Three weeks ago, 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)!

All good things must come to an end. Also: month-long, four-part reviews of 20-year-old comic books that have managed to alter the inner architecture of my brain and reduce me to a vocabulary of 5000 words, all Spawn-related. Those must end as well.Todd McFarlane's first year of Spawn was a pretty ambitious one, and he put Al Simmons through wringer after wringer: killing him (just to get started), marrying his wife to his best friend, stealing his sense of manhood, and robbing him of his cultural identity, and that's all before the first issue even started. Simmons was forced into league with a devil, given a fat, insane demon clown as an arch-nemesis, and pitted against a murderous pedophile, a stupidly-named cyborg assassin, one bloodthirsty angel, two gangs of heavily-armed street punks, and the comic book industry itself.

Despite all the obvious negatives implicit in McFarlane's writing -- again with the unnecessary second-person? -- there's at least one thing he does very well: he hurts his character. He does everything he can to make Spawn's life as bad as it can possibly be. He strands Spawn in a tree during a piss-flood and chucks rock after rock at his big, ugly, stupid head. He also plots pretty darn well, and by the conclusion of the first year, the A, B, and C-plots are strong and connected, and a major question is ready to be answered: Who killed Al Simmons?

To begin "Flashback," Spawn is once again striking a pose on a church steeple, pondering the 24-hour crap-fest his life has become, and wondering why he's always drawn back to this church. In his former life, atheist Al Simmons had only stepped foot in church once, for his wedding to Wanda Blake. Of course, remembering his wedding and nicely recapping the last few issues leaves Spawn in a particularly mopey state. Not even a Mopey-o-meter would be able to measure it. Only a dramatic two-page spread would be able to contain it.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., we finally get our first non-flashback-or-hallucination look at spymaster Jason Wynn, Al Simmons' former boss. And within about a second, we find out he really is the giant, festering hemorrhoid everybody said he was. Powerful as he may be, Spawn's actions have consequences, and after breaking in to government offices to steal files and raiding top-secret weapons stashes, Wynn's office has formed a list of suspects. Topping the list? Simmons' best friend, husband to his widow, and father to the child he could never have, Terry Fitzgerald. Taking a moment to lament the disappointment that Simmons turned out to be, Wynn orders a couple of guys over to Fitzgerald's house to put a fright into his former agent and his dead pupil's wife.

Moved by memories of his wedding, Al pays a visit to his favorite in-law, Wanda's Grandma Blake. Since he now knows for sure that there is an afterlife and spoilers haven't been invented, Al spills the beans to Grandma. But Grandma Blake is magical and wise: She already knows there's an afterlife and quickly recognizes Al's voice behind the gravelly black-and-grey borders of his word balloons, believing him to be an angel. Because gloominess "spawns" (eh?) know-it-allness, Al informs Grannie that he literally went to Hell. Because that's the type of thing you say to an old relative. But Grannie is old and stubborn and refuses to believe that Al's crispy status isn't part of a benevolent God's master plan. Simmons leaves feeling better than he has in a long time, his misery temporarily averted. It's truly one of the nicest moments of the infant series, and a scene that probably 500,000 little punk fanboys laughed at for its inexcusable lack of hardcore violence.

But hey, life sucks and little punks are rewarded: Sam and Twitch are on suspension after the body of Billy Kincaid appeared in their office spit-roasted on popsicle sticks; a couple of goons from the United States Security Group (finally, Simmons' old agency has a name) pop by Fitzgerald's to inspire a little fear; and no matter how faithfully Al bellows "Wilma!" in his hobros' (homeless bros) sing-along of The Flintstones theme (seriously, a classic moment), he can't seem to stop having flashbacks. This one is different, though.

The visions of his own flag-draped coffin and disembodied, smiling skulls that harassed Al since his resurrection pointed to something, as did the mysterious draw that the church seemed to have over him. They were all just trippy clues to the identity of his murderer: a government assassin who became a superhero, who wore a skull as his sigil, and whose name was another word for church. Youngblood's resident gun-toting, skull-painted killer, Chapel.

It was a huge reveal handled nicely, with only a few clues along the way, but clues that added up and actually made sense. It was also straight-up ballsy. Rob Liefeld's Youngblood was insanely popular, and their memorably ankle-less "monthly" exploits nearly rivaled Spawn in sales. Every character had a rabid following, and Chapel's was among the biggest. To expose him as the murderer of an even more insanely popular character was clever and risky of both McFarlane and Liefeld, and it paid off. In spite of every bad thing one could say about the pair of outspoken and idiosyncratic creators, it would be an outright lie to say that McFarlane and Liefeld weren't fond of taking risks.

Of course, it helped that Chapel was, especially as portrayed by McFarlane, a gargantuan douche. A womanizing alpha-male nihilist who cared only about his career, Bruce Stinson was a supersoldier-enhanced member of Operation Knightstrike alongside Simmons. At the order of Jason Wynn, he killed his partner with no remorse whatsoever. Because that's what a gargantuan douche would do. But there is some justice even in the early Image world: as part of his supersoldier treatments, Chapel was also infected with a strain of AIDS that could be activated by his handlers should he ever turn on them; and oh yeah, that pissed-off Hellspawn with cosmic powers and a bad attitude.

Easily getting past the Youngblood HQ's defenses, Spawn sneaks by a video-gaming Badrock (64-bit graphics!? No way dude!) and absconds with Chapel before Shaft (heh) and Diehard (hah!) even know what's going on. Though he could atomize Chapel at the snap of his pointy fingers, Simmons wants to beat him on his own terms; he wants Chapel to know who he is and where he came from; and, most of all, he wants Chapel to suffer. After beating him in hand-to-hand combat, Spawn expends a mere fraction of his limited powers to shear the flesh from Chapel's face -- down to the bone, making the skull face paint thing just a little redundant. Spawn #13 ends with a chilling image: Chapel beaten and bettered, less one face. A great conclusion to the first year of this most crucial comic book of the early 1990s.

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