Erik Larsen was one of the top artists at Marvel in the 1990s. He was willing to stick his neck out and leave Marvel to self publish his boyhood creation, the Dragon. Today he is the only Image Comics founder to have continuously worked on his creation for 12 years. Erik found some time in his schedule to talk with me as he inks the latest issue of Savage Dragon.
First Comics News: Your first comic was the self published Graphic Fantasy and featured the Dragon. Who financed this operation, and did it make any money?
Erik Larsen: My father was a teacher and owned an offset tabletop printer that he used for printing up brochures for his seminars. I used it to print comics for my friends and myself. We did a fanzine calledGraphic Fantasy. We went to a con in Washington State to sell copies of our homemade comic. We gave copies to some of the big shots. One of the guys gave a copy to Mike Grell and he looked at it like he’d been given a dog turd. The fanzine actually made a few bucks. We sold it at a funnybook store up in Bellingham, Washington and through the mail but the whole purpose of it was to show folks what we could do.
1st: Your first professional work was for Gary Carlson’s Megaton, how did you get the job?
Erik: I sent a copy of Graphic Fantasy to the Buyers Guide for Comic Fandom. There were a number of columns that ran reviews there. Don and Maggie Thompson ran a shot of the Dragon in their column “Beautiful Balloons” but Joel Thingvall wrote an actual review of the thing, heaping it with praise and Cat Yronwode was not unkind as well. Gary Carlson read the reviews and ordered a copy through mail. After he saw my work in it he offered me a job.
1st: With a 2-year gap between issues 1 and 2 why did you stay withMegaton?
Erik: There wasn’t a gap on my end. I kept working and Carlson stockpiled my stuff.
1st: During the 2 year Gap you started working for AC Comic?
Erik: I sent the Megaton stuff to AC and the hired me. Marvel hired me to do a fill in issue of Thor from my Megaton samples too. After I didThor I used the Marvel samples to get all kinds of work.
1st: After that you took over New DNAgents with issue #13, Dan Spiegel’s style is very different then yours what was the reaction to the artistic change?
Erik: I didn’t follow Spiegel–Dan drew Crossfire, not the DNAgents. Dan filled in a few pages here and there in DNAgents that featuredCrossfire but I followed an artist names Mitch Schauer. Mark Evanier needed a warm body to do the art and I was relatively warm.
1st: Did you enjoy working with Mark Evanier?
Erik: Mark’s a great guy. It was terrific.
1st: In 1987, after DNAgents, you did a variety of work, including pencils on Amazing Spider-Man #287, how did you land Spider-Man so early in your career and why only one issue?
Erik: I did Amazing Spider-Man while I was on DNAgents. I couldn’t say no. I should have pestered them for more work, but I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t pester people, I still don’t. I just waited for people to call me. I think I’d sent Jim Salicrup photocopies of my Thor story and that’s what got me the gig but again, it was just a matter of being in the right place–they needed somebody fast. Jim Salicrup said I should be in touch but I was looking for a regular gig not fill-in work and it never occurred to me that I might have landed that gig at that early time.
1st: You also did Secret Origins #13, in a style your fans would never recognize as your own, was this intentional on your part, or were you over inked?
Erik: It looked like my stuff when I sent it in. Mike DeCarlo just did his thing; it was a bit heavy-handed, I’ll admit but at that point I’m sure he felt I needed that.
1st: In 1987 you also go to do Superman in Adventures of Superman#431; did you feel you hit the big time landing both Spider-Man and Superman the same year?
Erik: To an extent, yeah, but I also knew from seeing the books over the years that there were the regular guys who were these solid, topnotch professionals and the fill-in guys who were not quite up to snuff. I didn’t think I was anything special because I knew where I stood–I was a fill-in guy on those books.
1st: In 1988 you settled in as the regular penciller on Doom Patrol.
Erik: Yeah, my own series at last. I had a 12-issue continuity contract with DC. I did two and a half issues of the Outsiders and ten issues of Doom Patrol. With the Outsiders, Trevor Von Eeden, had done half the issue and didn’t finish so they gave me half a book. Trevor didn’t do the splash page so they ask me to do it in Trevor’s style. I then did two more issues of the Outsiders. I did a try out for Doom Patrol with aDoom Patrol/Suicide Squad crossover early on. It was a two-part story, that way they could do a Special or split it in two and do one part in each comic.
1st: Again your style was very different then Steve Lightle’s was this an easy transition?
Erik: I was an idiot. It didn’t occur to me that I should have made an attempt to ease the transition somewhat. He did one thing, I did another and the transition was pretty jarring. The art took a complete 180 and people hated it. People who were buying it for his style were pretty taken back by what I was doing. It would be like having Jack Kirby follow Neal Adams on Deadman–not that Steve was as good as Neal or I was as good as Jack but it was that abrupt. It ended up working out OK. I did 10 issues of Doom Patrol and then left for Marvel. I did a Strange Tales one shot with the Thing and I did a fill-in issue of the Incredible Hulk.
1st: In 1989 you started your run on the Punisher, you always struck me as an odd choice on that title, you have an open and lighthearted style and you were drawing a mega violent and very serious anti-hero. Why did you choose to work on this title?
Erik: Because it was a regular gig at Marvel and it was offered to me. I’m no fool. I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and Marvel was it. The Punisher wasn’t my ideal gig but it was a foot in the door. It worked out OK. Scott Williams was inking Whilce (Portacio) and he stayed on and inked my stuff. Al Wiliamson inked the last issue and that was pretty awesome as well. I quit the Punisher to do a Nova serial in Marvel Comics Presents. I wanted to write and draw and Nova was a favorite character of mine. I’d written an outline for a 5-part story and I’d laid out the first job when they canceled the project. They wanted to use Nova in New Warriors and what I had going conflicted with that. It was a real pisser because I’d left the Punisherwhich was a high profile gig in order to do this and then it was taken away so I was essentially out of work. The editor gave me Excaliburserial to do instead but I wasn’t a big fan of that book so I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Still, Terry Austin inked it and it really turned out pretty nice so I have few complaints. It’s funny, you don’t know when things are going to be published based on when you do things. With PunisherI did 5 issues and the editor was a nut about getting stuff done way ahead of everybody else’s schedule. By the time my first issue came out I was long off the book. Whereas on Marvel Comics Presents the editor was not quite so far ahead and on Amazing Spider-Man the books were being worked on right up to the wire. With these staggered schedules, it looked like I was a drawing machine pumping out page after page. It was just a case of some editors working close to deadlines and some working far in advance.
1st: You took over Amazing Spider-Man with 329. How did you land this job?
Erik: The editor saw the work I was doing on Marvel Comics Presentsand offered to let me do a fill-in on Amazing Spider-Man. Once he had that, I got another and then he offered the book to me. At the time Marvel was doing 15 issues a year of Amazing. It was a bear and a half but I did all 15. They did an extended story arc over the summer and I didn’t want it to have pieces drawn by other artists. I wanted to give the fans a consistent look on the whole story.
1st: Was it easier to follow Todd on “adjective-less” Spider-Man?
Erik: Yeah, I was pretty much their best bet. I’d left Amazing Spider-Man to do Nova but that project took its sweet time getting approved. So I was just sitting there waiting. Fans were fine with me following Todd on both Spider-Man titles. It wasn’t a repeat of the Doom Patrol experience at all. It helped that I naturally draw more like Todd and that when I initially filled in on Amazing Spider-Man during Todd’s run that I made a real effort to have those early issues fit in his world. The change from Todd to me was a bit more abrupt on “adjective-less” Spider-Man but by then readers were used to seeing my stuff on Amazing so it wasn’t a big shocker to see my stuff on that book.
1st: I want to give the readers a little pre-Image history here. Rob Liefeld, who at the time was one of Marvel’s top creators, was working on New Mutants/X-Force. He ran an ad in the CBG for a Black & White self-published comic called the Extremists to be published by eXtreme Studios. Marvel threatened to fire him if he published it. At this point you were finished with Spider-Man and Todd had also stopped working at Marvel. The original Image group was You, Rob and Todd.
1st: How did Rob contact you about starting a rival comic company?
Erik: I don’t recall. I know that I’d known Todd for years. Todd lived up in Vancouver, British Columbia up there in Canada when I was living up in Bellingham, Washington and when I met him he was drawing Infinity Inc. at DC Comics. We became pals then and kept in touch. I met Rob Liefeld at Wonder Con. The three of us were pals and had talked about doing something together at some point. Rob had been friends with Dave Olbrich over at Malibu comics and Rob had wanted to test the waters and see if the fans would follow him onto another book at a different comic book company. The whole Image experiment didn’t start out as a thing where we were all necessarily leaving Marvel. Rob had intended to have a hand in producing X-Force, Jim Valentino had wanted to stick on Guardians of the Galaxy. Filling in on Spider-Manwas a temporary gig for me while I waited for Nova to get approved.
1st: Did this seem like a good idea right away, or did he need to convince you?
Erik: I was on board right away. Nova had been given the green light but as a miniseries only so I didn’t see the harm in trying out this Image Comics thing. My thoughts were that if things didn’t work out Marvel would probably toss something my way as long as I could sell a book of two.
1st: Who came up with to include Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri and Whilce Portacio?
Erik: Rob and Todd. They were at a Con in New York and Todd was actively recruiting guys. He wanted the guy who he felt was Marvel’s golden boy–Jim Lee. Marc got sucked in because he was sitting next to Jim at the time. He was enthusiastic to be part of the group but he wasn’t the guy Todd had set his sights on. If someone else was sitting next to Jim at the time they might have joined instead. Whilce came with Jim.
1st: Jim Valentino once told me that he wasn’t a millionaire, he never had a Marvel Number #1 like Spider-Man, X-Men and X-Force and he couldn’t afford to leave Marvel. He was included because of his friendship with Rob.
Erik: It wasn’t a millionaire’s club. I never had a new number one book like Marvel had with Todd, Jim and Rob. Neither did Whilce or Marc. But the thought was that it would be a more effective group if it included all the top guys and in 1992–this was it–the artists from Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, Wolverine, X-Force and Guardians of the Galaxy all vacating in one fell swoop was a pretty ballsy move.
1st: What is your recollection on Valentino’s original inclusion?
Erik: I didn’t know Jim. I assumed he was there because he was Rob’s pal. I had no problem with that.
1st: Why did Image originally elect to publish through Malibu instead of self-publish?
Erik: Rob knew some of the guys at Malibu. They lived near each other. We went through them just because the infrastructure was there and they knew how to publish comic books. At that point none of us had ever talked to a printer or dealt with distributors or written solicitation copy. This was a whole new world for us. They helped us get started.
1st: How did you decide it was time to dust off Paul Dragon and use him as your Image launch book?
Erik: The Dragon was the only guy I had. It was always my intention to do the Dragon at some point. That was my eventual goal–to do the Dragon. I’d toyed with the idea of doing SuperPatriot though. I’d penciled him into my Spider-Man story and the editor there objected to the character wearing a flag on his face and shooting up a shopping mall so I ended up sticking in some other character. When we formed Image I thought that I should use him but I wised up. He’s really not the kind of character that I do best and the Dragon was. My only hesitation was that when I was younger, I’d thought that once I started doing comics with the Dragon–I’d never stop–that would be it for the rest of my career. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to the rest of my career just yet. But I did.
1st: What was your reaction when Savage Dragon #1 was such a monumental success?
Erik: Well, I was happy. It sold 640,000 copies, which, at the time didn’t make it the #1 book that month. Of course, everybody would kill each other for numbers like that now!
1st: As a child you created and recreated the Dragon over and over again, and as an adult you have integrated those elements into the Dragons story by radically changing direction to the series every couple of years, was this, the original plan?
Erik: You start off a series you don’t know where it will go. I was able to pick the best of the old stuff. As an example, I created Powerhouse the summer between 4th and 5th grade, he’s pretty much the same as he was then. Other characters where completely reworked. It was nice to have this preexisting body of work to pull characters from. Because they were created over a 20-year time span I had a lot of variety there to choose from.
1st: After Image was up and running and you could literally publish anything you wanted at Image, why did you go back to DC and Marvel and do work for hire again?
Erik: I thought it would be a good way to get some attention and I need a break. Sometimes it just comes down to that. I needed to rest my brain on certain fronts–to “just” write or “just” draw. That, and I finally got to do Nova. In retrospect, I wish I’d have drawn it but it was a book I was proud of even if it didn’t sell a million copies. I think it was a good read. That’s the real draw to Marvel and DC for me. I can do imitations of Superman or Batman or Spider-Man at Image all day long but only at Marvel and DC can you do the real versions of these iconic characters. I am getting in the mood again, actually. I look at what Jack Kirby could do with Jimmy Olsen and think, I could do that on something.
1st: Why did you stop?
Erik: I got sick. I was laid up for a while and everything slipped and I got tired of the grind. That, and I wanted to focus on Savage Dragon for a while.
1st: In February 2002 the origin of the Dragon was to be told in the Image 10th Anniversary Book. When can the fans expect to see this story? (Either in the 10th anniversary book or separately.)
Erik: At this point, I’m not inclined to do it separately. I’m done with my part of the book and I’m glad that was the story I decided to do. I’m glad I hadn’t created some cool new villain that I wanted to introduce into the ongoing Savage Dragon book because if I had I’d feel like I couldn’t use him until this book had been published. I wasn’t going to do the origin story at all but I wanted to do something special enough for the book. I felt the same way about the mail away book we did, Image #0–I wanted to make it worth someone’s while to go to the trouble of getting it.
1st: What made you decide the next step for the Dragon would be running for President?
Erik: I’m still not sure about that. Eric Stephenson suggested it because of an issue of Savage Dragon where Bush appeared. I’m still kicking it around in my head at this point.
1st: If the Dragon wins, will he be president in all the Image comics, much like Lex Luthor is President in the DC Universe?
Erik: Most books don’t touch on who the president is so it’s not that important. Spawn has never show any president as far as I can remember. Neither have others so I don’t know how much it would effect them. And Image being what Image is, a company where creators can do their own thing–if say Jack Staff wanted to be set in the real world and not have Savage Dragon in the white house–that’s OK too.
1st: It is a requirement that the President must be a natural born citizen of the United States, how does the Dragon prove this?
Erik: We’ll dance around that if we get there. Lots of records were lost when Cyberface was in control and took over the world a few years back. Everyone remembers Dragon being around as long as they can remember. He doesn’t speak with an accent. He doesn’t even sound Canadian. He looks like he is over 35. That’s not insurmountable.
1st: If he wins, do the stories become more political and international?
Erik: Not political, because it’s so fucking boring. I am not going to have him signing bills or sitting in boring meetings. But the book will become more international. I’ll have an excuse for Savage Dragon to visit China or Iraq.
1st: How would the Dragon deal with Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea?
Erik: That’s it. It gets messy. Dragon hasn’t even gone to New York post 9-11. The World Trade Center may still be standing in the Dragon’s World or CyberFace may have caused the destruction. It’s a matter of how far I want to get away form the real world. What kind of President would he be? The kind that gets in more fist fights, I’d imagine. Eric suggested he run and lose but I’m not sure what that would get me. Having Dragon actually be the President is a fun idea but what will ultimately affect my decision the most would be what stories would result from it. When you delve into politics it can get bogged down and stating political views can piss off and alienate people. I still have a few months to decide.
1st: What else is coming up?
Erik: I will be introducing new characters soon and retiring a few old ones. Savage Dragon is set in real time. The characters are aging. That suit that looked cool when you were 30 may not look so cool at 42. You may not be able to fit into it as well either. Some of the female character might want to look into long pants to cover their ass so they don’t look like they were sitting in a gravel driveway. So far I haven’t really shown some of the characters aging that much but when I started the book, I deliberately made these characters pretty young and in terms of a drawing–a 22 year old doesn’t look that much different from a 34 year old but I’m going to have some hit a wall here pretty soon. Those knockers won’t be sitting quite so high and that full head of hair may not be quite so full. Dragon is bald so it doesn’t show as much on him. I think of Dragon as being roughly my age. I don’t think of him being Wolverine and being incredibly long lived. 12 years have gone by in his life, people age differently; he’s like Clint Eastwood only bald. The Mighty Man body doesn’t age. Kill-Cat and Kid Avenger don’t age because of whatever reason I can concoct–they’re an exception. Dragon’s son Malcolm will eventually be the same age as Kid Avenger.
1st: Do you have any plans for Malcolm?
Erik: Yes. I mean, eventually this will be HIS book and Dragon will take on a role like Bruce Wayne has in Batman Forever. At least–that’s where I’m thinking today–I can always change my mind.
1st: What do you do to keep the creative process exciting?
Erik: Sometimes I will challenge myself with 9 panel grids or odd shaped panels. The next issue of Savage Dragon is a 20-panel grid. I started the layout for issue 64 and put it away. The grids were all ruled off. The first page is 20 panels the next page is 19 panels. It’s the same grid but I merge panes 1 and 2. On the next page I merge panels 18 and 19. There are certain rules like no “L” shaped panels, so the story is easy to read. The last page is a full page splash. It’s an interesting experiment but a pain in the ass to do. I didn’t want to have panels be large arbitrarily. If a panel is twice the size of the others on a page I wanted it to be that way for a reason and that meant the events in the book needed to get progressively bigger as the layout opened up. It’s slowed me down a lot but it’s ultimately very worthwhile.
1st: If this is slowing you down, will the next issue be out on time?
Erik: The next issue will be really, really late. I am using a new printer and they need more lead-time. The guys at Image found them and they’d printed a Leave it to Chance book that looked terrific. This will be their first regular comic. I’m the guinea pig for this but I don’t mind sticking my neck out for the home team.
1st: Do you see comics themselves going away and being replaced with either DVDs or online e-comics?
Erik: You can’t take your computer into the john with you. There’s the whole problem with extension cords and whatnot. I don’t see it replacing comics. With comics you can goof off and relax, you can’t do it the same way with a computer. It’s not the same experience. If it did come to that I’d stop, I think. I don’t really want to be part of that.
1st: Comic sales are down and you are only working on Savage Dragon. Are you doing O.K. financially with Dragon and is his publishing future secure?
Erik: I’m fine, I did very well early on and I saved my money. No big funny cars and no space ships for fans to walk through at conventions. As long as I have enthusiasm I’ll keep going. There are days, I just want to pencil though—or just write. There are days I’d just like a break and not be involved in every aspect of a book when I don’t want to worry about scripting and inking and I don’t want to be responsible for the coloring but there are times when I want that control. I loved working on Thor and the Defenders, for example. I was inked by Klaus Janson and that was good terrific. I was inked by John Beatty on a short return visit to Amazing Spider-Man and that was a treat.
1st: You own the Dragon, if you wanted to work with an inker, you could just hire an inker.
Erik: This book is me. A back up is one thing, but this book is me. It’s fine on other projects but I’m not interested in that here.
1st: As a founder and voting partner at Image are you happy with the company and its place in the market?
Erik: I would like us to do better, but I’d like comics in general to do better. I’m happy to still be here after 12 years. That, to me, is pretty incredible.
1st: How are sales of the Trade Paperbacks doing in the mass market?
Erik: Pretty good. At this point we are trying to fill in the gaps. Some books have gone out of print were working on filling in the gaps. It’s been a bit tough of late. Readers could buy parts one and two of a book but parts three and four were out of print. We’re working on filling in the gaps and at this point ALL of the Savage Dragon books are in print with many more to follow.
1st: What is happening with Dragon in other media?
Erik: There is still talk about releasing the Savage Dragon Cartoon in some form–a DVD with audio commentary or whatever. I think that would be a hoot and a half. I’m not interested in knocking on doors in Hollywood, trying to shop my projects around. You have to make choices on how you want to live your life. I don’t want to spend my days taking meetings with people because it is their job to take meetings so they might as well meet with me that day. At this point life is pretty simple and that’s OK by me. I’m happy to be doing the work. It’s still fun.