Practitioners 41: Erik Larsen

If Simon Bisley is the Heavy Metal and Neil Gaiman the careful lyricism, Erik Larsen is the rock and roll of comic books. Bold colours, flash bang visuals, heavy weaponry, implausible chicks, nasty ass comic book violence and a great hero rising through the pile of body parts and big boobs. Creating a middle ground for those becoming disillusioned with the ‘big ones’ homogenised, careful storytelling, Larsen grinds the pulpish, the extreme and the deliberately silly and offensive together in a cathartic throw back to comics pulp heyday in an unapologetic, hedonistic and ultimately downright fun experience. Recognising that a page is an empty space, pregnant with possibilities, the only limitation – the edges of the artist and writers’ imagination.

Even in the boom days of the nineties, the average comic book geek was under the age of 12 or most likely a social pariah. To these people, escapism was characters that did what they wanted, represented ideals they believed in, got the busty girl and were never intimidated by a sky full of Martian space ships. These readers had a well developed silly bone and an understanding of pulp humour. The readership wasn’t frightened of a book that revelled in random events in the name of kitsch entertainment. This escapism saw heroes appear that were bright, bold, unremitting and smart mouthed. Cartoon heroes for Saturday morning television, made untransmittable before 10PM EST. Erik Larsen was the king of this. A master of crazy, bombastic pulp.

Larsen was born in middle America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child growing up in Bellingham, Washington and Albion, California he created several versions of a character named ‘The Dragon’, a batman like character, driving a car copied from Speed Racer’s Mach 5. Producing a fanzine with a friend which featured ‘The Dragon’ the character was developed into a character able to change using a magic word like Captain Marvel.

Taking his first paid work, working on Megaton, co-creating and illustrating a feature called ‘Vanguard’ with publisher Gary Carlson. The Dragon appeared, slightly revised in the second edition. Larsen went on to work on the Sentinels of Justice for AC Comics and DNAgents for Eclipse Comics.

His work at DC included The Outsiders, Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman and Doom Patrol. For Marvel he completed a The Amazing Spider-man fill-in story and 5 issues of the Punisher. Frankly Larsen made it look easy. Wandering from company to company, first working on incredibly diverse titles for DC and ultimately extremely high end titles for Marvel. Aside from a Nova storyline cancelled for Marvel Comics presents, his flight up the ladder at Marvel was unstoppable. Alongside his master work, as writer and artist on Savage Dragon, Larsen has found an occasional home with Marvel, returning to write and illustrate on Fantastic Four, The Defenders, Wolverine and Nova. He briefly returned to DC to write Aquaman.

Just a selection of the alternate Dragons from the incredibly wild Larsen Universe (by Art Adams)

In 1990, Todd McFarlane was leaving the title Amazing Spider-man, a title he had visually revolutionised and Larsen took over the reigns as of 329, having previously pencilled issues 287, 324 and 327. With writer David Michelinie and Larsen, the series experienced increased sales, with stories such as ‘ The Cosmic Spider-man’, ‘The Return of the Sinster Six’ and ‘The Powerless Spider-man’ that deliberately took off the gloves Spider-man had been treated with. Larsen kept pace with the extreme nature of the story lines, Mary Jane never looking sexier, the character numbers and speed and occurrence of events break neck.

It was during ‘The Return of the Sinister Six’ and before ‘The Dragon’ found his place among the comic book elite that Larsen cemented his place as a true Practitioner. During the production of the book his house was destroyed by flood. While trying to deal with this situation he never missed a page, or reduced the quality of his work – instead accepting an offer by Marvel to reduce the page numbers for two months and fill with back stories. Larsen’s enthusiasm and strength of character bled through here as the rendering of the characters and storylines never missed a beat. Doc Oc swung menacingly into view and epic conflict between multiple characters played out across page after page. Had it not been mentioned in the collected graphic novel, no one would have ever have guessed what was taken place. Not only that, but the faith and help offered by Marvel, a large corporate company, was willing to move mountains to see Larsen complete the project – such was his popularity at the time. His influence on one of the most popular books in comics history, exceptional even in a field of high selling books, places him retrospectively among the greats. But the best was still yet to come. A bawdy, violent, crazy and personally driven comic, seeing his childhood creation fall into the hands of millions of readers around the world. Image had been born under McFarlane and Larsen was going to prove a true linchpin and the very epitomy of the companies ethos. Creator owned and creator driven books were to be given an icon. And that icon was the absurdly named Savage Dragon.

Shedding ideas like an enthusiastic 8 year old, completely unafraid of running out of original material, Larsen took readers on a roller coaster ride experience. Pneumatic vixens and wild mutant monsters crowded the streets of Savage Dragon’s home town Chicago, while Larsen was the man to pull back together the Sinister Six (a combination of all the worst enemies of Spider-man) in New York for Marvel. Artist, script writer, plot and character designer – Larsen could barely contain his ideas on the page. This was what Image had been formed for and Larsen was about to take it by storm.

Seeking greater control and profit over the work they created, Larsen and six other illustrators abandoned Marvel to form Image Comics, where Larsen finally gave his childhood creation life in the form of the fin-headed, green super-cop, The Savage Dragon. This time a massively-muscled green amnesiac who joins the Chicago Police Department after being found in a burning field with no memory of how he ended up there. After a series of self-published redesigns of the character, the stripped down version of the Dragon was given a three issue limited series in 1993, expanding to a full length ongoing series completely under the control of Larsen. Astonishingly, in self-publishing, Larsen has maintained a reasonably consistent monthly schedule (excluding a couple of occasional lapses) in comparison to the other Image titles. Larsen describes Dragon as the missing like between Marvel and Vertigo, aimed at older Marvel readers ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. And in this he has pitched it perfectly. With a much more adult view, the Savage Dragon bridges the gap neatly between the teen orientated Marvel and the devoutly adult Vertigo titles.

If in any doubt as to why Larsen belongs among the hall of Practitioners, here it is. One of the brave and the bold to leave the relative safety of Marvel behind in order to self publish, Larsen’s title, The Savage Dragon, is the only title in the original line-up (besides Spawn) to still continue to exist and the only one still created by its creator. Image was built on Larsen’s ideals and he has proven that he always intended to see his dream through – marking him out as perhaps the most diligent, determined and honest creator to have left Marvel in the ’90s. Add to that his unnatural talent, enthusiasm and sense of humour and you have a natural comics talent with no time for the limitations of modern books. Larsen will continue to do it his way. Exotic women, massive guns and superheroes with Chicken heads prevail and the day Larsen stops doing that, a little light on an era that harks back to the beginning of comics will go out. Until someone finds a copy of Savage Dragon….

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Practitioners 31: Tim Sale

Tim Sale, was born on May 1st 1956, in Ithaca, New York, but spent most of his early life in Seattle, Washington. He attended the University of Washington for two years before moving to New York to study, in part, under artist John Buscema at the School of Visual Arts.

Sale has an incredibly distinctive style. His characters rarely represent realistic proportions and his style of art is decidedly abstract, relying on impressionistic and silhouetted ideas as much as clear visual representation. His compositions are carefully applied, often at dizzying or deliberately engaging perspectives. He is assured in his use of space, very much in the same way younger, more technically complete artists are, but he feels no compulsion to fill open spaces. This gives his work a compelling and assured feel that draws the reader in.

The physicality of his characters is always exaggerated which reinforces the innate characteristics of the character. Batman is big and broad, his neck long and ascending into darkness. The linework is clear and precise when necessary but betray emotional lines when necessary. He is an economical artist, assured enough to apply his own style.

Sale does divide opinion, in part because of his continued association with Jeph Loeb, a marmite figure in comic books. Most artists do not like to be compared to Sale due to his disproportionate bodies and arguably loose compositions and detailing. In spite of his considerable talent he has fallen down the same path as McFarlane. A pronounced and distinctive style that has its time and moves on, Sale has perhaps been left in the 90s.

But that doesn’t reduce his relevance. He pencilled and inked Dark Victory and Long Hallowe’en alongside Loeb 15 years ago and it continues to sell today. His compositions and the realisation of the Bat-universes character offered a visual insight distinct and intriguing enough to represent familiar characters such as the Joker and Two Face in ways previously unseen. Some later incarnations of Catwoman were lifted from Sales work on Dark Victory.

The problem for Practitioners such as Sale and Loeb is that the industry advanced. Techniques continued to develop, the demand for greater sophistication and accuracy increased from the readership. Its hard to say whether the industry will swing back towards the more cartoon strip years of the ’90s. However, it was a period of unprecedented and unrepeated growth for the comic industry and Tim Sale became a legend during that period.

Tim began doing art for the series Myth Adventures in 1983 and was soon working on Theives’ World, a shared fantasy series created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978, comprising of 12 anthologies. After meeting Matt Wagner and Diana Schultz (who were at the time creating for Comico Comics) and Barbara Randall of DC Comics at the San Diego Comicon, Sales career began to develop.

The majority of Sale’s work has been with Jeph Loeb. With him, they developed a cooperative style of creating books, in which the art and the writing influenced each other. The duo, creditted as ‘storytellers’, produced extremely popular work such as Batman: Long Hallowe’en, Batman: Dark Victory. Most recently they have worked on the so-called ‘color’ books for Marvel Comics involving mainstay characters from Marvel such as Spider-man, Daredevil and the Hulk.

Through his association with Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale worked on the artwork for Heroes. He was responsible for the paintings created by precognitive artist Isaac Mendez as well as other artists on the show. He is also creditted as creating the comic book font used throughout the series, based on his own handwriting.

Sale is another marmite character in the comic book hall of fame. His dereliction of standard artistic practices such as proportion and physicality means that very few artists want to be compared to him. I have to admit that if my work was assocaited with Sales I would look for where I had gone wrong as on a technical level, Sale does not deliver. But that is his strength in the eyes of a great many comic fan. Artists are by the nature technical, but Sale moves beyond that and offers up artworks taht are deliberately abstract and caricatured. Hs Wolverine is broad shouldered and bubbled, his Gambit gaunt and haunted. His London is empty and uncongested and yet, as the first time I ever saw his work I have been unable to forget it. As an artist I admire Sale’s willingness to apply his own distinctive style to the comic book page. An industry should thrive on individuals like Sale as they push the form outwards towards alternative modus. If everyone in comic books drew like the Kuberts, Quitely and Coipel, with infinitely careful pen lines, consistent detailing and carefully applied physical proportions comic books’d be a dull place. Sale comes from the same stable as Jon Bogdanove, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane. Artists that contributed to the single most successful period in comic book history. While they may not be fashionable now clearly they have a great and broad appeal beyond the kernel of uberfans and tightly monitored comic book applications. An artist like Tim Sale would not get work in the comics industry right now, however the more I think about it – looking at a struggling comic industry – even with the money turning over in associated features – the more I think tahts not such a good thing. Men like Sale didn’t need to be optioned by a film company to pay their bills. They paid it through sales. And if you’re working in popular culture how many other benchmarks are there?