Pipeline #1028: Image at 25: Savage Dragon #1

This year, Image Comics celebrates its 25th anniversary. I don't know about you, but there are very few things I've done for 25 consecutive years in my life. Even Pipeline hasn't cracked a mere twenty years -- yet.

But reading Image Comics is one of those things. "Savage Dragon," in particular, has been a regular part of my life since that first issue in 1992. It's the only comic series I've read for this long. Nothing else comes close, either in time or number of issues.

As part of Image's 25th anniversary this year, I'm cracking open some of the original comics from that first year and looking back at a magical time for comics fans.

We start with Erik Larsen's green-skinned baby.


The Savage Dragon #1

Savage Dragon #1 cover
(Photo: Erik Larsen)

It's been years since I slid this comic out of its bag and board.

Anytime I wanted to re-read "The Savage Dragon" #1, I had a plethora of other options. Besides that first printing of the comic, there's the original trade paperback collecting the first mini-series. There's the Graphitti Designs hardcover collection. There's the 99 cent reprint. There's the "Archives" black and white edition.

I have them all.

But nothing beats unsealing that original first printing. You really have to stick your nose deep into the pages to get the whiff of "1990s comics paper," but I love the feel of the non-glossy paper in your hands, the poster centerfold pull-out still there making it feel like a more solid magazine, and the way everything feels just a little less slick and polished.

It's comics as an experience.

Plus, Erik Larsen went and rearranged the pages into chronological order for some of those reprintings, so you need to pull out this original first issue to get the same feel for what was.


The Art of Growing Older

There's the ages old problem creators have of their fans saying, "I liked your older stuff better."

There's no way that doesn't come off sounding like, "You plateaued years ago and have never gotten better. You suck now. Draw like you did when I was eight, you idiot."

I admit that I have a fondness for this era of Larsen's art, but it's pure nostalgia. Today's work is looser and sketchier, yes, but contains a lot more energy and excitement to me. It practically looks animated by comparison to this work from 25 years ago.

There's more of a strain in Larsen's art in these earliest issue between his desire to be cartoony, and the need to be more "realistic" and "serious." Look at today's issues, and you'll see characters who have big heads and gangly limbs and dramatic clothes. In "Savage Dragon" #1, there's a bigger attempt to keep everyone looking like they just stepped out of a Marvel comic.

Savage Dragon looks like an Action Figure
(Photo: Erik Larsen)

The anatomy tricks and tips line up well with his Spider-Man work, but feel constrained and mixed up here. They look more like action figure poses by comparison to what he pulls off today.

Some poses try to go for an extreme, but come up short, possibly for fear of looking too cartoony, I guess? Or maybe Larsen just hadn't worked up to that style yet.

I've heard it said that anyone can learn the rules. It's when you learn when to break them that you develop your style. I think I can plainly see that with Larsen's career's work.

Off-topic completely, but I wanted to fit it in somewhere: There are a lot of "The Terminator"-esque panels in this issue. This is just one of them.

The Lettering

Savage Dragon lettering example
(Photo: Erik Larsen and Chris Eliopoulos)

Chris Eliopoulos was hand lettering "Savage Dragon," after having teamed up with Larsen on some Spider-Man comics at Marvel. Once you've spent 15 years looking at comics lettered solely with computers and the perfection they can achieve in centering text and drawing round word balloons and tweaking tails to just the right width, regular old-fashioned hand lettering can look so painfully sloppy.

It's not. It's great hand-lettering work, particularly strong in the sound effects work that pairs well with Larsen's work. But your eyes will pick out every minor imperfection now that they've been trained on the almighty Adobe Illustrator work.

In the example above, I'm sure a computer letterer today would never split a word across two lines like in the first panel. The lettering inside a balloon wouldn't break out past where the panel borders would be.

I'm likely the only person who noticed any of that, though.

So Much More To Say

I'd still consider the first 50 or so issues of "The Savage Dragon" one of my favorite comics runs of all time. It might even be #1. Before things got a little confusing with alternate earths, and characters changing universes, and people dying or aging out of the series, I used to keep it all in my head. "Savage Dragon" has always had a large cast, but I could pull it off for a few years.

It got more complicated after that, but the essential storytelling has always been solid. Every issue can be your first and still have something to recommend it.

It's second only to "Spawn" in the longevity department, but the only original series from an Image creator to last this long with his still doing it. Sure, Todd McFarlane might have had an early jump by beginning "Spawn" as a series from the start while the other founders hedged their bets with mini-series that rolled into on-going series, but Todd hasn't been completely hands-on for all those issues.

At this point, Erik Larsen's "The Savage Dragon" is the heir apparent to Dave Sim's "Cerebus," complete with a letters column. Thankfully, Larsen hasn't been driven mad by the process...

I've just begun to dig into this comic. Join me at PipelineComics.com later this week for more from the earliest days of "Savage Dragon." I had forgotten some of the more clever bits and history from the first three issue mini-series. I want to remember them out loud now, but I'm out of space...

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