By Nola Pfau
Where do I even start?
You probably know what Savage Dragon is by now. For better or worse (usually worse), creator Erik Larsen has been going at it with his creator owned comic since 1993, telling the story of a large, amnesiac, fin-headed green man who is also a cop, his adventures, and the growth of his family along the way.
If you’re here, on Shelfdust, you probably also know who Steve Morris is. See, he runs the place, and as much as he tries to project a harmless demeanor, he repeatedly tasks me with writing about the worst comics. Giant Days annotations? Oh no, too prestigious for me. Deep dives into Astro City? Too highbrow! No, we feed Nola trash, and Nola eats it up.
All of this is to say that now I’m faced with the prospect of writing about Savage Dragon #1. The first one, mind you, because there are two. You all know the story by now: Bob Harras takes charge at Marvel, pushes a bunch of longtime creators out so that he can listen to his flashy new artist friends, said artist friends abandon him in extremely short order to form their own publishing company, Image Comics. Ironically, the press at the time is about the huge injustice in treatment these artists faced, with little mention of the injustice they’ve had a hand in perpetrating on those who came before.
I digress. Dragon is Larsen’s pet project, a character he’s on the record as having had in his head since childhood, one that grew and evolved with him as he grew and evolved as a creator. I don’t know if that context explains why he was marginally better at storytelling in the early 90s than his cohorts, or if it makes it disappointing that this was the best he could do.
The thing is, at least in these early issues, Savage Dragon isn’t a bad comic, it’s just a boring one. It doesn’t say much. The first page is a splash; Dragon is curled up, fetal, amid a large crater of fire, none of which is hurting him. In the following pages, he wakes up some time later in a hospital bed. He has no memory of who he is or where he’s from, but knows all about history and current events. A super powered being landing in middle America under curious circumstances? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
As he’s released from the hospital, the cop who interrogated Dragon offers him a loft above his cousin Fred’s warehouse to stay in. On the very next page, with no indication of how much time has passed, that same cop visits Dragon in said loft, offering him a place on the police force. Keep in mind, no one (including Dragon) has any idea who Dragon is at this point, there is no background check to be done because no one even knows his background. This is fine by Lieutenant Frank Darling, who also apparently has hiring authority as a Lieutenant?
At any rate, Dragon declines, which is the only part of this story I actually liked, because fuck cops, am I right? In what is truly a dizzying progression of events, Frank complains to his wife about being turned down on the very next page, says he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. His wife, Mildred, advises that he prays.
The next page after that has a pair of literal supervillains attacking Fred’s warehouse, because sure, why not? Dragon beats them up, they call him ableist slurs and Fred starts packing to flee, fearing they’ll come back and take his life now that Dragon’s intervened. Dragon tells him to stay, and that he’ll protect him. Because Larsen has once again done nothing to indicate a passage of time, the entire warehouse blows up on the next page, giving the impression that it has happened literally as soon as Dragon said he would protect the man. It is wildly and inappropriately hilarious, so I guess that makes two things I liked? I guess.
This of course is the impetus for Dragon choosing to finally join the police; somehow he believes that wearing a badge will…I don’t know, prevent bad guys from being bad guys? He feels guilty for failing Fred and attempts to compensate. It also leads to this, another unintentionally hilarious scene:
It’s at this point that Larsen segues into his next blatant lift; as Dragon joins the force, he’s confronted by a large meatheaded cop named Niseman (ha), who hates Dragon on sight for being a “freak.” Niseman, introduced as still being on the force despite having recently beaten a Black man (whom Larson specifies was innocent, implying that it would’ve been a justified beating otherwise) immediately threatens Dragon, simultaneously dropping a racist slur.
I couldn’t figure out why this scene bugged me at first; it was after all a racist getting his shit wrecked, and that at least is great! Then it finally hit me: this is Jim Gordon being introduced to the GCPD in Batman: Year One, except played as a scene cut from Lethal Weapon instead of with the precision and gravitas of Year One’s storytelling. It tells, rather than shows; we’re informed via a dialogue balloon that Niseman has done this. In Year One, no one is introduced in such a way, however Gordon personally witnesses Flass beating a Black teenager while waiting in the car. I won’t say that one is better than the other; both are different narrative impulses and both books, notably by white creators, feel perfectly comfortable using Black lives to make a point.
It’s also, for all the parallels, completely unaware of the concept of subtlety. Consider the first appearance of Flass:
He’s affable, friendly, but in an overbearing kind of way. It’s a false kindness, like his use of the nickname “Jimmy” here, and it, paired with his other actions (look at the way he chokes and shoves a man out of his way without hesitation!), combine to create a sense of menace. This is a guy who uses “friendliness” as a threat.
Conversely, “Niseman” is the closest Dragon’s version of the character gets to that idea: He’s blunt, crude, and he challenges Dragon immediately. It’s all chest-beating, childish bullshit, and Dragon responds in kind, grabbing the man’s balls through his pants and lifting him up that way.
It could be argued that Dragon is the better of the two for not showing Niseman attacking a Black man, and for generally including more visibly Black representation in the cast; Frank, his wife, and his cousin Fred are all Black. Of course, Fred is killed via a bombing, and lest I forget, the issue’s opening scene is Dragon, as a cop, beating a Black man. Whoops. Conversely, while Gordon doesn’t immediately assault Flass, his disgust is palpable, and when the payoff does come, it’s creative, powerful, desperate, and it humiliates both Flass and the kind of macho bravado that Dragon seems to employ without irony. When Dragon deals with Niseman, it has nothing to do with the man’s documented history of racism, it’s a response to a personal challenge only.
One thing that remains interesting to me here despite these criticisms: I mentioned earlier that Larsen is marginally better at storytelling than most of his compatriots of the time, and I mean this in multiple ways. He’s a better writer, and he’s got a better handle on visual storytelling as well, even if he completely fails to understand pacing. He thinks more about it too, and that’s obvious; the Niseman scene I mentioned earlier isn’t actually in the original Savage Dragon #1, nor is the scene above with Frank and his wife repeating lines from 1998’s The Matrix. It’s an addition for the 10th anniversary collection of that initial miniseries.
I don’t know of any of the other creators from that early 90s boom who have worked as hard to keep their back issues in print, much less added to that work in an attempt to strengthen it. From his foreword to the collected edition, Baptism of Fire:
This is not, of course, to say that he understands subtlety, as I mentioned earlier. I mentioned how there’s no sense of time between scenes, and that’s true; the ironic thing is that the original issue as printed did include a couple of captions establishing time shifts; the full-page spread of Dragon in the ring of fire, previously the start of a flashback, was labelled “Before.” Now it is literally before everything, being the first page of the story, so that when you open this collected edition (which I will remind you again is entitled Baptism of Fire), you are immediately greeted with…a literal baptism of fire.
Of course, that’s the thing with this book—it doesn’t have anything to say about the things it’s doing. It’s rooted in a thoughtless immediacy and a toothless kind of centrism; cops good, criminals bad, no middle ground. The b-plot throughout is that someone or something is killing costumed heroes, so the implication is that they aren’t up to the job, and that it’s going to take a new kind of hero to save the day. This in itself is not a terrible plot beat, it’s just that the story wants us to believe that a super-cop is the specific type of new hero needed. This new super-cop is large and green, like the Hulk! He’s super strong! He’s mean! He doesn’t like racists! It’s all, on paper, fine I guess, except on this paper it just reads like a lot of empty machismo, which is something we frankly have had enough of when it comes to both comics and cops. I promise you, Erik Larsen, a new kind of cop is never the answer.
Savage Dragon #1
Writer/Artist: Erik Larsen
Colourist: Steve Oliff and Reuben Rude
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Nola Pfau is the Editor-in-Chief for WomenWriteAboutComics, as well as a frequent contributor to the site as a writer – for more of their writing, check out the work under their byline. You can also find Nola on Twitter here!
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