Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Savage #1. Written by B. Clay Moore (Aloha, Hawaiian Dick, JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull) with art by Lewis LaRosa (Bloodshot Reborn, The Punisher), Clayton Henry (Harbinger, Archer & Armstrong), and colorist Brian Reber (Imperium, Unity), this issue introduces a new Valiant miniseries that continues to push the publisher away from conventional superhero storytelling. (This review reveals major plot points.)

Valiant Comics has firmly situated itself as the leading competitor to the Big Two superhero comics publishers, and 2016 has been the new Valiant’s strongest year yet. Ongoing series like Faith, A&A: The Adventures Of Archer & Armstrong, Bloodshot Reborn, and Wrath Of The Eternal Warrior invigorated Valiant’s superhero lineup with distinct creative perspectives. 4001 A.D. offered a streamlined crossover event that was both highly entertaining and unobtrusive to other books. And miniseries like Divinity II and Britannia incorporated outside genre influences to take Valiant beyond traditional superhero territory.

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This week’s Savage #1 is another success for the publisher, largely because it feels so different from the rest of Valiant’s output. There’s not much that screams “superhero” in B. Clay Moore’s script for this first issue, which begins with a teenager in the jungle, fighting and killing a dinosaur to swipe a nest full of eggs. From there, Moore jumps back in time to detail how that boy ended up on the island as a baby, shifting focus to his parents and their personal tension. Kevin Sauvage is a professional European soccer player making the move to the United States to extend his brand, and his wife, Ronnie, handles the business details while he imbibes during their transatlantic flight. Moore quickly establishes the couple’s strained relationship, but before the spouses can start a more substantial conversation about the state of their marriage, the plane gets knocked out of the sky and crashes in the water near an unknown island.

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Savage #1 reads more like a survival thriller than a superhero origin, and the opening sequence emphasizes the danger of this environment while giving the flashback an undercurrent of dread. The final moment of the opening, showing the teenage KJ in his hut filled with assorted relics from the plane crash (including a baby bottle, a lighter, and a soccer club scarf), promises that something bad is going to happen to the parents in the flashback, and knowing the future fate of Kevin and Ronnie’s baby makes for an especially intriguing introductory chapter. Beginning with a grisly fight sequence kicks off the story with exhilarating momentum, and even though the pacing slows down so Moore can delve into the particulars of the plot and build up characters, there’s still a strong forward drive pushing everything to that inevitable point in the present.

Valiant has been heavily promoting artist Lewis LaRosa’s involvement in this title, and while some readers may be disappointed to discover that he doesn’t draw more than just the first seven pages, the use of two artists is important for the contrast between the past and present. Clayton Henry isn’t as showy as LaRosa, and his more subdued composition and simpler linework make him a good fit for the flashback, which takes a quieter approach that focuses on subtle character interactions and specific narrative details. Little touches like the prominence of Kevin’s drink glass and its spatial relationship to his son and wife indicate that his drinking is the major thing coming between him and his family, and the two objects that represent Kevin and Ronnie’s roles in their relationships—his glass full of booze and the laptop where she conducts business—are sent flying when the plane is knocked out of the sky. They’re going to need to take on new roles if they’re going to survive on the island, but based on that opening sequence, they may not change in time.

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Dramatic moments like the plane crash and Kevin’s discovery of a boat containing multiple mauled human bodies are given appropriate gravitas by Henry, but there’s an extreme quality to LaRosa’s art that makes everything feel bigger and more intense. I don’t mean extreme in that ’90s chugging Gatorade while snowboarding down the side of a mountain way, but extreme in terms of characterizations, angles, and rendering. Lewis LaRosa’s forceful layouts accentuate the frightening power of both combatants, and the meticulous detail in both LaRosa’s linework and Brian Reber’s colors creates a richly textured atmosphere that reflects the teenage human’s heightened perspective. LaRosa highlights the wild aggression of the dinosaur by having its head burst through the panel borders when it is first attacked, but that lack of control is its fatal flaw. Staying within panel borders, KJ is in complete control of the situation.

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There’s no dialogue in this opening except for some roars and grunts, and Moore makes a wise decision in stepping back and letting his exceptional art team carry the majority of the storytelling weight in this opening sequence. LaRosa and Reber’s artwork is so evocative that the sound effects from Dave Lanphear are unnecessary, and the onomatopoeia ends up being distracting because the lettering doesn’t match the weight of LaRosa’s linework. The artwork projects those sounds without needing to make them explicit on the page, and the unlettered preview pages Valiant released to promote this issue brings out the ferocity in the artwork because there’s nothing else on the page to pull focus. Lanphear’s sound effects are much more valuable to the storytelling in the flashback, like the rush of noise when the plane is knocked out of the sky and the “KLUNK” Kevin hears that directs him to the aforementioned boat full of dead bodies, and the lettering blends smoother with Henry’s artwork, which doesn’t have the same level of texture as LaRosa’s.

At first glance, Savage looks a lot like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a series published by the original Valiant Comics in the ’90s, but while there are definitely echoes of the Turok property in Savage, the similarities don’t go much deeper than the dinosaur-hunting leads. In the present, Savage is telling a vicious story about a young boy’s fight to survive in a deadly environment, and in the past, it explores a troubled marriage upended by strange, unexpected circumstances. The setting provides many opportunities for spectacle, but Moore focuses on character in this first issue, spotlighting KJ’s primal attitude in the opening before revealing the very different personalities of his parents, who come from a very different world than the one KJ has grown up in. It’s unclear how Savage fits in with the rest of the Valiant Universe, but that distance from the rest of the superhero line makes it all the more compelling, offering a vision of heroism rooted in survival instinct rather than superpowers.

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