Image At 25: How ‘Spawn’ Provided Sullen Teens With A Way Into Comics
You don’t say.
Spawn was one of the four core titles published by Image Comics at its foundation 25 years ago, along with Youngblood, Savage Dragon, and WildCATS. Back then, when I still thought I was a cishet white guy, Spawn hit like an atomic bomb, one where the mushroom cloud formed the visage of Eddie from an Iron Maiden album cover. Everything about the character was focused like a laser on appealing to a #teen who is sure angry at something --- the chains, the skulls, the spikes, the glowing eyes, the rubbery monsters and dark inks, all fused with the sleek lines and bright colors of the superheroic aesthetic.
As a writer, McFarlane was better at ideas than at implementation; early Spawn reads as extremely wordy, which is a surprise given that McFarlane wrote and drew the book. But the visual craft itself is still outstanding, since all those words are lettered by Tom Orzechowski, the legendary letterer on Uncanny X-Men who gave Claremont’s dialogue such a distinct cadence. Orzechowski's skills are on full display here; all of his tricks with balloon size, letter size, balloon type and spacing, and well-placed sound effects, meshing beautifully with McFarlane's artwork.
Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude and the Olyoptics crew also stepped up with their use of color; Image was one of the first superhero publishers to lean heavily on computer coloring, and the effect was immediate. When we talk about how, in modern comics, the colorist is as important as the line artist, books like Spawn are a big reason why.
Taken together, it’s a gorgeous book, even if the style isn’t for everyone. For exactly two years it was the coolest comic book in my life, just like how at one point MAD Magazine was the most subversive satire I had ever read.
I wince when I look back at how overwrought and melodramatic it got...
... but there’s nothing wrong with going through a phase in your life and coming out the other end.
And looking back, there were a couple of good lessons to take from Spawn, with the first of them related to confronting my own inborn prejudices. I just assumed Spawn was white until he stated, pointedly, that he was black. I shouldn’t have made that assumption, and I was forced to ask myself why I’d made it; a question with hundreds of years of history as its answer.
We still have representation argument and criticisms –- and Spawn was far from perfect, with its hero’s skin literally burnt off, and his costume almost always masking him from head to toe, his blackness hidden --- but Spawn did become, overnight, the most popular black superhero in comics, defying the naysayers that doubt the ability of black characters to carry their own comics.
Also importantly, Spawn in its early issues brought on board writers such as Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Dave Sim. They wrote a series of short stories that also served as a gateway to their work, blowing a young Charlotte’s mind once she picked up her first issue of Sandman --- an event that may never have happened if it weren’t for Gaiman’s issue of Spawn where Angela debuted.
McFarlane later wound up in legal hot water with his collaborators, the result of which is that Angela wound up at Marvel, of all places. The promise of Image as a creator-owned paradise was shaky even in those early days. But Spawn was the first place a young #teen such as myself saw the promise articulated, and it’s the promise that came to define the company as it branched out from, “What if superheroes, but guns” as its remit.
Spawn is still going, and McFarlane is still involved, and Image still publishes it. Al Simmons is no longer the most popular black superhero on the planet --- he may not even be Spawn any more --- and McFarlane himself has branched out into toys, collectibles, and music videos for exactly the kind of bands you’re thinking of. But for a time, Spawn was the It Book for a certain kind of fan, and so much of how I approach, and love, comics can be traced back to it.