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….

Practitioners 37: Peter David (Part 2)

Peter David is an American writer of comic books, novels, TV, Movies and Video Games. In part One we looked at how Peter David came to arrive in comic books, in Part Two we arrive at how he changed the fcae of comic histories most prominent characters.

Peter David made his name on - and a legend of The Incredible Hulk with 12 Years as writer


Having been given an unpopular and derided title like the Hulk David discovered that he had greater creative control so far away from the central, more popular titles. This enabled him to investigate and test out his storytelling with impressive results. Within his first 12 month run on Hulk, David had reintroduced his estranged wife, destroyed the Hulkbuster base, sending several characters turn-coat and on the road with Bruce Banner (trying to contain his other persona), introduced X-Men – for a rematch with Wolverine, and X-Factor (who he would write for in the mid-nineties), effectively kill Hulk and have him return as the more cerebral Joe-Fixit, a figure in contention with the less intelligent Green persona. David concentrated on the recurring theme of the Hulk/ Bruce Banner’s multiple personality disorder, his periodic changes between the more rageful and less intelligent Green Hulk and the more streetwise, cereral Grey Hulk, and of being a journeyman hero, whicxh were inspired by Incredible Hulk 312 (October 1985) in which writer Bill Mantlo (and according to David himself Barry Windsor-Smith)had first established that Bruce Banner had suffered childhood abuse at the hands of his father. These aspects of the character would later be used in the slightly misaligned but well-intentioned 2003 film adaptation written by Michael France and directed by Ang Lee. In his 12-year run as writer of Incredible Hulk, in which he worked with luminaries and upcoming talents as Todd McFarlane (there when he got there) Gary Frank, Liam Sharp and Adam Kubert he developed the character further, revealing a third, and potentially less engaging Hulk. Banner and the Hulk merge in a more balanced character, retaining the intelligent characteristics of Bruce Banner and the strength and power of the Hulk. The effect was impressive. The now intelligent Hulk found a new relationship with his former wife Betty Ross and along with friends Rick and Margot found himself in control of a secret cabal of immortal heroes known as the Pantheon. David gave Hulk everything he wanted, access to his intelligent mind, strength and access to a private jet and technology bordering on magic. This is where David excels. He puts no limitations on the potential for change in his characters in order to explore possibilities in the story and is fearless in progressing the story at a break neck pace. He also listens to his artists, asking the newly signed Liam Sharp, fresh from success in the UK and US with Marvel Uk’s Death’s Head 2, what character he would like to draw. Gary Frank’s first comic book project with Marvel Uk was drawn upon as well, as the Marvel UK characters Motormouth and Killpower arrived in the pages of Hulk. Using the newly empowered Hulk as a platform to deal with difficult issues such as AIDs, false political imprisonment and homophobia. Not forgetting who was reading the book however, he soon brought the furious, sub-intelligent Hulk back to the pages of Hulk, leaving him lost and alone in the Everglades, effectively restarting the story of the only journeyman struggling with his own demons. Not to say he didn’t throw in Swamp-Thing and Speedfreak for good measure.

And was after he had been freelancing for a year, and into his run on Hulk, that David felt his career as a writer had been cemented and he began to make approaches to DC, being offered a four issue mini-series of The Phantom by Mike Gold. Finally – and astonishingly given that he had been employed on a Marvel title for a year, David only then left his sales position to become a full time writer.

Dreadstar (DC Comics)


David took on Dreadstar during its First Comics run, with issue 41 after Jim Starlin left the title, and remained on it until issue 64 (March 1991), the final issue. David’s other Marvel Comics work in the late 1980s and early 1990s includes runs on Wolverine, the New Universe series Merc and Justice, an excellent run on the original X-Factor, including issue 92 (with Joe Quesada), as part of the Fathers and Sons crossover which incorporated X-Men 25.
Peter David launched the future universe of Marvel with Spider-man 2099, a beautifully realised, dystopian tale of Miguel O’Hara, a futurist scientist who develops powers comparable to a spider in the corporate-run streets of a monolithic New York. Intelligent, witty and deliberately referential of the original without touching directly on its predecessor thematically or literally, Spider-man 2099 helped launch the entire 2099 Universe which lasted for the better part of a decade and took in almost every character in the Marvel Universe and redeveloped them. David set the tone for it all.

At DC Comics in 1990, David wrote an Aquaman miniseries, The Atlantis Chronicles, detailing the history of Aquaman’s home city Atlantis. This has since been cited by David as one of the works he is most proud. His following Aquaman mini-series Aquaman: Time and Tide and the subsequent run of 46 issues on the ongoing series gained notoriety as Aquaman lost a hand early in the series, which was later replaced with a harpoon, a feature of the character that lasted David’s full tenure on the book. He also wrote DC’s Star Trek comic books (though openly opined that Star Trek is better served in novel form as they’re not particularly visual), as well as Supergirl and Young Justice, the latter cancelld in order to transfer the assembled characters to the newly reformed Teen Titans monthly.

David’s work for Dark Horse comics has included the Spy Teen Adventure, SpyBoy, which appeared between 1999 and 2004 and a 2007 mini-series. Other independent work includes Soulsearchers and Company, which is published by Claypool Comics and the Epic Comic’s Sachs and Violens, which he produced personally with co-creator George Perez.

David returned to Marvel with Heroes Reborn: The Return for Marvel, in which the Marvel Universe’s lost characters that had disappeared in an event a year before returned to the Marvel Universe as well as a run on a new series of Captain Marvel, which was critically acclaimed.

David and his Second wife, Kathleen. wrote the final English-language text for the first four volumes of the manga series Negima for Del Ray Manga. In 2003, David began writing a new creator owned title , Fallen Angels, for DC Comics, using material left from development of the now-defunct Supergirl title as well as writinga Teenage Mutant Nija Turtles Mini-series for Dreamwave that tied into the animated television series broadcast that year. After Dc cancelled Fallen Angels, David relaunched at IDW the same year. He went on to produce Spike: Old Times one-shot and Spike Vs Dracula mini-series, based on the character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel Tv series.

X-Factor 92 (Peter David, Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics)

In 2005, David briefly returned to the Incredible Hulk but only lasted for 11 Issues due to work pressures. He also developed a new title Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-man, beginning witha 12-part ‘The Other’ storyline in which Spider-man discovers he is dying, lost a fight during a traumatic fight with Morlun, underwent a metamorphosis and developed new powers and greater understanding of his abilities. Yet again whenever experimental alterations are made to popular characters, this proved controversial with readers, who were bemused perhaps by the extended stingers coming out of Spider-man’s arms and the association of a Spider totem from which his powers were derived. David’s run ended with issue 23.

Following on from David’s original and successful run on X-factor in the early 90s, he wrote a successful MadroX (Multiple Man) title for Marvel the same year which led to the reintroduction of the X-Factor title, using characters from David’s original tenure Multiple Man, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane) working as private investigators in a detective agency of the titular name. David’s work on the title proved popular with Ain’t It Cool News and David found that the new Opt in/ opt out policy on Crossovers and greater forward planning on titles made his second tenure much easier. However, his decision to create a homosexual storyline between established characters, Shatterstar and Rictor (a confirmation of clues that had been established in X-Force years earlier) drew criticism from Shatterstar’s Co-creator Rob Liefield, though Editor-in-Chief and former creative partner on David’s original run on X-Factor supported the story. The title eventually won a 2011 GLAAD Media Award for outstanding comic book for his work on the title.

Peter David announced in 2005 that he had signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, his independent works Spike, Fallen Angel and Soulsearchers and Company ‘grandfathered’ into the agreement. David wrote the dialogue for The Dark Tower: A Gunslinger Born, a comic book spin-off from Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, bringing his career full circle. He then wrote Marvel’s Dark Tower comic book adaptations as well.

David took over She-Hulk after Dan Slott left, from Issue 22 to 38, a run which won praise. He also wrote Halo: Helljumper, 2009 Ben 10: Alien Force Manga book published by Del Rey, Ben Fold’s Four, a ‘Little Mermaid’ story in Jim Valentino’s Fractured Fables anthology that won more praise from Ain’t it Cool News, an adaptation of the 1982 film Tron to tie in with the 2010 sequel of the same name and a John Carter from Mars prequel to the film due out next year.

Peter David is a genius. His methodology is to block out different days for different projects, allowing him to be prolific in his work. Assured, well liked and professional, Peter David is a quiet voice in a creative industry but one with an enormous fan base exclusively based on the enjoyment of his work. His writing conveys his enthusiasm, wit and humour as well as never losing grip on issues close to him. Unafraid of controversy and generous in his plotting and pacing, David is a joy to read. A clear reason as to why his works are reprinted through Marvel, available as Masterworks collections and including full runs of his writing.