ComicsAlliance Reviews Todd McFarlane’s ‘Spawn’ Year One, Part 1: Questions
Last week Image Comics shipped the 220th issue of Spawn, marking 20 years of continuous publication of the supernatural antihero series created by Todd McFarlane. To help commemorate the 20th anniversary of Spawn, ComicsAlliance is embarking on a venture that is every bit as ambitious: a four-part overview of the first “year” of its publication (Being an early Image book, Spawn sometimes shipped late)! For the next four weeks, we’ll run a fine-tooth comb over every splash page, every line of bombastic dialogue, every graphic disembowelment, and every fluttering of cape to grace issues #1-13 of this classic series that helped launch a venerable publishing house and gave a hideously scarred but inescapably cool face to one of the most exciting decades in comic book history.
Published in 1992, the first issue of Spawn sold 1.7 million copies, dramatically changed the look of mainstream comics, and kicked off a four-issue origin story for the most popular character of the decade. “Questions” begins with what became the most prevalent motif of 1990s comics: characters standing on top of churches during lightning storms. It’s our first glimpse of Spawn – - apart from the cover, tons of promotional images, and just about every issue of Wizard: The Guide to Comics. So there was a bit of a drop-off in terms of shock effect. Nonetheless, that’s where Spawn begins, atop a church steeple, a “mysterious” caped silhouette ringed by a wide, electric-blue lightning strike that probably went on to hit James Caviezel or something, going on in his internal monologue about the darkness in his soul.
It that seems heavily reminiscent of something you might see in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, that’s because it is. Though McFarlane drew inspiration from the likes of Walter Simonson, Michael Golden, and George Perez, the Frank Miller node is the strongest influence here, and it’s apparent. Really apparent. Directly after the moody opening theatrics, McFarlane devotes a page to talking heads news reporting that while not quite as clever as Miller’s depictions of media is clearly ripped from the same cloth. Then when Spawn encounters street thugs attempting a sexual assault (Miller motif), they use ridiculous slang that never really existed (Miller motif), and for some reason there’s always a punk with a mohawk (Miller motif).
When it comes to artistic style, though, McFarlane stood on his own. Throughout the course of his runs on Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man, T-Mac cultivated a thick but detailed pen line, and dynamic contortions of characters that recalled more of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko than Miller. Having developed a trademark interpretation of Spider-Man’s webs (a visual approach that is still being used today), McFarlane turned that energy towards the similarly iconic depiction of Spawn’s capes and chains, which flow around and throughout every panel of the comic, following their own rules of movement and gravity like anemone (such incongruities will later be explained brilliantly: the costume is alive). Miller possesses a fantastic sense of light, shade, and negative space, while McFarlane doesn’t even seem to believe in negative space — every morsel of page is covered with something, and there never even seems to be an attempt at depicting shadows. Maybe that’s because the story takes place in the shadows. Hardcore, right?
Even with the attendant cynicism of 20 years of perspective, Spawn’s origin story is still pretty cool. As a mercenary in the employ of the U.S. government, Lt. Colonel Al Simmons killed a lot of people, butted heads with boss Jason Wynn (Simmons felt bad about killing a lot of people, Wynn didn’t), saved the President from an assassination attempt, and was voted one of the “Ten Sexiest Men” in 1985 (What?). In addition to his awesome career as a government-sanctioned killer, Simmons had a beautiful and loving wife named Wanda Blake, for whom he would do absolutely anything, including making a deal with the devil. After his murder, which was orchestrated by Jason Wynn, Simmons strikes a bargain with Malebolgia, a nasty-looking demon ruler of Hell with a uterine bulge that looks like a kangaroo pouch. Simmons is allowed to return to Earth as a Hellspawn, a dark being of immense power, in order to see his wife one more time. Killed in 1987, he’s resurrected five years later, finding himself in the seedy alleyways of New York City (where else?) with few memories of his former life. Meanwhile a psychotic killer is on the loose.
Enter the best characters in the Spawn canon: New York detective Sam Burke, his partner Maximilian “Twitch” Williams, and The Violator. Though McFarlane’s dialogue was never worth writing home about, it was never sharper, funnier, or more inventive than when coming from the mouths of these three characters. The back-and-forth between Sam and Twitch — mostly Sam — is as natural as Spawn’s dialogue is overwrought. Their search for a killer who dispatches mob members by removing their hearts and shoving them down their throats is a genuine highlight of early issues of Spawn.
The killer Sam and Twitch are searching for is The Violator, a Hell-born demon whose mission is to test, torment, and guide Spawn towards his destiny as a general in Hell’s army in a war on Heaven. The Violator accomplishes this best in his human form as a fat, disgusting, psychotic-looking clown (one can only assume that the Insane Clown Posse were paying attention). Despite the crudeness and ridiculousness of the character, there are moments when Violator’s really funny, like when he takes the time to boast of his skills in disembowelment to a kitty cat. His primary joy, though, is torment. And before they even meet, Spawn endures plenty of torment.
Slowly recovering his memories and gaining understanding of his powers, Spawn learns the location of his former wife, Wanda Blake, and readies himself for a face-to-face. Though his skin under his costume is charred and maggot-ridden, Spawn discovers he has the ability to change his appearance. Unfortunately, he can’t return to his original appearance, that of a black man. Now, Simmons can only appear as a white dude with blonde hair, which as you can see in the sequence below, came to Al as quite a shock:
Meeting his wife at her home in Staten Island, Spawn discovers two things that nearly crush him: Wanda has moved on, married his best friend Terry Fitzgerald, and fulfilled her greatest wish of having a child, a wish that Simmons could never grant. It’s the most emotionally resonant moment of the origin story, when Spawn feels like he’s gone as low as he can. He’s wrong.
Shortly after returning to his new home in the alleyways, Spawn has his first battle with Violator, in which they disembowel and dismember each other to no avail. The fight is broken up by Malebolgia himself, who paints an even worse picture for Spawn. The deal truly was rigged: Spawn’s powers are finite, measured “on-screen” by a branded Spawn-Power-o-Meter, as it was sometimes called by fans. The more power Spawn uses, the quicker his soul belongs completely to Malebolgia. If he doesn’t use his powers, the less chance Spawn has of stopping whatever evils he encounters — and in the gritty, Frank Miller-style streets of NYC, that’s a lot of evils. However, every violent street punk, rapist or murderer Spawn kills just ends up in Malebolgia’s army for a war against Heaven. It’s a Catch-666.
Throughout the first four issues of Spawn, numerous references are made to Youngblood and Savage Dragon, and the new age of heroes that inhabit the early Image “universe,” such as it was. Spawn’s not like them, though. He’s no hero, he’s a prisoner, forced to carry out his days to what seems an inevitable end: service in an assault on God. And even as a former atheist, Spawn is uncomfortable with that. He’s no more than a pawn, forever caught between a rock and a hard place.
“Questions” is a good origin story for the quintessential ’90s antihero. There is one huge, burning question, though: why does Spawn have a utility belt strapped around his leg? Of what possible use could this be for a cosmically-powered demon spawn? Is anything in there? Does Spawn ever reach into it for something?
Perhaps we’ll find out in next week’s look at the first year of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn!