Savage Dragon #s 163 – 169, $3.50 US, published by Image Comics
Writer & Artist: Erik Larsen
Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Emperor Dragon,” the recent story arc running through Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon series, is in many way the culmination of various subplots and character arcs that began nearly twenty years ago, with the very first issue of the book. When readers were first introduced to the Dragon in 1992, he was a green-skinned, fin-headed, super-strong individual who mysteriously appeared in a burning field, stricken with total amnesia. Taken under the wing of Chicago police officer Frank Darling, the Dragon became a force for good, heroically fighting against a legion of super-powered foes, first as a cop, and later as a government agent and a bounty hunter. Along the way, he had a son Malcolm. Dragon also married Jennifer Murphy, and after her death adopted her daughter Angel.
It wasn’t until 2006, in the Savage Dragon “zero issue,” that the readers, but not the characters themselves, learned Dragon’s true origin. He was actually Emperor Kurr, a brutal alien tyrant who had planned to eradicate humanity in order to make Earth the new home for his space-wandering race. Kurr’s top scientists, horrified by their ruler’s plans, lobotomized the dictator and abandoned him on Earth, where he developed his completely new, heroic personality.
I remember that when I read Savage Dragon #0, I hoped that Dragon would never learn his true origins. First of all, his new, “human” persona would be horrified to discover the atrocities he had committed in his past life. Second, if Dragon learned his true identity, then who knew if the original Emperor Kurr personality might not resurface?
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened in recent issues of Savage Dragon. In a battle with a brutal freak, Dragon’s brain was actually eaten, and his bodied shriveled up into a corpse-like state. Seeking to save his father, Malcolm gave Dragon a blood transfusion. Physically, Dragon made a full recovery. Unfortunately, the personality Dragon had possessed for the past two decades was lost, consumed by the brain-eating monster. In its place was the restored mind of Emperor Kurr.
As “Emperor Dragon” opens in Savage Dragon #163, the restored Kurr has put into place his plans to wipe out humanity to clear the way for colonization of Earth by his people. Along the way, Kurr cuts a bloody swath through Dragon’s former friends and allies, leaving many of them crippled or dead. The only two people seemingly left to stop Kurr are Malcom and Angel, his son and step-daughter. The super-powered siblings realize that they must defeat their father, or humanity will perish. But it appears that the only way to permanently stop Kurr is to kill him, and doing that will forevermore prevent them from reviving the “good” personality of the Dragon.
As you can tell, there is a hell of a lot going on in “Emperor Dragon.” Also, it might be an exaggeration to say that the Savage Dragon series has a cast of thousands, but not by much. Even someone such as myself, who as been reading Savage Dragon from the very beginning, sometimes has trouble remembering the numerous subplots and the dozens upon dozens of characters. So I can only imagine how daunting that task would be to a newer reader.
Nevertheless, Erik Larsen does a good job of keeping things clear for the readers. In each issue, Larsen utilizes a certain amount of expository dialogue. The characters often explain to one another, or think aloud to themselves, about what has taken place in the recent past. At times the delivery of that dialogue is on the clunky side. But it succeeds in its primary task of keeping the readers up to speed. So I will gladly embrace a couple of pages of awkward exposition each issue if it allows me to keep track of the characters and events.
For long-time fans of Savage Dragon, the “Emperor Dragon” arc has a number of dramatic payoffs that will really resonate. One especially key moment goes back to issue #29, when Al Gordon & Jerry Ordway’s character Wildstar made a guest appearance. Wildstar had a “flash forward” vision of a devastated future Earth, and the readers got our very first look at Dragon’s son Malcolm, several months before he was actually born in the present. Savage Dragon takes place more or less in “real time,” meaning the characters age. Fifteen years later, in issue #166, we finally learn just what was taking place in Wildstar’s future vision, and how the now-teenage Malcolm figures into it.
At the same time, though, Larsen writes “Emperor Dragon” as enough of a stand-alone story arc that I believe newer readers will be able to follow and appreciate it. Despite all of the references to events from old issues, there is adequate explanation throughout.
“Emperor Dragon” really is a game-changer, as they say, with Larsen severely upending the status quo of the series. Since Savage Dragon is a creator-owned title, Larsen has always kept things in flux to a certain degree. He shook things up pretty seriously back in issue #75. But the events of “Emperor Dragon” trump that. And even though Larsen does hit the reset button towards the end, he does so in a manner that maintains the impact of the story’s apocalyptic events.
Admittedly there is a pretty significant deus ex machina, with a character who has not been seen in quite some time, and who was apparently dead, appearing to help resolve the crisis. But this is a character who has cheated death before, and who likes to play god. So it is not inappropriate or, in hindsight, unexpected that Larsen chose to use him as a key part of the resolution.
Throughout the two decades of Savage Dragon‘s publication, there has been one near constant, and that has been the character of Dragon himself. Despite all the chaos and unpredictability, somehow or another Dragon was always there, the one durable fixture of the series who the reader could identify with. Even through near-deaths, temporary transformations, and brief absences, it seemed apparent that sooner or later Dragon would be back.
After “Emperor Dragon,” though, all that has changed. Dragon, the character we have been following regularly since 1992, is gone, this time seemingly forever. And even though Larsen leaves a slight widow open for the possible return of “a” Dragon, if that ever does occur, it will still be a different character.
So what is left? Following on from the main six-part “Emperor Dragon” arc, we have issue #169, billed as the “Aftermath” on the cover. The story inside is appropriately entitled “Starting Over,” and we see Larsen simultaneously tying up some final loose ends while establishing the new status quo. Larsen deliberately mirrors several sequences from the very first Savage Dragon comic book, communicating that this is a new beginning.
Dragon is gone, apparently for good. Taking his place at the head of the book’s are Malcolm and Angel. I’ve enjoyed the character dynamics that Larsen has been building up between the two over the last few years, so it will be interesting to see what he does with them now that they are the series’ headliners. It’s also kind of weird, since I remember when they were just little kids. They both could be pretty annoying, with Angel at times acting the part of a total brat. Now they’re teenagers who have been handed very adult responsibilities. It’s a different direction for Savage Dragon to take, with a lot of potential. All of this makes issue #169 a very good jumping on point for new readers.
In writing this review, I went back and looked at a number of older issues of Savage Dragon. In the process, I was able to view Erik Larsen’s artwork at various points over a two decade span. That really enabled me to see just how much he has grown and developed as an artist. Larsen was doing good work even before Savage Dragon started. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he continually worked to refine his style, to become a better illustrator and storyteller.
Out of all of the artists who were involved in founding Image Comics back in 1992, in my opinion Larsen is the one who has grown the most as a creator. His artwork on the “Emperor Dragon” issues is amazing, effectively conveying action, horror, tragedy, and even comedy.
From his comments over the years, it is very apparent that Savage Dragon is a labor of love for Erik Larsen. On certain occasions, the quality of the series has varied. I do not think it is possible for any creator who has been on an ongoing near-monthly title for two decades to consistently be at the top of his game each and every issue. But a look at the series as a whole shows that the good outweighs the bad. And Savage Dragon #s 163 to 169 are some of the strongest issues this series has seen. After this, my interest in the book has definitely been renewed. I’m looking forward to seeing what Larsen does next.