Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tale Of Two Cities: Spawn # 200/Savage Dragon # 168!

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
Image Comics
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.

Super Saiyan
The whole crux of the hook was "power", which in Dragonball meant the ability to physically destroy other people and nothing else. The only thing that mattered in that show was your ability to beat down whoever might be standing or inexplicably hovering in the air near you.

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!
In case you hadn't caught it the first three times, Clown informs the Jim Downing version of Spawn that there is definitely something going on with Freak that just doesn't jibe.  Freak slaps his arm back on and reveals that he is actually.....Malebolgia, the only guy in the universe more powerful than an Omega Spawn!  OH, the magnitude of it!

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
Needless to say, I was not.  There was one scene in Spawn # 200 that had potential for real drama, in which Al Simmons takes a pocket universe time-out with Jim and quizzes him about whether he's actually the guy for the suit and all that it entails.  I think in the hands of a Brian K Vaughan or someone of that ilk, we could have been left with a lasting memory and a psychological place to hang our hearts on the character.  As constructed, it's a wordy mess that serves mainly to introduce another "mystery" to solve.

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.

So unfortunately, while the explosions might be appropriately large, I'm not sure why anybody would bother to care about any of it.  There are no human ramifications evident in these conflicts, the book as it is seems to be more interested in who can kick who's ass.  In that scheme, making the Spawn costume the most powerful weapon in the known universe is a pretty big deal.

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
Image Comics
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.

It's not perfect.  There's possibly too great a leaning on the "Boom!", the "Frakk!", and the "Skrow!" in this issue.  It opens with Marcus pounding on his father and repeating endlessly "Hello!  My name is Malcolm killed my sister Angel...prepare to die!"  It's 20 pages, many of which are splash pages.

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 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:

 Savage Dragon is an alien sent to earth to prepare it for his species.  A couple of scientists couldn't bear the thought of simply destroying the human race so the dragons could move in, so they blasted his brains out and substituted with 5 days of television programming, making him effectively an amnesiac.  The last 19 years of storytelling have led us to the point where the invasion was ultimately successful with Dragon's help after all.  He decides he can't live with losing everything he's learned to love, and dooms himself and his own race to endless wandering by undoing it all.

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: 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!

- Ryan


Stephen said...

Quite an interesting comparison. I remember back when all of those early core image creators were launching their books, and really one of the only ones that hooked me at the time and whnich I stuck with for any time was the Savage Dragon. It wasnt even an issue of late comics that was a factor for me, rather it was that Dragon was one of the few that was anything near being a well written image book for me. (the fact that so many of the other books had to parachute in actual good writers is a testament to this)

Admittedly, I gave up on Savage Dragon by the 30th issue but despite this I never felty it was not agood book, rather I was just not missing it when I didnt pick it up. The covers still looked great and I still heard good things about it but was not there to share the stories. With this ion mind, I am somewhat fascinated to hear how nearly 20years of comic storytelling has panned out. Thanks for the summary.

As for Spawn? Well, a couple of issues never did anything for me and nothing else Spawn-related ever did, so no real feelings there except, maybe, 'Go Canada creators!!'

Uhm, yeah, okay, maybe just that...

Chronic Insomnia said...

I got all of the original core Image books when they first hit. My favorite concept was Wildcats, but the stories were shiveringly poor. I think I made it to issue 8 on that. The one I stuck with the furthest was Spawn, and that was about issue 12.

My assumption about Savage Dragon was that it was a mindless action book. I've only picked up the last two issues, which was probably the worst thing I could have done. Jump in on the last 40 pages of a twenty year story arc? That makes sense! While I can't say I know exactly what Savage Dragon is, it seems to be pretty darned good, and definitely not mindless.

- Ryan

JayWicky said...

It's pretty funny that you chose to compare *Spawn* to Dragon Ball. If you look past the never-ending, testosterone-charged battles (which only ruined the series when the "Dragon Ball Z" period started - it was a funny adventure/comedy series before that), Dragon Ball had something else going on : characters that grew old and had kids that took over the book (yeah, it was a manga first). In many ways, Dragon Ball has more in common with Savage Dragon than Spawn. But it might be hard to realize that if you only watched a couple episodes of the "my power is bigger than yours" period. Needless to say, I'm not saying Dragon Ball equals Savage Dragon. But they're in the same category when it comes to handling the passing of time. Whereas... how old is little Cyan in Spawn, now ? Still going to "Franklin Richards Grammar School", I guess.

Drew said...

I personally read Savage Dragon to about issue 10.. read all my brother's issues to catch up and starting again around issue 48... quit again because I believed Erik Larsen when he said he wasn't bringing Savage Dragon back to life.. caught up by reading my brother's issues again and started again around issue 90 and haven't left since. I really need to reread all the issues to get my continuity completely straight in my head, but it's a truly great book. Once Cerebus was getting close to ending I knew I needed another singular vision book in my repertoire and Savage Dragon is it.

Chronic Insomnia said...

Jay - it never occurred to me that there might be "eras" of Dragonball...that's interesting. And certainly not unheard of for a series to go through radical change. If you read Claremont's X-Men, and Grant Morrison's X-Men, and Chuck Austen's X-Men, you're getting three VERY different flavors. I don't know that I'll ever seek out the earlier Dragonball episodes...but at least now I know that if it doesn't have a "Z" in it, I don't necesserily have to change the channel.

Anonymous said...

I never read dragon but I did pick up Spawn 200. Judging by the comments here I'd say I'm really the only one's who's followed the book for any length.
For me I picked up spawn because the book was really really really ridiculously good looking and it kept that standard basically all the way to about 150 (then it took a more painted look) and now that look is coming back to the book so I'm very happy about that. Unfortunately my favorite spawn artist Angel Medina never made an appearence in this book. He was so good, he took Capullo's style and added amazing dynamic lines and I love him for it. So yeah the art was good and it helped that todd appears to have inked the whole thing which kept the look for this issue consistant.
The script as Ryan pointed out though, is a little fucked. Starting with the corny page where malebolgia is about the announce his return with the big word balloon, then spawn fights back with an even cornier line and an even bigger word balloon, take that! The best part about this is that "freak" spends the next 2/3 of the book mocking clown rather than doing what he intended to do on the fourth page. The writing in these first few pages is pretty bad (like ryan said) with the clown contradicting himself in succession; first he says run, then he says stay and help, then he says don't fight, make up your fucking mind! I did notice one big problem with the art at this point though, just before clown transforms he whacks jim in the head with a piece of wood, if you look at the panels though he clearly does this from an angle that Jim could see him from basically ruining any trust clown had built with Jim but this is never mentioned and is kind of a big editing mistake. But who really cares, if Jim trust a 3ft clown with clowning red eyes and thinks of him as a friend then he's an idiot and deserves what he gets. Malebolgia / freak also won't stop repeating that the clown can only transform for a limited time and then has to revert back, is this exposition neccessary anymore than once? No, it's not like there are any new readers on this one that need to have this stuff drilled in their head anyways.
With all that said the only reason I really picked this book up was because I flipped through and saw Al Simmons, fuck yes! the King has returned we're getting rid of Jim (cause he sucks and spawn IS Al Simmons) but no he just talks all vague and dissappears, this is a cool story point that I'm sure will pay off at some point down the road (hopefully with the return of Al Simmons for good) but that's probably gonna be another hundred issues and I'm not gonna read this book for an occasional appearence from Al simmons. Al's appearence is not gonna be often enough and it's not going to be done well anyways. The only minor thing that may keep me on is that Al mentions that all the spawns he had gathered together where now roaming about doing their own thing, this could be cool, Spawn teaming up with another spawn? I'm interested since I thought some of those guys (and girls) had interesting back stories and I'd like to see how they played out (much like Jim and Al speculate about what happened to Christopher).
So a really pretty book but not enough to make me want to come back without a guarantee of good things, I may check out 201 but I'm betting that's as far as I get.


David Ferguson said...

I just picked up issue 200 to "check in" as I hadn't read the book in years (I had picked up the first trade and that was it). The issue didn't do a lot to make me want to pick up 201. Didn't like the story, didn't like the villains and didn't like the new Spawn. The only reason I MIGHT be tempted to buy the next issue is to see what this complete unknown comes out with.