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You Heard Me

By (May 18, 2013) No Comment

1I definitely owe The Savage Dragon a real post, after using him as a cudgel in this week’s earlier tirade. Creator Erik Larsen’s green-skinned grappler was one of the original titles launched by fledgling publisher Image, back the in the early 1990s. These titles, including Spawn, Youngblood, and WildC.A.T.S., pandered heavily to cynical audiences not getting enough red blood and boobs from DC and Marvel.

And surprise, surprise, most of these comics were terrible (especially those from Rob Liefeld’s School for Teeth-Gritting Youngsters). Today, only Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. and The Savage Dragon remain entertaining. And only Fin-Head himself winks back at us while knocking some leather-clad psycho through a brick wall.

In its heyday, this comic was set in Chicago. An arms race among super-powered factions had ended with the invincible Overlord (who’s completely armored and hooded, like Dr. Doom) placing the city in an iron-gloved grip. When “Dragon” is found naked in a burning field, city cop Frank Darling tries and fails to help this stranger remember his origin. Later, as Dragon proves to be impossibly strong and tough, Frank asks him to join the police force.

2Short of calling Image’s reliance on TV news talking heads “the world that Frank Miller made” I will say that these comics all built upon the propulsive narrative barbarity of The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Unlike most of the others, however, Larsen did it with brains and style. When the American public begins reacting to Dragon, everyone–from priests to scientists to an old lady whose son is missing–chime in on where he came from. In his turn, Dragon faces villains of every flavor, including thugs, mutations, sci-fi nasties, and emotional vampires.

The Fallen collects the third group of stories from the exceptionally layered series. It begins with Dragon and Frank on an elevator up to the Overlord’s office tower suite. Straightforwardly, they try to arrest the megalomaniac (who can incinerate things with his hands). As Sam Jackson says in Jurassic Park: “Hold onto your butts.” Poor Frankie is turned to ash instantly. Dragon leaps in, trading a few haymakers with the Overlord.

Larsen delivers punishing one-page panels for this entire issue. His blocky, line-heavy work puts him in the company of legends Jack Kirby and Walter Simonson (The Mighty Thor). He also uses black to stunning effect when Dragon is blasted through plate glass and off the building’s top floor. The next page shows him sailing helplessly down. Then he’s spiked. “In your next life,” says the Overlord, “when says somebody suggests leave or face their wrath–leave.”

3This is staggeringly violent stuff, buoyed by artistic brilliance and conviction. Seeing Dragon’s hand drip blood and snow begin to fall, you simply can’t not read the next issue (which my grandmother once did, as it lay on the kitchen table beckoning to her). A month has passed, and Dragon marshals the strength to drag himself off of the roof decoration. When he lands, missing a hand and barely awake, Hell Razor and Cut Throat (Overlord’s jerk brigade) stumble upon him. These two are decked out in spikes, blades, skulls and revealing leather; Cut Throat’s whole right forearm is a scimitar. The ensuing fight is pure teenage brain candy–Dragon breaks limbs and balls, but not without getting his whole face cross-hatched to gory perfection.

5Spoiler alert: Dragon can heal anything and everything. Once out of the hospital, he and gal pal Rapture finally snap some sheets; then her eyes pop from her head. Dragon grows a new hand through his bandages. The Fallen also includes the hilariously boorish appearance of Jimbo da Mighty, Lobster, created by fan Jason Merritt. This, ahem, guy (who describes everything as “@!#$%in”) tangles with Dragon just to prove he’s stronger. Incredibly, this issue wraps with newspaper publisher R. Richard Richards (SNORT) claiming that Dragon is, “Using excessive force, which leads others to retaliate in kind… Hell, his very existence causes crime by encouraging super freaks to challenge him.”

Aptly put. But Larsen’s work seeded a renaissance at Image that’s been bearing fruit for about a decade. Genre diversity and even more superheroes started appearing in more and more high quality comics, most notably Robert Kirkman’s titles Invincible and The Walking Dead. We also have Chew, Revival, The Strange Talents of Luther Strode, and an ingenious new version of Prophet. They’ve all followed a certain green fin through the perilous waters of mediocrity, hitting creative shores with a red splash.