If you look at almost any Image comic from the early days, you’re going to see a plethora of characters competing for your attention on every page. I can think of two immediate reasons why: 1) The X-Men franchise was selling insanely well at the time, so team books were hot, and 2) The more characters in a comic, the more potential action figures and movie pitches in the creator’s pocket. Spawn took a different route, slowly introducing the hero, main villain, and a handful of supporting cast members over the opening four issues. Unfortunately, McFarlane will take slow burn storytelling well past the point of self-parody in future issues, but the deliberate pace of the early issues is a welcome break from the convoluted, cluttered, and hyperactive comics associated with the early ‘90s.
And, just imagine, an early Image comic that took the time to introduce a supporting cast of normal humans. Not a support staff for a government-sponsored superhero team, or a billionaire financier or bimbo girlfriend, but instead a suburban family and two ordinary detectives stuck investigating the chaos that surrounds the hero. A few issues later, Spawn will be adopted by the city’s homeless -- people who have lost perhaps even more than the series’ protagonist. And, for the first twenty-five issues or so, this scenario works quite well.
While McFarlane realized that the supernatural elements of the series needed to be contrasted with ordinary human drama, he apparently didn’t grasp how quickly these characters can stagnate. Terry is introduced as a government pencil pusher; a decent guy who loves his wife and daughter and misses his friend, Al. Wanda is…allegedly a businesswoman based on a narrative caption in the early issues, although we never see her go to work, or even leave the house, outside of her visits to her grandmother. Later on, McFarlane has her talk about fundraisers quite often. So much so, I assumed she was a philanthropist, or simply someone working for a non-profit. The HBO series made her a lawyer. Regardless, she’s a nice enough lady living in suburbia with her husband and daughter. And that’s fine as a starting point. But when the book lumbers past the five-year mark and the readers still know virtually nothing else about these characters, something’s wrong.
Yes, a few years into the series they decide to investigate Terry’s corrupt boss, but look at how this turned out. Aside from the fact that the storyline failed to expand their characterizations in any discernable way, it dragged on six weeks past forever. “Investigating” in Spawn unfortunately means looking through file folders and repeating the exact same information in every appearance. I can’t even say “every month,” because the subplots in this series appear and reappear at random, sometimes going six months or longer without any acknowledgment.
Even worse investigators are Sam and Twitch, the buddy cop duo that began examining a conspiracy in issue #25, and by #75, still couldn’t uncover their anus with a flashlight. They also, on two separate occasions, prepared themselves to meet an informant that had all of the dirt; a meeting that never occurred and was conveniently forgotten after the setup was used the second time. (Of course, their “informant” was actually a plant by Jason Wynn and Violator, the two major villains of the series who also forgot they were forging a partnership with one another, or that Sam and Twitch had to be punished for getting too close to Wynn). When Sam and Twitch finally return to the series, they forget about the conspiracy and go back to chasing Spawn…a plot that goes back to issue #5. While Sam and Twitch can be fun characters, the inept plotting of their adventures just leaves them spinning in circles; never learning, changing, or showing any depth. Plus, they look like the biggest idiots on Earth.
What about friends? Whom does Spawn have to turn to? Who is his sounding board? Bums. Literally, bums. Now, the idea that Spawn can only find companionship in the people shunted by society is a sound one. While everyone else views Spawn as a demon or a monster, they can see the true hero that might lie within, perhaps because they have no one else to rely on. Spawn literally doesn’t have a home to return to, so it even makes logical sense for him to end up on the streets. Leaving him in the alleys certainly adds more flavor to the series than setting him up in an abandoned warehouse or church would. However, the supporting cast can’t just be populated by faceless winos; they need personalities.
Only one member of the supporting cast is treated as more than a cipher, Bobby (originally spelled “Bobbie,” until perhaps McFarlane realized that is the feminine spelling). He tells the story of his wife’s death and the pressures that lead him to alcoholism in #21. Around fifty issues later, he opens up about his daughter and how she dealt with the situation. Bobby still makes appearances throughout those issues, he’s even killed by Chapel at one point, but he’s not developed as a character at all during those years, and he’s the closest thing to a confidant Spawn has.
The rest of the cast is a group of interchangeable drunks. You could perhaps argue that Boots is more than a face in the crowd, but aside from the quickie characterization from his creator Frank Miller that the guy’s obsessed with a pair of boots, nothing’s done with him until the abrupt revelation that he’s an angel in disguise. They’re all male, fiftyish, and hopelessly devoted to Spawn. And he’s totally undeserving of their support. Beginning in issue #26, when he declares that if he could create money, he wouldn’t be living with these people, Spawn treats the cast like something he wiped off his gigantic red boot. Their response is to view Spawn as their king, and to even build a throne for his majesty. Now, Spawn’s cruel dismissal of his “friends” is occasionally (if not intentionally) funny, but the sheer inanity of this scenario is the real joke. If McFarlane decided a few months into the book not to develop the homeless cast, why not move on to some other idea? Why do only men live in these alleys? Why couldn’t a young runaway look up to Spawn? Anything’s better than King Spawn and his dense subjects.
Of course, not every lead requires a healthy supporting cast to stay alive. Wolverine's solo series has previously gone several years with virtually no supporting cast. The only cast member normally associated with the Punisher is Microchip, and even he was introduced a few years after Punisher’s debut, and has disappeared for long stretches in the books (I know he showed up in the MAX series, and I assume he’s still dead in the mainstream continuity). Even if the bit players couldn’t sustain McFarlane’s interest, the star himself still had lots of exciting adventures, right? Umm….