It is 901 AD. The Dark Ages. The darkest of times. Centuries after the Romans retreated and faded, yet many centuries before reason and order would take hold. The Dark Ages were times marked by sweat and blood and lives cut short by famine and disease. Desperate days. These were the times the lands known today as Great Britain were fought over like raw meat in a dog’s teeth. The world was up for grabs. New religions were sweeping the continent like a plague of hope in a hopeless time. These are the days that a Hellspawn named Covenant walked the earth in search of the truth, understanding and solution to the curse that bound him. These are his Dark Ages. These are his adventures…
Written by Brian Holguin
Illustrated by Liam Sharp
Colored by Brian Haberlin, and Andy Troy and David Kemp(5-8), and Arisa Rozegar (9)
Lettered by Richard Starkings
For this batch of issues I will be looking at “Spawn: The Dark Ages” #6-8. This is just a more sensible grouping as issues 6-8 are a three part story dealing with the nun Sister Immaculata and the continued pestering of Guy DuBlanc. The ninth issues is prologue to the ‘Children’s Crusade’ arc which will be the main subject of our next entry which will cover #9-14 and conclude Brian Holguin and Liam Sharp’s time on “Spawn: The Dark Ages.”
In this stretch of issues “Dark Ages” under Holguin begins to open up as Lord Covenant begins to wander Medieval Europe, it maybe a dark age but it is still Medieval times. Covenant’s wandering lets the book break loose of the need for a serialized overarching plot and lean into smaller stories that help to reinforce the surprisingly humanist elements within “Spawn” as a media franchise. Throughout this batch of issues Liam Sharp continues to experiment wildly from page to page in terms of composition and style. Some pages read like a thicker lined Joe Madureira. Other pages have that minimalist Miller-esque line work, in particular a silent page in the sixth issue of a rabbit that shows us the arrival of Lord Covenant through a Spawn inspired reflection in the eye. Before suddenly turning into the super fine line work of a Jim Lee. It is a dizzying display of line work that is obviously inconsistent, but not off putting. The style and page design tend to fit to and reinforce the point and function of a given page. There is some level of consistency to how Sharp depicts figures and overall staging, again emphasizing a iconic mode of image making. Despite having four credited colorists on the book, with those after Haberlin listed as “additional color” on the credits page, that aspect of the book is consistent. Unlike the opening salvo of chapters that mixed media. As “Dark Ages” shifts in style page to page it forces the reader to be aware of just how those various styles narrate and interact with one another.
The opening trio of issues follows Lord Covenant as he goes about his new un-life, eventually coming across a poor peasant couple in need of saving. That particular sequence is interesting to see how Sharp mixes detail with action. One of the Brigandages at the start of the sequence gets a nice close up with plenty of noodling detail. Covenant on the other hand is shown from a far with a great emphasis on cartooning his body type and cape, which does most of the work. The action is brutal and simplistic. Action follows action, but Sharp doesn’t choose to depict the middle of a strike he instead captures the moment of breakage and impact. The sole remaining brigand is in comparison slowly crunched by Covenant’s cape for 3 panels against against rather delightful water color background. Throughout Covenant’s depiction is one of strength and power, he is the only committing action and violence. Other bodies move because he makes them move.
Interspersed through out this first issue are vignettes set in an Abbey and the mysterious Sister Immaculata, a strange name given the French settings. Sharp treats the introduction of Immaculata much in the same way he does the Rabbit page, structuring it in such a way that emphasize the quite and serene surroundings. Starkings lettering on the page is a bit inelegant but the serene qualities of the imagery stand out compared to the noisiness of the previous page. Immaculata is isolated an idea that is reinforced in the next page as she goes into the Abbey and Sharp builds panels around the gaze of her fellow Sisters and the black gutters that separate panels. She is different from those around her, like how Covenant is different from the peasant family. Similarities in their depiction end there as the comic falls into Sexy Comic Girl BS™ in a way that just undermines the actually interesting emotional heart of these three issues and elevates the misogyny from a place that works as an indictment of certain characters to the book as a whole.
Sister Immaculata isn’t like her fellow Sisters, she wasn’t always human. As the final page of the sixth issue reveals she is also an Angel, a Seraphic Huntress like Angela. How we get to that reveal though is cumbersome due to Sharp’s depiction of Immaculata’s nude body. She is awakened by a nightmare, or is it a psychic connection to the Hellspawn Lord Covenant. Sharp structures the page in a similar fashion to a poster for the original Nightmare on Elm Street with the phantasmic image of our Spawn looming over her. This is followed by a second panel of Immaculata awoken in a freight, her legs cartoonishly splayed out with one uncovered so you know she is nude. It turns her into a spectacle that is open for the readers gaze that is just plainly awkward for the horror driven nature of its construction. The spectacle continues on the next page as she reaches out like Adam for a cross, her red blanket draped over her body covering it only in specific spots. Sharp and the coloring team have effectively turned her into a Woman in the Red Dress, which is the opposite of the setting or what kind of story is being told. It does create a good contrast with the bottom half of the page that finds Immaculata curled up, frightened, on the floor. The coloring team do not do enough of a job to create contrast and make the shaft of light stand out on the page. That final panel is the only moment where her nudity is used to good effect for the story of the moment. It’s meant to show weakness and frailty, the same way Bruce Wayne’s nude body was used in the ill received opening issue of “Batman: Damned.” She isn’t a spectacle for the reader, she is someone who needs help.+
Sexy Comic Girl BS™ is what happens when the need to objectify and sexualize female characters gets in the way of storytelling. Once she is returned to her angelic state things go from messy to worse depending on your tolerance. Immaculata’s angelic form is treated similarly to the Morrígan in with mixture of toned musculature and Barbie physique and, umm, armor that makes David Wohl’s Witchblade design look functional. Holguin and Sharp’s treatment of Immaculata in this form is an interesting example of the limits Strong Female Character type through a male gaze. Immaculata is strong physically, she swats Guy DuBlanc away like the troublesome insect he is. Like Covenant is a character who is able to commit violence and make others move, but unlike Covenant is posed in ways that sexualize her to the reader in contexts that are not meant to be arousing if it were a heterosexual male character. That strength is mediated through a depiction that has her in that spine breaking bust and butt two for one pose. As she toys with DuBlanc in the seventh issue Sharp has a curious page construction that complicates what is functionally a pair of pinups for DuBlanc and Immaculata. DuBlanc is shown in full his body covered in armor and cape. Immaculata’s body is not shown whole, instead their body is vivisected by quasi layered panels. With one dedicated to her chest.
This visual depiction undermines the actually quite effective emotional drama at play within Immaculata as she struggles with her heavenly urges to hunt the Hellspawn and the knowledge of what those hunts do to the innocent humanity around them. That knowledge is what drove her to pass as human in the first place, and respect them. Immaculata’s struggle with her duties gets to the interesting labor aspect of “Spawn.” Over the course of 300+ issues McFarlane and others have hammered home the idea that Heaven and Hell are two side of the same coin, ultimately existing as structures meant to reinforce their own power and in the case of heaven not actually help the faithful. In “Spawn” what matters is what you choose to do, not that it squares with a group ideology or power structure. Her struggle on what to do, how to be, is wonderfully depicted in the opening pages of issue #8. Immaculata is alone in a field, naked and looking for a sign. She gets one on the next page that seals the nature versus nurture debate, for now, and once again transforms into her angelic form. That pinup is the only time in her angelic form that the character feels powerful, because she is choosing to turn into that thing and be powerful. That humanistic emphasis on agency and choice is the thing that keeps me coming back to “Spawn” and what leads to the climatic showdown at the Abbey and Immaculata’s final choice.Continued below
The good thing about agency means Immaculata can change her mind. When push comes to shove, she chooses to reject her mantel as hunter of Hellspawn to save a baby at the cost of her mortal life. It is a choice that is dramatically effective because throughout their battles Lord Covenant has been there modeling that sort of action to her and the reader. In the end she chooses to make herself useful. Of course Cogliostro comes along to mock her in her final moments, slurring her name. On one hand this should reinforce the cruel nature of Heaven and Hell, but the way his misogyny is levied feels like it is also due to her inability to be projected with Sexy Comic Girl BS™ like every other female presenting character in this book. And like all the female characters thus far she’s also dead now that she is no longer useful.
The Immaculata trilogy of issues, #6-9, realizes one of core overall themes of “Spawn” and present them in a unique setting. It is probably one of my favorite arcs in this 28 issue series. At the same time, despite an effective and varied art style, it also highlights some of the shortcomings, to put it lightly, comics have struggled with for more than half a century after the rise of Superheroes in the Silver Age and the slow shift away from female aimed titles and the assumption that all types of people read comics instead of just (white) boys.