The Devil Wears Spandex

by Monte Williams

29 November 2010


A Vicious, Violent Shadow

In another example, Wanda and Terry and their daughter Cyan reunite after nearly being destroyed by a demon from Hell, and MacGregor feels the need to inform the reader, “They were incredibly relieved and overjoyed to be together again.”

The book is also littered with typos (“He hesitated, but then tossed him back to the floor with both hand”), plus something else that I don’t even know the name for. Here’s an example:

“That sonuvabitch,” he screamed. Fitzgerald was going to pay. “Oh, was he ever going to pay.”

This happens more than once. A character will alter the tense of his speech to match the style of the omniscient third-person narration. Taking a page from MacGregor’s book, I’ll tell you the obvious: it’s disorienting.

Spawn is mostly mediocre writers and artists making stuff look cool just because they can, with no thought as to whether the supposed coolness serves the story.

Children in the Spawn comic book are not just Innocent, but also Wise. The novelization is the same. Before Clown tosses aside his Wanda mask, Cyan, a five-year-old, assures her father, “Don’t worry, Daddy. That’s not Mommy. I know Mommy and that’s not her.” Later, she realizes Al Simmons is her dad. This despite Simmons not knowing it himself, and despite the fact that he first arrives five years into her life, as a horrifically burned man in a filthy jacket who later grows leather armor with spikes sticking out from his skin.

Soon, Spawn assures Wanda that, while he’s no longer a part of her life, he won’t be far away. Cyan says, “You better not be.” I am reminded of the eldest daughter in Dan in Real Life saying, “This is weird… and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Children and teenagers do not speak like Hallmark greeting cards or earnest talking heads from What the Bleep Do We Know.

This was all distantly disappointing for me. I expected Spawn to be clumsy and silly, but some part of me wanted the comic book and movie to maintain some of their coolness. After all, back in 1996, I spent hours on my sister’s computer downloading a 30-second teaser for the Spawn movie. That’s how much I loved this stuff.

Luckily, one hope remained: HBO’s Spawn, the animated series.

The Spawn cartoon begins with Cogliostro saying, “Once again, it is time for a new hero to emerge from the darkness”, and you almost expect him to add, “You know, like Batman, or The Crow”. In the opening scene, a man in an alley flicks his cigarette to the street, and it’s inexplicably treated as some dramatic opportunity, like the slow-motion typing in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The animators apparently just wanted to show off, and in retrospect, that’s all Spawn has ever been: mostly mediocre writers and artists making stuff look cool just because they can, with no thought as to whether the supposed coolness serves the story.

The slow-mo cigarette gimmick is utilized later to greater effect, as Spawn murders several bad guys in the time it takes a cigarette to fall to the ground. Still, it’s humorous to see cigarettes treated as ham-fisted foreshadowing and stumbling melodrama; Spawn’s vigilante moralizing is about as clumsy as the cigarette symbolism, so that one almost expects Spawn to eviscerate a mobster while admonishing him to quit smoking.

Yet the cartoon offers fleeting moments of greatness. While the series tries too hard to establish its edginess—every shooting victim bleeds like the bed that swallows Johnny Depp in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street movie—it’s far more effective than either the movie or the comic book. In the animated series, Spawn is a horror. He has no child sidekick, no adorable puppy. He is a vicious, violent shadow.

The aesthetic is an uneasy mixture of intense, Anime-esque detail and American television animation simplicity, but the voice-acting is stellar. If you close your eyes and treat the show as a radio serial, it’s legitimately chilling. The standouts of the voice cast are Keith David as Spawn and Michael Nickelosi as Clown. Both characters are more disturbing in animated form than in any other medium, and it’s all due to David and Nickelosi.

The cartoon, like the comic book, is at its least convincing when it comes to portraits; a given character’s features are exaggerated, but not in any buoyant way that would please animation enthusiasts like John Kricfalusi, just in the manner of crappy drawings. Otherwise, the animation is stylish, but it barely qualifies as animation, in that there’s not much movement.

It’s similar to MTV’s The Maxx, or Marvel’s superhero cartoons of the ‘60s, which dragged static illustrations across the screen to convey action. There are also lots of close-ups on eyes as characters talk, and often as not, trees and skyscrapers are just distant silhouettes, and rows of teeth are white strips with no definition or separation. Every scene is drowned in shadows, yet no light source is apparent. The series sometimes feels like a Liquid Television reject.

Spawn asks, “Why is it people with authority abuse their power?” That’s about as cutting and insightful as the dialogue gets. To be fair, McFarlane concedes in the commentary, “I don’t consider myself much of a writer.”

There are strange missteps. More than once, Cogliostro narrates a typically moody scene, only for the camera to pan to Cogliostro alone in the alley, talking to himself. I am reminded of Johnny Depp narrating his paranoid delusions aloud to his terrified hitchhiking passenger in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy?”

The man-with-dog manner of establishing each good guy’s inherent goodness is no less clumsy and obvious in the cartoon than it is in the movie. Wanda spills her files at one point, and Terry says, “Let me guess, first day on the pro-bono case.” Why would a husband need to specify that his wife is working a case pro-bono, if not to inform the audience that she’s a great gal?

The brief instances of nudity and the occasional bursts of profanity are like that first slow-mo cigarette: empty posturing. It’s the most transparent bid to excite teenage boys since the hot chick in Heavy Metal started stripping and said, “If any part of me pleases you, I would give it to you willingly.” If you can’t even make titties titillating, you’re doing something wrong.

I’m stunned that I found these stories compelling at age 19. It’s clear to me now that, just as you can collect any number of Spawn comic books and still have something less than a graphic novel, and just as Spawn is not only a poor excuse for a film but hardly earns its status as a popcorn movie, HBO’s Spawn cartoon is not an HBO-quality series. To be sure, it has nudity, like Sex and the City. And it has graphic violence, like The Sopranos. Still, to paraphrase Dave Chapelle: Even though this is HBO, it’s still regular-ass TV.

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