The cool, cool, considerate co-founder of Image Comics lets loose as he sets up his superhero universe in “Spawn.”
Written by Todd McFarlane
Penciled and Inked by Todd McFarlane
Colored by Steve Oliff
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
While a strange assailant stalks the city, ripping out human hearts, another otherwordly being arrives. As his mind reels, our tortured hero remembers that he struck a deal with the devil in order to return to his beloved wife – five years after his death..
When I watched The Image Revolution last weekend as part of our Image Comics celebration, the lingering impression I had of Todd McFarlane was that of what the musical 1776 would call a “cool, cool, considerate man,” a contrast to some of the other founders of the publisher. He almost seems the antithesis of everything you think of when you think of 1990s comics: logical, level-headed, pragmatic, the big brother keeping the more emotionally rash of the founding squad in line. If Rob Liefeld is Fred and George Weasley with their joke shop, Todd McFarlane is prefect and head boy Percy Weasley.
Then you open up “Spawn” #1 and see this is where he lets loose and really has fun.
You can argue that “Spawn” is just a way for McFarlane to write Spider-Man without actually writing Spider-Man. But he does take the lessons he learned from his time at Marvel well, particularly crafting a superhero who is physically not of this world but still very human. The former black ops assassin Al Simmons lost his life during a mission (purportedly at the hand of a friend), leaving behind a grieving wife on his journey to hell. The classic “deal with the Devil” brings him back to Earth where he finds dual missions: that of fighting crime and coming back to a world – – and a wife – – that moved on without him. That latter torment gets dialed up to eleven in this debut, doing well to endear the audience to this man, particularly when you see him remembering the reason that he made that deal with the devil: his wife. Crime fighting is just a means to an end to his true mission. That’s the superhero in touch with the human condition that Marvel does so well. Yes, there’s a mystery at hand here, but the interest this issue gives you is not in the solution to that mystery but just how you get there. It’s Sherlock Holmes storytelling for the comic book medium. No surprise then to see that the title of this first arc is ‘Questions;’ you’re left with more than a few when you reach the final page.
What I was in love with a lot throughout this issue was paneling and layout. If you ever wondered how Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksy cut their teeth in elevating the nine panel grid to art form in “Sex Criminals,” no doubt it was here. Symmetric six and nine panel grids keep parts of the story at a quick pace, setting scene or giving information without dwelling on same. You see this particularly well in the third page of the book, where newscasts put forth our prologue that introduces you to just how Al Simmons came to be, or rather, not be. It’s not without its flaws, such as a little less text and a spell check, but it does what it needs to do to introduce you to the world.
There’s also panels upon full page spreads that do well to emphasize control Spawn has over a situation, or sometimes lack thereof. Playing card shaped vignettes of a previous existence fade away as he returns to the mortal coil a changed being. This opportunity to break free of those creative boundaries in script and art no doubt inspired an entire generation of comic book creators. With the layered if formulaic script, it builds feelings rather than logical story progression, making this a bit of indulgent fun that somehow keeps you wanting more.
The lettering choices also struck me, particularly for Spawn. Instead of the standard typset comic book lettering (which you see used for dialogue for anyone else), letters for Spawn’s dialogue are free-form with a handwritten appearance. It’s a reminder that somewhere in that meta-human, he’s still a human being, and of the conflict between these two realms.Continued below
As for Spawn himself . . . well, we don’t see much of him. Any look at his face is covered to a certain degree, either with a mask or with shadow. It builds the mystery without obscuring everything – – building that suspense over setting up a story arc that I mentioned earlier. The rest of the art is everything we know and love (and I use that loosely) about 90s comics: hypermuscular legs, capes that hover in midair as if a wind machine is providing the lift, a ridiculous reliance on detail. Those are the parts of this series that come cringeworthy when you read them nearly 30 years later. It’s thanks to how McFarlane makes his not-human superhero very human that allows me to forgive these artistic tactics that did not age well.
After reading “Witchblade,” it’s nothing short of refreshing seeing women dressed like women, though the women that appear here are nothing more than heads and faces. Let’s hope it stays that way, but in my journey through 90s (and early 2000s) comics, I know not to hold my breath. But the woman that matters moss is the one that is the center of Al/Spawn’s resurrection and reason for being: Wand. The moments we see her, we see a peaceful, maternal, angelic, almost fragile figure: the best parts of her carefully preserved in memory. And that’s all we know about her right now. That’s going to make whatever reunion the two have later on (the prologue hints there’s someone new in her life) all the more heart wrenching to see, with the potential of those expectations shattering like glass. Again, emotion over all else to sell this story, and it does its job rather well.
Has “Spawn” held up the test of time better than some of those other early Image series? Well, 300+ issues later, it’s still going. That should tell you all you need to know.