Nov 28, 2017

Savage Dragon Has No Safety Net

Most long-running comics hit a comfortable rut, or, like Garfield, they’re designed to start straight out the gate running in a looped track. Even the best long-running, single-author strips and comic books are prone to comfort zones of nostalgic gags and feel good catch phrases. The pitch and yaw of Crankshaft or Ranma 1/2 ain’t all that much. Savage Dragon is the longest-running single-author comic from Image, and one of the longest single-author comics regularly serialized in American comic books today. And, it hasn’t had an unwavering groove to rest in since, maybe, the first half dozen issues. Definitely since the first fifty.

Savage Dragon Has No Safety Net
Travis Hedge Coke

2017 Savage Dragon feels like a modern comic. Not a continuation of an old comic, not a revisiting or the next big thing, but concerned with the here and now, with being a great comic right this moment. From layouts to line width, Larsen takes risks with his comic, commits to new techniques, new restraints and different possibilities. It’s a gamble - even an upcoming shift away from the larger size boards he’s been drawing on, to a smaller-than-industry-standard size is a gamble - but, between talent, luck, and commitment, it almost always pays off. In the long run, it has all paid off.

Erik Larsen, artist, writer, and creator of Savage Dragon, is not often championed as a particularly experimental talent in comics, but in Dragon and with his work on company-owned characters like, Wolverine and Spider-Man, he’s always trying stuff. Pushing boundaries and testing waters without making the experimentation the selling point, or tooting his own horn. Seriously, his run on Wolverine is all about how many fights the title tough guy can’t actually win. It’s a year of Wolverine running away, getting his ass kicked, or just missing the bigger picture, because in the end, Wolverine is just some guy. He’s just a short Canadian with knuckle-knives who fights other people’s fights for them a little too often for his own good. In our world, he’d be a badass, and he is one, but he also lives in a world with space gods and robot armies. He’s going to claw-punch a space god? Rage-slaughter slavery and civil war?

Savage Dragon is a place, Larsen can cut loose even further. Between the covers of Dragon (and on those covers!), Larsen can try out whatever angle, whichever technique he wants, and you either are along for the ride, or you know where to get off. And, while not every choice in the comic has left me thrilled, goddammit, I love that he can and will shoot for the moon, and it ain't even our moon, it’s some moon in another system, in a different galaxy, that might even be in another dimension.

Whether it’s the use of a modern president in a new way, or letting characters learn from past missteps and either step up or fall into worse straits, it stays fresh. The comic has never been noticeably wedded to a particular style of coloring or locked into one set of drawing techniques. Nudity and sexual content has come to the front and receded to the back like a tide. Sometimes, things are “tastefully obscured” and sometimes a character masturbates just were we can’t see details, or walks naked on her husband’s back. Some readers and commenters get uptight when that happens, but some get uptight when the comic shows the title character attacked by racists or kills someone off and doesn’t bring them back. There’s nothing in any issue of Savage Dragon that says, to me, that Larsen wants to offend anyone. And, there’s nothing carelessly or gleefully offensive. But, I don’t get a feeling he sweats the offended parties too much, either. He owns this thing. It’s his high wire act.

Over the years, in Dragon, Larsen has written scenes of comedy, of melodrama, horror, tried out conversational shorthand and a variety of captions and narration. He has experimented with tight, hatch-heavy strokes, loose line art where the pencil lines don’t always connect but allude to shapes, lifted Kirby mise en scene and Little Orphan Annie’s blank eyes. A story may be constructed of a single, repeated image, or it might commit to a specific number of panels, shifting their size and arrangement over the page for twenty-plus pages. If you follow Larsen at all, online, you can see how ready he is to critique the comics work of others and himself, to suggest improvements, to champion success and even technical flaws that work well, and his own comics are definite proof of the sincerity of his criticisms.

Right now, a book that began about an amnesiac super-strong monster-dude becoming a police in Chicago, heavy on blacks, mostly featuring close, brutal fights and sometimes punctuated with great punny names, follows the twenty year-old son of the original Dragon, along with his wife and three children, as they move to Toronto to avoid an increasingly xenophobic United States. The fights tend to be huge pile ons, now, the real inheritor to Kirby-esque grandeur in America comics. The social drama and domestic humor is a stretch away from the phobia of domesticity we saw over a decade ago, and the far more cartoonish interactions, like villains calling up Dragon’s former boss to harass him, rather than just take direct action. It’s also some distance from intermediary statuses quo; the government agent era, the married family man with guesting evil interdimensional despot as comedy roommate, the world gone to hell turn, and many other short-lived eras. They aren’t even genuinely ever status quo. There is no status. There ain’t no quo. It keeps changing, keeps moving.

When you miss an issue of Savage Dragon, you miss important stuff. The comic runs in something like real time, with a year of monthly issues being roughly a year of occurrences. People age, there are deaths, the whole universe might die or collapse or be changed by forces from beyond. People don’t have to keep the same job or stay in the same deadlocked relationship forever, just for audience familiarity’s sake. It is freed up, the entire comic feels, to me, eternally and perpetually freed up. The art does not have to look the same, issue to issue or even within a panel. Funny-shape characters and traditional human beings can stand side by side. Perspective and delineation can change for affect. One off stories, arcs, and subplots all slide forward elegantly, as part of a whole, rather than framed carefully for anniversary issues or later collection in trade paperbacks. That surging narrative is another trick from Jack Kirby that I think too few people have adapted and made their own (whether Larsen has intentionally or not). Kirby books, starting in the late 1960s, roll adventures and anxieties along using the appearance of a looser structure, encouraging the audience to buy the next, and the next after that, seeking culminations that only seeded more great promise, which was usually delivered. Dragon’s the same.

Savage Dragon doesn’t ever need to culminate, there’s nothing it’s building towards that will stop it all. When Erik Larsen is done, it’ll be over. There are some fans, and some “fans,” who want it to look backwards, to retract to where it was, and how it played, ten years ago, or fifteen, to some specific issue they felt more enamored with, but the book is not going backwards. I am so glad it has not stepped back or been set in one of those automated grooves to go round and round with the same sweet spots and comforting shouts of “Norm!” like a sitcom destined to repeat out of order for four hour blocks on late night television. It hasn’t become Friends, it hasn’t become Amazing Spider-Man. And, its author hasn’t kept to the same bag of tricks for the bulk of his career, hoping we all still love the same water color collages or patronizing just plain folks story structures that some of his contemporaries have leaned on since the late 80s.

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