It’s a standard rule of writing that protagonists need motivation. Even the earliest superhero comics, written by teenagers, had a rudimentary understanding of this. Superman cared about the little guy and wanted to fight the bullies, often by behaving like a bully himself. A few years later, readers discovered that Batman hunted criminals in the night to avenge the death of his parents. A series lead needs something to do, and he needs a compelling reason to do it. So, what does Spawn do? He pines for his wife, and occasionally kills people if they invade his turf. Over the course of seventy-five issues and numerous miniseries, it’s hard to discern any motives deeper than this.
In fairness, Spawn’s lack of motivation is an intentional plot point in the early issues. He’s sent from Hell to Earth with no memory of his past, and only a psychotic clown as his guide. The first year of the series gets some mileage out of Spawn’s random flashbacks, which emphasize his love for his wife and disdain for the government agency that betrayed him. After Spawn torments his killer (the original one) in issue #13, the character’s left with barely anything to do. Over the ensuing issues, Spawn defends himself against an angelic attack, is manipulated by Harry Houdini into stopping a rogue atomic scientist, and is forced to protect his former best friend, who’s been framed for Spawn’s theft of CIA files and weapons. These are legitimate premises, but all of them involve outside forces that compel Spawn into action. Eventually, the hero has to do more than just respond (you could argue the X-Men were rarely proactive during their highest sales period in the ‘90s, but the writers kept the audience’s attention with numerous mysteries and various character-driven subplots).
With no motivation, Spawn is left without a direction, which becomes increasingly obvious as the series passes the twenty-fifth issue. Now, it certainly seems as if some things were supposed to happen, but apparently Todd McFarlane had last minute thoughts about the series’ momentum and decided to slow things down. The original solicitation for issue #24 had Spawn teaming up with detective duo Sam and Twitch for the first time. The characters have been around since the first issue, always on the periphery of Spawn’s life, so finally uniting them at the end of the title’s second year seems reasonable. Around this time, Terry Fitzgerald has his first inkling that Spawn is his deceased friend Al, which also seems appropriate for the next phase of the title. But what happens next? The content of issue #24 doesn’t match the solicitations, and instead devotes an extra issue to the conclusion to “The Hunt” storyline, which ends with Spawn intimidating his enemies into leaving Wanda and Terry alone (something he’s still doing by the seventy-fifth issue).
Terry occasionally wonders if Spawn is Al, but the idea is dropped until thirty issues or so later when Spawn confirms the truth. By this point, Wanda’s already learned Spawn’s identity, from Spawn himself. She chooses to ignore this information, even when her saintly grandmother repeatedly tells her that Al is alive. As for Sam and Twitch, they only learn of their destiny to become Spawn’s “knights” in issue sixty-five, which doesn’t stop them from trying to arrest him (even though they’re no longer cops) for the next ten issues. They don’t actually join forces with Spawn until issue seventy-eight. That’s over fifty issues later than the original plan! And it’s not as if these characters were given a compelling storyline in the meantime; their story has always been about getting them in place to become aides for Spawn on Earth. The story just doesn’t happen until several years later, as the writing transitions from McFarlane to Brian Holguin.
Surprisingly enough, the pace starts to pick up during McFarlane’s final days as scripter. After a two-year period that mainly seemed to consist of Spawn feeding off of worms in-between hopeless subplots scenes, events actually start to happen. Events that might seem familiar to readers with an HBO subscription. The kidnapping of Cyan, the floor-by-floor takedown of Jason Wynn, Twitch getting shot, a “dead zone” in the alleys, a mysterious library in a church-turned-museum that Cogliostro and Spawn use to investigate the occult…all ideas introduced in the animated series that also show up between issues #60 and #80 of the comic. If only that series had been green-lighted a few years earlier. It’s also worth noting that while the first season borrowed heavily from the first twenty-four issues of the comic, virtually nothing past issue #25 made its way into the later episodes. I’m not saying that the producers (which included McFarlane) specifically declared this era off-limits, but surely someone had to realize that the book is almost completely out of ideas by the end of its second year.
Why would a creator hold back on his ideas, especially in a book that he owns? Yes, the major milestones of a title should be spaced out appropriately, but most of the ideas McFarlane holds out on don’t seem that significant. It’s obvious that Spawn will have some relationship with Sam and Twitch, so why wait several years before establishing their partnership? Considering that Spawn’s a character with no real motivation, events need to keep happening, or else the series becomes totally aimless. And while the series continued to languish, every few months a new line of sick, bizarre, and twisted Spawn action figures hit the shelves. As Spawn hung around alleys and played with worms, dozens of potential allies and foes were molded into plastic and shipped to toy stores across the world. Could it be that McFarlane was unleashing his creative energies on his toy line, leaving none left for the comic that inspired the franchise?