawing "Savage Dragon" for 21 years and even acting as Image's Publisher for a stretch.

One of the major rules he abides by is to keep his books fresh. Larsen flies in the face of Big Two storytelling conventions at most turns and has plans to do exactly that in upcoming issues of "Dragon." Since Dragon's recent return to Earth, he's been put on trial for crimes committed while his previous self -- Emperor Kurr -- took over his body and went on a rampage. Now imprisoned in jail, Dragon will take something of a back seat while his son Malcolm steps up to the plate to become the headliner.

While Dragon has been a constant in Larsen's life since the birth of Image Comics, the creator has also taken on other projects like writing and drawing "Supreme" for fellow Image founder Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios relaunch. With that run recently wrapped, though, Larsen was looking to focus his energies on reviving "Ant," originally created by Mario Gully. Larsen purchased the rights from Gully, but wanted to close out the somewhat confusing original run by bringing Gully in to draw a wrap-up issue. However, when Larsen told Gully some of his panels were too sexual, the pair had a fairly public falling out on social media. Since the collaboration has been cancelled and Gully announced a very similar looking concept called "Bugg."

CBR News talked with Larsen about the huge plans he has in the works for "Savage Dragon" leading up to the series' bicentennial, what he has in store for new lead character Malcolm Dragon, as well as the status of his revival of "Ant."

CBR News: Dragon spent most of this year either on trial or in jail. What plans do you have for him as the year rolls on?

Savage Dragon

Erik Larsen is setting the stage for Dragon's son Malcolm to headline Image Comics' "Savage Dragon"

Erik Larsen: Well, he's locked up with an awful lot of people who don't like him very much. And that doesn't lead to very good times for anyone involved.

It's kind of funny because people are so used to the way things are done at Marvel Comics and DC that they just expect that a magic wand will be waved and everything will be the same as it was before. They're so used to universes where a status quo is maintained for decades at a time and any changes are purely cosmetic. I'm not playing by those rules and I don't have to play by those rules. Dragon has been convicted of multiple homicides and, while his lawyer will try to appeal his case, there's no reason to think that he should just be let out under any circumstances. People keep saying to me, "When is he gonna break out?" And I keep having to tell them, "That's not how that works."

Ultimately, I have to do what's right for the story and what's right for the character. And Dragon's not the sort who would try to break out of jail. He believes very much in the law. And even if that were not the case, these jails are built to hold guys like him. It's not going to be a case of there being some huge catastrophe that only the Dragon can deal with and then he saves the day and everybody realizes the error of their ways and he's set free -- life doesn't work that way.

And really... that's not where I'm going.

Angel's heading to work with S.O.S. Will she still be a big part of "Savage Dragon" moving forward?

Not really, no. The book is veering more toward Malcolm Dragon and his adventures. Angel will show up from time to time but at this point she's not going to be a recurring member of the supporting cast. It's Malcolm's book and pieces are falling in place which will reinforce that. He has to step up and into the title role.

What sets recently resurrected Golden Age villain The Claw apart from some of the other bad guys you've created in the past?

Well, not only is he a grotesque racial stereotype but he's a character that was wildly popular back in the 1940s. So, there is a certain amount of reverence that goes along with being a character from the Golden Age of comics. He's iconic in his own way.  On my own, I tend not to come up with characters which are so offensive in that way. I actually pushed him a bit visually to be more snake-like and less like of an offensive Japanese caricature.

Upcoming issues look to partially focus on the younger generation of the Vicious Circle. What do they bring to the Savage Dragon world that you're excited to explore?

The whole notion of comic book characters aging and the torch being passed from one generation to the next interests me in some way. But, it's not going to be as simple as all that. Spider-Man didn't fight teenagers, after all, when he was in high school. For the most part, Malcolm Dragon will be facing adults. That doesn't mean he's going to be fighting the same foes that his old man did, but it also doesn't mean that he's going to be fighting 14-year-olds either. There's another generation in there somewhere and we'll be introduced to them.

With #184 you brought on Gavin Higginbotham as an editor. What are his responsibilities and how do they differ from a traditional editor at Marvel or DC?

Gavin is largely a continuity cop. He very much keeps track of what's going on in the book and where characters are. Which is kind of an important thing in a book running as long as "Savage Dragon" has. But more than that he's a guy I bounce ideas off of and he'll make numerous suggestions as well. I don't necessarily use any of them but often they lead to things I do use so it is worthwhile. It's nice to have a sounding board.

The thing which really needs to be emphasized here is that the book is set in real time. Not only has it been 21 years for the readers but it's been 21 years for the characters as well. This means the change is forced upon me as a creator and on them as the characters. I know some of the readers are reluctant to let Dragon go and to have Malcolm step up but at this point Dragon is over 50-years old and he's simply not capable of maintaining that kind of life. He can't keep doing what he was doing. Things have to change and really, I want them to change. It's time that Malcolm officially take over the title and we move into our "Batman Beyond" phase.

This is a big step and there are a lot of major events which crash over each other in order to get that clean break that it needs for that big step. With #193 it's essentially a new title, starring Malcolm Dragon and a lot of the supporting characters that have been in the book will be shuffled off or brutally killed so that he can have that clean break. A new reader can start fresh with #193. They don't have to have read a single issue which takes place prior. That's not to say those issues don't matter and aren't part of the tapestry, because they do, and they are, but it's nice to have a jumping on place at times and this is a good one.

For old readers... there will be returning villains and familiar faces but since they're new to Malcolm introductions will need to be made and they will essentially be new to him as well as to a new reader. The book takes a new direction. A change of locale, a new school, new friends and other supporting characters. And he's shown the ropes by a guy who's had plenty of experience fighting bad guys. He has a mentor, of sorts, just as Bruce Wayne taught Terry McGinnis, and Yoda taught Luke Skywalker, Malcolm will have a more experienced hand helping to teach him how to do what he needs to do better than how he's doing it.

The book will also get a new logo to help emphasize the new direction.

Do you want to give readers any hints at who Malcolm's mentor will be?

It's a character who's been in the book. I don't really want to say much more than that. It's an older character with a good deal of experience.

When and where will you be debuting the brand new "Savage Dragon" logo?

I'm not sure. I have a few rough versions floating around on Facebook. Barring anything anybody else comes up with that knocks me off of my feet I'm likely to go with that but I still have a little time. Not a lot of time but a little.

Speaking of changes, you also switched over to digital lettering recently and experimented with different coloring techniques. How have those been working out for you?

It's a matter of finding something that works. To try something here and there but to eventually work out something that does the job better than what was there before. Things have gotten to a point where some of the computer coloring effects have taken over and I kind of feel like I'd like to step back from that precipice.  In some books you can hardly tell who inked the pages, the coloring is so overwhelming and I think in some cases the coloring is doing a huge disservice by focusing our attention on trivial details. That fork next to a plate in the background doesn't necessarily call out for highlights and lens flares and I'd like to try and see what other directions can be taken. Some colorists have done really smart things, innovative things, interesting things with largely flat colors and while I don't want to step back into the past, I think it would be fun to play around with the possibilities. You see a book like "Hellboy" with smart, well chosen colors and it opens up your eyes a bit to other options.

Issue #187 was a huge, huge abrupt change from what has become previously but that's not, ultimately, where it's going to end up. That's the first paving stone in a long journey. It was a statement of sorts. Kind of a, "Look how off-the-wall this can be and still look cool."

Lettering, too, is a learning process. The second issue was better than the first and I think there are a lot of places it can go. I'd like to play around a bit with that.

Now that we have a good idea of where "Savage Dragon" is headed, I wanted to shift the discussion to "Ant," which you acquired the rights to last year. Over the past few months there was a fairly public split between "Ant" creator Mario Gully and yourself. You explained online that you hired Gully to draw a final issue to close out the previous "Ant" series and tie up loose ends before moving on to new stories. Where is "Ant" currently?

Starting over. Originally, with Mario the plan was to finish off the story that had been started, do an issue #12, and wrap it all up in a nice neat bow. Now, that's out the window.

As books go, "Ant" was something of a mess, honestly. When "Ant" started, originally, back with another publisher, the story was about Hannah as a nine-year-old child writing fantasies in a diary about herself as an adult superhero. And while that was compelling, in a way, it made it so that none of those adventures were real. They had no consequence because they didn't actually happen. They were drawings in a child's book.

When the book came to Image it jumped ahead considerably and it was about her as a well-established superhero with a forgotten past and she was trying to put together all of the missing pieces. Now, rather than tie up a series which few were actually following, I will instead tell her story from the beginning and fill in the gaps from the start of her career as an adventurer. Eventually, I'll use the layouts which I drew for Mario in an issue which can work as both an end to the old series and the continuation of the new one.

But there's no hurry. There's no fire under my ass. If I'm going to start over from the beginning I might as well do it right this time. No point in screwing it up again. It's gone through a lot of revisions over the years. Giving it some time for readers to distance themselves from the old stuff wouldn't be such a bad idea.

You mentioned using your layouts for that wrap-up issue of "Ant." Does that mean you'll draw that issue yourself or will you pass those on to another artist?

Likely I'll draw it. As fun as it is working with others it can be exasperating.

What was your reaction to "Bugg," Mario's supposed upcoming book that looks an awful lot like "Ant"?

My reaction was to send Mario a cease-and-desist letter.

Have you heard any response from Mario in regards to your Bugg cease and desist?I have not.

What did you see in the original "Ant" series that made you want to pick the property up and continue her adventures? What elements needed to be altered?

The thing than drew me to "Ant" was its basic simplicity. The design of the character is very simple and very direct and very iconic. What didn't work was much of the rest of it. With five writers over 11 issues, each one writing the other ones' stories in and out of continuity -- it was something of a mess. The book needed somebody guiding it with a firm hand and an actual direction. That's what I wanted to bring to the character.

You tweeted early on that Ant will feature some villains from "Savage Dragon," but will she be interacting with Dragon himself, either in her title or his?

We'll see. The character was, in her old series, affiliated with United States government and Angel Dragon is currently affiliated with United States government so there is definitely a possibility of a crossover that makes some sense. At the same time, I would like her book to stand on its own. So, it's more likely that the two books will share occasional guest appearances by the same characters. The S.O.S. will occasionally appear in both titles.

The new "Ant" logo you debuted late last year has a very cool retro-Marvel feel to it. Who designed it?

I did. It's based on some of the lettering that Artie Simek did at Marvel comics over the years.

Lastly, is the "Scooby Doo book" you mentioned last time we talked any closer to hitting shelves?

Yeah, hopefully sometime this year. It's actually something of a superhero story featuring a group of kids. It's pretty goddamn cool.

To see the lead up to Malcolm Dragon's takeover of "Savage Dragon" check out #188 which pits the hero against The Claw, on sale June 5.

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