Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Colors: Steve Oliff
Image Comics was born in 1992. Unlike the present-day publisher of high profile, creator-owned works such as The Walking Dead and Saga, the original Image was a very different beast. Founded by seven fan favorite artists who left Marvel Comics because they wanted to exercise greater creative control over their work, the whole enterprise seemed poorly conceived at the time. Almost all the founders would head their own studios, which were free from editorial oversight. But each comic book series they produced was meant to be part of a superhero-style shared universe. To this jaded comics fan, those actions and their underlying motives came across as juvenile and derivative instead of courageous and original.
This impression was further cemented with the behavior of Todd McFarlane, perhaps the most outspoken of the Image founders. According to Neil Gaiman, he once compared Marvel and DC to slave plantations, and the Image founders were slaves who had freed themselves from captivity. This tone-deaf analogy would come back to haunt him when he became embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to characters Gaiman created for Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane’s studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Image founders were a group of young men informed by a climate of increasing awareness of the abuses publishers heaped upon individual creators (such as Marvel’s troubled relationship with Jack Kirby). They married their clumsy understanding of creator rights with a Marvel-honed grim n’ gritty superhero aesthetic influenced by the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They were quickly gaining “rock star” status. And unlike their predecessors, no corporation was going to screw them over. Not if they could help it.
McFarlane’s contribution to the first wave of Image titles was the occult-themed comic Spawn. According to Wikipedia, the first issue sold 1.7 million copies, and the series would go on to become the publisher’s most consistent bestseller during its early years. Rereading it now, what’s immediately apparent is that the comic openly wears its influences. McFarlane’s most famous work at Marvel was on Spider-Man. And Spawn basically looks like Spider-Man if he were redesigned to look more Metal. The impossibly billowing Doctor Strange cloak, those Punisher-style skulls, random giant spikes, leg pouches that contained nothing, and the chains. Those stupid, non-functional chains. This excessive 90s ensemble was at least held together by a sleek red and white on black design that made him look part-ninja.
The first issue reads like a homage to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (McFarlane dedicates this issue to Kirby, one of Miller's idols). The story begins at nighttime. New York’s buildings are oddly shaped, craggy silhouettes. The gloomy urban landscape is punctuated by flashes of lightning, revealing our hero Spawn doing his best Batman impression by skulking precariously on the city's rooftops, because why not? Completing the noir setup is a brief introduction to a pair of homicide detectives named Sam and Twitch. Their Abbott and Costello routine can’t quite hide a family resemblance to James Gordon and Harvey Bullock.
McFarlane imitates Miller’s heavy use of first-person narrative text framed as a series of artfully arranged captions. He even resorts to that Dark Knight staple, multiple talking heads appearing on television screens, to supply some of the exposition. Not that this very wordy comic explains a whole lot. Spawn was a soldier Al Simmons who died under mysterious circumstances, but was reanimated with a supernaturally powered body after striking some kind of Faustian bargain in the afterlife. Al just doesn't remember any of its pertinent details. The only heroic act he performs with his newfound abilities in this issue is to beat up some street thugs who were about to rape a woman. The resulting energy expenditure causes a drop in the readings of a glowing numerical counter found on the panel margins. It all looks very much like a display from a video game.
The story conveys the sensibilities calculated to appeal to morose teenagers, and reads as if narrated by someone who might not be emotionally that far off from being an angry adolescent. Like Wolverine, Al only recalls fragments of his former life. And he’s also just as driven by extreme emotions like love and hate. McFarlane’s obsessive lineart enhances the claustrophobia Simmons feels when struggling to comprehend his strange new body.
But if the story is lacking in originality, the production values certainly don’t disappoint, even when considering technological advances that have taken place since. Spawn was the first comic I read that truly exploited the digital workflow for artistic effect. The end results were something that stood out from anything released by Marvel and DC at the time. That cover impressed me with the use of gradients to model the figure. The use of bluish lighting to delineate Spawn’s red cape is an appropriately eerie effect. For all intents, Steve Oliff was inventing a new vocabulary which would be exploited by subsequent colorists. The same could be said for letterer Tom Orzechowski. Digital lettering allowed for the accurate reproduction of a wide variety of fonts. The production line utilized by mainstream publishers traditionally treated the coloring and lettering stages as secondary to the lineart. But McFarlane, Oliff, and Orzechowski demonstrated within the pages of Spawn the potential for these visual elements to achieve a more integrated and balanced relationship.
Unfortunately, none of this could completely conquer my utter disinterest in Al’s life story. Nor could it overcome the weaknesses in McFarlane’s writing. Spawn is still being produced by Todd McFarlane Productions. But McFarlane has over the years hired numerous creators to help with the writing and art, including the aforementioned Gaiman. To use his own words, McFarlane's studio had become a plantation. I couldn't care less. Like all the titles created by Image founders, Spawn has since dripped from its lofty perch as massive bestseller. Changing tastes render what was once dark and edgy somewhat silly now (not to mention subject to The LEGO Batman treatment). The Image universe quickly collapsed as the Image founders started squabbling with each other or drifted apart. Younger creators have since become the new industry rock stars. And the production techniques pioneered by Spawn have since been widely adopted and further refined by the rest of the industry, making this comic seem less striking by comparison. It's a slick product that's nonetheless kinda ugly to look at. But for better or worse, McFarlane and Spawn were instrumental in establishing what has now become the most successful American comic book publisher outside of Marvel and DC.