I was a latecomer to the comic book series “The Savage Dragon”. The first issue of it that I bought was number 71. I was not a big fan of most the original Image Comics material but I did buy some of it here and there. I still have a soft spot for “Stormwatch” of all things. I also never took much notice of Erik Larsen’s work when he was drawing “Spider-Man”. I didn’t think it was terrible or anything it just wasn’t my thing. I don’t think I even read more than an issue or two of it. I didn’t read many mainstream Marvel, DC, or Image comics in the early 90’s so it’s no wonder I wasn’t on board with Dragon when he was launched back in 1993.

What eventually got me to by “The Savage Dragon” was the fact that my friend and co-worker at the time, Chris Giarrusso (of G-Man and Marvel Bits fame), was a huge fan of the book. Over the years he gave me a couple of issues to read but they left me cold. It was tough for me to take most mainstream super hero comics seriously so I could only see Dragon’s flaws and not its strengths. Image, along with the rest of the industry, were churning out a lot of crappy comics in the early to mid 90’s and it was easy to miss the better ones.

Chris’ enthusiasm for the book never diminished over the years. Finally, at the end of 1999, I decided to start reading it regularly just to really give it a try. It took me a while but I wanted to see if I could see what made the book such a favorite of Chris’. I generally like new things anyway and probably was looking around for some new comics to read so what the heck. “Savage Dragon” lasted longer than most titles so it must have something going for it, right?

I jumped on with issue 71 and was confused right away. That was no big deal to me because I expected it. I don’t mind not being in on the ground floor because it gives me a lot to discover. After all in the 1970’s, as a kid starting to read comics, almost every series had been going for years when I jumped on board. It’s only now, when comic book stories have arcs, that I hear people say that they don’t want to start reading things in the middle. When comics didn’t have story arcs it was always the middle so everyone I knew jumped on anywhere and didn’t mind having to catch up.

I continued to figure things out but was confused for a few more issues until, at the end of issue 75, Larsen blew things up. Literally. Dragon (he’s only called “Savage Dragon” on the cover) messes things up by killing a time traveling villain. This changes time and Dragon is thrown into a different Earth than the one he knew. The Savage World Larsen called it. It’s sort of the same Earth the dragon knew but it was an Earth where things went terribly wrong.

I could tell by the letters page that it was a shock to most regular readers. Imagine if with issue 76 of “Spider-Man” the book suddenly took place in the world of “Kamandi”. That’s quite a change but it was good for me, as a new reader, because Dragon was in a whole new world and there was less for me to catch up on. Dragon had to catch up on things himself. I liked it and I’ve been reading the comic regularly ever since.

I have to say that what I missed when reading the couple of issues of “The Savage Dragon” in the early 90’s, before I started buying it regularly, was Larsen’s enthusiasm for the book and for comics in general. He likes making comics, wants to have fun making them, and want his readers to have fun reading them. He takes “The Savage Dragon” seriously but it is not a serious book. Serious things happen all the time but that’s not what the book is about. The book is about adventure. In a super hero way.

So the reason I’m writing this piece now is because last winter I decided to buy the first 70 issues of “The Savage Dragon” that I didn’t have. After a couple of Ebay purchases I was was all hooked up. I now have every issue. Number 1 through number 163. Plus the original three issue mini-series. Since I had 73 new issues to read and had only read the other issues once I decided I was going to read through the whole series. It took until the month of August until I was able to sit down and actually read them all.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read 166 issues of any series all in a row in such a short period of time. I’ve always meant to do that with the 200 issues of “Usagi Yojimbo” that I have on my shelf but as of yet I haven’t. And besides “The Savage Dragon”, “Usagi Yojimbo”, and “Cerebus” I can’t think of a series offhand with 166 issues all written and drawn by one guy. That’s kind of special.

That’s one of the interesting things about “The Savage Dragon”. It represents one person’s vision of what a comic book should be. All of the trends and styles that have come and gone in comics over the last 18 years are not here as they would be with a work-for-hire book where creators come and go all the while trying to keep in the public’s and their editor’s good graces. Here we only Larsen’s personal trends. It resists embarrassing fads and styles in a way that work-for-hire comics can’t.

It’s tough to sum up 166 issues of a comic but I’d say that at its core “The Savage Dragon” is about Dragon’s personal world. And kicking ass. A lot of time is spent developing the myriad of super powered and regular people who surround the Dragon and they’re always fighting. Unusually for super hero comics there are consequences to the fights. Characters die or are maimed. Plus innocent bystanders can be killed in the melee. When a villain or our hero accidentally knocks down a building the people in the building die. And it’s mentioned. That’s Larsen’s mixture of serious and fun.

I’ve complained a lot about hating time travel and alternate world stories in general but Larsen uses them to good effect. He does kill off characters and brings back alternate world versions of them but not gratuitously for “Shock value”. Plus there is no guarantee in the Dragon’s world that alternate versions of characters will even be similar. Things change.

Anything can happen in Dragon’s world including it being totally conquered by super villains. Twice. And there is no wizard to make things magically go back to the way things were before. Even after the eventual defeat the consequences of a villain’s world conquest linger. That’s what makes “The Savage Dragon” unique and interesting. It’s a world created and controlled by one person. Unlike the work-for-hire universes of Marvel and DC things don’t have to be set back to normal at the end of every story. In “The Savage Dragon” there is always a new normal on the horizon.

Larsen’s art has also changed over the years. I wasn’t too fond of it at the beginning of the series as it had to much of that early 90’s Marvel/Image pointless noodling and/or cross hatching in it. That’s a taste thing since a lot of comics fans back then seemed to love it but I never warmed to it. Larsen experimented with a style here and there for an issue of two when it interested him but really his line has evolved over the years into a sketchier drawing line. By that I mean that his cross hatching has turned into a more spontaneous energetic gestural line. He’s spending less time on pointless noodling and I, for one, like it better that way.

There is one demarcation line I really noticed having to do with storytelling. With the “Savage World” story line Larsen started basing his layout on the classic six panel grid that Jack Kirby and so many others used. He used an early 90’s Marvel/Image pin-up storytelling style for most of the issues before then but he never went back to it. Even after the “Savage World” story ended. Not that he’s only used six panel layouts since then but he’s used variations on it and other classic layout techniques. His story telling has gotten much stronger for it.

So there you have it. One hundred and sixty six issues of one person’s vision of what a monthly super hero book should be. I was a little sad when I reached the last issue, number 163, and had no more to read. It’s a good thing 164 is coming out next month.