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Savage Statements with Erik Larsen

Copyright 1999 by Erik Larson By Austin English
The comic industry has certain colorful personalities. Erik Larsen is one of them. While he's well aware that a number of his opinions won't go along with everyone else's, he never holds back, and is always ready to speak his mind.

But all too often, these qualities backfire. Larsen's personality sometimes overshadows his large body of work, which began with toil on his own characters at smaller companies, and then escalated him to the point where he was a major player at the company he loved as a child: Marvel Comics. Later on, in one of the more infamous comic industry stories of recent times, Erik left Marvel with 5 other talented cartoonists, to start Image Comics.

While a large list of things can be said about Image comics, Larsen has always been able to distinguish himself from his peers. Larsen writes, draws, and inks The Savage Dragon, the continuing adventures of a character he created as a child, bringing him full circle with his first published work. It's flashy, edgy, controversial, and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It's also 100% Larsen, as the lead character serves as a mouthpiece for his creator in many ways.

What sets Dragon apart from the rest of today's superhero comics is the fact that enthusiasm shines from every line. Larsen loves creating the Dragon month after month, and this love makes it the great book it is. It makes it a book that never takes itself too seriously, but never ceases to be painstakingly executed and crafted.

For about an hour and a half, I talked to Erik via telephone from his Oakland home. In this interview, you'll read about Erik's boyhood obsession with creating comic characters and his opinionated thoughts about today's industry.

Growing up

Austin English: What were you like as a kid? Mainly, how do you begin creating the characters that eventually appeared in The Savage Dragon?

Erik Larsen: Well, I went to a very liberal kind of school, so I tended to be a little less motivated in class. But mainly, I lived out in the country with my parents, and I was a bit isolated from everyone else. So I just drew a whole lot when I was out there. I was just drawing all the time.

And then I went from that to Mendicino, and when we came into Albion, my dad had bought 13 acres of Avian rich road, and we literally hauled our buff that we were carrying around, this camping buff kind of arrangement, into an open field, and he said, we'll were home! (laughs) And there was literally no house there. We built our own house, and made our own shelter. Then we got real house poles drawn up. It was sort of a make shift house that we had, while we were moving in for a short while, which was later abandoned. Then we built a real house. We kind of stayed in different places while the house was in the process of being built. Then we just lived in this new house.

Sort of because of that, I wasn't pulling into a neighborhood. So there weren't other kids where I'd necessarily say, "Oh here's another kid, let's go play together." Instead I was saying, "I gotta do something to waste some time!" (Laughs). So I started drawing a lot, and that's really when I started much more actively creating my own characters and stuff like that, in that setting.

And then when school started, a lot of the kids there sort of got caught up in my enthusiasm for comics, so there were other kids who would draw stuff as well. I became a really good friend with a kid named Chris Veto, who lived down the street, which I didn't know when I first moved there (laughs). But I said "Hey, here's a kid, he's got similar interests, he's a good guy." Chris was later the best man when I got married, so we kept in touch.

Austin English: Every third grade class seems to be filled with kids like you, who are interested in creating characters, and want to be published. What do you think separated you from everyone else, to actually have this boyhood hobby actually develop into a career?

Erik Larsen: I had the facility for it. That's really the only thing that separates people. Some people can naturally learn things faster then other kids, and it just sort of worked out that I was able to naturally pick up drawing. And I was really much more into it then most of the other kids, that I went to school with anyway. It was pretty much an obsession. I would draw when other people weren't drawing, or other people shouldn't be drawing or whatever. I drew all through math class. I really shouldn't have.

Austin English: What comics, at this time, do you remember reading?

Erik Larsen: See, my dad bought comics when he was a kid, so a lot of the stuff that I had that was around me, was just his stuff. It wasn't necessarily new, fresh comics that were coming out at the time. So in like 4th grade, I don't think I bought any comics at all. And when 5th and 6th grade started getting into the main Marvel comics. Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, stuff like that. By the time I started reading comics, Jack Kirby was at DC, Marvel comics had just gone up to a quarter, and DC comics were only 20 cents. It was sort of like this incentive where you'd say "Gee, you can buy 5 comics from DC for the price of 4 comics from Marvel." So there'd be a fair amount of "oh man, DC isn't as cool as Spider Man, but it's gonna save me a few bucks." (Laughs).

There was a certain amount of getting certain comics, just because I could afford them. And just fascination with certain artists and certain characters. I was a big Hulk fan, I was a big Spider Man fan. I would get all those books, no matter how lousy they were.

Austin English: Can you remember any of these comics influencing you at all, even at such a young age?

Erik Larsen: I remember early on when I was doing the first Dragon comics, and Dragon drawings, there was this issue of Detective comics, which Sal Amadola drew. And Sal Amadola's like…nobody probably knows who the hell he is anymore, but he was just doing a Batman story…and there was also some Dick Giordino stuff, and Neal Adams stuff. And I remember sort of ripping them off to do my first Dragon story. The story was my own, but it would just be like, "Okay, I'm gonna lift a panel here, and lift that panel there." And there's a lot of, especially as a kid, just straight out swiping. Like "Oh, this is cool", but then you learn later on "Oh, I'm not supposed to do that? (Laughs) Well, somebody tell Rich Butler, 'cause he's been doing that for awhile."

But, anyway, I just sort of grew out of that. My dad got Captain Marvel comics, there were a lot of those around. Most of the origins that I did early on were just like ripped off from Captain Marvel, because it's like the easiest origin. You just have a wizard that says "Here, have some super powers." Cool.

So I ended up just coming up with a mess of superheroes, just 'cause the origin part was easy, and I just hated the actual origin stuff. That part always racked my brain. To this day, I don't do any origins-- it just drives me nuts. I mean you look around, and there's not any superhero guys swinging around, so obviously this stuff doesn't happen in real life. And in comics it's like "How do I justify someone being able to fly?"

Austin English: Is the fact that you don't reveal Dragons origin just a rebellion to all that?

Erik Larsen: (Laughs). I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it rebelling. I actually have an origin for him, which is kind of a sad thing, because there's a lot of characters that I don't have origins for. I don't do the origins because I flat out haven't thought any up. But with Dragon it's all figured out, and I'm kind of ashamed in some ways that I haven't revealed it. Which is not to say that it won't at some point be revealed.

Austin English: But the fun of it is that you never reveal it--that's part of what makes it so fun to read. I think the people that are clamoring for it to be revealed don't really get that they'll be disappointed when it is revealed.

Erik Larsen: There is that. And at some point you go, "it's been seven years, you haven't revealed it, you haven't even got any closer, the character doesn't seem to really give a rats ass, what's even the point of revealing it?" It's bound to be disappointing, and there's really no way around that, because it's been too long, really. So it's just gonna be like "Oh man!" But I have hinted about it, although I haven't gone out and said anything that's super close to it.

Austin English: Could you outline which of your characters were created during childhood?

Erik Larsen: Characters from my childhood would be: Cran Ti was the wizard that I used as a little kid, everybody's power came from him. Dragon of course, Powerhouse, Mako came from the movie Jaws (because I was trying to make a shark guy), the shrew, Star, Dart, some more minor characters, some of which have only made one or two panel appearances. Some of the bad guys, the fiend was really early on. I had a guy named the bronze man, and that's pretty much what Overlord is. He fills the same role, except he doesn't look the same or have the same name. The Bronze man is just a dumb name so I said, I don't think I need that one.

Usually, if there's a guy in Dragon that looks really dorky and out of place, that's probably something I created as a kid! But in some cases they tend to have more personality, because they were created by me when I was so young. Vanguard was created when I was like 19 years old. But that was published comics at that point, so it wasn't really something I did as a kid.

Modern Heroes

Austin English: Obviously, you love these characters because you created them as a kid, so your comics stay fun and fresh. Do you think the reason for the majority of superhero comics being so god awful as of late, is that no one who works on them has any real passion for them?

Erik Larsen: Well there's a loaded question. (Laughs) I think a lot of times, people just get stuff beaten out of them. This stuff is getting to the point where it's become second, third, fourth generation. And, Jack Kirby and Stan lee had a real passion for it. And then the next people who came on, sort of had a passion for their characters, but they weren't actively creating anything really new, or adding too much to it. The second waves of guys were coming and they would be like Angar the Screamer, and a lot of other guys who became morts of the month. The guys who were just sort of from the second string. Once it got past that level the next group of guys were sort of fans of that, so I think what happened is, in each generation, it gets watered down a little bit.

And also, that the newer generation of creators don't necessarily know the rules, know how to tell a story properly. Or both of them. The drawing end and on the writing end, where they simply don't grasp that, "Hey, every issue is somebody's first issue, you should have some explanation as to where things are and where they came from, and who characters are." I think we as an industry sort of lost sight of that.

But I don't know. I don't know how many people in this industry ever took a creative writing course.

Austin English: Is that something that you've done? Taking creative writing courses or things like that? Have you had any classic training?

Erik Larsen: No, I'm the worst possible guy to be telling people how to do anything. I have a strong-- I think in terms of my own talents and abilities-- that I have a really good ear for dialogue. My plotting can be somewhat iffy. And I have a strong sense of the bizarre, and of character design. But a lot of the time, my characters motivations are sort of like "I'm gonna rob a bank" which is not--it's not much. In terms of being a real writer, I don't think of myself as particularly being a real writer. I'm just a guy who happens to have a pretty decent ear for dialogue, so that when I'm done with it, you can go "Y'know, I enjoyed that comic." But to me when I read and look at the stuff, there's always an underlying-- "Oh he doesn't quite know what he's doing." (Laughs).

Austin English: But your not expecting critics to pick apart your stories and try to find a lot of meaning in them right?

Erik Larsen: Well, that's not to say that there isn't a lot of subtext there. I think there is, especially in the Dragon stuff. Wolverine is probably a little more surface than a lot of other stuff, just because of the nature of working on that book, and the nature of how it's done, which kind of nauseates a more simple straightforward approach. I don't know--I'm probably analyzing myself too much here.

Today's Image

Austin English: What was your first published work?

Erik Larsen: My first published work was in Megaton #1, and that came out I think in 1983. That was a small black and white comic book, where Rob Liefield later had his first published work. His was in a later issue. Gary Carlson who I still keep in touch with and still work with from time to time (on Teenage mutant Ninja Turtles, and some Aquaman stuff), was the publisher of it. And he was just finding young guys trying to break into the industry. He would sort of take those guys and give them their first real gig. He did that with me, and he did that with Rob. Several other people actually. Angel Medina, who's doing stuff for Todd (McFarlene) now, came from that. Actually a few others, most of whom I'm blanking on right now. That was the first, and that led to me doing stuff at Americomics, that led to me doing DNAgents.

Actually, Jim Shooter gave me a big break, at the Chicago convention one year. He was aware of my stuff, because I had been sending it to him over the years and he's looking through this stuff that I had done for Megaton. And he sort of said, "Hey, you're a professional now." And I sort of said "Yeah! What the hell!" And so he said, "We should do something." And so at that show we plotted out a Thor issue and that as my first Marvel gig. It didn't see print for a couple of years after that, but that was my first big break. And I sort of used that job as my sample for getting other jobs. And that would be the one that I sent out to everybody. So, that particular job got me DNAgents, and that also led to me getting an issue of Spider Man, fairly early on there. Like issue #287 or something like that. And one thing led to another.

That's really how people should get into the industry. The best way to get into the industry is to start with these tiny little companies, where it's kind of okay to mess up, and learn your stuff, before you're trying to force it onto the public.

Austin English: Do you also not recommend the method of sending all your submissions into big companies like DC and Marvel?

Erik Larsen: I would recommend that you do it actually. But really you're gonna get probably more reaction and more of a response from meeting people in person and actually going to these shows. I always got a much better response from stuff at like a Chicago show and talking to creators, rather then sending stuff through the mail.

It's a really tough thing, especially for writers. It's almost impossible to get work as a writer in this industry. Just getting your stuff read and getting yourself in is pretty difficult.

Austin English: Can you summarize your career with marvel, and how it all kind of went sour?

Erik Larsen: See, I don't think it did go sour actually. My recollection of how things went, and I believe this is pretty accurate, was that I wanted to do Nova as a regular book. And that was something that I was shooting for. There were a number of other books I wanted to do, Fantastic Four and The Incredible hulk among them. And I was tired of just drawing other people's stuff. I wanted to draw my own stories. And that wasn't really an option. Except I did do a Spider man story on my way out the door. But that was always intended to be a finite series.

Danny Fingeroth had intended that Spider Man, the book that Todd was doing, would become much like legends of the dark night, were you get different story arcs by different people. So I was on that for a short while, as I was waiting for the Nova proposal to sort of go through. And when they finally came back it was, well, we don't want to approve this for an ongoing series, but maybe as a mini series. Being that it was a mini series and there was no particular rush, I just sort of said "well, if that's the case, I'm gonna do this Image comics thing, and do a mini series for Image, and I can always get back to doing Nova." At that point I had also committed to doing a Lobo series for DC.

Austin English: That's interesting to hear, because so many of the image guys seemed really bitter towards marvel as Image was getting started, but that wasn't the case for you?

Erik Larsen: No, not at all. In fact, I had sort of agreed with Rob in terms of agreeing to do work and being part of this experiment. But, there was a New York convention I guess, where a lot of the other members of Image sort of came together. And that took place after I had already signed up and was ready to go. I was one of the boys.

And somebody (at this New York con) just started talking to some Marvel higher up, and said, basically "Hey, this is what we want to do. This is a deal with Malibu, but if you want us to do it with Marvel, we'll do it. But we want to be our own imprint, and we want this part of the take and everything else, and Marvel was like "Well, that's not gonna happen." So, the group split off from Marvel at that point. But I wasn't at that meeting. I wasn't part of that thing. That movement. And I don't know how strong it was with everybody too. I know that Todd was probably a little more militant on the thing, than some of the other guys.

But it just seemed like an experiment that was worthwhile. A risk that was worth taking. Other guys had gone before, and tried doing stuff, and it was just kind of okay. Josh Byrne did the Next Men stuff, and the reception to that, and the kind of numbers he got were alright, but it was nothing exceptional. When Jack Kirby and Neal Adams had gone and done this stuff years before that with Captain Victory, again it was for the time, pretty decent numbers, but it wasn't one of those things were it was a movement of guys from marvel y'know. It was like Atlas comics had done one or two issues of stuff, and all these different people have tried it. But nobody's tried it in mass. Nobody said "Well, let's just get the seven top creators, or most popular creators, or seven really strong creators, and a couple buddies, heh, and let's have this all happen at once. Just see if the artists on the top five books, if they all move, will the fans move with them." And we found out that yeah, actually they will.

Austin English: They definitely did, because you guys had such great sales. But of course, image was criticized for it's flashiness and all that. But later down the line when Jim Valentino tried to class up the line with lots of great black and white books, such as his own Touch of Silver, they didn't sell. Why do you think that is?

Erik Larsen: I don't think there's any black and white comics from anybody, at least these days, that sells. Right now, comics are just in this crappy situation where nothing seems to really be taking hold. I don't know that--it's hard, you gotta analyze it y'know. It's like Jim Valentino was doing superhero stuff, and this was his first personal stuff since he had done "Valentinos" years before. Years before. So there was a separation between guardians of the galaxy, and normalman and stuff like that, that took place between the time Jim was doing those very personal kinds of stories. And I think in some cases that the reading public moved on, that the kids who were growing up and reading guardians of the galaxy, and following that over to Shadow hawk, but the leap into A Touch of Silver was just too big, to be able to go, yeah this is what I want to do, I want to go read.

But it wasn't just Jim's book. There were a ton of books that came over to Image, like Soulwind, that just didn't sell well. But I see what your saying. It's like that all over the industry. All of those black and white books that came to Image from someplace else, in almost every single case they did get better numbers than they were getting on their own. So it wasn't as though we hurt them. It was, well, this guy on his own is selling 800 copies, but with Image he's selling 4,000 copies. But 4,000 copies is still a drop in the bucket compared to X-Men and Spawn. So we helped out those books considerably. They're doing considerably better than they have been otherwise. And really, in terms of the success that people are having with black and white books, I don't think were doing any worse then anybody else. Were doings better then most everybody else with black and white comics. It's just that in general black and white comics are not selling that well.

Austin English: Do you think you're kind of on the Fantagraphics level with black and white sales?

Erik Larsen: Depending on the book. We have books that sell considerably better than the Fantagraphics stuff, and one of the Fantagraphics books that I like a lot, and I pretty much mention in every single interview that I ever give, is a book called Minimum Wage. I think it's a very entertaining comic. But by Image standards and what are black and white books sell, it doesn't even compare.

Austin English: Yeah, reading Bob Fingerman interviews leads me to believe that he's a really cool guy.

Erik Larsen: He does a very entertaining comic book. So I cannot recommend it highly enough really.

Austin English: Are you into the other Fantagraphics books that everyone worships nowadays, like Eightball and Acme Novelty Library?

Erik Larsen: I've never quite got into Eightball--I've never quite liked the guy's stuff on hate. Peter Bagge's stuff is always--it's just too weird for me. It's too far removed from reality. But, I'll check out an Acme Novelty Library, and everything else, just to taste it and try it out, and see how it is and stuff like that. I generally don't find Acme Novelty library to be that engaging. The stories aren't very long. The work itself--it's very meticulous. I can look at it and go "Wow, the storytelling here is brilliant." But I'm much more interested in following characters lives. And there's not a lot of progression and the soap opera elements that I enjoy. Whereas something like Minimum Wage has got not only appealing characters and characters that are familiar, but it's also got that soap opera quality to stuff where you can go "oh, here's somebody's life. This is now one of my friends. Look, here's a friend. I am watching the adventures of a friend." And that's always interesting to me.

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