[29 November 2010]
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.
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.
Now, who’s next?
Fat boy. You’re WAY out of your league.
They’re gone. You needn’t be afraid.
No. Not again.
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).
I also remember a brief note a year or so back on Topless Robot about a company-wide event wherein Al Simmons becomes the Big Bad of the entire Image Universe. Hasty research reveals that the event in question is called Image United, and apparently the series has received poor reviews, and it’s been plagued by publishing delays. Sounds like Image’s glory days.
The first six issues of the Spawn comic book represent only one version of the character’s origin. There is also the Hollywood adaptation, which I recently purchased to watch for the first time in a decade.
If all one can say of the Spawn comic is that Spawn’s cape looks wicked-keen, all the movie has to recommend it is stylish opening credits. The story is the same: Al Simmons kills people, dies, goes to Hell, wants to see his wife. This time, though, when Simmons wakes five years later as Spawn, Marilyn Manson’s “Long Hard Road out of Hell” plays on the soundtrack. And just as “Long Hard Road out of Hell” is a pale imitation of Danzig’s “Long Way Back from Hell”, Spawn is derivative of any number of better superhero movies: Batman, The Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The script seems to be made up of arbitrary lines of dialogue that could be rearranged with no ill effect. Having encouraged Spawn to let his costume’s powers do his fighting for him, Cogliostro warns Spawn that his powers are finite, and when he drains them, he’ll die. Spawn’s response is to hand Cogliostro his guns and say, “I won’t be needing these.” Cogliostro says, “Now you’re catching on.” If draining your superpowers kills you, I should think that guns are exactly what you need.
Most scenes are stolen—faint praise—by the fat, demonic clown, named Clown in a typical bout of McFarlane literal-mindedness. Clown is occasionally funny, as when Spawn complains that he feels like his skin is about to explode, to which Clown replies, “That’s just your viral necroplasm going through its larval stage. Pretty soon you’re gonna get hair in funny places, and you’re gonna start thinking about girls.”
Alas, Clown also farts and gleefully displays the “skid marks” on his underwear. Indeed, he is mostly a tiresome, idiotic character, and it is a testament to the charisma and comic timing of John Leguizamo that he steals the show with such bad dialogue while buried in make-up that completely obscures his identity.
Spawn calls Clown a “fudge-packing midget” in just one of many instances of homophobia in Spawn’s history. In the animated series, Overtkill dismisses Spawn as a “no-talent asshole in a faggy outfit”, and the special features of the Spawn DVD offer an interview with McFarlane wherein he suggests that Batman is more “kooky” than Spawn because Batman “doesn’t even like girls”. (The special features also include a Sci-Fi Channel documentary filled with nonsensical quotes from McFarlane, such as his assertion that Spawn “has a more intelligent, sophisticated sense about it”, and that it’s “really more sci-fi-ish instead of comic book-ish”.)
I have always wondered about the relevance of Al Simmons’s race. It’s interesting and arguably admirable that McFarlane opted to make his protagonist black, along with the protagonist’s wife and best friend. But when the protagonist’s identity is literally burned away, how much impact can it have? (To be fair, McFarlane has always minimized the impact himself, insisting that he’d never intended Simmons’s race to make any sort of statement.) But apparently Simmons is just black enough to be threatening to producers: not only is Spawn’s black identity obscured by burns in the live-action movie, but Al Simmons’ best friend Terry is now a white man, portrayed by D. B. Sweeney. More than a decade later, Hollywood may still be uncomfortable with black heroes; Wesley Snipes’ Blade is soothingly subhuman, and Will Smith’s Hancock is a f*ck-up.
The cover of the Spawn DVD reads, “The Special Effects Event of the Year”, which is doubly embarrassing in light of how poorly said effects have aged. The Clown make-up is flawless, as is Simmons’ scorched flesh, but Spawn boasts some of the worst CGI I have ever seen. Sadly, Spawn’s cape, such an integral part of the character’s mystique in the comics, is the fakest-looking thing in the movie—not counting every scene set in Hell; Malebolgia looks like a grouchy-voiced monster from an old Crest commercial.
As a film, Spawn doesn’t work as action or comedy, and it certainly isn’t scary. The only terrifying thing on the DVD is McFarlane’s claim that the movie represents “chapter one of about a two hundred-chapter story”.
This summer, as I first considered revisiting Spawn, I browsed the bookshelves at a Deseret Industries store in Idaho and discovered a lightly battered copy of the novelization of the Spawn film—the irony of procuring a book about a hero from Hell in a Mormon store was not lost on me. The author is Rob MacGregor, and his bio offers a funny double-take moment: “He has written seven Indiana Jones titles, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as The Crystal Skull, a novel of adventure and intrigue.”
MacGregor’s adaptation is about as memorable as you’d expect a Spawn novelization to be. Spawn’s mentor Cogliostro narrates a short introduction and only makes brief, sporadic appearances after that, which is unfortunate because he has far more personality than the title character. Cogliostro acknowledges that the reader might dismiss him as “just another hell n’ brimstone preacher” and then, in perhaps the only cute moment in the novel, he says, “allow me to offer my credentials”. His history is more interesting than Spawn’s, too: “I was the Roman soldier who speared the side of a man named Joshua, later called Jesus of Nazareth.”
Cogliostro calls himself “Hell’s first turncoat, a Lucifer to the Dark Lord himself.” Fascinating stuff, but little ever comes of it, because Cogliostro is Spawn’s Supernatural Aid, and a Supernatural Aid cannot be a protagonist, so we are stuck with Spawn.
Al Simmons detects, in the novelization’s opening paragraph, “the faint odor of smoke from a major fire”. That meager bit of foreshadowing is about as literary as Spawn gets.
Here, for example, is an inept description of Clown:
He went by the name Clown, partly because he looked like one—the scary kind of clown from nightmares, a dwarf. He was no more an ordinary man than he was an ordinary dwarf. He even scared himself sometimes.
And here’s a sex scene between Wanda and Al that’s even worse:
She murmured that he was bigger than she remembered him. “Bigger all over,” she whispered after running her hands over and down beyond his flat belly.
Then he filled her desires with his own as they eagerly entwined. She primed his passions and he answered with great ecstatic thrusts, until finally they could wait no longer and threw themselves into wave after wave of gushing rapture.
Inevitably, Al Simmons has a dog, a terrier named Spaz. Simmons affectionately calls the dog Knucklehead, and MacGregor writes, “Simmons grinned like a kid as he rubbed and patted his excited little dog.” This reminded me of the David Cronenberg interview in the eXistenZ graphic novel, wherein Cronenberg criticizes the shallow character development in action films by noting that the viewer will usually see the protagonist play with his dog at the start of the film, so that we know he’s basically a great guy.
Simmons’ boss Jason Wynn is not a great guy. Nor is he original, where villainy is concerned: “Simply put, he wanted to be the most powerful man alive.” And here’s MacGregor on Wynn’s relationship with Clown: “Wynn didn’t like dealing with the insidious demon-dwarf, but he endured it for his own dark reasons.”
Interestingly, the female villain who kills Simmons is called Chapel in the novelization, whereas her name in the movie is Jessica Priest. In the Spawn comic books, Chapel was a bald dude with a skull painted on his face, and he was indeed responsible for the murder of Al Simmons. But Chapel was the creation of Rob Liefeld, for his Youngblood comic book. When McFarlane and Liefeld’s relationship grew strained, McFarlane created Priest the female assassin to replace Chapel in the film; the novelization must have been written during some midpoint when the rift between McFarlane and Liefeld had just started to develop. (Melinda Clarke plays the role of Priest/Chapel in the film, and with her teased hair and exaggerated smirks, she looks and acts like a professional wrestling manager.)
I enjoyed the scene, unique to the novelization, where three punks—called punk-1, punk-2 and punk-3—pour gasoline on Spawn and urinate on him and then toss him into a dumpster. It reminded me of the never-ending series of mustache-twirling street toughs who accosted Bill Bixby’s hapless David Banner through several seasons of The Incredible Hulk.
When Simmons is killed, MacGregor writes, “His scream faded back into the depth of his lost soul.” There’s writing like this on every page, though I’m uncertain as to the extent to which we should hold MacGregor responsible; as a writer-for-hire, it would be difficult to make much of the material provided, in the case of Spawn.
Here’s more: “the demonic gaze of eyes that pierced his heartless carapace like hot coals” and “he screamed, louder than any previous howl, as spikes burst out of the backs of his hands” and “his words flayed Spawn, ripping him apart from inside out” and “the roaring wails of Hell’s hordes pounded in his head” and “Hell hovered close to a sizzling death star that scorched its rugged surface and fried its ghastly condemned inhabitants” and “his red compound eyes flashed with hell-fueled rage and he let loose a loud, unearthly screech that momentarily paralyzed Cogliostro with dread” and, my easy favorite, “Then Simmons wailed in agony as something horrendous and totally unexpected happened.”
Spawn even shouts “Never!” at one point. All we’re missing is for an injured good guy to say “Leave me,” only for the other good guy to refuse to leave anyone behind. I’m frankly shocked that never happened, though Cogliostro does enter a scene by stabbing Clown and then saying, “Mind if I cut in?”
Here’s a brilliant exchange between Spawn and Clown:
“Oh God,” Spawn screamed.
“Did you have to use the G word?”
Spawn dropped his head back and yelled in despair, “Wanda, what have I done?”
Some equally magical banter between Spawn and Chapel:
“Well, it’s a little early for Halloween, Al.”
“Where you’re going, Chapel, everyday is Halloween, but it’s all tricks and no treats.”
Soon after: “She spun around and delivered a swift kick to Spawn’s groin. To her astonishment, a skull emerged from his groin area and its jaw clamped down over her leg.” This scene occurred in the movie as well—this is notable, because MacGregor’s story includes a few scenes that do not appear in the film—but it’s even clumsier when some poor work-for-hire writer has to make it work as prose.
Here’s more from Clown, out to prove that McFarlane’s villains are as subtle in their menace as the Addams Family:
“All right, all right. Enough of the sentimental crap,” Clown said. “Heart lockets and sweetheart pictures. Oh, puke!”
Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Clown is scary because his criticisms of goodness and sanctity are so insightful:
Clown had power and he certainly was no angel from the heavens. As he figured it, the dark side was the way to get what you wanted fast. Suffering, sacrifice and the pious crap wasn’t for him. The same for peace and love. Sorry, but the weak and meek were never going to rule anything, much less the Earth.
I find Dark Helmet’s speech on the same theme more stirring. From Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”
As is the case with the Spawn comic books, one need never read between the lines when it comes to the novelization:
Spawn looked up to see Wanda’s entire body growing fuzzy as a dark energy swirled around and around her, whirling faster and faster. When the whirlwind died away, Wanda was gone, and Clown stood in her place. The knife fell to the floor. Of course. It was Clown the entire time. He’d shape-shifted to look like Wanda.
Thank god that last sentence was added, otherwise scholars would still be debating the implications of that scene today. Earlier, after a two-paragraph description of Simmons’s transformation into Spawn, the too-helpful narration concludes, “Without a doubt, he was being savagely transformed into a new being.”
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.
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.