Erik Larsen Talks Savage Dragon's Tribute to the Funnies in #252

Today marks the release of Savage Dragon #252, an issue that has a surprising number of plot-sensitive moments hidden within "a tribute to the funnies" -- an issue that sees writer/artist Erik Larsen doing a series of two-page sequences inspired by popular comic strips. Along the way, he revisits the "alien ban" executive order that Donald Trump made back in Savage Dragon #226, as well as getting a look at the Black Lives Matter protests back in Chicago, the former setting for Savage Dragon. All this ahead of next month's variant cover featuring Malcolm Dragon endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Recently, Larsen told fans on social media that the eleven comic strips in Savage Dragon #252 would be ‪Family Circus‬, ‪Peanuts‬, ‪Cathy, ‪Doonesbury‬, ‪Foxtrot‬, ‪Dick Tracy‬, ‪Thimble Theater‬ (Popeye), ‪Calvin & Hobbes‬, ‪Rex Morgan‬, ‪Blondie, and ‪Tumbleweeds‬."

‪"Sorry if I missed your favorite," he added.‬

Savage Dragon has periodically featured some version of comic strip funnies in its back pages frequently over its 28 years of publication. Whether it's the old Savage Dragonbert comics, or the more recent Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies, Larsen has regularly given other artists some real estate in the back of the book to have fun, either using his characters or their own, in ultra-short serialized stories or stand-alone gag strips.

Larsen joined ComicBook.com to discuss the issue. There's spoilers ahead, though, so if you haven't read it yet, grab a copy at your local comic shop or buy one on ComiXology and follow along with us!

So do these theme issues ever get any easier?

They're a nightmare. Honestly, a lot of them are. But then, some of them I can also decide to do them impulsively, too. The cover for the comic strip one was sitting around here for a while and then it was like, "OK, I think I can put that in now."

For that issue where I started with 20 panels and then they merged and merged until it was one, I'd actually had ruled out all those panel borders and was going to do it for one story, found it didn't work, and then put it aside and had that paper just sitting there by my desk for three years before I finally just was like, "alright, I think it will work with this one," and then did it.

So a lot of times it can be semi-spontaneous that I'll do this weird stuff but even now, doing this comic strip one has just been a nightmare. I don't naturally draw like all these other people, so that's a real problem, and it's especially challenging when you're drawing somebody who's legitimately terrible, and you're just sitting there going, so I've got to forget what a hand looks like because this person doesn't know how to draw hands, and every single part of this doesn't work in any way. How do I even do this?

Every so often you end up with one of these "catch-up" issues where we get a lot of short vignettes. Did the idea of doing a comic strip issue come first, or the desire to have an issue that covers a lot of ground feel different?

The idea for doing a strip issue came first. It’s an idea I’d long considered but it largely came out of the “Savage Little Dragons“ spreads I did in Savage Dragon #236 and the Powerhouse Vs. Malcolm spreads I did in Savage Dragon #244. I thought it would be fun to play around with different styles – – and I had really been into various strips over the years I thought this would work well in terms of making scene changes immediately obvious and visually interesting.

How did you choose what strips made it in?

I did an exhaustive amount of research – – paging through hundreds of different strips and making a short list of strips I thought would work. There were a lot of strips which I liked which I thought wouldn’t translate well to the settings in Savage Dragon because they were dependent on certain trappings, be it specific characters that I didn’t have a visually similar character which I could swap in or time periods . A strip like Prince Valiant doesn’t work without a Prince Valiant type and its medieval setting. BC isn’t BC if it’s set now. Garfield needs a Garfield. Tiger needs a kid in a baseball hat. I also sought out strips with a strong artistic style. I didn’t want strips which looked too similar to each other.

Then I whittled away at that list… sometimes doing quite a bit of reading and research before deciding to embrace or abandon certain strips. There were some which I attempted which didn’t ultimately make the cut and others didn’t make it because I didn’t have a workable gag. I ended up coming up with a lot of parameters in which I could work, many of which made my life difficult.

We talked when #250 came out about how you felt like you had to compound your own weaknesses with those of the cartoonists you were emulating. Was there one that came out particularly well or particularly poorly in your estimation?

The Cathy strip was by far the most limited strip in terms of style. She almost never drew profiles. Everybody’s head is straight on from the front and that limitation makes composing panels extremely confining. Even strips people think of as being well-drawn often have severe limitations. I’m used to being able to draw characters from any angle and compose panels from whatever vantage point works best for that particular drawing and it was frustrating not to have those tools in my tool belt.

There were also a number of things which I was simply incapable of doing – – as much as I love Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, there are aspects about that strip which I am unable to re-create given my own limitations as an artist--though I did at least try with that one. Some of these cartoonists do work which is very stylized and often quite slick and I’ve never been great at pulling off a slick line. But overall, I’m pretty happy with the results. I didn’t include anything that I didn’t think was at least decent.

There's a quick reference to it, but obviously the long-distance relationship that Angel is in has become a lot more complicated due to COVID. Is that going to be a factor going forward or do you think since it's a long distance thing anyway that it kind of doesn't matter?

It will be a factor as America leads the way in absolute mind-numbing stupidity. Canada clearly has COVID-19 much more under control than the States does and at this point crossing over from one country to the other is a longer, more involved process. Given real time it won’t be that much of a factor as two weeks in quarantine can pass between panels easy enough. But COVID has complicated things.

It's a throwaway panel and obviously anything in this issue might turn out to be a gag, but is it true that in-story the Supreme Court overturned the alien ban?

Absolutely. This was obviously when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was alive and well so things could change in the future given what’s going on in the United States.

What would that mean for the characters going forward?

It would mean that characters can travel back and forth and that Malcolm could move back to Chicago if he chose to. It also made it possible for Paul Dragon to visit William Jonson and Rita in this issue.

Any particular reason the tiger's name is Walter in the Amy & Walter strip?

Not really. I wanted to have a tiger character going forward but I didn’t want him to be named some obvious parody of Hobbes’s name. I didn’t think that would be a good plan for the long term, so I just picked her name which I thought could work with the character - – it’s also a bit similar to Bill Watterson‘s name – – so there is that minor connection without being overtly Hobbes.

We talked about this years ago, but the movement has evolved a lot in the intervening time, and so has the comic: do you feel a responsibility to touch on Black Lives Matter more because of the heavy police presence that has traditionally been a part of Savage Dragon?

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That was certainly part of it, yeah. If I was going to do a Dick Tracy riff set in a modern setting– – it made a certain amount of sense to set it in Chicago, which is where Dick Tracy was traditionally set, and to touch on the Black Lives Matter protests which are going on at this time. And I knew that I wanted to do a Dick Tracy send up from the start - – since so much of Dick Tracy inspired Savage Dragon and because I wanted a couple of adventure strips in the mix.

A big part of it was finding strips which were visually distinct enough that I could go from one spread to the next and have it be clearly another strip and obvious what strip that I was touching on.