I’ve always held a soft spot for the hardcore, shallow ‘90s comics. Which is strange, because I didn’t grow up with them, so I don’t have the rose tinted lens of nostalgia to view them with. X-Force, Force Works, anything with the word Force, I always got a kick out of them. But the comic that always lingers at the edge of my mind, the series I keep coming back to, is Todd McFarlane’s Spawn.
The obsession stems from my childhood years – not the comics, surprisingly, but the lesser known video game Spawn: Armageddon. I was a part of the renting generation – my local Blockbuster was a source of constant flow of games for me. So I eventually stumbled onto ol’ Spawny – it’s easy to see how the black costume and chains and fire and everything reeled pre-teen me in. I played the heck out of it, I even put in the wrong disc in the case when it was time to return it, so I could keep the Spawn disc and keep playing.
And then, nothing. I must’ve lost the game or just lost interest along the way, maybe even returned it to the Blockbuster, because Spawn didn’t pop up again for a while in my life. It wasn’t until I was in late high school that I realised Spawn was actually a comic. Not only that, there was a whole 200-ish issues published and available. I was ecstatic that I could delve into this dark universe full of jagged lines, demon superheroes and warrior angels once again. So I found a few issues online, and read the first few. I… honestly didn’t know what to make of it. The concept was still the same, as fun and ridiculous as I remembered. But the writing was just so impenetrable. Every second page was a splash shot of Spawn or someone else in a brooding pose. I read a few issues but the art and high concepts just weren’t enough for me.
But it had rooted itself in my subconscious. Like an addiction, the need to read more overtook me every time Spawn showed his mask (or fleshy, shoe-string tied face, depending where you’re reading from). I knew, like most addictions, that it was bad for me. Spawn is, at times, juvenile, excessive, and cringe-worthy. But I eventually caved. I had to have my fix, and so I bought the first hardcover collection of the first 12 issues, with the excuse that I’d be able to appreciate it more with McFarlane’s art pasted onto big, high quality pages.
And in a way, that did help. Compared to a lot of the other 90’s artists, McFarlane really was a diamond in the rough. If you can elevate yourself above how cheesy the splash pages are, there’s a lot to take out of it. The composition is often a little abstract, but it works in the context of this series. Spawn’s world is quite a tilted version of the typical Marvel or DC universe, so the odd nature of the art really gives it a distinct tone. You can really see in the earlier issues that McFarlane was really throwing a lot into this work – the concepts are high flying and changing from issue to issue. And I was really able to appreciate that upon returning to the book after some time off. But the writing was still the same. I still felt dirty trying to slog through McFarlane’s static language.
I felt like I could finally get an appreciation out of reading it. On reflection it was almost a moment of triumph, that I finally liked Spawn. However, I still avoided getting the next collection in my bookstore for some time. I could almost feel everyone’s judging glare whenever I stopped to check it out on the shelf, or at least I thought so at the time. It was at this point it really felt like a guilty pleasure. For me, someone who was (and still is) pioneering the idea that comics are intellectual and deserved to be read by a larger audience, I felt like I was betraying this idea by reading Spawn. But the time came when I gathered all my courage, and took the second volume to the counter.
At the time I had no idea that this would be a hugely rewarding purchase. The collection contained the guest writer issues. McFarlane had swallowed his pride, and paid a handsome sum to some of the most prolific comic writers of all time to come on over and write some Spawn, dude. And I’m not kidding when I say this was a superstar cast. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, David Sim and Frank Miller all each wrote a one-shot story from issues 8-11, which are widely considered the zenith of the entire Spawn run. Even Grant Morrison, a prolific 90’s writer, penned issues 16-18. In his book Supergods, he says ‘I managed to write three issues of Spawn…Comics International ran a cover story claiming I was one of several names asked to contribute…When I called McFarlane to check on the rumour, he asked me to write Spawn anyway.’ Each issue worked as a stand-alone story, all tackling different themes, but all equally brilliant, and writing to McFarlane’s strengths as an artist.
This was shell-shocking, as this was genuinely well written comics, yet contained within Spawn. I was hooked, happy that my pursuit of the series had paid off. The ball was rolling, and like a really good high, I had to sustain momentum. I almost immediately went off to buy volume three, feeling like it could only get better from here. The superstars had laid the foundation, I thought, so the series was moving in a great direction.
Unfortunately, the quality could only sustain itself for so long. The third volume wasn’t a bad collection, it just felt disappointing compared to the stories I’d just come off. McFarlane’s writing had picked up somewhat in quality, but his pacing and tone and that damn inner monologue still prevented the series from really going somewhere. There was something of a creative goldmine struck when he revisited Angela, one of the characters Neil Gaiman had created, and had a fast paced, exciting Spawn vs. Heaven story arc. Unfortunately it ended fairly soon, and nothing lasting or consequential had been drawn from it.
At this point was really where Spawn sunk back into the guilty pleasure territory for me. I had been given that glimpse of hope in volume 2, and it was truly beautiful. But nothing had compared since. I’ve come back to feeling intense shame every time I take a second look at the Spawn collections in store. Yet I keep coming back it, for some reason.
I’ve come to realise that it’s not purely nostalgia, although those childhood video game memories do serve as some kind of fuel. It’s that hope, the hope that surely, surely in a series that has been running regularly for just about 25 years and 250+ issues now the magic has to have been recaptured. Something substantial, something noteworthy has to have come out of this massive run. Unfortunately I’m about 60 issues in now, and there’s been nothing but shallow events to keep the momentum slugging along. Nonetheless, like an ex-lover you keep coming back to, like a drug you know is doing you no good, I keep picking up these Spawn collections. I’m a Spawn junkie, and I’m okay to admit it.