By Steve Morris
In 1991 Stan Lee was the host of a short-lived TV show called “The Comic Book Greats”. After having already spoken to each of them separately, for the fourth episode he brought on both Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld to take on a joint creative challenge. Stan would give the pair the name for a new comic book character – and with only that name alone, the duo would have to create a new character – one who’d be really exciting and (as Stan goes on to belabour repeatedly) would be great for a lucrative movie adaptation in future. With twenty minutes to design and draw the character, he gives them the name “Overkill”.
And that’s exactly who they go on to create, with Liefeld quietly setting up the bulk of the character before McFarlane goes on to add in a series of extra artistic details to define him. The Overkill character, as shown on the episode, would then go on to become “Overt-Kill” at Image Comics, with a slight redesign and a new villainous trajectory. Why the slight name change? While I wouldn’t doubt for a minute if Stan had a little red button installed underneath the desk with “press to copyright” written on it, it’s actually because Marvel already had a character called Overkill on their trademarks. You had one job, Stan!!
Fun fact: Marvel’s Overkill is actually the same character as “Taserface”, who had a semi-starring role in Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
Thanks to the internet, the episode remains available now, and it’s a fascinating watch. Stan is just as you might expect, but McFarlane and Liefeld display far different personas to the ones we might recognise today. Here’s the episode:
There’s quite a few telling moments in the episode – the jokes that one day Todd and Rob might sue each other (oh boy) and Stan stating every two minutes that he’s going to claim credit for the character design. But the most intriguing part of the episode for me is how McFarlane spends most of the time narrating whilst Liefeld is doing the basic design work. After a few minutes of Liefeld setting up the character design, McFarlane starts adding things in on the top, going for the idea of “overkilling” the character and making him exaggerated – he requests chains and wires and cables and mesh on Overkill. Each time he adds something new, to Liefeld’s very mild exasperation, McFarlane refers back to the idea that he’s making something “for the kids”.
And! I think that seems SO telling for Spawn as a whole.
Peppered through the design process are quotes like “the kids love chains”; “I’m going to add leather straps, the kids will get to see him working out”; “let’s put wires down his legs as the kids love that stuff”, and so on. You could argue this is McFarlane projecting his own interests onto his target demographic, but each time he makes a suggestion like this, Liefeld agrees, and quickly starts adding them in. It shows the perspective that both artists had in mind when they first came off Marvel and started working on their own projects over at Image Comics. They’re making comics for kids first and foremost, and they never seem to lose sight of that. Every little detail they add to the design, they add because they’re making something they think will look cool to kids.
Cut to issue #6 of Spawn, and the revamped Overt-Kill makes his debut. He’s a cyborg who works for the mafia, and is sent after Spawn on a mission of revenge. If you remember, a few members of the mob had their hearts ripped out in previous issues, with Spawn suspected to have been the reason for said rippage – so Overt-Kill is assigned the job of killing off the vigilante. Simple enough, and narratively a decent follow-up for previous issues. Spawn is not a subtle comic by any means, but it’s satisfying to see that McFarlane is able to pinpoint useful bits of continuity to keep the momentum inching forward, even if it only rolls forward in tiny increments at a time.
It’s also a storytelling choice which feels fitting for Overt-Kill’s unexpected origins as a twenty-minute TV challenge. The character, frequently called “a tank” by Liefeld as they draw him, is a huge monster of a man, with battle armour, giant shoulder pads, taping down both arms, a massive chain, rivets and a cybernetic eye. All things that are aimed to look impressive to a younger audience. For the comics, McFarlane takes out the three-barrel gun attachment on his right hand, but for the most part you can really see how they translated the 20-minute design into an ongoing comic book character. The general concept all makes sense, even if you might question the overall arrangement. He’s toyetic, he’s cool, and he’s going to fight Spawn for reasons which hold up the ongoing series’ narrative. Neat!
With all that in mind, it’s amazing to see what McFarlane actually does with Overt-Kill once the character shows up in the pages of Spawn. Which is to say: nothing beyond those televised twenty minutes of work.
The “he’s a tank, he’s a tank” stuff stays in, as do all the flailing bits and pieces designed to impress the kids. But the artistic design is all the character seems to possess, and nothing exists beyond it. Overt-Kill’s personality is that he likes killing people, and he smashes stuff a lot, but both these traits are stated blankly rather than revelled-in. Throughout the issue, McFarlane writes a surprisingly old-fashioned prose for all his charaters, which works in some cases – such as when Spawn details his backstory to the other homeless people he lives with, where the rigid and unyielding bluntness of the writing gives things a feeling of “normalcy” which almost fits – but largely feels awkward and dated in a comic that’s meant to be cool: y’know, for kids.
For example, take like this ode to explosiveness, seen in the page earlier on in this essay: “do not look so confident, my friend. Such smugness has been the downfall of men greater than you”. The overwriting on Overt-Kill isn’t set up to make him feel cool and volatile: instead it makes him seem slow, ponderous, and avoidable. The character doesn’t use contractions, so everything takes longer to read, and that means Spawn must have longer to wait between punches. An easier fight, then! It actively plays against the idea of the character being a threat. He’s simply big and dull, and doesn’t have any of the exaggeration his visual design implies.
This disappointing realisation of the character plays out through the issue – which, curiously enough, Stan Lee had already suggested as a problem during the challenge. On the show he keeps asking if Overt-Kill should have some kind of jet engine or system to propel him forward, as the character seems like it needs something to make it feel more threatening. Sure enough, when the time comes for Spawn to fight Overt-Kill in this issue, there’s no flair to proceedings either in the dialogue, the structure, or the artistic sequencing of the fight.
Take this page, where it repeatedly falls on letterer Tom Orzechowski to crank things up in an attempt to make things look interesting, because McFarlane is missing the rhythm in almost every panel. What should be a fight that evokes the final fight in Terminator 2 – I’m pretty confident that was the intent – instead devolves into slow, muddled action and overindulgence of dialogue.
The first panel has that odd frazzled frame around it, which seems to be the frayed ends of Spawn’s cape? It’s not clear what’s highlighting the panel, which throws me off as a reader – a feeling continued by the counteractive facial expression, which doesn’t seem to be half as maniacally-laughing as the word balloon suggests. In fact, Overt-Kill seems to be actively in pain, until he flips the chains onto Spawn, but then the mocking dialogue confusingly contradicts that narrative. It’s not as bold as it needs to be. The character was excitedly designed to be as ridiculous and over the top as possible, but he’s written with no sense of joy. That sits starkly in contrast to the child killer of the previous issue, who was almost too excitedly-written.
“Quit yer squirming” indeed, Overt-Kill, you villain from James Bond Jr, you.
This then leads to a sequence where Spawn – who isn’t using his powers in the fight, for reasons I’ll get to later – feeds his enemy’s arm into an engine, which grinds it into nothingness. We do get the setup to the act shown in silhouette, but the second panel then stretches out for so long that Spawn has to tell the readers what he’s doing in order to guide us through the muddled sequence that follows. The act of ducking, and the act of Overt-Kill drawing back his punch, are both lost in the page structure, which removes the momentum from the fight. Overt-Kill needs to have that wind-up for the big punch so we get the satisfaction of seeing Spawn escape and trick Overt-Kill into losing an arm. Without that establishing beat, we feel like we miss the impact, and the page passes by without giving us what we want. “Giving the kids what they want”, remember, is exactly what Rob and Todd were so focused on during the design process. Something hasn’t translated from the design into the finished article.
I think another element to the problem is that Spawn’s anger with Overt-Kill doesn’t get established particularly well beforehand, which damages their fight sequence in the second half of the issue. McFarlane knows his story beats inside-out, but he seems to focus on the wrong elements in the lead-up to the fight. We have strange tangents which take up pages, like a sub-story in which members of the mafia go round the streets shooting homeless people trying to stir up Spawn and get him out into the open. Spawn kills them both off-panel and then Overt-Kill shows up to do… the same thing again. It defeats the point: just make Overt-Kill the sole threat here, and make him directly responsible for Spawn being angry and vengeful. It steals pages away when McFarlane really needs to make use of every single panel he has.
The lack of panel-time seriously hurts the fight as well, because Spawn occupies a very confusing place from the moment it starts. He’s motivated by the death of the other people who live out on the streets alongside him, and wants Overt-Kill dead for it. But at the same time, he refuses to use his powers, for reasons which aren’t explained for readers ahead of the fight. The result is that Spawn shows up in front of Overt-Kill, flexes a bunch, then lets himself get beaten up and left for dead.
The whole thing is incredibly wonky, and does nothing to make Overt-Kill seem monumental (having just beaten up an easy target) or Spawn seems like a scrappy underdog. Each character comes out of the fight weaker!
With all of this, what I keep coming back to is how simple a formula Todd McFarlane was working from throughout that video. He has a mantra almost, which he doesn’t realise he’s repeating throughout his design process: “the kids will like this cool thing”, “the kids want to see this sort of cool thing”. He wants to make something that’s distracting, visually exciting, and gets people hooked in on what’s happening. That’s exactly what works with Spawn himself, who has a great visual with lots of things to get distracted by.
But the thing for me is that when you watch the video back, what becomes clear is that his formula is always about what kids are looking at first and foremost. A 90s McFarlane design goes only as far as looks, offering nothing in the way of character backstory, agenda, ambition, or thought-process.
When Stan Lee offers some slight character-work to fill in that gap, McFarlane casually brushes it off while drawing bullet-holes in the background. It seems telling: the character’s personality can be completely blank, but there can’t be any white space visible in the background of a design piece. Yeah, Overt-Kill is a fun, busy design – and in a fun, busy comic like Spawn he should fit right in alongside manic characters like Violator or Kincaid. When he finally transfers into a comic, however, all the magic of creation seems to have been sapped out, and he’s this incredible nothing of a character. It’s Randy Quaid strapped into a giant robot suit and told to improv his lines.
Overt-Kill only took twenty minutes to create… but because that’s all the thinking that was ever done about Overt-Kill, I think most readers will forget him in half that time. It’s a shame: Spawn could have really used a big monster to test its main character during this early stage in his fledgling career as a supernatural vigilante. And it’s a two-parter as well! What a nightmare.
Spawn #6 “Payback, Part 1”
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.
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