The Devil Wears Spandex

by Monte Williams

29 November 2010


Eighteen Years Later, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn Still Looks like Hell

Lion-O was the leader of the Thundercats. I don’t believe he had a surname. What he did have was what an old man in a bait shop on The Simpsons called “a shock of hair, red as the fires of Hell”.

Lion-O also wore one glove—a big monster of a glove, sculpted from gold. He wielded the Sword of Omens, an unassuming dagger that surpassed all the combined comical phallic imagery of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; to power-up, Lion-O would clutch his sword tightly in his fist and swing it back and forth through the air… and it would elongate.

Most damning of all, Lion-O wore a powder-blue leotard. With the midriff cut out to display his taut abs. Prince, clad in his assless “Gett Off” pants, would look at Lion-O and say, “Damn, dude, that’s flamboyant.”

I loved Lion-O. I feel no tremendous pressure to defend myself; I was eight-years-old. During roughly the same time period, I also loved Fall Guy, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. Kids like stupid things.

cover art

Spawn Collection

Volume 1

US: 28 Dec 2005

This embarrasses me, though: I was a Spawn fan. I loved the Spawn comic book from Image Comics, the HBO animated series and the live-action film. Most of all, I loved the Spawn action figures. And this time, I had no excuse; I was 19-years-old.

It was those action figures that first seduced me. The initial series of Spawn toys hasn’t aged well; they now look like rejected characters from the vintage Ninja Turtles series by Playmates. But when they first hit Toys R Us shelves, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn figures were a revelation. For the time, the sculpts were stunning, and man, did Spawn’s costume look cool.

Today, Spawn’s costume, admittedly neat-looking, calls to mind the various supernatural characters in the World Wrestling Federation during the ‘90s. There was the Ultimate Warrior, who would call upon the “gods” and the “spirit of the warriors” to defeat his opponents. Then you had Papa Shango, a voodoo monster who caused mysterious black goo to pour down the faces of the Ultimate Warrior and Mean Gene Okerlund. Another supernatural character was Damian Demento, a mystifying figure whose only magical gift was the uncanny ability to lose every match.

Then there was the Undertaker, of course, who was a sort of zombie character—and who is still inexplicably active, and arguably producing the greatest matches of his career, 20-some years after his debut. The Undertaker was so magically powerful that his occasional losses would usually result in hordes of druids dragging him from the ring while lightning danced in the background and smoke filled the arena.

There are obviously many things one could point to in order to question the credibility of these athletic characters, but what always bugged me most was the simple question of why these mystical beings had no better outlet for their voodoo and sorcery than a wrestling ring.

What does this have to do with Spawn? Simple: just as it makes no sense for a god to display his powers in a wrestling ring, it seems unnecessary for a satanic soldier to dress like a professional wrestler.

Seriously. Why does Spawn wear spandex?

Looking back at the 1992 beginnings of the Spawn comic book—the first six issues of the series were recently collected in a paperback called the Origins Collection—the protagonist’s spandex costume is the least of the reader’s concerns. Among many shortcomings, Spawn’s chief failing is that it is a wordy comic. Wordy is the last thing a comic like Spawn should be, especially in light of Todd McFarlane’s meager skills as a writer. Most of the words take the form of Spawn’s thoughts as he struggles to figure out the nature of his powers and the details of the deal he made when he sold his soul to Malebolgia. His actual spoken dialogue is scarce. Here, for example, is Spawn’s spoken dialogue from the debut issue in its entirety:

Get out. Now! Or you’re all dead.

Bad idea.

Now, who’s next?

Fat boy. You’re WAY out of your league.

They’re gone. You needn’t be afraid.

No. Not again.

Hh-huhhh hhuhhhh…

My face—felt like—

Jesus!! What AM I?

What am I?

That’s 41 words, counting “Hh-huhhh hhuhhhh” as one word. Meanwhile, in just the first six pages, Spawn thinks 207 words. Actually, that’s in the first seven pages, but Spawn does not appear on page three, so I opted not to count it; page three is one of those staggeringly audacious Frank Miller rip-off pages that were ubiquitous in the early issues of Spawn, featuring the alternating observations of a TV news reporter, a Hollywood gossipmonger and a political commentator. There are over 300 words on this page, and the artwork is a repetitive string of portraits of the three commentators. Their facial expressions never even change. McFarlane pretty quickly abandoned this tired bit of plagiarism—stolen from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, far and away the most overrated comic book of all time from easily the most overrated comic book creator of all time—just as he abandoned the meter that tracks the rate at which Spawn’s powers fade; presumably, such a countdown created too much storytelling accountability.

It’s unusual for me to dismiss a story as too wordy. I like words. Hell, this essay is about 5,000 words long, and I still remember a cartoon hanging on some professor’s office door at college in the late ‘90s, featuring a man at an art gallery ignoring the paintings in order to intently study the Exit sign. A companion notes, “He’s always been text-driven.” That’s me. But McFarlane has no way with words.

Even so, I will always have a smile in me somewhere for this ridiculous character. Some stunted part of me still thinks his costume looks awesome, and Spawn features a superhero premise that is still unique and intriguing, 18-years later: assassin Al Simmons dies, goes to Hell, sells his soul for one more opportunity to see his wife, Wanda, discovers that he’s returned five years into the future and, while he can see his wife quite clearly, he’s a horribly burned monster and a soldier in Hell’s army. Plus, Wanda’s married to Al’s best friend, and she has a daughter.

Beyond the premise, however, the Spawn series was always a victim of failure of imagination. The simplest way to explain what I mean is to note that every evil character in the Spawn universe looks evil. A great example is Billy Kincaid. Kincaid murders children, but he’s not tormented or ambiguous in any way. As he tells us about his love of finger-painting, he’s gluing a child’s severed fingers onto his painting. Oh, the wit.

McFarlane’s artwork is also much more mediocre than I remembered. I’ve got this friend named Kit who’s no better at drawing than I am at writing, and his hasty sketches are better than many of the pages in the first volume of the Spawn Origins Collection. McFarlane’s faces are never convincing; each character’s features are exaggerated and cartoony without being outright caricature or cartoony enough to charm. His children are especially funny-looking. Anatomy is wildly inconsistent, and I think McFarlane designed Spawn’s cape to billow wildly just so that it would obscure Spawn’s feet, so that McFarlane wouldn’t have to draw them.

Skeptical? There are more than 120 pages in the first volume of the Spawn Origins Collection, most of which include at least six panel illustrations. Of an estimated 720 illustrations, then, guess how many feature characters whose feet are clearly visible? Six. In the remaining 714 or so drawings, everyone’s feet are conveniently cut off by the bottom of the panel or obscured by smoke or mist, like Crazy Eddie’s feet on the cover of Iron Maiden’s Maiden Japan. When you do see feet, they’re deformed, else they’re just cursory scribbles.

More often than not, there are no backgrounds in a given panel, just colorful voids or cross-hatched messes. And there are bubbles floating everywhere in several scenes. The bubbles are not explained, nor do any of the characters comment on them or seem to notice them.

I had hoped to purchase the latest issue of Spawn while I was in the States last summer, so that I could conduct a half-assed study of the comic’s evolution since issue six. Alas, the shops I visited did not have any recent issues of Spawn. Image will have published Spawn’s 200th issue by the time this essay is published, but the most recent issue I have read is issue 137, which I reviewed for a now-defunct website called Mediasharx.

While I am 60-some issues behind, I have learned of a recent Spawn plot development via Wikipedia. Curious as to whether Malebolgia was merely a devil or in fact The Devil, I read his Wiki entry, which revealed a startling plot twist:

Malebolgia… is a fictional character in the Spawn universe… he is Spawn’s former master and one of the major Lords of Hell. Thought to be the equivalent of Satan in the Bible, he is responsible for the creation of Spawn…

Satan himself has only recently been revealed in the Redeemer comics as Wanda’s daughter (the twin to God, Wanda’s son).

Who knew?

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