Obviously, Spawn wouldn’t have been a sales juggernaut if ‘90s comics fans weren’t in love with Todd McFarlane’s artwork. Originally an amalgam of Art Adams and Michael Golden, McFarlane earned a reputation as a “cartoony” artist who could turn in an inordinate number of pages a month. To say that his style was polarizing would be an understatement (Larry Hama, or perhaps his editor, was so displeased with McFarlane’s work on G. I. Joe, it was redrawn twice -- McFarlane redid his first issue, and Marshall Rogers was brought in after his second issue was totally scrapped), but the guy was fast and quickly building a name for himself. Editor Jim Salicrup has said in interviews that he was inspired to hire McFarlane for Amazing Spider-Man after seeing his inking, which I believe is the true source of much of his popularity.
With few exceptions, readers didn’t tend to pay attention to inkers. (Now that inkers are mostly treated as “tracers” again, I would say it’s returned to a pretty low-profile job.) The role of the inker was mostly viewed as strictly utilitarian -- the artwork had to be gone over in ink in order to be dark enough to be reproduced. I don’t think many inkers had the belief that they were supposed to be making the work better in the early days. That attitude began to change long before McFarlane entered comics, but even by the late ‘80s, most inkers not named Terry Austin and Klaus Janson were ignored by the fans.
While I’m sure McFarlane learned a lot from assisting Klaus Janson, the inking style he developed on Amazing Spider-Man seemed to owe most of its inspiration to George Perez. Perez’s penciling obviously overshadows his reputation as an inker, but anyone who’s seen Perez ink over someone else can easily recognize his style (look up his work over Dan Jurgens and Ron Frenz if you’ve never seen it). Aside from the fact that the lines just look darker, there’s also an added level of texture and attention to detail that’s rarely conveyed in inks. It’s hard for me to look at a page like this and not see a strong Perez influence:
While McFarlane was amassing his fanbase, Greg Capullo broke into comics with a standard mainstream superhero look, fitting in comfortably as a replacement for Paul Ryan on Quasar. Within a few years, Capullo’s work began to resemble a cross between John Byrne and Jim Lee. I don’t think anyone who followed his run on X-Force would describe it as “cartoony,” but it was striking and clearly energetic. When McFarlane announced Capullo as Spawn’s first fill-in artist, he didn't seem like too much of a stretch for the book. When Capullo returned as co-artist a few months later, the rubbery nature of McFarlane’s anatomy began to fade away, creating a style that merged the strengths of both artists.
As the months progressed, however, Capullo began to move further and further into expressionism. From around issue #30 on, it’s hard to describe the Capullo/McFarlane collaboration. Here’s a McFarlane solo drawing of a pretty redhead (and, yes, I know the scan isn't in English):
Here’s a Capullo pretty girl, shortly after his X-Force days:
Here they are together, depicting a redhead specifically designed to be a knockout:
It’s not very convincing, is it? As the issues go on, McFarlane’s inks become less about texture, and more about the sheer volume of scratchy lines that can fit on a page. Danny Miki, another scratchy line aficionado, replaced McFarlane as inker following the seventy-fifth issue. Compare now the unnamed female newscaster, as penciled and inked by McFarlane:
Here she is again, now penciled by Capullo and inked by McFarlane:
And finally, unnamed female newscaster, as envisioned by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki:
Admittedly, she isn’t drawn in close-up in that final scan, but the difference is still striking. The humans just look less human. Not that McFarlane was ever going for photorealism, but the characters still seem believable within the context of McFarlane’s world. Unfortunately, the look developed by the end of the Capullo/McFarlane collaboration becomes the house style of Spawn, resulting in an endless series of identical looking comics. Check out a cover gallery of Spawn following the fiftieth issue and just look at the screen full of sameness staring back at you. Even though McFarlane gained prominence from his off-model rendition of Spider-Man, apparently no one penciling Spawn was encouraged to experiment with the character (Ashley Wood was allowed to go nuts with spin-offs, but not the main book). That’s a shame, because a new injection of artistic blood helps to keep a series going. Bob Harras could’ve hired an endless series of Jim Lee clones to draw Uncanny X-Men, but instead he allowed Joe Madureira and Chris Bachalo to visually reinvent the franchise. While Marvel and DC were giving artists like Adam Kubert, Joe Cassaday, Carlos Pacheco, and Ed McGuinness high-profile assignments, Spawn kept on looking like Spawn.
One of the few variations on Spawn’s look came a few years ago in the Adventures of Spawn series. I’m not entirely sure what this comic is, but apparently it began life as a tie-in to a more kid-friendly incarnation of the Spawn toy line. This would explain why it resembles the CBS Saturday Morning Spawn cartoon that never existed. The art is a fairly standard, post-Bruce Timm “Adventures” look, but it’s clean, attractive, and the exact opposite of what McFarlane has trained the audience to expect over the years. Maybe McFarlane has become less dogmatic in recent years, as evidenced by his choice of new Spawn artist Symon Kurdanski. I thought his Streets of Gotham back-ups were too dark and muddy, but the guy clearly has talent. More realistic anatomy, fewer detail lines, Gene Colan-style washes…that could certainly work on Spawn. Unfortunately, the audience had to wait over a hundred issues to get this new look, and I wonder if it’s too late at this point to attract their attention.