Out of all the Image founders, the only one still writing and drawing their original book is Erik Larsen on Savage Dragon. There have been months, even years, where the book has taken a break, but the fact remains: Larsen has written and drawn every issue, perhaps the only Image creator who stayed true to their original intent of writing and drawing whatever the hell they wanted, month in and month out. And over the course of 200+ issues, Larsen has never been one to sit back and rest on his laurels. Anything and everything can happen in this book, whether it’s sending the main character into an alternate dystopia for a year-long storyline or having his son become the lead of the title or showcasing Satan kneeing God in the balls. This is Larsen’s playground, and thus becomes a platform to showcase whatever it is that’s currently on his mind--filtered through a classic Marvel comics sensibility of superheroes, monsters and never-ending stories.
So, with all that said, how does the original issue hold up? Pretty good, if not rife with some growing pains that all the early Image books fell prey to. The book opens with a splashy, violent super-fight, with villains in thongs and ridiculously over-pointed knives for hands. This first issue is clearly playing to the same crowd that the other books were, where guns, girls and grimness were all the rage. But the difference in Larsen’s take is all in tone: whereas the other Image founders’ books would border so heavily on self-seriousness that they became almost parody, Larsen’s work is always pervaded with an overall sense of fun. Much of this is present in his art style, which has the characteristic over-muscled male heroes and their equally top-heavy female counterparts, but all counter-balanced by Larsen’s purposefully exaggerated, cartoony style.
Larsen’s commitment to writing and drawing the same book for over twenty years all boils down to creating a world in which he’s allowed to express and explore his interests fully, and the versatility of his main character benefits the title greatly. The Dragon is at once a monster, a superhero and a cop, and thus the storytelling opportunities are filled with endless possibilities. He also has a refreshingly blue-collar take on heroes. We don’t get many hints of who he is this early on, as Larsen plays the “mysterious origins” card, with the Dragon found in a burning field with no memory of who he was or what happened to him. All of that would come later, but what we do get is the Dragon’s salt-of-the-earth sensibilities; much like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, you get the sense that the Dragon would much rather be at home with a six-pack instead of out catching super-freaks. Also like Hellboy, Larsen isn’t afraid to give his main character a beating. In the first issue alone the Dragon gets shot up, cut up and blown up, but considering he would go on to be impaled, have every bone in his body broken and even die on more than one occasion, ol’ Finhead gets off pretty easy here in his debut.
It’s a dangerous world that Larsen creates around his main hero, sort of like the classic superhero universes of Marvel and DC, but where the classic heroes of old are being taken out left and right, with the Dragon the only one tough enough to stand against the wave of super-crime flooding the streets. The characterizations are simplistic, and Larsen still has a long way to go with his dialogue, but the framework for a long-term superhero comic is laid out here in this first issue, with a whole universe of concepts and characters for Larsen to draw on in the hundreds of issues to come.