DRAGON AT 100
A lot has happened in the past ten years of Erik Larsen's SAVAGE DRAGON comic book. Its one hundredth issue -- due out this week -- shows that. For long time fans, it's a wonderful look back on some of the high points of Larsen's epic, with the return of old friends and old villains leading to a crucial decision and a monumental clash.
But for the new readers?
I think we're preaching to the converted to a certain degree. Everyone yammers on about keeping things accessible to new readers. I have no problem with that on general principle. Everyone wants every issue to be the perfect jumping-on point. That one's a bit more argumentative. Everyone thinks that a large cast of characters in a book will prevent a book from being easy-to-follow. That one's even more debatable.
I think a book with as rich a tradition as DRAGON has created in the past decade can use that to its advantage. DRAGON is a colorful book with a strongly visual component to it. The characters are a mix of different looks at old favorites (Mighty Man uses Captain Marvel as a base, for example), and strange new characters (Powerhouse, the flying chicken). Erik Larsen couldn't possibly introduce us to all of the dozens of characters he put in this issue. Even I, who have been reading the book since Day One, couldn't give you all the names or origins or background stories of half the characters in this book.
Believe it or not, part of that is good storytelling. In this 100th issue, there's a massive power struggle in the Savage World in Dragon's absence. Everybody's fighting, and a large part of Dragon's confusion regarding the events of his two worlds is easily mirrored by the reader, who sees a stream of characters fighting each other. I know I couldn't keep track of who was on whose side anymore. There's at least one double page spread with 21 different characters in it, for example.
In the end, seeing all these cool and colorful characters might drive a person to want to learn more, right? I remember reading my first issue of Keith Giffen's JUSTICE LEAGUE the first summer I read comics in 1989 and thinking how confusing it all was. It made me want to read more, though, because the storytelling was so strong and the characters that I could follow were so likeable. That was even true of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, where I didn't know who Mary Jane or Aunt May or J. Jonah Jameson were. (And with three different titles at the time, the supporting cast only grew larger.) I'm sure many of you reading this column today started reading comics with an issue of JLA or AVENGERS, both of which had casts of at least a dozen characters, depending on where you started, and possibly more than twice that.
The trick in attracting and keeping new readers is clear, interesting, and attractive storytelling. If you give them enough of what they want, they'll keep coming back. (This is, of course, assuming they can find it. Distribution, however, is another kettle of fish.) Yes, it's a smart thing for a creator to keep things simple enough so that anyone can jump in at any time, but it would be a shame if they began censoring themselves from telling the larger stories and maintaining the ensemble casts that they can do so well.
(Of course, at a $9 price tag, I don't think many people are going to decide to give SAVAGE DRAGON a try this week…)
I ended up refreshing my memory on many of the Savage World stories by consulting the SAVAGE DRAGON COMPANION. It's due out (theoretically) next week from Image Comics. It's a nice thick full-color book. It's 64 full color glossy pages that summarize the first 100 issues of the series. It includes comments from Erik Larsen, looks back at FREAK FORCE and SEX AND VIOLENCE, and even some reasons to read the book and a look at the best fights of the series. It's a remarkable effort and a handy refresher, although not something to replace the comics themselves. Best thing yet: It's cheap. Only three bucks, minus a nickel in America.
Back to SAVAGE DRAGON #100 now. (Jeez, has this review become the most circuitous thing I've ever written?)
The issue has a full lead story written and drawn by Erik Larsen, in which Dragon must choose between two worlds. When you think about it, though, the decision is pretty obvious. (Hindsight is always 20/20, isn't it?) Larsen doesn't cheat here; he leads the reader through the decision that Dragon knows he has to make throughout the issue. And there are a couple of surprise twists in the story before the end, including something that might just be a happy ending for the big 100th issue. Of course, it raises a few more questions that I imagine will be considered in the next issue.
(I want to write more about this next month, after the spoilers have died down.)
Larsen's art looks as good as ever, despite having to drawn an inordinate number of characters. Some artists show a remarkable drop-off in quality when they have to draw team books. I don't think there's much of a change here with every character thrown into the mix. There are some great subtle artistic touches in this issue, too. The Frank Darling of the main Image Universe has gained weight over the past couple of years. In a Chicago without superpowered freaks, it's easy to imagine that he's gotten a bit rundown and lazy. There are no Skullfaces for him to run against. (That sequence might just be one of the best action sequences in the series so far, and that was back in issues 15 and 16.)
It's the backup stories, though, that make this book worth the $8.95 price tag to me. Through a series of chronological stories, we get to see a lot of the back story in action that created the Savage World. It starts with Super-Tough and Young-Tough not detonating a bomb (in a story inked by Eliopoulos), and cascades from there. Larsen picks up key moments in Dragon history -- including the "Possession" and Mars Attacks storylines, and even the Invasion bit from FREAK FORCE -- and explains how slight changes along the time long can blossom into bigger things. I'm not as well versed in Dragon lore as I used to be, so I took these stories at face value and didn't try to over think things. ("Well, if Character A weren't here to help Character B over there, then shouldn't Character B be over here with Character C?" etc. etc.)
Other inkers on these back up stories include Bill Sienkiewicz, Bruce Timm, Jerry Ordway, Tim Townsend, Mike Royer, John Beatty, Terry Austin, Bob Wiacek, and (saving the best for last) Walter Simonson. Simonson's inks stay truest to the Larsen pencil lines, but that probably has more to do with the influence his art has had on Larsen's than anything else. It's why I looked for that story first. Wiacek is an inker whose stuff I've never liked all that much, but he works well with Larsen here.
(Trivia note: The issue has a few different colorists credited to it. Included in that list is Eric Stephenson, current Image Director of Marketing and the guy I have to thank for sending me this issue in advance. His colors are easy to spot. In a day and age of carefully sculpted coloring, Stephenson's work is much flatter, giving it something of a retro look. Since he colored the first two backup stories set earliest in the continuity, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense to choose him for those spots.)
SAVAGE DRAGON #100 is a book for the fans. It's 100 pages for $9, which is a great price when you consider how much original graphic novels cost these days with less pages. It's done with love and affection for the characters by its creator, who has guided them every day and every issue for the past ten years straight. Very few creators can claim to have done that in the past decade. (Really, after Dave Sim, who's left?) Fans of the series should definitely read this. Lapsed fans might consider this a good time to come back in. New readers might enjoy the depth and dimension of the world of the Savage Dragon, and hopefully would be inspired to seek out previous work. (Not enough of the series is available in trade paperback format, sadly, but the back issues are usually cheap and easy to find.)
Congratulations to Erik Larsen for the stick-to-itiveness and creativity displayed in his body of work. Here's rooting for another 100.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Brad Metzler begins his run on GREEN ARROW with issue #16 this week. It's a pretty good debut for the freshman comics writer. He doesn't fall into the traps that other media writers, specifically novelists, often fall into. It's a light read that goes quickly without getting bogged down in top-heavy dialogue or repetitive caption boxes. Metzler does a great job out of the gate with paring his writing down for the visual medium of comics, and should be commended for that.
Style wise, he's carrying on much of the tone of Kevin Smith's run on the title. There's lots of banter in the issue, keeping some otherwise heavy moments very light hearted throughout the issue, with humor coming from the clash of attitudes between Ollie and the people around him, including Clark Kent and Oracle. The story begins with one of those questions we, as regular humans, would love to know the answer to, but only resurrected superheroes ever get the chance to ask: When we die, who shows up at the funeral? Who's grieving? Who's smiling? Who's busy trying to pick up the widow?
Clark Kent helps out Ollie with the photographs, and that sends Ollie on the trail of a mystery man in one of the photographs, which carries out to a surprise villain on the last page.
I suppose if I wanted to get nit-picky, I could complain about the lack of introductions for the characters through the book. Metzler is relying on his readership being comprised of leftovers from Smith's run. There's not much exposition or reintroduction of characters in here, and that could be confusing to a first time reader. If anyone is following him to comics from his novels, they're going to have a bit of a speed bump to get over with this issue.
(Of course, after the rant of the previous review, that pretty much takes all the teeth out of this argument for me. But this is a much smaller book. There are a half dozen people to worry about, and two of them are pretty easily defined. It wouldn't take much extra work to establish the characters for the new readers.)
Phil Hester and Ande Parks are along for the ride again here, with art that's clear and consistently on target with the script. They can pull off a sly look on a character, or pace the panels properly to get a good laugh out of a punchline.
Sean Konot has altered his lettering for this new storyline. His lettering looks like it's been taken off the "compressed" setting. It's wider and takes more space. Along with that, it looks more computerized now than ever, which is too bad.
In the end, though, this is a strong story from a new comics writer who should be someone to look out for in the coming months. If the next five issues are as strong as this one, he'll have plenty of offers sitting on his desk in the months ahead, and we'll all have fun reading the results.
Also this week : The next issue of THE PUNISHER is out already, and this one's got art in it from Darick Robertson. The new ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN will answer the most-asked question of the past month: Is Mary Jane alive or dead? It's a pretty good issue that turns a lot of classic Spider-Man mythology on its head. Sean McKeever and Casey Jones fill in for DeFalco and Oliffe on SPIDER-GIRL this week. George Pratt's beautifully painted WOLVERINE NETSUKE mini-series begins, also.
CrossGen is due to release both the first collected volume of Bart Sears' THE PATH, and the third of SCION. I'm looking forward to catching up on THE PATH through the trade, and will highly recommend SCION, as always.
LIBERTY MEADOWS begins at Image, and it's following the "widescreen" type formatting: Stapling on the short side of the page, and two strips per page. Looks really nice. Jim Mahfood's STUPID COMICS is also out, with a variety of short subjects in it, everything from reality TV bashing to cell phone bashing to MTV trashing. Thankfully, his unique style puts a different spin on some of these tired subjects, and there's a lot more than just those to keep your interest.
Special thanks to John The Librarian at Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ for the First Look support on the column again this week.
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