I don't know if any of you noticed, or if this was planned, but both Spawn and Savage Dragon celebrated seminal events yesterday. I think both represent significant achievements, but they could not have been handled more differently.
If you were at your local comic shop yesterday, I doubt you could have missed Spawn # 200. It featured the very neat and tidy even century numbering, the #200 was emblazoned prominently on the McFarlane pencilled cover. It was extra-sized, it was extra-priced, and everything about that comic screams marketing.
Meanwhile, Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon sat quietly next to it with a regular sized issue at it's regular price, and a not-very-auspicious # 168 issue number. It paid no heed to Comics Hype Economics 101. What it did was blow the doors off Spawn # 200 in the most convincing and satisfying way possible. Let's start with Spawn, though....
Ah, wait. Before I get to the meat of things, I must warn you that I don't know how to talk about either of these comics without handing out massive 60 megaton spoilers. Like, especially in the case of Savage Dragon, we're talking about "potentially ruining 17 years of culminating stories" type spoilers. You've been warned. Now back to Spawn...
Spawn # 200
Script: Todd McFarlane/Robert Kirkman
Pencils: McFarlane/Kirkman/Michael Golden
53 pages for $3.99
First things first - reaching 200 issues is a legitimate, significant achievement, and I congratulate Spawn on reaching it. McFarlane touts his book now as the second longest running independent book ever, (Cerebus being # 1 of course) and I see no way to challenge that. I thought Usagi Yojimbo might have him inched, but I looked, and even if you count the Fantagraphics/Mirage stuff, Todd's got him on issues.
It hasn't always been pretty, and it certainly hasn't always been on time. There have been epochs where the brand was frankly watered down with spin-offs and crossovers. There have been epochs where the brand was frankly listless and dull. But in 2011, there is one and one only Spawn book, and it has more attention from McFarlane than it has in a long time, and that's a good thing.
Once upon a time I could hardly turn on a television without bumping into a monstrosity that called itself Dragonball Z. This was anime on steroids, with "stories" that revolved around an endless stream of paper mache characters, if you could call them that, fighting each other for reasons unknown.
Before the fighting, there was usually some bravado, although you could trade dialogue with anybody else in the series and not notice. It was all the same testosterone enhanced nonsense. You had some inappropriately long staredowns, and an occasional epic "reveal" where the guy who was about to kick another guy's ass turned out to be a different guy than you originally thought.
There were powerful cats called Saiyans, and every now and again somebody would hit the next level and become a Super Saiyan, at which point the audience was expected to crap their pants in awe. And if you were watching this at age 12, perhaps you did soil yourself in the sublime manliness of it all. If you were me, you'd yawn and then find something good to watch.
After reading Spawn # 200, I'm forced to conclude that in Todd McFarlane's hands the book has devolved into Dragonball Spawn. Only instead of Super Saiyans, we have Omega Spawns, Spawns so cool and so powerful they chop the heads off of other Spawns! Oh my stars and pre-pubescent garters!
|Marvel at....Omega Spawn!|
Violator switches forms to gain more power of course, I mean, what else could possibly matter. It's such an important deal that he has to knock out Jim in order to do it. And before it's all done, wait for it, the Spawn costume becomes the most powerful thing in the whole wide universe. Yes, I said it. Are you tingling yet?
|Al gives advice|
Spawn # 200 is certainly worthy in terms of scope, pomp, and circumstance. The core concept could actually be quite appealing - we're talking about conflicts between Heaven and Hell, stuff of literally Biblical proportions. And the secrets revealed here may actually pay off for somebody who has been reading the book for awhile, and maybe has some investment in Malebolgia, or wondering if Spawn was going to continue with Jim or Al Simmons. If you haven't been reading the book for awhile, I think it would read as a confusing mess of machismo.
To me, it utterly destroys one of the book's best early hooks. Once upon a time Spawn was relatively unique in that his power set was not only limited, but you could watch it dissipate on the page. Spawn had the ability to put on a fireworks display, but it drained the battery, and once it was gone...the threat was that it was gone. Spawn, and really most characters for that matter are more compelling when they are competent but vulnerable. This Super Saiyan nonsense works directly against that.
Next month we begin the Will Carlton/Szymon Kudranski era of Spawn. If the epilogue is any indication, I think the art chores are in exceptionally good hands. And nobody has a clue about what to expect from Will Carlton, who has no prior writing credits. But it should be different, and different from this almost has to be an improvement.
PS: Near as I can tell, Robert Kirkman pencilled the first four pages of this comic, and they look incredible .
Savage Dragon # 168
Script: Erik Larsen
Pencils: Erik Larsen
20 pages for $3.50
Savage Dragon # 168 is the grand finale of a 19 year piece of storytelling, and it is a remarkable thing to behold. We sometimes Marvel at what Brubaker has been allowed to get away with on Captain America, or what Bendis has achieved on Ultimate Spider-Man, but Savage Dragon has those crushed. What started with The Dragon way back when culminates here.
The difference between this extravaganza and Spawn # 200 is that this story gets far more accomplished in 20 pages than Spawn did in more than 50. Way more. And while it does have some of the more traditional comics slug fest aspects to it, and is also built on incredible reveals, there is a far more palpable sense of drama in Dragon, and the human cost is far more apparent on every level.
What I mean by that...is that Savage Dragon has killed his son and daughter, and the entire human race has been destroyed to pave the way for a race of alien dragons. That kind of human cost.
The story is not without its confusions if you're just jumping in at the end, of course. There are a lot of players on the board, we're dealing with time travel and multiple realities, and nineteen years of stories carry some weight. I don't know what Wildstar's vision was, or how it impacts how a long term reader's interpretation of the final arc. I don't know Vanguard's history, but events in this book leave him with no role to fill, and if you know the guy, that probably provokes a more meaningful emotional response than it did for me.
Please understand that I'm not complaining about the accessibility of this comic. In fact, I think it's extraordinary how concisely Larson is able to encapsulate this enormous opus into readily understandable bites. All of that complexity boils down to this:
The best stories always have a simple hook. That's almost 20 years of comics distilled into a concise paragraph, and it all came home in Savage Dragon # 168.
It's the little things that count for me. The element of this that struck home the hardest was a conversation between Savage Dragon and the apparently omnipotent Darklord:
I'm sure that idea isn't unique in science fiction, but it certainly is interesting to me. From Dragon's perspective, he can't deal emotionally with the loss of his loved ones and wants to go back and undo that. From Darklord's rational, more objective perspective, there's no point. Going back won't save the people he's trying to save, it will branch off a different reality of people that will look and act similarly, but won't be those people. In an infinite number of realities, those people survive quite nicely in other worlds in that manner. Why not just love them, and save everyone the trouble of your guilt? It's mind-bending stuff.
Savage Dragon feels a little more vital than your average comic book because it's obviously Erik Larsen's passion, and there is a sense that anything can really happen in this book. As this issue ends, Savage Dragon is dead. Darklord makes a deal with Dragon to go back in time and fix it so that the human race survives:
Darklord takes him up on that offer, decides he's too much of a pain in the ass to keep around and vaporizes him as payment for the human race's salvation. One gets the sense that Darklord has a unique code and only did that because Dragon uttered the word "anything", making his death fair game. Things like that are more satisfying than your usual comic book fare, and more sophisticated than I would have guessed Savage Dragon was capable of before I started sampling it.
Powerful things happen in this book, and they seem to happen in something approximating real time. We've had almost twenty years of Savage Dragon comics, and about twenty years have elapsed in the book. Dragon has evolved, his kids have grown up, the human race has been destroyed and saved. Things happen. And Dragon's great heroic act essentially sentences an entire race of people to a lifetime of suffering. Does that happen in your average superhero comic?
Now, the means for bringing Dragon back are certainly there. Darklord could probably undo it with the snap of his fingers. I don't think that's Larsen's intentions, though. This is not a stunt to sell a few extra copies. He didn't rush his arcs to get this monumental stuff in by # 150, and he didn't string it out to fit it into a magical # 200 issue.
It seems like what Erik Larsen is doing is telling the best stories he knows how, and letting the chips fall where they may. The first great era of the Dragon is done now, and who knows where it picks up next month? (The "Next" blurb on the letters page reads: so....now what?) One would assume that his son Malcolm is now the Dragon, and we begin again with his adventures. I don't know! And that's a good thing.
I think Larsen ended his first era on a very high note:
It is a crazy world his characters live in, and it does beat quite a few alternatives - our world, and most fictional ones. You know, there was a time, back before I was just a consumer, when comics told stories that mattered, and Phoenix might destroy an entire alien civilization and then sacrifice herself, and it would happen at Uncanny X-Men # 137 because it was time to do it. And yeah, it didn't stick forever...but this was before the ubiquitous 12 minute death, and it felt important. Savage Dragon is a return to that mode of storytelling, and the things that happen in any issue of this comic "mean" more than any five Fear Itself type Marvel shenanigans. And for that I say bravo, Mr. Larsen!