Spawn and Savage Dragon and Ant! Oh my!

It’s been a while since I wrote to the Fin Addicts letter column in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon. Back in the 1990s when I was in high school & college I was a real letter hack, and I wrote to Larsen about his awesome comic book series on a semi-regular basis.  I was reminded of those days when The Unspoken Decade discussed Fin Addicts, nominating it for “Best Letter Column of the 90s.”  I decided to fire off an e-mail to Larsen about the recent Dragon / Spawn / Ant crossover in Spawn #265-266 and Savage Dragon #216-217.  And, hey, why not also do a blog post?

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Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen both gained prominence in the late 1980s on Amazing Spider-Man. At the time their work did possess a certain superficial similarity.  However, once they both had their own creator-owned titles at Image Comics, the differences between McFarlane and Larsen became readily apparent.  Stylistically, narratively, and thematically, Spawn and Savage Dragon were like night & day.

I followed Spawn for a few years, but eventually lost interest. Savage Dragon, in contrast, became my favorite ongoing comic book series, and I have never missed an issue.  I did enjoy the very odd crossover between the two titles back in 1996.  So if Larsen and McFarlane were once again going to collaborate on a team-up of Dragon and Spawn, of course I was going to buy the entire thing.

Larsen has actually been working on Spawn for the past year, starting with #258, but I didn’t have the opportunity to pick up any of those issues. When I did get Spawn #265, the first chapter of the crossover, it had been a couple of hundred issues since I read it, and it was interesting to catch up with Al Simmons after all this time.

The artistic collaboration between Larsen & McFarlane is very effective. The script for this and the next issue reads much more like McFarlane than Larsen.  In the 1990s McFarlane had this very somber, brooding quality to his scripting, and that is still present.  I personally prefer the oddball, comedic voice that Larsen utilizes in Savage Dragon.  But, as I said, the two series have very different tones, and works for one might not for the other.

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It was nice to see Spawn and Malcolm Dragon, the son of the original Dragon, meet for the first time. Back in the 1990s I liked that there was interconnectedness between various Image books.  From time to time Dragon or some of Larsen’s other characters appeared in one of Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee or whoever’s titles, and their characters would occasionally show up in his books.  That sort of “shared universe” thing is a lot less important to me today; I’m much more interested in the numerous interesting characters Larsen himself has created.  Still, on occasion it can be fun when a character from another series appears in Savage Dragon.

This crossover involves hordes of super-powered criminals & madmen running amok across the country. All of them have been give powers by Alzayah Stone, a religious fanatic who believes the End Times are approaching.  Spawn and Dragon are both recruited by Ant to stop Stone from creating any more monsters.

There’s a major disagreement between Malcolm and Spawn as to how precisely to deal with Stone. Malcolm, a police officer, wants to arrest him.  Spawn, a former government assassin, wants to kill him.  This quickly segues into an argument concerning the frequency with which police officers kill young black men, with Spawn accusing Malcolm of being a hypocrite.

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As much as I like Malcolm, I have to agree with Al Simmons here. Malcolm is young, idealistic and somewhat naïve.  He has also been very close friends with people in the Chicago PD for most of his life, even before he actually became a police officer.  Malcolm has never been a civilian outside that sphere, subjected to harsh scrutiny by suspicious cops.

I’m interested in seeing how Larsen continues to develop Malcolm in his role as a cop. The longer he remains with the Chicago PD, the more likely he is to encounter less-enlightened colleagues, cops who have let their authority go to their heads.  After all, back in the day, Malcolm’s own father had to deal with a few of those.  I also expect that Malcolm’s half-brother Kevin, aka Thunderhead, a reformed criminal, might have a less charitable opinion of the police.

Ant, the third member of this team-up, was created by Mario Gully in 2004.  Ant was published first by Arcana Studios and then by Image.  She has an odd look, even for super-hero comics.  She appears to be wearing a full-body skintight red latex catsuit topped with a pair of giant antenna.  Gully sold Ant to Larsen in 2012.

I’m not too familiar with Ant, having only read a couple issues of her comic.   Now that Larsen is finished on Spawn he’s planning to launch a new Ant series, where presumably he’ll delve into the her back story to bring new readers up to speed.  But in the meantime this crossover was a good way for Larsen to introduce the character to his audience.

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I felt the pacing of the final chapter in SD #217 was a bit off. Early on there’s a double page splash of Ant, Spawn and Dragon.  It looks awesome, but eats up a lot of space; perhaps it should have been only one page.  This would have freed up at least another page for the confrontation with Stone.  I think one moment in particular have been more dramatic as a full page splash (yeah I’m being deliberately vague here) and that in turn would have allowing more room for the end of the story, which felt rushed.

I later found out Larsen was factoring in how SD #217 would work in a trade paperback. Speaking with comicbook.com he explained that the Spawn issues would probably not be included in the collection that reprints #216 and #217.  That required him to write those issues in such a way that they could be understood by anyone who didn’t read Spawn.  I realize now why he utilized that two page splash in SD #217.  For anyone who will be reading this story in trade paperback form, they will not have seen Spawn #266, which means that big spread is the first time they will see Malcolm, Spawn and Ant together.  It made sense to draw it large & dramatic.  I don’t envy the sort of juggling act Larsen had to perform here.

My favorite parts of these issues were actually the ones focusing on the personal lives of Malcolm, his wife Maxine, and the three Dragon babies. I was literally laughing out loud at the hilarious opening scene in SD #217 with Maxine at the supermarket with the Dragon triplets.  The domestic comedy and drama of this series has always been something that separated it from so many other super-hero series.

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A year ago I was skimming through the Spider-Man issues Larsen wrote & drew in late 1991 shortly before he co-founded Image. The best aspect of those comics was the interactions between Peter and Mary Jane.  Larsen was one of the few creators who seemed like he wanted to explore the intricacies of their married life.

I’m very glad that Larsen took that same approach on Savage Dragon, devoting a good amount of space to the “off-time” of Dragon and his colleagues, and to the romantic relationships Dragon had over the years, i.e. the stuff folks do when they are not busy getting into super-powered brawls. Larsen has successfully continued that in the last few years with Malcolm and Maxine’s relationship.  The series continues to be an enjoyable read.

I can understand why Larsen decided to leave Spawn after one year. I’m sure it was fun for him to collaborate with McFarlane and try something different.  But at the end of the day it is clear that Spawn is still very much McFarlane’s baby.  In the long run I’m sure Larsen would rather devote his energies to his own characters in Savage Dragon, and towards getting the new Ant series up-and-running.

Strange Comic Books: Savage Dragon #28-31

Choosing to feature Erik Larsen’s always-brilliant Savage Dragon in Strange Comic Books may seem an odd choice, simply because the majority of the time it is quite a weird series.  But even by its usual standards, Savage Dragon #s 28-31 are especially bizarre issues.

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Issue #28 opens with Sam Kieth’s quirky creation The Maxx showing up at Dragon’s apartment, looking for his friend Sarah.  He quickly settles down to watching violent cartoons with Horridus, one of Dragon’s friends from Freak Force.  Meanwhile, in the next room, Dragon’s girlfriend Rapture has announced she’s pregnant.  Dragon, who until this point in time believed he was sterile, puts his foot in his mouth by asking “Uh, are you sure it’s mine?”  Kicked out of the bedroom, Dragon discovers Horridus and Maxx making peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.  Dragon had a previously a run-in with Maxx in issue #6 of the latter’s series, and is surprised to find him here.  Maxx flees, the Dragon gives chase.  And then thing really get weird!

Dragon and Maxx slip into the other-dimensional dream world known as “The Outback.”  Because Dragon has his girlfriend’s pregnancy on his mind, this manifests itself as Rapture appearing as a gigantic naked woman, with dozens upon dozens of little kids sprouting out of her uterus to chase after Dragon, shouting “Daddy!”  As the pair flees from the horde of stampeding brats, Maxx comments “Cute kids. Randy little fellow, ain’t you.”  Eventually reaching a mountain of boxes, Dragon and Maxx climb up and begin chucking a crate full of mushy apples at the kids to get them to back off.

Suddenly, Dragon and Maxx get zapped back into the real world, where they discover they’re on top of a tree, surrounded by a bunch of barking dogs.  Maxx’s friend Sarah arrives to collect him.  At which point Dragon utters up one of the all time greatest lines of dialogue:

“I’ve got to start drinking more. My life wouldn’t make any more sense but at least I’d have something to blame it on.”

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Now, you may be thinking, how can subsequent issues of Savage Dragon possibly top #28 for strangeness?  Well, in the next issue, Dragon and the Chicago police department are dispatched to clear out a group of homeless super-powered freaks from the city’s “underground.”  Among those taking refuge there is Wildstar, the time-hopping hero created by Al Gordon & Jerry Ordway.  During a fight between the police and the freaks, Dragon grabs the starfish-shaped alien symbiote on Wildstar’s chest.  This causes the later to have a flash-forward vision where he, and the readers, see Dragon’s teenage son in a spacesuit crossing a desolate wasteland.

Yes, issue #29 was our very first look at Malcolm Dragon.  Fifteen years later, in issue #166, we would finally learn just what was taking place in Wildstar’s future vision, and how the now-teenage Malcolm figured into it.  It was a great pay-off for loyal readers who had stuck around for the duration.

At this point, the Dragon’s demonic enemy the Fiend crashes the party.  The Fiend irrationally believes that her daughter’s death was the Dragon’s fault.  Disintegrating his arms with heat blasts, the Fiend snatches up Dragon.  She delivers him into the hands of a sorcerer who conducts a spell sending Dragon’s soul to Hell.  Yep, that’s right H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks itself.

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Dragon crosses over into the pages of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn #52.  Michael Simmons is stuck on the fifth level of Hell, attempting to get to Malebolgia, the demon lord to whom he sold his soul.  Spawn and Dragon meet up, and events lead back into Savage Dragon #30.  It’s an unusual team-up, because for most of it Spawn stands around raging aloud at how Malebolgia tricked him.  All the while, Dragon, who is an atheist, believes he’s hallucinating, and is cracking bad jokes left and right.

The Fiend, who wanted Dragon to suffer, is seriously pissed off that her enemy isn’t taking any of this seriously, and travels to Hell to deal with Dragon personally.  Spawn is finally able to move on to the next level of Hell, and the Fiend starts recruiting the souls of the damned to attack Dragon.  Unfortunately for her, Dragon quickly dispatches them.

It’s at this point, with #31, that the insane genius of Erik Larsen comes into full bloom.  The Devil, fed up with the Fiend fumbling the ball, decides to pop up and claim the Dragon’s soul directly.  And only one thing stands in his way:  God.  That’s right.  God Himself shows up to fight for Dragon’s soul.  Because he’s there unwillingly, Dragon cannot be claimed by the Devil.  And how does God back up His argument?  With a knuckle sandwich, that’s how!  Yep, God and the Devil get into a monumental fist-fight, a titanic rumble of, appropriately enough, Biblical proportions.

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When Savage Dragon #31 came out, I absolutely loved it.  You see, in superhero comic books, the Devil, or at least a reasonable stand-in, shows up quite frequently.  Mephisto, Satannish, Lord Satanus, Neron, and innumerable other infernal entities appear with alarming frequency to harvest souls, trick mortals, and sow chaos & discord.  You never do get to see any sort of hint of a higher, divine power opposing the diabolical machinations of these hell spawn.

I think things get even more muddied in the various Vertigo books, and in independent titles.  In these cases, God shows up, but he’s cast in a pretty bad light.  You have writers depicting Heaven as a corrupt bureaucracy, and God is either an egotistical jerk who demands unthinking obedience from the human masses, or an aloof entity totally disinterested in the concerns of his creations.

(The one exception to this that I can think of was when Tony Isabella introduced “The Friend,” a figure with a resemblance to Jesus who would show up from time to time in the pages of Ghost Rider to offer John Blaze advice and tell Satan to take a hike.  Unfortunately, Isabella’s story was later undone by Jim Shooter, who had the Devil claim The Friend was an illusion conjured up to give Blaze false hope.  Shooter supposedly did this because he felt it was offensive to Christians.  Myself, I think it’s more ridiculous & offensive to have a scenario where cosmic evil is totally unopposed by any hint of a higher power.  As far as I know, Isabella’s depiction of The Friend was very tastefully done.  I’m willing to write off Satan’s subsequent claim to Blaze as deception.  Why trust anything the Devil has to say?)

In any case, because of so many different stories like this, it was great to read Savage Dragon #31, where God steps up to the plate and kicks some major ass.  Dragon then has a discussion with Him about, well, life, the universe, and everything.  It’s simultaneously very thoughtful and humorous.

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I certainly recommend reading these issues of Savage Dragon.  They, along with several others, are collected together in the trade paperback A Talk With God.  The volume even has a witty introduction by legendary comic book creator Jim Steranko.  Even though I already owned copies of all these issues, I picked up the TPB anyway, so I’d have a back-up copy to read whenever I wanted.  Yeah, it’s that good.