Tuesday, June 10, 2014


There's a catch-22 to writing posts about comics, and I write about comics because for reasons I don't understand, I care about them, I love the medium. My leading theory is that it remains the best medium for conveying accurately what we imagine, every other medium is still constrained by budget or the number of collaborators you gotta get involved...

but that's not the catch, the catch is a hell of a catch. See when I write about comics it's for lack of a conversation about comics. The people I would most like to have the conversation with, tend not to care about comics (non-nerds) and the people who would like to have the conversation with me, I don't care about the opinions of (nerds). Which sounds both obvious and hypocritical - but I characterize a 'nerd' as chiefly, somebody lacking imagination. There is an alarming number of comic book fans that have the concrete thought processes of an engineer. Which could explain the high correlation between people who study mechatronics and people who play magic the gathering at food court tables.

Anyway, what I'm saying is, forgive how self-indulgent this particular post is, on a medium that is purely self indulgent anyway. I just wanted to reflect.

So in the 90's if you were a kid, Spawn was on top. Ever so briefly, but the title managed to eclipse any IP being put out by DC or Marvel. Yeah, Spawn beat out Batman just a few years after Tim Burton's 1989 movie had basically captured the imagination of every kid in the world, and while the best cartoon on was Bruce Timm's Batman animated series, and Spawn beat out the X-Men when the other show every kid was watching was the X-Men animated series, I don't think Marvel's succeeded at making another decent cartoon from it's IP since.

And yet, no matter what you watched, Spawn was the comic, the gold standard for a few years there. As vaguely as I can recall it, it sort of fizzled out of the public discourse due to it's own movie adaptation being so lacklustre (but producing a great OST, which is another post for another day). But in summary, it was just a fact of life - Spawn was number one when I was a kid.

At some point, personally I went through a maturation of tastes. I can recall for example when I was younger that I found it almost impossible to read or find interesting a comic that wasn't in colour. It was as repulsive to me as the idea of black and white television. Greg Capullo's OTT pencils and McFarlane's busy inks were like candy to me, I just couldn't get enough of it. Then later on I got into Tim Sale, Mike Mignola style art which was to say low on detail, high on style.

And thus for much decades Spawn, Greg Capullo and the big image comics experiment just dropped out of my focus, quite naturally. The other thing to understand, is Image is something that happened to me as a kid. I wasn't (and still aren't) some man-child that trawls the internet for news and announcements about the comic industry and what is going on within it. I love comics but have not an insatiable appetite for it where I'm looking forward to what happens next. My general approach in adulthood is that the deluge of crap being published on a weekly basis can happen without me paying any attention to it, and the good shit will stay in print, get collected and float up to my attention eventually. The good stuff has the luxury of time to catch my eye, that's pretty much how I got onto the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo.

Thus thusly, it's actually quite weird, because when I look back on Image comics, it was really an experiment in translating the Japanese system to American comics, which is to say, one writer takes the story from cradle to grave. I read on one of the wikipedia pages, that Image was credited both with the speculator boom in comics in the 1990's (which I can't really recall and wasn't really aware of) and also the shift in marketing emphasis from comics promoting their creative teams to promoting their intellectual property.

This in part could explain my one most general dissatisfaction with western comics today (and for a while) which is to say, whenever any title seems to be getting any traction and going in a cool direction, the comic company switches up the creative team or worse a company wide event starts happening. Not even the main Batman title is immune. So somebody will finally be doing something interesting with the Joker, and suddenly Batman has to be battling the lantern corps or Darkseid or some shit.

I've been rereading Spawn, and finding as an adult exactly what I loved about Capullo's artwork is still there. And as an artist now myself, was immensely reasured by how hacktacular McFarlane was in his early issues of Spawn. What he borrowed from Miller and Moore seemed almost heavy handed in the early issues.

And yeah, the series had a lot of problems. For example, I don't think McFarlane ever got Jason Wynn's character to work. And I haven't read the Violator Mini-series yet, but I also think the Clown/Violator nemesis was truly strong. It's dialogue heavy, feeling like I am reading a novel some times, even though development wise the mentor archetype of Cog keeps having circular conversations with Al Simmons while remaining cryptic and never giving him any information. I feel like somebody could pick up the first hundred issues these days and go back and streamline the shit out of it and fix it up.

But the artwork is so beautiful, it's actually really hard to imagine why you'd do that. And yeah, you get the impressive character design of Cy-Gor who's origin is predicated on humans not being strong enough to withstand the cybernetic enhancements, except that prior to Cy-Gor's appearance, Spawn has fought 1 demon, 1 angel and 3 other cyborg antagonists - Overtkill, Tremor and the Curse, whom have all withstood the cybernetic pain threshold seemingly.

But most of what was wrong with Spawn were the hangovers from the big two companies image was trying to break away from - namely, they employed an 'Image Universe' having characters from other Image titles show up, that were further complicated by the fact that they remained owned by their creator studios. You also got the Neil Gaiman - Angela/Cog ownership dispute happening which was shit too.

Spawn gets shit stylistically these days too, the whole era to be fair, where characters had a million pockets and spikes and chains and guns and bullets and belts and straps adorning them - it was the OTT era, and Bruce Timm perhaps is to blame for the shift to more stylised streamlined animation friendly artwork that dominates western comics today (and anatomy wise dominated Japanese comics since always, in fact very little work has to be done to adapt Japanese comics into animation for the most part). But now with GoT being pretty much the coffin in the nail of nerd's inferiority complex that drives an adaptation dependent film and tv industry, I find myself redrawn to the OTT style of drawing, because it basically can't be translated or adapted. CGI and sell shading will have to advance lightyears to give us a decent 3d rendering if Spawn, The Creech, Clayface or any of Capullo's masterpieces, let alone getting CGI to the point that it is more impressive than Capullo's designs.

Spawn was possibly so hard to adapt because Capullo's art was so much of a selling point, and he isn't alone nor is he without a legacy. We got Jim Lee, Joe Mad, Humberto Ramos... all still killing it and selling product along with Capullo in the present day. And it's contrasted with Cheeks, Skottie Young, Jim Mahfood all doing much simpler geometric construction, as well as the major influence shows like Adventure Time have had on pushing the stylistic spectrum back to early rubber hose style animation/construction with absolutely no rendering.

I'd still argue to those that fetishise Japanese comics that there's less of a gap stylistically between Eichiro Oda and Takehiko Inoue, or Masashi Kishimoto and Hiroaki Samura. Even though they all represent different and unique styles and range on the spectrum of realistic to abstract.

Which brings us to what Spawn did to innovate. It was launched in 1992, and featured at it's center an African American family. It's protagonist was genuinely an anti-hero possessing serious character flaws, which wasn't so original, I think Frank Miller's run on Daredevil had a Matt Murdoch who was similarly a genuine arsehole at times. But in that, McFarlane was genuinely brutal, following Kurt Vonnegut's rule of giving the reader somebody to root for, then pushing them through hell to see what they are really made of. Spawn tried to help these Alabama kids who were being abused by their father, only to inadvertently make shit worse. Or deny help to somebody only to have them resort to suicide when all hope was lost.

And Spawn lived in an alley and for much of the first 25 issues, was homeless and helped primarily the homeless, characters dealing with substance abuse, mental illness and a broken system. To my limited knowledge that had never been done before and possibly not since (though The Maxx also lived in a box in an alley). McFarlane actually dealt with real social issues in Spawn, and genuine moral dilemmas and most of the time Spawn fucked up.

There are some famous rogues gallary's too, but if you wikipedia search 'The Abomination' or 'The Absorbing Man' or even 'Mysterio' and try reading the fictional character biography, what you'll notice is that it can actually be years between appearances for these seemingly high profile villains, not only that but they'll wander all around the Marvel Universe appearing in different titles here and there, and thus somebody has to keep track of that shit and every creative team that wants to use them has to figure out a way for them 'to get here from there'. How do you get the Sandman from being dissolved by a Tsunami at Spring Break in Florida to New York City? How do you get the Red Skull from being stuck in a nightmare dimension from his battle with S.W.O.R.D. to Washington so he can show down with whoever the fuck cares?

I raise this because Spawn actually has a real good rogues gallary, it's seriously up there behind Batman and Spider Man. Surprisingly, most of the clumsy stuff comes out of the early days, where McFarlane had other high profile writers come in and contribute to the title - Neil Gaiman created Angela, and in her first appearance was very Neil Gaiman stylistically and he perhaps was able to flavor Angela's surrounding world too much. Then you had the first incarnation of the Redeemer as 'Anti-Spawn' who was pretty well designed, but improved with each new incarnation from a clumsy start using a still ill-defined Jason Wynn. But that aside, the Curse, Violator, Tremor, Overt-Kill, Redeemer 2 and Redeemer 3, Cy-Gor, The Heap ... all solid designs and back stories. What set them apart though was that Spawn was sufficiently self contained that they were generally used once, twice and done. Spawn could actually kill them, and kill them off or move them on in the case of Angela and some others. This gave much of the Spawn rogues gallery something most titles lack - each character had a beginning middle and end. None of them devolved into thematic enemy's like Batman's (the gold standard of Rogue's galleries) where you wind up with 8 decent characters and a subsequent 8 stories that get told again and again and again.

I guess revisiting Spawn, you realise that it's unfair to compare it really to anything in the two monoliths IP vaults. It is actually better to compare it to a title like Naruto, or other Japanese comics. It's similar to Naruto in that you get the feeling that while McFarlane was a smart plotter, he hadn't meticulously thought things through like Masashi Kishimoto doesn't and it starts to show with circular conversations or sudden retconning or redundant confrontations (eg. the numerous times Cog has essentially the same conversation with Al about how he is playing into Hell's hands, or the numerous times Sam and Twitch go over the Billy Cincaid case, revisiting the exact same details). But compared to Naruto, Spawn never got anywhere near as messy even though it also in my opinion introduced far too many characters and concepts in the end that had to be tied up. Both series suffered from introducing a primary nemesis (Orochimaru and Malebolgia) whom both out of necessity needed to be killed off, but then necessarily had to be replaced by bigger badder dudes that never managed to ever be as interesting, and in both climaxes we were it with multiple revelations in quick succession about who the 'real' villain was, to the point of no longer caring.

But nobody does generally achieve these things, Batman will never end, Spider Man will never end, they never held any more promise of anything but a continuous story arc that will occassionally appear to head somewhere and most likely will be clumsily corrected with magic or some shit later. Creators do tighter, shorter stories that expand in their worlds and contract quickly. But nobody does decade long work and really manages to hold either the primary antagonist constant and our interest constant at the same time. Spawn was able to build a rich world and give us that epic feel, but also held the promise that it was going somewhere. In that regard it probably needs to be held up for comparison against fantasy titles like the Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice And Fire, not Batman and Spider Man.

To reduce all this to one sentiment: Spawn was good. It was actually a really good comic title. Peppered with mistakes, but really nothing near the insulting shit any devotee of Batman, Spider Man, the Hulk, Superman, X-Men etc. has to put up with due to the way Marvel and DC are run. Furthermore I have no comprehension of the logistical and artistic challenges of producing 20 pages of story a month for over a decade. I spend 3 months planning one of my art exhibitions, and only about 6 of those weeks doing the works for one, and even in that short a time frame I'm often very aware that having done it (or as I'm doing it) I would have made very different decisions.

It's possible the great Image comics experiment had the unintended effect of making Marvel and DC worse, but I think personally I'm glad it happened. There will be a good legacy we are probably experiencing in myriad ways without really knowing it right now and onwards into the future. If it's been almost half your life since you last looked at a Spawn comic, I'd highly recommend revisiting it.

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