By Steve Morris
Nothing really matters in Spawn, and that seems to be more a part of its charm than a slam on the series. Having been pestered by Violator throughout the previous issue, in the third issue Spawn wanders off and makes no reference to the clown until near the end of the issue, where they have a brief fight which Violator easily wins. He rips out Spawn’s heart and walks off triumphantly – only for Spawn to revive and confront him right on the final page. We’re right back where we started, essentially. His quick defeat of Spawn is shown as being impressive and scary – but then Spawn stands right back up. The message is confused: should we consider Violator to be a genuine threat, or is Spawn actually invincible at this point? If you have your heart ripped out and get right back up, how is anything going to be a threat moving forward?
The answer is… of course nothing is going to be a threat moving forward. This isn’t a series about a superhero and their battle through life; it’s a series about the aesthetics of superhero comics, all posture and swagger through a world where nothing really matters and there’s no consequence or threat to anything. Spawn looks cool and poses a lot, his enemies are strange and pose a lot, and inbetween there’s a bunch of melodrama designed as soap-opera glue for McFarlane’s theatrical tendencies. Neither Spawn nor Violator die at this point in the series – and in fact, very few characters are killed during this point in the series’ publication history. The cast of characters keeps on building and building endlessly, staggering between scenes under their weight without giving many of them any purpose or momentum. The cops bicker and go nowhere in their investigation; Wanda and her new family float above any narrative so Spawn can emote about their encased-in-amber utopian lives; the demon cackles and watches passively. Nobody is actually doing anything in this comic, and it’s really fascinating to see how that compares to the general ideal of superhero comics.
It’s not like characters at Marvel really have forward momentum, or change in grand or dramatic ways: Punisher can become a space demon (or whatever is going on there) but he will ultimately return to his classic style. The Hulk may be a horror character right now, but that won’t stick: Batman isn’t going to actually marry Catwoman. The comics constantly offer the illusion of change whilst making sure that the status quo is right there waiting for them as soon as the next creative team need them to be. Spawn, by comparison, doesn’t even go for the illusion of momentum: it’s delighted to wallow in itself. There’s something gleeful about that decision – if Marvel comics are a burst of energy rushing you backwards and forwards with equal speed, Spawn is like a long lukewarm bath.
The most dramatic section of the issue sees Spawn putting on his “cover” identity (which, just to remind you, is of a white man) so he can go visit his widow without her knowing who he is. She arrives at the door in a fancy dress, but more shocking is the daughter who appears behind her – the daughter of her second marriage, as it turns out she’s married Spawn’s former best friend and had a child with him. He faints with the shock, even though deep down he’s shown as being essentially fine with this whole thing. Wanda has moved on and married a good man; she has a happy family; she’s healthy. As he rants later on, “ethically” this is all basically everything he could’ve wanted in death. His concerns are more about himself, which is a fascinating psychological choice to make for the character.
As I’ve said, any other comic would show this as part of a grand plan to have Spawn get his wife back and adopt the kid, as the new husband would turn out to be a rotter – but none of that is signalled here. This isn’t a story where grand action has to meet grand action: instead, Spawn takes the upsetting news into himself and uses it to fuel his own tragedy. There’s no suggestion that he’s going to do anything except feel bad for himself – which, again, is a change in the way comics usually pace themselves. He’s subsequently blindsided by Violator and thrown into the dirt, before reviving and standing him down right at the end of the issue.
In writing about the last issue, there was an argument that Spawn is all allegory: the hero represents McFarlane himself and Violator represents Marvel comics – or at least, the visible face of the company, because the heart of the publisher belongs to a devil. Here you see a man who tried to start a family and create something for himself, only for that to be taken away from him. His impotence perhaps then matches McFarlane’s inability to create lasting change at Marvel Comics, and the family he once had (let’s say the Spider-Man comic) is now being looked after by a different man. As Spawn finds himself drawn into endless battles with Violator, so you can see the creative control McFarlane tried to take from editor Tom DeFalco, who physically resembles the clown pretty strongly.
So actually, the reason nothing matters in Spawn is because Spawn has no idea what he’s capable of at this time. All he can see are the things he’s lost, and apparently can’t reclaim. If he goes back to his wife, he has to do so under the guise of a different person, because he’s been through such huge changes since he last saw her. He doesn’t know what to do or how to progress himself, and so he’s stuck in a form of shiftless limbo as the realisation of everything he’s lost – and the person he’s now become – has to sink in. His support network is gone, and in fact has gone on to flourish in a different way since he’s been gone. That lukewarm bath is something that Spawn has to wallow in until he can come to his senses and realise his own power.
When you see the series through this light, the choices made start to feel more concrete. There’s still a lot of flash and bombast from Spawn himself, who continues to wander round in alleyways and bemoan his situation rather endlessly. But there’s a point to his moaning, and there’s meaning in how lost and useless he feels. He’s lost everything that mattered to him, and despite having all these new powers and abilities he’s not realised that he can move forward, leave the past behind, and make something new and different for himself. The third issue of Spawn doesn’t move the character forward in any particular way, and he’s not learned anything between the twenty-odd pages of story here. Yet that’s essentially the whole point of this story: this isn’t a superhero story where nobody progresses because of editorial mandate. Instead, it’s about a man trying to move beyond his superhero past. What do you do after you’ve lost it all?
Written, drawn and Inked by Todd McFarlane
Coloured by Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude and Olyoptics
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Published by Image Comics
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.
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!