I just finished reading my copy of the Savage Dragon Archives volume 1, by Erik Larsen. Larsen was one of Image Comics' founding fathers, leaving Marvel along with Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to start their own studio and basically get rich and famous. They were star artists determined to make it on their own, and generally, they did.
What they did not do, however, was bring any writers along with them.
Now, in their defense, at that time, they didn't really need to. The comics they made sold well. Very well, and the product they were producing was exactly what the market was demanding at the time. Splashy art, sex and violence, strong dynamic page layouts. Eye candy, all the way.
But I read this book last week, so I can only review it with my 2011 mindset. I mean, they're selling the book for people to read today, so it's not like they expect people to buy it and time-travel back to the 90's to understand where it's coming from.
The archives format is basically the same as Marvel's "Essential" or DC's "Showcase" collections. Lots of comics, printed in black and white on newsprint and sold at a lower price point. I like this format a lot, as it is a good, cheap way to get caught up on a series, getting lots of books for a good price. This book collected the mini-series (1-3) and the first 21 issues of the ongoing series. Good stuff there.
Oddly, the book is not broken up into issues. There are no reprints of the covers, and all the text is removed from the intro pages, so you can never really tell when one issue ends and another begins. This is a unique and confusing decision by the publisher, an in my opinion it detract from the reading experience.
The art in the book is very strong, even in black and white. Larsen had worked at Marvel on both "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man", and you can tell that he's got the chops when reading this book. Larsen also excels at creative character design, as you can see with this drawing of "Openface". Larsen has a great ability to make his characters look unique in comparison to each other, and they stand out as decidedly "Erik Larsen-esque". The issues do lose something in black and white (most notably characters like She-Dragon, who is supposed to differentiate herself solely by being green), but overall Larsen's art is strong enough to withstand the loss of hue.
The main failing of this book is the fact that it is so loosely plotted that it lacks depth. In his FAQ, Larsen states:
"My target audience is older Marvel readers who are about ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. It's the missing link between Marvel and Vertigo. More mature than Marvel--less pretentious than Vertigo. The kind of comics I want to read. This book is REALLY self-indulgent."
I have no problem with a book being self indulgent. That's fine. However the book is not really "more mature than Marvel" so much as it has more mature content than Marvel. Sexual content and graphic violence is all fine and good, but it does not make the book a more mature work, so much as it makes it less appropriate for young readers.
I want to be clear, here. I like the Savage Dragon, and the few times I've traded emails with Mr. Larsen, he's been engaging and forthright.
But The Savage Dragon Archives can barely go two pages before Dragon get's into a huge brawl. Month to month, it didn't seem to bother me, as a good slobber-knocker was a fun read in an issue. When reading them all collected into a single book, however, really highlights the lack of story, and 24 issues in a row with such mimimal plot or character development is a little off-putting. It's a little bit like reading a blow-by-blow recap of Wrestlemania, and that's not as fun as it could be. It just left me feeling a little empty after plowing through hundreds of pages of comic and not really having any deeper understand of who any of the characters are, except that they are all pretty tough in a fight.
Dragon does team up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though, and that's gotta be worth something.