OK, I’ve cooled my heels for a few weeks, and now we’re back. Let’s kick things off by talking about a project that, twenty years ago, dominated the imaginary Comics Internet: Miller. McFarlane. Batman. Spawn. After the jump.
Spawn / Batman was, bar none, probably the biggest deal ever. Sure, it was the biggest deal ever for a couple months in 1994, and after that people sort of stopped paying attention. Still, the fan press — WIZARD, HERO Illustrated, everyone except for The Comics Journal (and probably even them, a little) — couldn’t get enough of it. Frank Miller writing a Batman he promised as existing in the same ideaspace, if not continuity, as the broken-down warhorse he’d rescued from TV-sitcom buffoonery in The Dark Knight Returns. Todd McFarlane drawing the character he’d stitched to the post-Image independent-superhero boom to act as its spine and standard. This was really, really big.
The most surprising part of all of this is that the hype was actually justified. Now, nearly twenty years later, it’s easy to forget that both Miller and McFarlane used to be regular contributors to the comic book world. McFarlane mostly works as an inker or finisher these days, after a long period of almost total inactivity comics-wise; Miller has reinvented himself as a Hollywood director, cranky misanthrope, and occasional graphic-novel creator. In the early 90s, though, both were at the forefront of what seemed like a war in the making, between the Big Two and independent creators. Both were fiercely principled mavericks who weren’t afraid to voice potentially unpopular and almost assuredly caustic opinions of the state of comics. Miller in particular was coming off of a powerful run of projects for Dark Horse, including Hard Boiled, the first Sin City, and (as previously discussed in this column) RoboCop vs. Terminator.
This also was not Miller and McFarlane’s first big-name team-up. Perhaps realizing his own limitations as a writer, McFarlane recruited Miller to write an issue of Spawn — the culmination of a four-issue arc whose cast of writers also included Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Dave Sim (can you imagine any comic company pulling off something like this nowadays?). Disregarding the questing aspect of the previous issues — indeed, casually dismissing the Sim issue as a dream or something — Miller grounded the issue in Spawn’s home: the gutter. The two predominant themes of Miller’s 90s-and-onward output are in clear evidence there. Not only does the issue strain its spandex with rippling, muscular machismo, it leers and winks with a crude sense of humor (Spawn’s enemies in that issue are a hyper-musclebound gang called the Nerdz). This sort of hyperbolic writing was almost uniquely suited to the Golden Age of Image, and Todd McFarlane drank it up. No subtlety — nothing whispered when it could be screamed instead.
This synergy continued in Spawn / Batman. Miller and McFarlane both knew what was expected of them, and were content to deliver that to the best of their abilities, rather than confound anyone (or risk losing even a single sale) by breaking particularly new ground. The most interesting lineage to place it within, though, is in seeing it as the prequel of Dark Knight Returns. Dark Knight Returns and DK2 made a virtue of information overload; DKR in particular laid out every page with a 16-panel grid in mind. Spawn / Batman has no such density. Adherence to a grid was never one of Todd McFarlane’s habits, and so things are more spread out. There seems to be the same amount of verbiage flying around, however — Tom Orzechowski gets a workout as word balloons double their typical size. (I hadn’t remembered any Image production from this era containing this many words.) The balance is a bit queasy as the two forces push against one another; Miller’s ultra-voluminous exposition on the one hand, and McFarlane’s big punchy panels on the other.
The plot gets more exposition than it really deserves. A case leads Batman to New York, where he fights Spawn; they team up against an evil arms dealer, and that’s that. As usual, what’s most interesting is what’s locked up inside the guts, and in Spawn / Batman, what Miller fills things out with is Batman whining. A lot. I almost wonder if it was an act of pure petulance against DC: throughout the story, Spawn is portrayed as a reasonable guy (as reasonable as violent vigilante demons get, anyway), and Batman is an irascible asshole, responding to everything he can with a punch or an insult. At every opportunity, Spawn upstages and overpowers him — their fight is most definitely a win for Spawn, and the only recourse Batman has is to act like a jackass for the entire rest of the comic, until he closes things off by throwing a batarang into Spawn’s face. The grad school student in me desperately wants to interpret that last page as something more: Spawn’s horribly scarred and hideous face, pretty much nonplussed, bleeding green gunk from the wound of a Batarang jammed halfway into his skull. The message being, perhaps, that the Big Two could try and hurt Image (and by extension, independent comics), but they’d survive. (Indeed, Spawn just hit #200 a year ago.)
So why is this forgotten? (Actually, it’s not so much totally forgotten as just mostly forgotten; as I was writing this, I talked with friends about it now and then, and the reaction was mostly “oh, yeah, I kinda remember that.”) Really, it’s just a case of both of these superstar creators having done better, more memorable work elsewhere. This isn’t a defining epic or an artistic revolution; this is exactly what it was sold as — two of the hottest creators of 1994 doing two of the biggest characters. It’s not 1994 anymore. On the plus side, though, this had a more lasting effect than most intercompany crossovers: Spawn had to tie his face together with shoelaces for a while afterward.