Savage Dragon Archives Vol. 1-2

By Erik Larsen
616 pages, black and white
Published by Image Comics

When Image Comics debuted in 1992, there was a lot of talk from the founders about how these were characters they could work on the rest of their lives. Really, most people don’t take those sort of statements terribly seriously. It’s usually just a turn of a phrase, a promise that isn’t expected to be carried out, with the meaning behind the words usually something along the lines of, “I’m proud of this book.” With all that in mind, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that 16 years later, Erik Larsen would still be plugging away at his comic Savage Dragon, or that it would be at over 130 issues and counting. Now Larsen is releasing Savage Dragon Archives, fat 600+ page black and white reprints of the series. Reading over 20 issues together in a single edition, though, gives me a new-found respect for the creator.

Named the Dragon because of the fin on his head and his bright green skin, he was found in a burning field with no memory of his former life. Becoming an officer in the Chicago Police Department, he’s ready to protect his new home against the numerous villains and freaks who seem perpetually on the verge of conquering the city. But no sooner does Dragon seem to adjust to his status quo, then it always turns around and changes on him…

Reading these two volumes of Savage Dragon Archives was a different experience than reading the book in serialized format. That’s in part because Larsen chose to let each issue run directly into the next in collected form; there are no chapter breaks, no reprints of covers to designate how far along you’ve come. The end result is that I felt almost like I was reading the superhero equivalent of a daytime soap opera, with half-a-dozen storylines being juggled at a moment’s notice, jumping from scene to scene at the drop of a hat. This isn’t a bad thing, just a very different experience. It’s akin to watching a marathon of your favorite show versus watching it over the course of a year, because cliffhangers hold a very different function without the long wait between episodes, and what may have not worked well stretched out over time might seem more concise all at once. (Or, of course, vice versa.)

The first volume of Savage Dragon Archives is definitely the weaker of the two in terms of storytelling; Larsen is very much learning on the job how he wants to write the book, and exactly the tone he’s going for. The end result is that it’s a little more jerky and haphazard of the two; there’s much more the impression that it’s a group of unrelated incidents, initially, than part of a greater plan of Larsen’s. It doesn’t help that a lot of the early issues are also spent introducing characters who will eventually make up the cast of the spin-off series Freak Force; once that’s out of the way, the stories seem to be a little more cohesive.

Part of the joy of reading Savage Dragon is the sheer amount of crazy ideas and characters that Larsen comes up with. Some have their genesis with other existing characters (a man with four octopus tentacles and beak in his chest that bears a resemblance to a certain villain over at Marvel Comics, for instance) but even then it’s Larsen’s own spin and ideas about them, taking a name or an idea and twisting it into something more gruesome or crazy. I’d also forgotten how many guest stars appear in Savage Dragon, from fellow Image Comics characters (like Spawn or members of WildCATs) to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Hellboy. It’s much to Larsen’s credit that it never feels particularly gratuitous, but rather just another fun story that happens to have those other characters. And of course, the soap opera aspect of the book is the biggest draw of all for me; be it fighting the armies of villains like Overlord to Dragon’s eternally troubled love life, by the time the second Savage Dragon Archives begin he’s found a real beat and rhythm to keeping the storylines moving forward, sometimes touching on subplots for just a page or two but never really forgetting them. Even better, though, is that Larsen is clearly not afraid to actually end a story here and there when he feels they’ve run their course. By regularly giving the reader closure, it keeps them interested in coming back for more. The stories may not be particularly deep or insightful, and the book certainly doesn’t take itself seriously most of the time, but they’re surprisingly fun.

Larsen draws Savage Dragon in a rough, unsubtle way. That’s not a bad thing, but rather the best way one could describe the straight-forwardness of his art. Faces look simple but to Larsen’s credit are always very easily recognizable, something that’s important when dealing with a lot of non-costumed characters (especially in the Chicago Police Department). That said, though, his artistic strength really comes in the visuals for all the creations he comes up with. With even something as simple a character idea as a lizard-like creature with spiky skin, the end result (Horridus) looks surprisingly different and exciting. Each new creation is larger than life, and Larsen is certainly very well suited to illustrate a book that features a never-ending stream of new freaks and mutants. I do think that Larsen’s art slightly suffers from the black and white format, unfortunately. You can tell a lot of the time that Larsen was drawing with full color in mind, so the occasional page at a glance looks less like a scene from a story and more like a series of jumbled lines. It’s not very often, but those who really fall in love with his art will probably want to consider the more expensive route of buying the color collected editions.

Savage Dragon Archives Vol. 1-2 reprint the original three-issue mini-series, as well as issues #1-50 of the ongoing series. With two more Savage Dragon Archives scheduled this year (which will take the reprints up to #100), that’s a lot of Savage Dragon waiting to read for a remarkably cheap price. Hopefully down the line Larsen will consider an ancillary volume that reprints things like Freak Force or the various other mini-series along the way; it would serve as a nice companion to what he’s already providing. In terms of an energetic, fun super-hero series, it’s honestly hard to go wrong with Savage Dragon.

Purchase Links (Vol. 1): Amazon.com

Purchase Links (Vol. 2): Amazon.com

Comments are closed.