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….

Advertisements

The Final Countdown

Hey chaps,

Just wanted top hop on real quick and give you a quick update on where we’re up to with our own stuff.

This is what I look like when I'm stressed. You don't want to know what Steve looks like when he's stressed. Our mystery colourist doesn't get stressed, she's too mysterious.

Moon is entering the final stages of production as we speak with both Steve and our soon to be announced colourist working their butts off. I’ve been having so many meetings and email conversations with conventions, printers and other people that I’m not entirely sure who’s who, but all of them seem genuinely excited about the project.

I’m simultaneously weeping with worry and giggling with anticipation as we approach our print deadline – who’d have thought that launching a new comic series in the same year that you’re moving house and getting married could be so stressful! – But the boat is still on track and every preview I see has me more convinced that we’re making something special here.

As if things weren’t busy enough, this year’s 2 Days Laughter competition is coming up and we’re honour bound to try to be there in some capacity. With that in mind I’ve gotten back together with my old buddies Paul Wade and JT Eaton to start work on a new comedy short. I won’t give to much away right now but if you’ve ever been trapped in front of the tv around 7pm, you should get a kick out of what we’re planning.

Take care of yourselves and remember: don’t do venom…the drug not the guy…well don’t do him either…unless you’re Mrs Venom. Was there a Mrs Venom? Probably.

D
x

Practitioners 13: Liam Sharp

Liam Sharp has tackled X-Men, Hulk, Spider-man, Venom, Man Thing (for Marvel) Superman and Batman (for DC) and Spawn: Dark Ages for Todd McFarlane.

Sharp, more famous than near any other to come out of the early ’90s Brit invasion with Marvel UK took to the heights very early in his career, riding on top of an enormous success with Deaths Head II. Easily the best in his class on the original Death’s Head he was the obvious choice for the character. He met with success perhaps too soon – elevating him more quickly perhaps than he was comfortable with – leaving him scolded slightly by the industry he had been raised up by. From this Sharp has rebuilt an independent comics career and now uses his distinctive and enthralling illustrative style to bring clarity to popular culture – looking like Gods, facing demonic adversaries and carrying massive guns.

Born in Derby in 1968, Liam Sharp is one of the foremost names to come out of Marvel UK, arguably the most noteworthy at its peak – as primary artist on Deaths Head 2 – where he made his name. Having cut his teeth on the original Deaths Head series under Simon Furman, he was handed the artist position on its follow-up Deaths Head II. This suited Sharp as he created a skull faced blue goliath, cable dreadlocks and metal codpiece firmly secured.

To see it for the first time was rock and roll in comic form reborn; reminiscent of Bisley at his best with both the Kubert brothers (of X-Men fame) rolled in. A seven and a half foot time travelling cyborg with a right arm of liquid metal that could form into three weapon functions (blade, claw, crazy ass space cannon) and 100 disparate personalities. The counterparts of Marvel UK; Dark Angel, Digitek, Warheads etc while popular were just trying to keep up. This in no small part was due to Liam Sharp’s stunning artwork.

Sharp’s painted cover for Overkill and Deaths Head 2 and the comic strip that went with it (serialised in both Deaths Head 2 and Overkill in the 90s) features some of the best realisations of the X-men to ever be put to print – possibly the best outside the title itself. His rendering of Cyclops (broad, handsome, powerful) Wolverine (short, sinewy, rough) Beast (bestial, wild) and Psylocke (beautiful and oddly passive) standing abreast his central character and Puck made the two less established transatlantic cousins indiscernible in design and realisation next to the world’s most famous X-Team.

Whereas a panel by almost any other artist carries you to the next; a Liam Sharp panel pacifies you and forces you to stray about the page irrespective of where the next speech bubble is. Muscles burst with potential; on Male and female characters alike. Its Conan sensibilities with every panel; whether in the pages of X-Men (Sharp was responsible for X-Men issues leading into the Age of Apocalypse) or Gears of War (based on the X-Box game).

His women are undeniably pneumatic, irresistable to an artist so adept with Human anatomy. Testament (2006-2008 with Dennis Rushkoff) illustrates clearly that Sharp has a clear sense of proportion when needed – however for his most distinctive and popular work he simply switches it off. He extends the anatomy and physiology to a logical conclusion. Although his characters exceed usual shape there is a plausibility to their shape – never completely extending their forms beyond the edges of potential Human growth. His men are Conan by default, his women are Red Sonja.

His female characters would be perfect examples of Good girl art but there’s none of the accessibility that is prevalent in that form of art. There is an innate and overpowering sexuality in the characters and yet its not a lingering one. Its not porn – most obviously as his men are as perfect specimens of the form as his women. Sharp’s point? Maybe that you can draw any physical shapes – why linger on imperfection. Why not present God-like perfection every time?

It was on Incredible Hulk, arguably the pinnacle of his career up until this point – joining a title made legendary by Peter David, its resident writer. It would have seemed the perfect choice given the shape of the title character however it wasn’t to be the match made in heaven that was anticipated and the run was short lived. Upon joining, Sharp spoke to Peter David about his likes and dislikes in drawing. He explained he disliked drawing cars and buildings and that a character he really liked was Man-thing. And Lo, the introductory piece saw Hulk in the Florida Everglades facing Man-thing (generating an indelible cover of the two facing each other in the swampland that epitomised Sharp’s styling and illustrative roots). Banner’s job however was as a mechanic, creating a need to draw cars and buildings immediately in a part of the world unfamiliar with Sharp. It became clear that it was going to be a struggle and that Sharp was perhaps unprepared for the expectations placed on a comic book artist. In a title like Hulk, after the central character, it would be impossible not to build the infrastructure around him continuously and it was clearly representing a challenge to the new artist. Peter David had reservations – uncertain that his writing matched Sharp’s artwork – but a letter to Bobby Chase from the inker on Hulk put paid to Sharp’s position with the book. Unable to find an alternative artist at such short notice, Sharp had to complete a further two issues – depicting the Abomination (happily another goliath) – though an exhausting experience knowing that his run had ended. The cover of Hulk 427 saw Sharp offered a Man-thing series with Marc DeMatties.

Given more creative opportunities with DeMatties Sharp felt more comfortable however the Man-thing series ran only for 12 issues. From his monumental beginnings with Marvel UK he was finding the world of commercial comic books more competitive and demanding than anticipated.

Undeterred, in 2004, Sharp started his own independent publishing company, Mam Tor publishing with wife Christina McCormack and published the artbook Sharpenings: The Art of Liam Sharp. The company launched Mam Tor: Event Horizon, featuring art by Glenn Fabry, Brian Holguin, Ashley Wood and Simon Bisley among others.

Becoming penciller for controversial Testament series with DC Vertigo with writer Frank Tieri he then went on to Gears of War – a title perfectly suited in style, design and content for an artist of Sharp’s capabilities and talent. Big men, big guns, big scope, desolate environments and blood thirsty action.

In September 2008 he was offered an exclusive deal with DC.

Sharp is an unnatural talent with a clear idea of how things should be done. He has found a niche and is recognised for it. If you want a mountainside gun fight between heavily armed death faced doom bringers, a hard bitten cannon wielding bodybuilder and a chewed off beauty queen from Caveman Monthly go see Liam Sharp. If one of Liam Sharp’s characters hits you, you’ll know about it. If you see one of his pages – you’ll be hard pressed to remember it.

If you think this blog has been too long – screw you. Liam Sharp was the reason I picked up Overkill at 13 and the reason I’m doing what I do now. Those looking for realism in their comic books aren’t the only ones reading them. Those looking for the raw, aggressive and visceral presented like it was standing in the room, are fans of Liam Sharp.

Symbiont?

'Gah! Symbiote/ Symbiont??!'

A couple of days ago Dan wrote a review of the new Carnage mini series and continuously referred to both Carnage and Venom as Symbionts. Having read Spider-man and Venom series on and off for a bout 15 years I was pretty sure (downright certain) the word, as read in Marvel comics, is symbiote. Having sent Dan a mail to tell him its Symbiote not Symbionte I received a troubling reply. It turns out that the spelling I read constantly in Amazing Spider-man 344-345 and throughout the Maximum Carnage saga in the nineties was wrong all along.

 

For those not in the know; and because Dan’s taken this off the Comics section – possibly because its more about spelling than comics – Carnage was Cletus Cassidy, a psychotic serial killer with deep seated family issues that was bonded symbiotically to an alien organism that fed from him and supplied him with power and super strength and the ability to morph massive claws he could eviscerate passers by with for a loan of his central nervous system. He looked at the time of his creation to be a villain for Spider-man that finally rivalled Batman’s villains in DC.

Psychotic, unretrievable, unpredictable and massively homicidal – and more wicked than his larger grizzlier counterpart (alien dad) Venom who was the same thing only troubled by the anti-hero bug that Marvel always slaps on any villain that becomes popular.

But here was Carnage, Spider-man’s Joker (bollocks to the Green Goblin – he looks like an Ibizan gay clubber at Hallowe’en and was constantly sorting himself out and apologising), a destructive freak of nature that had to test the heroes no-kill policy simply by dint of being a raging loonface who’d slaughter grannies!! If Carnage turned up you should’ve assumed someone close to the main character was going to die just for being there.

Carnage full on

The 'symbiote' in question

He raged on long after I’d wandered away from Spider-man and comic books in general and when I returned I discovered he was a non-entity, viewed as a shade of Venom rather than the lunatic mutant hick cousin that he was always supposed to be. It seemed he’d never found a niche in the Marvel Universe and been sidelined or thrown in as a gimmick. All from the potential he had in Amazing Spider-man all those years ago. The Sentry flew him to space and tore him in half in three panels of The New Avengers 1. What a crock!

He is yet to appear in the new series – by the end of issue 1- however they’d better have given him some of his bite back – especially with the MAX ratings Marvel can give themselves now. I want to see Carnage do some carnage or I won’t be happy.

But worse than that – It appears that Symbiote – the word that was applied to both the Venom and Carnage organisms – was never a word and Marvel, with no sense of consequence, simply had a guess at a word that means a symbiont.

In the real world of crazy science that sounds made up a Symbiont (or symbiote) is an organism that forms a mutual biological relationship with another so that both organisms benefit. Each of the two provides certain advantages that the other lacks and they don’t impair the existence of each other – except that similar girl organisms might wonder what that thing is on your back.

Marvel co-opted the idea for a suit worn by Spider-man that returned to Earth with him from the Secret Wars crossover in the 80s. It gave him extra spider boing but made him quite more aggressive – which was helpful for a vigilante – and rude to his Aunt May – unacceptable in polite society.

He discovered its weakness was soundwaves and stood under bells in a cathedral as they rang to get rid of it. It worked but found a new home in Eddie Brock – who conveniently had a hate on for Parker too. Crazy alien, brain eating shennanigans ensued – a couple more ‘symbiotes’ appeared and Marvel kept calling them that and still do.

Anyway, I’d long since accepted that a printed word is a correct spelling and hadn’t retrospectively altered my thoughts in spite of having read the Metro every morning on the way into London, which every Londoner knows appears to have been copied down from the internet by a cheeky twelve year old truant with Tippex and a felt tip pen during a particularly arduous detention.

For me, it was vaguely permissable for a mainstream newspaper to have the odd typo as it’s momentary white knuckle communications by its very nature – even if the Metro is invariably yesterday’s news. But the idea that Marvel put out the wrong word for literally years in a mainstream global publication that spawned movie franchises and single handedly saved Marvel Comics from administration (Spider-man that is – not Carnage himself though I’d imagine a 5’11 psychotic lava lamp with claws’d put off the solicitors) is just mental to me.

It has writers – ergo – people who use words (I checked). Dan is one and he apparently used the right word straight out the gate. Who is monitoring these people? Is America spelt America? Is Authority spelt Authority? Is Super spelt Super? What’s going on?!

I’ve checked Oxford online dictionary and it couldn’t give a return for Symbiote but politely enquired if I meant Symbiont. This, according to the dictionary, is ‘an organism living in symbiosis with another’ which was definitely what I was looking for. This, I would suggest, might not help someone who was looking up the word ‘symbiont’ as they might then have to look up ‘symbiosis’ as well in order to unravel the mystery. ‘Does Symbiosis mean sharing a shower?’ they might say.

Shiiiiiiiiiit!!

'All I said was Sybionts...'

Tut, Oxford online dictionary. Tut.

So I’ve tried the US English dictionary to see if it was one of those words they changed the spelling of to pay off the French for winning the American War of Independence for them and it turns out its the same. This poses several questions to my mind.

1. How did Dan come across this word in first place? Are there a lot of symbiotic species in Kent?

2. Why is it Symbiont? Its Symbiotic and its symbiosis so what pleb staked his reputation on calling it a Symbiont? It doesn’t even sound as good. I’d rather be attacked by a Symbiont than a symbiote as a Symbiont sounds slower, like a bear sharing a central nervous system with a flipping Narwhal.

3. Why did no one spellcheck this in Marvel? I know the 90s was a big decade for them but still. DC must’ve left notes up somewhere just to bate them you’d think.

4. Should I have relied quite so heavily on comics to supply me with correct spellings of things?

The answer to this is probably not. I’ve checked a map. America is indeed, spelt America. Phew.