Out of everything I’m including in the “Greatest Hits” of my comics collection, Spawn is probably the least sophisticated (and I started with a 90s Spider-Man spinoff). Known for a meandering sketch of a plot and over-the-top violence, and also for the work-for-hire legal dispute between series creator Todd McFarlane and writer Neil Gaiman (whose creation Angela became a staple until fairly recently)–ironic, considering McFarlane had left Marvel waving the banner of creator’s rights. All this aside, though, Spawn‘s fiftieth issue is an entertaining kickoff to an arc, in which undead killer Al Simmons (the titular Spawn) finds himself fighting through hell itself. The issue is divided into two parts: the first, drawn by McFarlane, shows Al forced to make a choice: use his powers to cure his former friend Terry of a fatal tumor, which will result in him being sent back to the hell which (re)created him, or watch the man die and stay on Earth. The second part, drawn by Greg Capullo, depicts the first consequences of that choice–namely Al’s struggle to survive in the second level of hell, and Terry’s return home after a miracle recovery. McFarlane scripted both parts.
As a writer, McFarlane is awkward, rambling, histrionic, literalist, and, above all else, a square. Funny, considering he was a key auteur amongst the founders of Image Comics–artist-writers who had formed the nucleus of the “extreme” style pervasive to late 80s/90s superhero comics. These were guys who traded in “cool” (or at least an adolescent idea of cool): heroes adorned in black ops gear and carrying massive guns, with no qualms about ripping bad guys apart. Spawn, as a character and a comic series, isn’t that far off this path, but its digressions and personal quirks cast the whole in a different light from Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S or Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. McFarlane strains under self-seriousness, narration as obvious as a brick (“Boundless joy informs her very being. Birds. The sky. Everything seems so wonderful.”), Stan Lee minus the winking humor. Narration piles on dialogue, rarely allowing a scene to breathe. McFarlane only steps out of his way for a single scene, where one character finds out about another’s health problems. He only has one narration caption for this page: after a “Forgive me?”, McFarlane adds “She always has.” It’s a rare moment of restraint, poignant where the rest of the comic is melodramatic.
Much of this is informed by a dorky romantic streak which tilts at moral ambiguity, even as McFarlane’s writing itself is thudding: Al’s predicament–that of being an unwitting soldier of Hell sent back to earth, after his murder–rests on a demonic pact he made in order to see his wife, Wanda, again; five years had passed, though, and Wanda remarried to Terry–hence Al’s hesitation to damning himself again to save his friend. McFarlane repeatedly stresses the twin pulls of anger and love running through Al, the series presenting him with ways acting on one or the other always leads to disastrous consequences (ultimately, Al saves Terry because he vowed to always keep Wanda happy). In many ways, Spawn tries to eat its cake and have it, too, being a violent, juvenile power fantasy while showing more realistic consequences to acting out such notions. It’s also, then, a boy’s adventure story, infused with the gritty detail of Bernie Wrightson’s horror comics depicting buckets of gore (thanks to inks by McFarlane and Danny Miki, who work in scratchy speed lines more than the crosshatching techniques common to their peers), while also being a heartfelt letter to holding onto love no matter what pain it brings. That McFarlane communicates this through awkward, stilted prose even becomes endearing.
Yet, as befits any comic from a publisher named “Image,” it is the illustrations which make Spawn pop. McFarlane and Capullo are complementary, their pages baroque, fragmented pieces, panels illustrating minor elements of a scene or even a character’s mental state more than any sort of linear action. When Al saves Terry, a lace tying together what remains of his face is torn, spilling green energy into the hospital room. McFarlane lingers on the tear along four panels, flecks of dead skin spraying into the air with the broken fabric. In the second chapter, Capullo creates a collage for Al’s descent through Hell, making the character’s signature cloak out of drawings of all the characters seen in the series up to that point. Such layouts suggest a comic made as a fever dream, as barely held together by the conventions of the superhero comics which birthed it as Spawn’s face. Colorist Brian Haberlin completes the look with sickly earth tones and effects which recreate the appearance of light bouncing off grimy, slick surfaces before reaching the eye (an ambulance surrounded by large, red dots as it speeds towards the viewer).
The Gothic flourishes seen in these pages alleviate McFarlane’s weaknesses as a writer. If his exposition on the mechanics of Spawn‘s Heaven and Hell is overwrought, it’s in service of imagery that conflates years of time and anguish into singular images. If his emphasis on just how much Al loves Wanda is treacly, it’s paired with panels of genuine intimacy. Even though McFarlane often doesn’t grasp what he reaches for, his attempts to address feeling in a genre which, at the time, was moving towards an idea of masculinity informed by the worst excess of the 80s are admirably earnest.