By Steve Morris
Spawn is one of the best-selling comics of all time, and – with the release of its 300th issue this year – can now claim to be the longest-running creator-owned comic series in history. Created by Todd McFarlane in 1992, Spawn was one of the original launch titles for Image Comics, alongside Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood and Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, which all shared a roughly shared continuity with one another. McFarlane, of course, was best known at the time for his lengthy runs on Spider-Man over at Marvel, where his hyper-detailed fixation on artistic features like Spidey’s webbing brought him a huge audience and made him one of a number of breakout artistic talents for the company through the late 80s and early 90s. With McFarlane and many of those artists subsequently completely frustrated by corporate mandate and editorial standards over at the company, they famously broke away to make Image Comics as a place where their creator-owned ventures could grow away from any kind of interference. That led to today’s comic market, where Image stands as the third-largest of the western comics publishers, with Spawn and Savage Dragon both still running to this day.
The Image founders – of which there are at least seven on any given day, depending who you listen to – are typically lumped together into a gestalt mass of pouches, guns, and over-muscled men screaming off into the distance about their various traumas, and McFarlane’s Spawn isn’t immune to any of those traits. However, it’s not fair to force the various artists into a single entity: Todd McFarlane is very different to his fellow founders, and it reflects onto his style of comics-making. Whereas Liefeld made a series of bad deals and new “improved” imprints which promptly failed or collapsed into one another; whereas Jim Lee transitioned himself into a corporate position through arguably selling out Alan Moore; Todd McFarlane instead moved in a very different direction. Tellingly, each Image founder set up their own imprint – and he chose “Todd McFarlane Productions”. He was the only one to put his name in imprint title, and Spawn, his debut title, was the only launch of a totally new character within that original Image lineup.
McFarlane is a hugely canny businessman, but he’s never sold out his ideals or arguably the industry itself in favour of making money or doing business. Neil Gaiman may disagree, but McFarlane has built a shrewd empire off the back of artistic talent and effort, rather than raw energy or big relaunches. That Spawn has made 300 issues is a huge achievement, and even though McFarlane himself hasn’t really drawn the series himself since the fiftieth issue he’s always kept his name associated with the character first and foremost. This is a creation by McFarlane, and any film or video game appearances, or subsequent toys (especially the subsequent toys) stress that. If you’re reading Spawn, you’re reading a character which wholly belongs to Todd McFarlane, and he’s made sure to never stray too far from his signature creation.
What does it mean to be a Todd McFarlane character, though? I have a gap in my comics understanding which is “Image Founders”-shaped, and with Spawn hitting that landmark 300th issue recently, I thought it’d be a good time to step way back in time to a formative era for modern comics, and see how Spawn works as a series, as a character, and as a concept. And, of course, write about each issue as I go through them. I don’t know how long this series will run for, but I’m currently aiming to get to the end of the Tom Orzechowski two-parter coming in twenty issues’ time. Because, again, that speaks to McFarlane’s artistic interests – he brought the best comics letterer at Marvel across with him to Image; let him write a Spawn story himself, and has kept Orzechowski on the series across three decades. To me, an uninformed person who is pretending to be informed, that says volumes about his approach to comics-making, and his vision for what Image Comics is supposed to be.
Orzechowski is our first introduction to the world of Spawn, as well. The first page of the first issue doesn’t have a single person on it, but sits out in space, gazing down on Earth as Orzechowski’s lettering sits, randomly, throughout the panels. Just as Earth hangs across space, so Orzechowski’s narrative captions are scattered and alone – these aren’t precise or clean narration boxes, but sit at different heights in each panel and sometimes cross over the gutters. It represents the character before we see him at all – somebody who is totally lost and alone, and whose ideas and thoughts come to him in short bursts of consciousness. Unlike McFarlane’s more famous work for hire ventures, Spawn immediately sets himself out as somebody unpredictable, readers unsure if we should see him as a hero, antihero, or villain.
The comic also plays into the stylings of the time and the biggest comics in the world for people making stories in 1992. That first page has a nine-panel grid, in reference to Watchmen, but drops an extra tenth panel which runs along the length of those other panels – almost as if to suggest that this is going to take on the biggest comic of all time and ramp things up just that one further notch. Only a few pages later, we then hit a trademark Miller-esque “talking heads” sequence where the local news anchors deliver an incredibly text-heavy dump of exposition, although none of it tips the hand too far in what’s actually going on. Youngblood gets referenced as well, and there’s also a supernatural element which feels like something from a Neil Gaiman comic like Sandman. Not for nothing, but Gaiman, Moore and Miller will all go on to write early issues of Spawn.
McFarlane’s narrative voice is split into three parts, which are each represented by a different news anchor as they report on the death of Al Simmons (the military man who is, in fact, Spawn). First we have the factual report on Simmons’ death, which represents the essential grounding of the story on a street-level, simple and truthful basis. The series will go off on tangents, but the core of this first year is that Spawn lives on the streets, with real people, and real concerns. We then hear a conspiracy theorist offer his thoughts on Simmons’ death, which plays into an element of political paranoia which pervades the series. McFarlane is keen to show Spawn as being an American story first and foremost, flags flying amidst the bullets and warfare. Although the military are shown to be human and complex; the military complex is shown as being fallible, worrying, and aggressive. Finally, we get a straight-laced reporter offering his sordid and gossipy take on what’s going on, bringing in soap opera and drama to what should be the story of a military funeral. Those three elements – the grounded realism; the madcap paranoia; the gossipy melodrama – are key to what Spawn is.
It takes six pages to get to Spawn himself, because the comic is concerned with setting down a long-term foundation for itself as a series. Everything you need to know about the basics of Spawn is laid out across nine-panel pages, essentially using the Holy Template as a swift way of conveying across the details of an origin story without actually explaining the origin. Unusually, Spawn’s origin as a character is implied without being explicitly told to the readers, as we hear everything from his perspective – and at this point, he has no real memories or understanding of who he is. This is an origin story the reader is encouraged to experience in-time with the lead character, rather than something we view from a third-person perspective. The panels show off snippets of a Simmons’ life, but stripped of most of the context and with a huge amount of detail left out. It’s a superhero origin story as mystery, in essence.
When we do see Spawn, McFarlane really lets us see Spawn: we get three splash pages in a row. Firstly we get the essence of his face as his memories fall to one side in panels arranged like collapsing cards in a deck: then we see him in profile, before finally getting a full view of him in all his toyetic glory. The influences of McFarlane’s time writing and drawing Spider-Man are clear in this first design for Spawn. The detailed spider-webs are replaced by swarming chains and a flowing, uncontrolled cape, his mask looks similar to the Venom design, and he stands on a rooftop flexing and posing just like you’d imagine a superhero from the 1990s should look. The differences are just as important, however. Spawn has spikes wrapped round his arms and ankles, skulls, and pouches. His gloves are sharpened, and his eyes are coloured a bright and dynamic green. This is a vigilante rather than a superhero, and the design has an unsettling affect – by design, this is meant to look like something more serious and adult than Marvel’s bright and wide-eyed heroes.
Spawn’s first real act – other than panicking about his existence – is to stop a rape, which is another sign that McFarlane wants his comic to feel “mature”. Rape is an ignorantly-used shorthand in comics as a whole, with those three touchstones of Gaiman, Miller and Moore all repeatedly using it in their stories. Here we get much the same, with three men attacking a woman and stripping her before Spawn jumps in and beats them all up using a combination of hand-to-hand combat and mystical power. That gives us more understanding of who he is, certainly, but it also gives a real guide to Todd McFarlane’s approach to morality. It seems that these rapists are actually killed by Spawn, which is a pretty zero-tolerance approach that also steps the characters away from simple heroism. Having murdered them, he’s actually rewarded with more memories of his past, which then steers him towards finding his own wife, who he sees dressed for a funeral. And thus his arc for the next few issues is determined.
What’s interesting is how the comic already offers readers everything they really need to piece together the next six issues. By reading between the lines you already know what Spawn’s real name is, what happened to him, and why he is now Spawn. The comic is designed to be re-read, which is an especially smart choice for an opening issue of a series. Whilst the driving motivation of the issue is we want you to read the next issue, McFarlane not only gives readers a POV-style experience of Spawn’s origin as the character tries to understand it, but uses the comics medium to give them every opportunity to get five steps ahead of Spawn himself. If you read the comic you get the same fragmented experience that Spawn has, with memories remembered at random and news stories delivered without being directed to what’s happening in the narrative right now. If you read the comic several times, however, you can clearly piece together a timeline for the character, who he really is, and what’s happening.
It puts the reader in a position of power against the main character of the series, which is a fascinating change of pace. It’s usual for the character to be ahead of the reader – like in Sandman, where Dream knows everything about himself and the reader has to learn it as the series move on. Here, though, we’re given more knowledge than Spawn has, and it makes the character more sympathetic. The comic is specifically arranged to let the reader choose how much understanding they have of what’s going on in the narrative, changing the reading experience depending on how the reader chooses to read their comic. That, to me, seems to be what made Spawn so winning for readers right from the start: it’s a mystery which it’s actually possible to solve right from the start, rather than being something like Watchmen where you can’t piece everything together until you get several issues in. It’s simpler than other comics, but also more elegant for that exact reason.
Nothing about the comic is actually elegant – purposely so. This is a comic with several American flags strewn about, no end of skulls or images of shattered glass. The character strain and scream in convention, and there’s a wonderfully overblown sense of drama to everything, as though this is the most important thing in the universe. McFarlane isn’t afraid to stamp this as being something which should matter for readers, and that’s perhaps why Spawn has lasted so long in the collective consciousness of comics readers: it’s hugely confident in itself. Freed of any editorial oversight, McFarlane’s first move is to make something just different enough from his previous comics that it’s guaranteed to get the reader’s attention. It’s a rough comic, but also one which thrives in how rough it is. Orzechowski’s lettering is jagged and aggressive, McFarlane’s sequencing is unexpected and wild, and the characters are overblown and manic.
Spawn has endured, which was always Todd McFarlane’s goal – but something which was far from certain. That endurance is for many reasons, but all of them seem to exist in some shape or form within this first issue. It’s dated and it’s weird, but those somehow act in its favour and give it a feeling of vibrancy and counterculture. Most strikingly of all, Spawn is supremely confident in its own identity, even as its lead character has yet to grasp any understanding of his own.
Written, drawn and Inked by Todd McFarlane
Coloured by Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude and Olyoptics
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Published by Image Comics
With thanks to Colin Bell, who came up with the name for this column!
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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