By Steve Morris
Spawn stops clinging on to church spires and whining in issue #5 of his series, the unsubtly-titled “Justice”. In it, we spend a vast amount of time looking into the circumstances which allow a convicted child killer to be freed from jail and put back onto the streets, where he immediately goes back to targeting and murdering children in exactly the same way he did before. The justice system, at every level, is shown to be so broken that the only way to move forward from the cycle is if a supernaturally-charged dude with loads of cool chains round his costume can step in on our behalf.
Spawn himself barely appears in the issue, which is hyperfocused on the ridiculous way in which its one-off villain is permitted to commit heinous acts by every official who is supposed to stop this sort of thing from happening. It starts off with an overly-optimistic doctor who for some reason thinks that the killer, Kincaid, has been rehabilitated and ”cured”. In the eyes of the medical professional, the clearly-still-insane Kincaid is now ready to go back out into the streets, despite the fact he keeps singing “you scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream”. Incidentally, Kincaid’s method was to pose as an ice cream seller and abduct children.
While the police – in this case represented by recurring characters Sam and Twitch – are very much aware that Kincaid is going to immediately go out and resume his streak of murders, there’s nothing they can do about it. McFarlane has them go on several histrionic rants about Kincaid throughout the issue, in the process taking the opportunity to throw in thoughts about the nature of a criminal system. “If you think sitting behind locked doors for six years is a cure, then you guys are even bigger idiots than I thought!” yells Sam, pointing dramatically out at Kincaid’s face across McFarlane’s panels. The police are restricted by their code; the prison system isn’t reformatory; and the doctors are deluded. But that’s not the end of the flaws in the structure.
Later in the issue, Spawn finally appears, and finds out that Kincaid has been released. He goes on to narrate for us that while Kincaid murdered several children, there was only one death he was ever convicted on: one which the US Government had apparently instructed Kincaid to carry out, on the daughter of a senator. Those same shadowy officials not only had the senator’s daughter murdered by this serial killer, but they then started hiding the evidence, destroyed the trail, and gave Kincaid everything he needed for an early release from prison. Not only is the system broken and inefficient in protecting the public, McFarlane details – it’s also ruled by corruption right at the very top.
If it feels like I’ve taken a while to explain all this, then just wait until you read the issue: this thing is painstaking in its panel-by-panel exposition of every single detail which allowed a murderer to beat the system. McFarlane isn’t a subtle writer, and he also isn’t brief. At least twelve out of the twenty-two pages in the issue are devoted to explanation of Kincaid’s story, the background figures involved, and the current-day red tape which blocks anyone from doing something about it. But while that would probably sound to be an incredibly boring read, it actually plays right into McFarlane’s hands as a writer/artist. At first, sure, the beats surrounding Kincaid are explained in relatively straightforward sequence, establishing him for the reader. But as time goes on, McFarlane works in a lot of really experimental page structure in order to keep readers interested.
When he narrates from Kincaid’s perspective, for example, he swaps out the panel borders for blood spatters, so each flashback into Kincaid’s previous murders is viscerally and grotesquely framed around the blood of the innocents. Colorists Steve Oliff and Reuben Rude give the flashbacks a sickly pink colouration, highlighting the childish nature of Kincaid’s methodology whilst highlighting the difference between his fond memories and the bloody nature of his attacks, symbolised by the bloody borders.
Later on, Sam and Twitch decide they’re going to stake out Kincaid, on a page which has five tight vertical panels which constrains the two officers within a cramped and inescapable frame. McFarlane doesn’t just use this as a chance to show how the characters are trapped in their current situation, however, mirroring the handcuffs which the law has put around their desire to do the right thing. He also has a silhouette of the city loom up from the bottom of the page, cutting into and over each of the five panels. The city is ever-present for them, a reminder of the vastness of their jurisdiction and the impossibility that two small figures will ever be able to make any kind of dent in protecting it.
Not just that, however. A surprising beat halfway through the issue sees a different police car racing to a crime scene, in the process taking a shortcut through the part of town where the homeless are living One of their number is sleeping at the time, and the car kills him without stopping – or even noticing that he was there. It’s probably the most unexpected part of the issue, in that it actively positions the police as being uncaring and reckless. Notably, they’re on the pursuit of a robbery in progress, the implication clearly being that they value property and goods over the lives of the “bums” who live in the backstreets of the city. The police serve the very same system which put Kincaid on the path of a senator’s daughter, and then set him free from prison to return to his spree. It’s probably the most dynamic scene of action in the issue, and a startling relevant beat in the issue.
Even when McFarlane’s experiments fail – such as the page where we see Spawn’s memories of Kincaid from within loops of his chain, which just comes off as strange – you can at least see a artist who is working to make sure that his verbose approach still offers readers something interesting to look at. It’s a genuine benefit in being both the writer and artist at the same time.
And of course, this being McFarlane, he also uses the overlong exposition of the issue as chances to pay tributes to the artists he loves: we get another talking-heads page of the local news anchors explaining what the public thinks of Kincaid, a replication of Frank Miller’s repeated device in his works of the time; and we also get two nine-panel grids of Spawn stalking Kincaid before cutting to an abrupt splash page, in deference to Alan Moore.
What McFarlane has at his disposal, however, is the freedom that Image comics provided him to go as far as he wants with his stories. While even Moore and Miller were restricted by their editors, there’s nobody here to hold back McFarlane from scenes of extreme and troubling violence. We don’t see Kincaid actually murder anyone, but we do see the aftermath of his murders and mutilations, shown here to be as horrifying as possible to create a real sense of revulsion in readers. It isn’t enough for the comic to detail all the ways the system has failed to contain a monster like Kincaid: McFarlane wants to make sure that Kincaid himself is grotesque and disturbing so readers will cheer what happens to him at the end of the issue.
Which is, again, a startlingly graphic splash page, as Sam returns to his office to find Kincaid’s dead, mutilated body hanging from the ceiling. He’s been stripped naked, stabbed with an ice cream scoop, wrapped up in chains, with a bloody ice lolly shoved down his throat. Despite being set in an unlit office, the splash page doesn’t leave anything to your imagination – it’s simultaneously completely ridiculous and the obvious conclusion to the entire issue. McFarlane tops it off with a sprinkle: a sign bloodily fixed onto Kincaid’s chest says “boys screamed and girls screamed so I made him scream and scream”.
The whole thing is pure McFarlane, a rebuke to the traditional superhero school that says Spider-Man always had to web up his enemies and leave them for the police. We’re only five issues into Spawn, but already we’ve seen a clear demonstration of how futile that same approach would be in this “real world”, and how Spawn’s murderous revenge is the only thing that can break the cycle of violence supported by a corrupt (and inept) justice system. There’s more to come as the series continues, but at this moment we see how there’s only one way to keep the city safe: Spawn’s way.
Spawn #5 “Justice”
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!