Chains. Skulls. Spikes. “Voted one of the ten sexiest men”?
It’s hard to create a superhero in the modern age that actually sticks in the popular consciousness. A lot of that has to do with Marvel and DC owning all of the classic icons, with the might of two mega-conglomerates behind them to make sure that the market is positively saturated with their characters at all times. A bit of it comes down to nearly every hero basically being just another version of one of the original templates (demigod, billionaire playboy, etc.). Due to decades of creative mistreatment within the comic book industry and an overall stagnation within the audience, very few superhero characters created in the last 20-30 years have been recipients to the same type of public awareness that made a Batman or a Spider-man household names. But a precious few have managed to make a go of it over the years: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr’s Kick-Ass… and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn.
Okay, so maybe Spawn doesn’t have the cache he once carried at the height of his powers during the tumultuous decade that was the 1990’s comic book scene. But there was a time when Spawn lined the toy aisles right next to Batman and the X-Men, when he had a major motion picture released during the blockbuster summer season, and when he had a critically-lauded, Emmy-winning HBO animated series before HBO shows were even a thing people took seriously. For a very brief moment there, Spawn became just as recognizable as Superman, Batman and Spider-man, and regularly outsold them on comic stands when he made his debut. The second title from Image published after Youngblood, Spawn shattered that book’s record as the best-selling independent comic of all time, with its 1.7 million looking like a record that will stand as long as there is a comic book market.
It’s also remarkably better as a number one issue, although that’s maybe more a criticism of Youngblood’s ineptitude rather than any real mark of quality on the part of Spawn. All of the hallmarks of the grim ’n’ gritty era are on display, although not pushed to such a degree as you might be led to believe, given Spawn’s reputation amongst comic fans. To be sure, there is a fair amount of gritty violence, goth-infused skulls and chains and the lead hero moping around in an alleyway, feeling sorry for himself. But there is also a good deal of intrigue: for all the elements that haven’t aged as well, Spawn #1 does everything a number one issue should do. Namely, get you invested in its main character and set up the world he occupies. The issue plays much of Spawn’s origins close to the chest, keeping it a mystery to be revealed as the series goes on, and is rather effective in creating a desire in the audience to see just how Spawn’s fragmented memories fit together.
Jim Steranko, George Perez, Art Adams, and--most especially--Frank Miller… McFarlane wears his influences on his sleeve, for better or for worse. The issue starts with a pretty great series of pages, expertly laid out and establishing the central mystery of the masked man with the forty-foot long cape. Then, McFarlane ruins all that goodwill by devoting an entire page to a news anchor infodump*, as three talking heads give us paragraphs of information that stop the story dead right as it was just starting to ramp up. It really is a buzzkill, a device so clearly inspired by The Dark Knight Returns that McFarlane keeps falling back on again and again in these early issues. Which is really a shame, as if you were to remove the news anchor pages, Spawn #1 would excel in building the momentum required to get us invested in Spawn’s story.
And for all the derivative elements, Spawn is still startlingly original in many respects. One is the setting of the alleys; instead of a rich, white billionaire who puts on a mask and proceeds to punch out lower income criminals to protect other rich white people before retiring to his stately-manor with his own butler at his beck and call, Spawn protected the homeless and made the garbage-ridden, rat-infested alleyways his home. It admittedly took a while before McFarlane would actually develop this into something substantial (and with a little world-building help from Neil Gaiman), but the building blocks are there in this first issue all the same. Also new and interesting: Spawn has vast amounts of power, but can only use so much of it. A power meter runs throughout this issue and the ones to follow, a clock that ticks down further to zero as Spawn saps his energy and takes one step further to losing his soul to Hell for good.
It’s a premise that McFarlane would build into a bonafide franchise as it went on. While his fellow Image founders like Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri went on to establish robust superhero universes that supported a dozen titles at any given month, McFarlane stuck mainly to his hellish hero, using the success of Spawn to launch a successful toy company and media empire. Sadly, this expanded business approach also seems to have killed his career as a sequential artist. After the initial few years of the series, McFarlane handed the reigns over to other artists, and has rarely returned to providing full interior art for a comic book since. It’s a shame, as there is a raw and unfettered energy to McFarlane’s approach here and the other early issues, and it would have been great to see how much further he could have pushed himself in terms of layout and design had he stuck to doing the interiors.
Although its popularity comes and goes with the winds of the unstable comic book market, Spawn still comes out monthly, rapidly making its way to 300 issues published continuously over a period of twenty-five years. And if this new Spawn movie McFarlane keeps talking up actually comes to pass, you never know: maybe ol’ Hamburger-head will have a long-overdue return to the limelight.
* Why would the funeral of a covert government assassin receive such extensive coverage from three major news markets, and be famous enough to make a “Top Ten Sexiest Men” list in a magazine? Youngblood also featured the oxymoronic portrayal of a covert special ops team that invariably held celebrity status amongst the public at the same time. These Image guys seemed to have a profound misunderstanding of how certain elements of the world work in these early issues.