By Steve Morris
When it comes to comic book lettering, it’s an easy argument to say that Tom Orzechowski is one of the most talented letterers in Western comics’ history. A mainstay of Uncanny X-Men, and therefore somebody who got to work with several of Image’s founders before they jumped ship, it was only to be expected that Orzechowski would end up joining them at their new publisher. And with Spawn, he wasn’t just doing the lettering – he was essentially running the structure of the entire narrative, issue-by-issue.
This issue sees a fight scene between Violator and Spawn, where they spend most of their time circling one another and making cool poses, rather than engaging in sequential battle in any form. With McFarlane holding back on the momentum and movement in his work, it instead falls to Orzechowski to keep things pushing forward, as he strategically places each piece of text to make sure that the fight seems big, bright, and bombastic. Without him this would all seem to be crazy and nonsensical – with his work on each page, however, each one seems crazy, nonsensical, and entertaining.
If you look past the lettering on the issue, what you’re left with are a series of unusual, abstracted art images – most of them splash pages. The first page, for example, shows Violator holding Spawn’s ripped-out heart in his hand. There’s a blue border extending round the page, with a white central background, and the heart is held dead centre. McFarlane is concerned with adding in box after box of narrative catch-up, which Orzechowski places round the page without interrupting the main image itself, but he also adds in a heartbeat sound effect which falls from off the top of the page down to below the bottom of the page. This is what gives the page a sense of time, and it’s how he structures the (many) narrative captions which are required. As the heartbeat continues onwards, the boxes in turn start to move down the page.
The heartbeats fall right down the centre of the page, providing a sense of time, whilst the boxes scatter themselves randomly around that pacing sound effect. The thoughts come in bits and pieces: the heartbeat is the key to the page, because that’s what proves that Spawn is still alive, and ready for the fight scene which takes up the rest of the issue.
If you’ve got someone like Orzechowski planning the layout of the captions throughout the issue, then as writer/artist you’ve got far more freedom to do whatever you want, in the way you want. And you know what McFarlane wants? A whole bunch of splash pages, presumably so you can sell them later if this whole “Image” business doesn’t last. He really takes advantage of that fact, with over half of this issue taken up by various splashes. That includes one page which spins away from the fight as sound effects take the place of a sequential fight scene. Again, Orzechowski provides the momentum, as we get three giant sound effects which are overlain with two ripped off arms flying through the air: one belongs to Violator, and the other belongs to Spawn. A pretty big moment to not show on panel! But the lettering gives us everything that McFarlane could have drawn, regardless.
I’m not particularly sure that “TUNCH!” “VVASH!” and “SKGT!” sound particularly like two arms getting ripped off, but Orzechowski takes each sound effect and places it in giant-size on the page, with speech bubbles drifting in from off page. Violator’s speech bubbles tail off the left hand side, whilst Spawn’s head from the right hand side – as does a new speech bubble, orange with black highlights and dark orange font. Without seeing any characters, we’re given the back-and-forth of the battle AND the arrival of a new player on the scene, and it’s told simply through the lettering.
We find out that this comes from the creature which granted powers to both Spawn and Violator, and it goes on a length dialogue about what’s going on. In doing so, it tells us exactly what the general premise of Spawn is… four issues in. That’s a calculated risk for the creative team to take, but it comes on a page which is split into four VERY narrow columns, each of which features the creature in various forms of close-up. Orzechowski has to squash in huge amounts of dialogue into a very small space, including the highlights and accents which make the speech bubbles looks demonic and unusual. On top of that, he adds in a different font for the word “God” and some demonic laughter as well, which slips out the side of the demon’s mouth like spittle. A writer wouldn’t have trusted a letterer with that much work, and an artist would never want to have their work covered up like this – but McFarlane has the advantage of being a writer/artist, and he has creative freedom to give his letterer as much complexity as he wants.
Spawn relies on being bombastic and brilliant, keeping its readers entertained even as it gives them something sorta generic and mindless to read about. But through Orzechowski the series is able to juggle an endearing overseriousness with delight in being silly and childish. Towards the end if a page where the demon robs Violator of the ability to switch forms, and it’s something which simultaneously needs to feel important and deeply stupid: Orzechowski provides that. The demon shows off its power in furious form, crushing Violator in its hand before dropping him back to the ground, trapped in his human form. It’s a violent act which is intended to show us just how strong and unstoppable this cosmic force is – but as Violator falls to the ground, he has a big goofy “ooof” speech bubble in rounded, lime-green font. Having previously used a black font-on-yellow background style for Violator’s word balloons, he’s now given something more clown-like.
And we’re left with Tom DeFalco again, ranting and raving at nothing in particular as Spawn towards over him and ultimately walks off into his future. He passes a TV store which has a “cool” image of Savage Dragon on it – remember, this is a connected universe! – and hears two boys say “heroes ain’t suppose to be normal. They’re suppose to be better”. Is that a direct rebuke to Peter Parker’s way of life or what? Coming just after the villain who looks suspiciously like the Spider-Man editor has just been given a taste of his own medicine and humiliated, Spawn decides to drop its “with great power comes great responsibility” moment. That’s not a coincidence.
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!