The Face in the Puddle

It’s always worth reading the whole of the comicbook.

There’s a joy to reading the letter columns that appear in the back of comicbooks. Fans since the ’70s have known this, but with the “Spawning Ground” of Spawn #251, comics industry legend Todd McFarlane seems to evolve the idea of the lettercol itself.

Think of the Spawn #251 “Spawning Ground” as part of the story itself. A story McFarlane’s been weaving since 1992, when he first redefined the comics industry by striking out on his own, co-founding Image, and proving that new character concepts like Spawn could succeed in the the face of established properties with decades of history under their respective belts. Properties like Spider-Man or X-Men.

Back in 1992, what began as a battle for creator rights—McFarlane and the others of the Magnificent Seven broke out from Marvel to found a company, among other reasons, where they could control their financial destiny—quickly became an opportunity to table reader rights. I’m sympathetic to the argument that what McFarlane and others were doing for the “Big 2” was building equity for these companies’ characters but receiving no share in increased company. But the simple act of trying to right this situation by co-founding their own publisher, the Seven would see a greater debate evolve—around the market demand for characters more reflective of shifts in the general readership.

It wasn’t just that kids in the ’90s wanted darker grittier heroes. It’s that the general readership wasn’t kids. After the annus mirabilis that as 1986/87 and the double punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, the comics readership shifted dramatically. Longtime readers were looking for ongoing titles they could grow older with. Incoming fans were looking books with more mature themes rather than superhero soap operatics. If you’re looking for an analogy, trying having to explain The Wire or Seinfeld to a world that was just beginning to relish Airwolf. In 1992, this is a what Spawn, a story about an antihero skulking around an anonymous set of alleyways, doing nothing more than pitying himself for striking a deal with the Devil, really represented.

But times change. And 20 years on means we’re facing a different generational shift in comics. And it’s here, with the landmark issue of Spawn #250, with it’s followup, Spawn Resurrection #1 and the current issue in the series, Spawn #251 that the real test comes. Can Spawn do what older comics IP’s have done—succeed across generations.

Just to catch you up, Spawn #250 saw the climactic (apocalyptic) end of the Jim Downing storyarcs. Downing found the mantle of Spawn thrust upon him when he awoke from a coma all the way back in October of 2008, at the end of Spawn #185. It was the start of “Endgame,” a storyarc that opened with the original Spawn, Al Simmons, taking his own life.

But in the closing pages of Spawn #250, all this microhistory is reversed. And it’s Spawn Resurrection #1, the interregnum issue between #250 and #251 that explains everything. In the pages of Spawn Resurrection #1 incoming regular creative team, writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jonboy explain the return of Al Simmons and provide the character with a new narrative direction, and also evolve the character’s high concept.

No longer is Al Simmons simply in a battle of wits with Malebolgia (really to reclaim his soul) but now he faces a bigger conceptual challenge—to act as champion for humans who are essentially free in a way that Angels and Demons never can be.

Jenkins’s refocusing on free of choice is an important thematic shift. Spawn’s always been about larger, darker, more mature themes, a point that’s been reemphasized throughout the 20 years of publication history, but never more strongly than with the protagonist’s suicide in issue #185. Thematically though, the book has always seemed more drawn to themes of consequence, inaction, redemption, culpability and self-recrimination. In the beginning and throughout the series, the questions always pointed towards escaping a sense of damnation. Although never openly stated, freedom of choice was the only real weapon Al Simmons had in his arsenal against Malebolgia.

With Spawn Resurrection #1, Al Simmons/Spawn is given a new direction—be the champion of the only creatures in all creation free from domination by either Angels or Demons—humans. Free from domination, but not necessarily free from influence. With Spawn #251, the action becomes more “political” with Spawn needing to take actions based on split-second decisions, but also actions that have longterm consequences.

But this leads back “Spawning Ground,” and to McFarlane’s spirited defense of why he won’t ever be rebooting Spawn continuity and restart the issue numbering at #1. It’s something beautiful, that you have to read for yourself. The idea that there is only one Spawn, and its history is ongoing.

To encapsulate the primacy of that sentiment, there’s perhaps no more perfect an image than Al Simmons stepping through a puddle, only to have Spawn’s visage reflected back at him. Spawn has always focused on those people and things discarded by society, whether they be the homeless, of comics themselves. And if Spawn the comicbook, now 20-plus years and 250 issues on, acts like a kind a mirror for our own impulse to contract with the kinds of things that would compromise essential freedom, then the question it asks is which is more true—our nobler aspirations, or our darker natures.

Spawn #251 comes with the highest praise.

RATING 10 / 10