Image At 25: How ‘Savage Dragon’ Embodied The 1990s
When Image Comics launched in 1992, I was thirteen years old. I think that might be the ideal age for that first wave of Image books. But the truth is, I didn't read most of them. Image comics were a little more expensive than the books I was used to, and my allowance could only go so far. Also they weren't always easy to find, considering I bought most of my comics at either the one grocery store that still had a spinner rack or the tiny bookstore at the mall.
But there was one book I showed up for: Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon. It launched with a three-issue miniseries, which is what I remember best.
Looking back now, I'm not sure why Savage Dragon was the book that caught my attention. I'd liked Larsen's work on Spider-Man, but it's not like I was obsessed with him. In fact, it was really only when Image was founded that I started paying attention to who drew which book. But those stories about Image always mentioned that the Dragon was a character Larsen had created as a child, and being a child with my own superheroes in my head, that appealed to me.
Also, Dragon had a great look: Bright green skin, big muscles, and a large spiny fin on the top of his head. He doesn't wear a costume, because he doesn't consider himself a superhero. He's a cop, and usually wears either a blue uniform or a white undershirt with blue pants. He's as hairy as Wolverine, except for his shiny cranium. He also has little fangs, which are never commented on, but they're always there.
Dragon, and the comic that bore his name, and indeed the entire line that the comic emerged from, were all '90s as heck. The exaggerated physique of Dragon and other characters is a part of that, as is his ability to grow stubble quickly when he's feeling moody. Dragon is invulnerable to fire and resistant to blunt force, but blades can cut him (although of course he heals quickly). The visual result of this is panel after panel of Dragon with his clothes tattered and his face cut up, never giving up the fight.
One thing I didn't notice at the time that seems obvious now is the influence of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns on early Savage Dragon. The first issue in particular features news anchors reporting on how more traditional superheroes are no match for the dangers of modern world. A Captain Marvel analogue is beaten to death as an old man, while this world's Captain America is nearly crushed.
Police Lieutenant Frank Darling, a very Jim Gordon-esque character, watches these reports and reacts sadly, slowly coming to the realization that the world has become too dark, too dangerous for traditional heroes. That's what leads him to recruit Dragon, an amnesiac found in the middle of a fire, into the police department. In a world full of criminal "super-freaks," only a freak on the side of law and order can even the odds.
When I revisited Savage Dragon, I was surprised how well it holds up. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in dynamism. Larsen knows how to draw superhero action, and he knows how to plot a story that plays to his strengths in that regard. The first page of the first issue drops the reader directly into that action, with a full page splash of Dragon leaping through the air to attack a villain who resembled an exaggerated pirate. The background is only speed lines, but the action is enough to fill the page. It's an image that would leave anyone wanting more.
By a wide margin, the biggest weakness in the series is its portrayal of women. Every female character is a knockout, and many of them wear exactly the kind of ridiculous skimpy outfits that we've come to associate with '90s comics.
Larsen attempted to create a strong female character in Alex Wilde, a cop who works closely with Dragon, but even that's pretty clumsy. Dragon's main love interest in the mini-series turns out to be Debbie Harris, who would go on to be murdered in the name of Dragon's angst before the regular series even began. Two years before the events of Green Lantern would give the concept a name, "fridging" was already going strong.
But one of the clunkiest things in those early Savage Dragon comics is also one of my favorites: Erik Larsen makes fun of his former employers every chance he gets.
In the third issue, Badrock of Youngblood attacks Dragon to test his mettle, just because that's how it happens in Marvel Comics. In the second issue, Dragon fights a web-shooting monster called Arachnid, who a news anchor even refers to as a "spider-man." When Lt. Darling arrives, the dialogue is so on-the-nose that I caught the implications even at thirteen:
As silly as this is, at the time the founding of Image really was a rebellion against the hegemony of Marvel, so it's hard to begrudge Larsen these potshots. And the series is so fast-paced, with multiple battles against different villains and monsters in every issue, that it doesn't slow down the action to make a joke or two along the way.
That's the greatest strength of The Savage Dragon, and of this early '90s brand of storytelling in general: The action just keeps coming. Even the moments of angst take at most a page, often a half page, between battles with spider men, shark men, men on fire, and skeleton men.
It'll never stand as a benchmark of great storytelling, and its women problems keeps me from loving it as an adult, but at its heart, Savage Dragon is comics in the purest sense, violent but aimed at children --- and exactly what I wanted to read at thirteen years old.