The Mars Volta can create a level of cacophony that untrained kids with electric guitars and amps on eleven in a garage can only dream about, yet they are all classically trained, virtuoso musicians. No, your four year old cannot create the dense, managed disaster that is a Pollock painting. Paradoxically, the illusion of absolute entropy can only be achieved through logical, skillful, deliberate actions.
Now try to forget all that for a moment and just appreciate how quickly and thoroughly the feces hits the fan for the protagonist below:
For the longest time, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon was my favorite book and one of the only things that would even inch out a new Acme Novelty Library as the first read of the pile. (Any new Guy Davis/Dave Stewart BPRD now holds that honor. The sensation of cracking open a new one of those has to be akin to the excitement felt picking up a Kirby Fantastic Four from the newsstand.) Savage Dragon was a perfectly crafted superhero book, and I offer absolutely no apologies for those; they are just so damn few and far between. Too many superhero books rely on their reader’s somewhat creepy childhood attachment to the fictional character in the title. Larsen, few have admitted, goes out of his way to win you over with craft. His story lines were exquisitely plotted and often intentionally alienating to the character-loving crowd, but more than that, his layouts and art were often formally experimental. You could see him setting new rules for himself to follow with each new issue: one splash per page, sixteen panel grid, stacks of rectangles with a large image at right.
And Larsen was an absolute master of shock and awe. He realized the true freedom in owning your fantastical character and his myriad of foes was that you could shake up the status quo at any instant. Doc Ock does not need to kidnap/fall in love with Aunt May every seventh issue. Lack of any firm ground for a reader to stand on became the rule, and that was reinforced in his layouts.
Here’s his greatest trick: save a surprise for a page turn, and usually make it fill that left-hand page. Now this sounds simple, but it requires understanding something so fundamental to comics that most take it for granted: the reader sees the whole two page spread at once. No, I did not figure this out by sending away for one of those speed reading programs they used to advertise in the back of comic books. We have peripheral vision, and our eyes wander. Larsen also understands another key ingredient to this process: shocks need a set-up. A Hollywood studio exec would have told an editor to cut Larsen’s whole first page above. Plot-wise, nothing is happening. Therefore, we would find it on the cutting room floor. Who needs mood and tone? (See: the film version of 300. I could have sworn there was some marching in the comic…) But let me introduce you to a little thing called pacing. Without a lull, there is no rise. Without that page of Dragon just walking around to build suspense, we would never have been hit so hard by what happened when he entered the room. Try to imagine that page replaced by a random fight scene. “Alright, I’m still breathing hard from kicking his tail. Lemme go through this door in one final panel. OH! I’m fighting again!”
Erik keeps the fight itself nice and huge and open by limiting himself to only five panels at most per page. He is able to suggest a much longer and more brutal fight through the brilliant work of his longtime compadre. Notice how I gave Chris Eliopoulos credit on the byline? The letterer, you ask?!? Heck yeah. Have a look at the mileage the image is getting from his HROK HROK HROKs and WHAMs. Erik draws one punch; Eliopoulos multiplies that by a thousand. Our brain is seeing what isn’t there through our ears. How’s that for non-drug-induced synesthesia?