Comics, Reviews

RTF Retro Review: “SPAWN #1-4”


By: Adam Basciano

“While a strange assailant stalks the city, ripping out human hearts, another otherworldly being arrives. As his mind reels, our tortured hero remembers that he struck a deal with the devil in order to return to his beloved wife – five years after his death. Spawn decides to find Wanda, but fears her reaction to what he’s become. With his new powers, he attempts to change his ravaged features, with disappointing results. Exhausted, he collapses, only to be taunted by a foul-mouthed dwarf in clown makeup. Watching from the shadows, Spawn is shocked to find that Wanda has married and had a daughter with his best friend, Terry Fitzgerald. His anguish becomes physical when the ugly clown reappears, transforms into the Violator, and rips out Spawn’s heart! Violator and Spawn fight brutally until Malebolgia intervenes, explaining to them that they are both his minions in his battle against Heaven. Malebolgia also punishes Violator for his unscheduled killing spree, locking him in his clown form.” (Image)

I am really excited by what I’m reading about the upcoming Spawn reboot film. That coupled with the announcement that Jamie Foxx will star in the role, gave me the urge tore-read the first story arc. I haven’t read this in a long time, but now that I have, I really like what I’m reading. This book takes the biblical battle of Heaven Vs Hell/ God Vs The Devil and puts a superhero horror spin on things. One of the things I enjoy about the character, is Al Simmons has heroism in his nature. Before anything else, he works for the CIA, in the pursuit of justice. When you think about comic book superheroes, how many actually work in a field of justice & law enforcement before gaining powers or a costume? There’s maybe a handful or so. As Spawn, the character is more of an anti hero.

Writer/artist Todd McFarlane highlights this dual nature by having Al Simmons save the President from attempted assassination. He is then promoted to a black ops division of the CIA where he kills innocents. McFarlane safely balances making the government and Al’s superiors look bad, while making the soldier still be heroic. Al Simons grows a conscience; becomes disillusioned with what the higher ups are having him do, and is killed for asking too many questions. This is when Malebolgia makes the deal with Al Simmons, which causes him to sell his soul and become Spawn. While the concept of selling your soul to the devil isn’t a new one, the way Spawn’s origins were presented to us was against type. Usually in comic books, the superhero origin narrative is told in a linear fashion. Here, we are learning this info, as Spawn randomly starts remembering his life, following his return from the dead.

In most stories, the return of such memories would be a positive occurrence, but McFarlane writes it so that every time our character gets a dose of returning memories. it comes with intense physical torment. Add to that, his realization that his wife has since remarried and had a child. This is the whole reason he sold his soul, and he can’t be with her. Usually, when someone is getting superpowers for the first time, they get to have fun exploring them, but not Spawn! He’s having a shitty first few days on the job. I love that this story takes the superhero “pre-requisites” and turns them on their head. Speaking of powers, not all of them are revealed in the first four issues. We get a sense of invulnerability, and the ability to self heal, as Spawn repairs his heart being ripped out of his chest. I’m hoping it will be a slow burn and as I re-read more issues they’ll slowly reveal more powers. When it comes to revealing powers in origin stories, I like it slow and steady, rather than all at once and really quickly.

As for villains, Spawn starts out battling street thugs/rapists. Then he meets another agent of the devil, the Violator. Malebolgia shows up to break the news to Spawn, that his sole purpose is to accumulate the souls of evil people to strengthen Malebolgia’s army against heaven. Whether Spawn hunts criminals or lets them commit crime, he is serving the devil, as he will get all those souls eventually. Making things worse, the more Spawn uses his power, the faster his soul is consumed and then becomes property of Malebolgia. That’s a great twist. Part of the fun of re-reading more, is to see how Spawn reconciles the bombshells that were dropped on him at the end of this story. Wow, did I forget a lot of this series.

McFarlane draws his creation as well as writing his characters initial story. One thing I notice right off the bat (pun intended), is that McFarlane is heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” Specifically, the scenes featuring newscasters. The look and layout is exactly the same as TDKR. When creating a new character, the story has to be compelling. Just as important though, is the look of the character. Spawn simply put, looks BADASS! His costume/armor has a little bit of a Venom look to it, which makes sense when you consider McFarlane drew Spider-Man for a time, co creating Venom. Spawn even has a skull on his costume, which makes this comic book fan, think of both The Phantom and Ghost Rider. Then there’s the cape. Anyone who thinks capes aren’t cool, you haven’t seen this cape. I mean this cape would get Dracula jealous with it’s gothic aesthetic.

There’s a great image of Spawn perched on the cross of a cathedral. Batman, Daredevil, and now Spawn are the Trinity of heroes who perch themselves atop a cathedral, and look absolutely incredible at it. I absolutely love the look of the Violator… both of his looks. In his disguised look, he looks like an old, fat, short, drunk and perverted Joker who ditched the green hair and white makeup, for White hair and blue makeup. His monstrous form looks like something out of an Alien movie. There’s a fair amount of gore in this first story. It’s most prevalent when the Violator was killing mob bosses, by ripping their hearts out. Also, the fight between Spawn and the Violator had some gore-tastic moments, to the tune of some limb removal. This fight was my favourite series of pages of the entire story. The gore and more violent scenes were used sporadically and only when they felt appropriate story wise. Back in the day, it could’ve been easy for McFarlane to go excessive in this area, to further separate his creation from the rest of the superhero genre. Each cover for the first four issues looks great. But if I have to pick a favourite it would have to be #1. It’s ominous, the character engulfs the whole page, and visually, it looks as if he’s reaching out for your soul. Plus it’s a part of comic book history, and you’ve got to give it points for that.

Many times comic books and graphic novels will use terms like, “epic”, “ground-breaking”, or “history in the making”, to pump the tires of a book while promoting it. In Spawn #1-4’s case though, it’s all true. Spawn changed the way comic books were published and as a result, Image became a pioneer for independent comic books. Spawn remains the longest running independent comic book, and is Image’s longest running book. Also, Spawn #1 holds the record for independent comic book sales figures. But don’t read it for that, read it because Spawn is a cool character and concept! I will continue this retro review of some classic issues from the characters early days, as we lead up to the new film.

Score: A


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