Wednesday, June 22, 2011

SPAWN Ex Post Facto - Part One

#75 seems like a suitable place to end my series of reviews. By this point, it’s the late ‘90s, the Spawn movie and TV show have been released, and Todd McFarlane is wrapping up his stint on the book. Anyone who cares enough to form an opinion on the property has already done so. Personally, I’m burned out on the book at this time, and wondering why I stuck with it for so long. Now, I’d like to spend a few days reflecting on that ‘90s fever dream known as Spawnmania.

First of all, Todd McFarlane is not the worst writer on Earth. He’s not even the worst writer to work in mainstream comics in the past five years. The overwhelming evidence certainly points to him being a bad writer, but that doesn’t mean he’s one hundred percent bad one hundred percent of the time. Let’s face it, McFarlane took such a beating with his Spider-Man work, it’s hard to imagine any of his writing on Spawn getting a fair shake from the critics. To this day, people are still mocking “Rise above it all!” and “Advantageous!” -- references that are over twenty years old at this point. What other comics published in 1990, good or bad, are still having specific lines quoted like this?

Occasionally, McFarlane has flashes of…certainly not brilliance, but competence at least. Spider-Man #8 is a not-very-appropriate-for-Spider-Man story involving dead kids, but McFarlane really does treat the issue with sensitivity and decorum. He even manages to make the reporter responsible for the ensuing media circus a sympathetic figure, and he creates one of the few memorable throwaway Daily Bugle reporters. Most, if not all, of the editor-turned-writers doing ‘90s Spidey stories couldn’t claim to have accomplished that much, even with several years on the books.

The first issue of Spawn opens with the character cryptically hinting at his origins, while wandering the rooftops of New York and striking dramatic poses. Someone started a rumor that the issue consists of random pages McFarlane strung together arbitrarily into a story, but I refuse to believe it. Actually, I don’t see how anyone who’s actually read the comic could believe it, as most of the pages have elaborate transitions into each other. Regardless of what followed, Spawn #1 actually is a compelling introduction for the anti-hero. McFarlane loses focus over the next few issues while introducing the arch-nemesis and fleshing out the premise, but he recovers with #5, the first standalone issue. He’s back to child killers again, but the story’s a nicely constructed piece that connects Spawn’s past to his new life, while also giving the nascent supporting cast something to do. HBO apparently liked the issue enough to dedicate almost the entirety of the animated series’ first season to an elaborate adaptation of the story.

A few months into Spawn, McFarlane decided the greatest stunt Image could pull would be to hire honest-to-God professional writers. The “Creator’s Choice” series in issues #8-#11 saw the return of Alan Moore to mainstream comics, and the introduction of Angela, a character that eventually sparked a legal battle with Neil Gaiman that contributed to the bankruptcy of McFarlane’s company. McFarlane hoped that hiring high-profile writers would force the quality of his own writing to improve, and for a few issues, that actually seemed to work. Spawn #12 and #13 help to humanize the book’s cast, and even differentiate Spawn from Chapel, the archetypal ‘90s blood-crazed government assassin.

I doubt he did this to make a statement, but contrasting the aspiring family man Spawn with the inhuman, amoral Chapel shows that McFarlane had a better understanding of the fundamentals than most of his Image compatriots ever exhibited. Even if you thought Chapel was cool, no one knew or cared anything about his domestic life. There’s no dead family in Central Park driving most of these ‘90s lunatics; they’re there to look cool and kill people with giant guns. Eventually, people got sick of this. While Rob Liefeld was having trouble keeping his publishing company afloat by the late ‘90s, Spawn still outsold most of the comics in stores. You might’ve felt like a sucker afterwards, but if you were the right age, I bet you really did care about Spawn’s relationship with Wanda at some point during the book’s run.

After a guest arc by Grant Morrison, McFarlane returned to Spawn with issue #21, the opening of “The Hunt,” a four-part story that effectively draws on the book’s established continuity and forces Spawn’s supporting cast into the main action. The book still has flaws, but at this point, it appears that McFarlane has some insight into what it takes to produce a monthly series. The supporting cast is starting to develop a personality, actions from previous issues logically lead into new stories, and the hero has a clearly defined motive (getting his old life back), but has no idea how to do it, or if he even should. The book could go anywhere at this point. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are even writing miniseries, expanding the mythology and creating even more directions for McFarlane to explore. So…what happened?


Paul O'Brien said...

The suggestion that Macfarlane was just stringing random pages together sounds to me like a garbled version of the way he described his working methods in the interview book "Writers on Comics Scriptwriting". What he actually said was that having drawn all the pages for an issue he would lay them out and decide what order they worked best in - which is obviously a slightly different thing, more like re-ordering the scenes in a movie after it's been filmed.

kerry said...

So far, I think this is a pretty fair dissection of the Spawn Era. I, myself, lasted until issue #86, when I abruptly realized that I dreaded reading this every month, so why was I still buying it? Knowing I didn't have to keep buying a comic just because I always had was a major breakthrough in my reading. I was the prime demographic for this book--I was 14 in 1992--and for a long while "styff that looked cool" was enough. (Yes, I have Youngblood #1 and everything else, too... I suspect G. and I have shockingly similar collections, as do, I suspect, most of the people reading this blog).

At any rate, look forward to reading more of your retrospective with the material fresh in your head, untainted by nostalgia.

Scott Church said...

I order comics for a local gaming store and I order 1 Spawn a month just because that 1 issue usually sells. I was in there the other day and a group of teenagers were picking things up and one kid was so excited to see the Spawn issue and grabbed it right away. It's in the 200's now and I always flip through them and they still appear to have the same slow or non existent plot.

So they still appeal to that teenage group but I haven't meet another 20+ buying Spawn and I think everyone that is in the 26-36 range know that it never went anywhere.

That Todd movie in the last post is on my Netflix Q. I'm really excited to watch it.

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