Monday, February 1, 2010

Born in the '90s. Sworn to Justice

After spending a month in the X-universe, it’s time to focus on the first series that will alternate with the X-books. My original plan was to spend one month on each of the three franchises (the third will be revealed soon), but that would force me to take off two months in-between each review series, which is just too long. Instead, my plan is to devote two weeks apiece to each franchise. Having reviewed the McFarlane Spider-Man series a few months ago, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my new focus will be Boof and the Bruise Crew. I kid. Of course it’s Spawn. I’ll get to issue #5 tomorrow, so in the meantime, please enjoy my reviews of the first four issues, which ran a few years ago during “Image Comics Week.”

SPAWN #1 – May 1992

Credits: Todd McFarlane (story, art), Tom Orzechowski (letters), Steve Oliff (colors)

Spawn appears in New York City with no memory of his previous life. All he knows is that he died five years ago and made a bad deal with a devil. Spawn comes across an attempted rape and saves the victim. Suddenly, he flashes back to his funeral, and realizes the woman mourning at his casket is his wife. He takes off his mask and gloves to discover that his entire body is badly burned. Meanwhile, detectives Sam and Twitch investigate the murders of various underworld figures.

This is the debut appearance of Spawn, a character that dominated the comic book marketplace for almost a decade. I started buying this title around the time Greg Capullo started his run, and stayed with it for most of my teen years. At some point, I realized that the stories never went anywhere, but I didn’t actually drop the book until Capullo left. A lot of people don’t want to admit that they bought this book during the ‘90s (and sales have even dropped to less than 25,000 apparently), but you can’t deny that this was a very popular title during that era. With Spawn, McFarlane created a title that appealed to little kids, teenage metalheads, horror fans, traditional superhero fans, and wannabe occultist types. That’s a pretty wide net. I think if the character had a more clearly defined personality and motivation, it would’ve maintained more of its popularity.

The first issue of this series is just Spawn wandering around, stopping a rape (then wondering why, because he’s “not a hero”), and having random flashbacks. McFarlane experiments with some creative page layouts and uses the Dark Knight Returns trick of having TV news reports give exposition. As a first issue, it’s actually not that bad. I think more about the character should have been revealed, but McFarlane does a decent job of building up the mystery. I’ve seen people question in recent years why McFarlane was so popular during this era, but seeing someone combine cartooniness with “realism” was still pretty new at the time. McFarlane’s technical drawing is inconsistent, but it’s always energetic and most of his pages are interesting to look at. Plus, McFarlane stuck with a monthly title for years, building up a huge fanbase (something his inspiration Art Adams never did). Now, there are guys like Pete Woods and Ed McGuiness who have figured out how to combine cartoony elements with more solid drawings, making McFarlane’s stuff less impressive.

SPAWN #2 – June 1992

Questions – Part Two
Credits: Todd McFarlane (story, art), Tom Orzechowski (letters), Steve Oliff and Reuben Rude (colors)

Spawn attempts to use his powers to fix his skin. He turns into a blond white man, shocking him since he should be black. Meanwhile, a monster named the Violator is ripping the hearts out of New York gangsters. Spawn has another flashback to arguments with his boss Jason Wynn. Spawn collapses and wakes up in the alley next to a clown, who turns out to be the Violator.

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority
Violator’s gimmick is that he rips the hearts out of people. McFarlane seems to enjoy making these scenes as bloody as possible. He also seems to be under the impression that the human heart looks like a potato.

Okay, it’s another issue of Spawn moping around the alleys and not doing anything. McFarlane pads this out with more pages of the Violator’s killing spree, and numerous splash pages of Spawn striking poses. I don’t know why exactly McFarlane was more interesting in drawing this stuff, rather than Spawn actually, you know, doing something. I should point out that I’ve read over seventy issues of this series and never saw an explanation for Spawn turning into a white guy. I used to assume that the real Al Simmons was white and that this was some sort of in-joke, but that’s not the case.

SPAWN #3 – August 1992

Questions – Part Three
Credits: Todd McFarlane (story, art), Tom Orzechowski (letters), Steve Oliff and Reuben Rude (colors)

Spawn recalls the name of his wife, and heads to a CIA office to get her address. Reading her file, Spawn discovers that his wife has married his best friend during the five years he was gone. He disguises himself and visits their home, discovering that they also have a daughter. Later, Spawn broods in an alley, and is confronted by the Violator. He rips Spawn’s heart out, but he quickly recovers.

The plot advances a little bit, but it’s only covering territory that should’ve already been covered by now. Why wait three issues to reveal that his wife married his best friend? It’s not as if there was a lot going on in the previous issues. Spawn’s relationship with his wife is one element of the character that I do like. A character who sold his soul to the devil only to find out that she’s married someone else isn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately, this just became an excuse for Spawn to mope around back alleys and feel sorry for himself for years.

SPAWN #4 – September 1992

Questions – Part Four
Credits: Todd McFarlane (story, art), Tom Orzechowski (letters), Steve Oliff and Reuben Rude (colors)

Spawn repairs his heart and fights Violator. After dismembering one another, a large devil appears and explains to Spawn that he was chosen to be a warrior for Hell due to his past life as a hired government assassin. He’s been given a finite amount of power, and once it runs out, he returns to Hell. The devil heals Spawn and Violator, but forces Violator into his human form as punishment. Spawn wanders off, contemplating his new life.

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority
There’s plenty of dismemberment fun in this issue.

This is the climax to the series’ first story arc, and it does establish Spawn’s origin and status quo. Aside from that, it’s a small payoff for four issues of story. Why exactly Violator felt the need to kill large numbers of mobsters is never revealed. What the devil hopes to gain by placing Spawn on Earth in the first place isn’t clear either. The confrontation between Spawn and Violator isn’t even fun. Spawn strikes some poses and then gets thrown into a wall. The actual fight takes place off-panel, with giant sound effects and floating limbs taking the place of an actual fight scene. McFarlane begins to write a lot of heavy captions, which was always a distinctive feature of the book when I followed it. They’re fairly boring and don’t say a lot, but Orzechowski’s lettering is attractive. He also gives all of the superpowered characters their own distinctive font and word balloons, which looks cool. The colors are also great and look contemporary with something that would be published today. Spawn remained a great looking comic for the rest of the ‘90s, with improved paper quality, excellent Greg Capullo art, and a new standard for digital colors and separations. Unfortunately, the stories always trailed behind the pretty, pretty pictures.


Matt said...

Believe it or not, I have never read a single issue of Spawn in my entire life. I was the right target age -- around 12 or 13 -- when Image started, but I had no interest in their titles, because -- well, they weren't Marvel!

It's interesting to see that Todd McFarlane pioneered the concept of "pin-up" covers that have nothing to do with an issue's contents such a long time ago!

Anyway, I look forward to learning about this series!

Dale Tiffany said...

I remember these fondly. These were the first comics I read that head any semblance of adult content in them, and that helped me get into all sorts of great stories. For that, I owe Mr. McFarlane much gratitude.

The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I wonder if you might ever take a look at what DC was doing at the same time - specifically, the event stuff like the Death of Superman and Knightfall that the company was putting out as direct couterprogramming to Marvel / Image. It holds up better than most other stuff that was released at the time (relatively speaking) probably because it was more "square" - ie, it was actually readable. I've never seen a DC book on this site (that I recall) but it might make for interesting contrast.

G. Kendall said...

I've considered it, but I don't have a lot of DC comics from this era. I did have a large order of '90s Superman comics from eBay, but the Post Office lost it. I've thought about reviewing every '90s DC crossover in order, in part to see if I could make any sense out of them.

tomorrowboy 2.6 said...

If you're going to do all the DC crossovers you might as well go back and do the few from the '80s too. There's only like four of them.

Bovo said...

McFarlane's da man!!!!!

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