I have a theory. This is total conjecture, but I think this explains a few things. When Todd McFarlane sat down to watch the big screen adaptation of Spawn, as he witnessed Spawn’s origin story spelled out in chronological order for the first time, with all of the shadow and mystery removed…I think, maybe, he was a little embarrassed. When Spawn debuts as an anonymous figure in the alleys, occasionally flashing back to the life of a government assassin, awakening with the vague sense that he’s been screwed somehow -- this is a character with potential. When his life is spelled out in sequential order, when all of the major players are conveniently introduced for an audience that Hollywood appears to view as simpletons, he’s just a guy who made an idiotic deal with the devil. A horribly CGI-rendered devil. The entire Spawn mythos starts to look a little dumb.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but as the Spawn movie made its way into theatres, McFarlane was in the process of firmly moving the comic into the urban horror genre. Spawn always had horror elements, but they were usually expressed with gross-out violence and gore. Spawn himself wasn’t a spooky character. Within a few issues, we knew of his true identity as Al Simmons and his desire to be reunited with his wife. We knew of their failed attempts to have a child; a dream that could only be realized for Wanda with Al’s best friend, Terry. We even knew the name of Al and Wanda’s dog. While Spawn never felt compelled to seek out people to save, he would help someone in trouble if their paths crossed. He might not have fit the strictest definition of “superhero,” but it’s not as if Wizard put him on their list of “Top 10 Urban Horror Characters in Comics” either. I don’t think anyone viewed Spawn as a true horror comic, which meant McFarlane had his work cut out for him if he was serious about changing direction.
As it turns out, McFarlane was deadly serious about downplaying the superheroic elements and recasting Spawn as more Dracula than Batman. By 1998, McFarlane even declared that he would be directing the next Spawn movie -- an R-rated horror piece that would have limited special effects and only feature Spawn as a ghostly participant on the edges of the story. Now, if you’ve loyally followed the Spawn series for years, if you have some understanding of Al Simmons as a character, if at one point you cared whether or not he was reunited with his wife…does this interest you?
A letter writer called McFarlane out on the change in direction. McFarlane justified his move, saying that his goal all along was for the audience to “grow” with Spawn. A twelve year old who purchased Spawn #1 was now in his late teens. McFarlane reasoned that this former kid was now an adult, with adult interests, concerns, and tastes. Perhaps this lapsed X-Men fan was now reading Vertigo. If he’s growing up with comics, why shouldn’t Spawn grow up with him? It’s a logic that Marvel and DC would soon follow in the new millennium. And both companies experienced the same outcome that awaited McFarlane -- their lowest sales ever.
It’s hard to believe that McFarlane once thought Vertigo and Spawn could share much of an audience. By this point, the critical reputation of the book was fairly abysmal, and many of Vertigo’s most vocal fans didn’t seem interested in any “mainstream” comic not written by Grant Morrison anyway. McFarlane soldiered on, though, hiring people well suited for urban crime/horror: Paul Jenkins, Ashley Wood, Brian Michael Bendis, David Hine, Steve Niles, and more. These are all creators that older readers have embraced, but I wonder how many stayed away based solely on Spawn’s reputation. McFarlane’s disputes with at least one of the creators probably didn’t help matters, either.
Having gone back and read the early issues of Brian Holguin’s stint as sole writer (the final issues I own), I have to admit that the series experienced a noticeable upturn in quality. The excessive horror elements still feel a little awkward, but the stories actually have direction and Spawn is finally given an active motivation to explore. Following his experience in the Greenworld, Spawn now feels a connection to the Earth, one that allows him to sense evil. Rather than revel in it, Spawn is compelled to stop the evil that surrounds him, leading him to finally forge that bond with detectives Sam and Twitch. A few issues later (apparently as a result of a storyline in Paul Jenkins’ Spawn: The Undead series), Spawn’s even traveling the world, seeking out evil in need of punishment. Ironically, Spawn’s acting more like Batman than ever at this point. The trappings of a superhero comic are gone (a supporting cast, home base, secret identity…really anything that humanizes Spawn), but the character is more active than ever.
The audience was already abandoning the book at this point, however. I imagine this is a combination of a few factors. One, horror comics just don’t sell that well. There is the occasional Walking Dead that breaks out, but that’s rare. Horror books tend to sell to a particular subculture, one that perhaps wasn’t inclined to buy Spawn. Two, Spawn’s visuals never changed during this period, so any attempt at launching a new direction was hindered by the old look (which I personally associate with a lot of bad writing, and I know I’m not alone). Finally, the number of adults that truly “grow up” with a book is pretty small. An ongoing series needs a constant stream of new blood; pandering to what you think the audience wants as it enters its 20s and 30s is madness. Spawn sold millions of copies to teenagers in the ‘90s. An eighth grade boy would probably still be attracted to Spawn today…if, through some miracle, he actually came across a comic. Even for a reader not inclined towards horror, the visuals of Spawn are genuinely striking. The mask, the cape, the neon green energy signature, the chains and spikes…the “kewlness” wears off as adolescence ends, but this is powerful eye candy for kids bored with the Power Rangers.
I don’t know if Spawn will disappear like Wildstorm or Wizard. Maybe the Spawn reprint collections still sell well in bookstores, enabling McFarlane to keep the title in print indefinitely. There might be a new generation of teen readers discovering the book outside of the insular world of comic shops for all I know. Regardless of how frustrated I became with the book, I can’t deny I received many hours of entertainment from Spawn during my early teenage years. I might even check out the new Spawn animated series, assuming the project is ever completed. I doubt I could ever become invested in the world again, but I’ll always carry some nostalgia for it.