Savage Dragon is a Free Agent

Berkeley's Image Comics forever changed the ways comic book artists relate to the publishers.

Savage Dragon began life as a green teenager with a Batman cowl and blocky Superman features — including the chin cleft and the rope-muscled biceps. He lived on sheets of binder paper that were folded in half and stapled together. He was born in 1971, roughly a decade after Marvel Comics unleashed the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and Iron Man onto the world. His creator Erik Larsen was nine years old.

Today, Larsen is 45, stocky, and bald, and resembles a less-idealized version of Savage Dragon. He helms Image Comics, the fourth-largest comics publisher in the United States. Image sits in a modest suite in downtown Berkeley, where it moved from Orange County in 2004. The shelves brim with Image comics and graphic novels: the character-driven zombie book The Walking Dead; an anthology of illustrations for Belle & Sebastian lyrics; a revenge story in which a paraplegic girl becomes an assassin after finding a magic sword; a “spy-fi” story called Casanova that casts a Mick Jagger archetype in the role of James Bond; and a chilling detective novel called Fell, in which a lonely private eye gets sent to a strange city after some kind of disgrace. Action figures from the popular Spawn series adorn a mantle in the office lobby, where a rack bears recent issues of Wolfman, Killing Girl, XXXombies, Art of the Witchblade, Hawaiian Dick, Scud the Disposable Assassin, The Pirates of Coney Island, and, of course, Savage Dragon.

The beauty of Image is that the company allows artists to own the rights to their art. Larsen, who cut his teeth penciling fanzines for $15 a page, and later drew the Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Punisher, the Defenders, and Thor for Marvel, saw only a fraction of the returns from his earlier career. With Marvel, you’d get a percentage of the original art back, he said, but you wouldn’t get any royalties if Marvel sold your images to a TV show, or used them to make lunchboxes or action figures. The lack of autonomy didn’t bother Larsen too much when he was drawing Spiderman, since he already had to work within the confines of the story, but the deal wouldn’t fly for his own characters. “You’re given this impression that it’s your character while you’re doing it,” he said. “It really isn’t. When you’re doing your own comic, you could blow up the world if you want to.” Larsen wanted Savage Dragon to be a free agent.

Growing up in Minneapolis and Bellingham, Washington, with a father who avidly collected comics from the ’40s and ’50s, Larsen spent his childhood following the adventures of Joe Palooka, Donald Duck, and Captain Marvel. He started amassing his own collection in fifth grade. In 1982 he launched the fanzine Graphic Fantasy with some other artists who hung around King Arthur’s Comics in Bellingham. It lasted three issues, each comprising a few hundred copies printed on Larsen’s tabletop offset press. Savage Dragon debuted as a retired government superhero, later reappeared in 1986 in Gary Carlson’s Megaton, then got shelved when Larsen started the Spiderman gig as a fill-in contributor. By the time he worked for Marvel, Larsen was earning roughly $100 a page.

While Marvel didn’t completely strip artists of creative freedom — Larsen could have incorporated his character into The Amazing Spiderman if he really wanted to — it did put them at the mercy of other artists. “You would create a character, you would add him to a book, they would own them,” he explained. “And then they could kill your character. You would be going, ‘I have my invented character and in my mind it’s later to be revealed this little nugget.’ Right? And then it turns out, well, you only have the book these three issues. And then somebody else takes it over and they don’t wanna do the story you set up.”

Thus, Savage Dragon didn’t really get his story going until Larsen founded Image along with six other Marvel illustrators in 1992. The finned, green-skinned, amnesiac superhero is now about thirty and supposedly ages in real time, which means he’s gotten a few crow’s-feet over the course of 140 issues (plus a brief USA Network TV series from 1994 to 1996). He woke up in a burning field sixteen years ago and began working for the Chicago Police Department, battling a criminal cartel led by the Overlord, a superhuman thug with Mafia connections. After leaving Marvel in 1992, Larsen hoped to turn Savage Dragon into a syndicated newspaper strip, which wouldn’t have really worked. After all, an extended fight scene would take two weeks to run in a newspaper.

These days, Larsen heads to Image most afternoons to work at his drawing board and help executive director Erik Stephenson monitor the slush pile. They get roughly three to five blind submissions a day, mostly from fledgling artists who don’t realize the importance of building suspense into each turn of the page or depicting those everyday actions — such as picking up a hairbrush or walking over to a window — that could be said in one sentence but might take several panels in a comic book.

If you saw Larsen on a typical workday — clad in Reeboks and a green sweatshirt, hanging out in a break room cluttered with cardboard boxes, a water cooler, and a bagel in a Ziploc bag — you wouldn’t pin him as someone who forever changed the way comic book artists relate to their publishers. Nor would you guess that his biggest pop culture contribution is an electric-green humanoid with biceps bigger than his thighs. The dragon is a muse rather than an alter ego, said Larsen, who likes to keep a low profile. Every once in a while he’ll walk into a restaurant and get spotted by some ecstatic collector. “And I’ll say, ‘You know the guy waiting that other table over there doesn’t know who the hell I even am.’ It’s really two different worlds,” he assured. Still, Larsen has a savage dragon imprinted on his mind’s visual screen.

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