Thursday, 21 February 2013

Books: Spawn


By Todd McFarlane

Available now from Islington Libraries
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If I could I would make it so that as soon as you started reading this review you would hear the chug-chug-chugging of some mid-90s heavy-metal guitars [1]. You know - some Rage Against The Machine maybe or hell: anything off the soundtrack that came out with the 1997 Spawn film [2]: because - well - yeah: Spawn all the way from his name [3] all the way to his garish, chains and red cape outfit [4] is the absolute embodiment of 90s superhero excess: and depending on your tastes - that means that he's like: total the worst thing ever - or the best thing since Pop Tarts [5].

When I saw it sitting on the shelves of Central Library: my first reaction was a stupid grin - I mean - I may as well just admit it and get it out of the way: for a few issues at least [6] I was a teenage Spawn reader. I don't know if this was just somesort of pack instinct or silly gullibility or (maybe) the fact that (at the time) the thought of a superhero from Hell with magical green powers was just the most awesome thing I had ever heard of: but - well - there it is: I'm not proud [7].

Revisiting one of the bastions of my teenage years I was expecting nothing more than a bit of a larky, giggly laugh: like flipping through old photos and marvelling at the way you used to wear your hair. But of course things are never that simple - especially when you get Frank Miller to write your introduction.

I mean: when I first saw his name I was a little shocked: it was (a bit) like seeing Thom Yorke introducing Marilyn Manson (or something: I dunno - maybe make up your own analogy of respected industry figure acting as a host for some cheesy bubblegum nonsense [9]): but then he starts putting things in context and making grand proclamations like: "Spawn in a chunk of comics history and an important one. Spawn is a Boston Tea Party, a loud rude act of defiance against a bad, broken system built on abusing it's finest." Which made me go - oh: wow - ok: yeah: comics history and DC and Marvel screwing over creators and etc - and yeah: I guess it is good that finally someone could create a superhero and own all the rights to it and stuff [10]: but well - that Hunter S. Thompson quote from Fear and Loathing Las Vegas springs to mind [11] while it might have seemed like the start of some Brave New Dawn all the way back in 1992 or whatever: but with over twenty years hindsight - things look a lot less rosey: the bad news is that DC and Marvel still rule the comics market with an iron fist and - well: that market has now shrunk down to almost nothing (or is that just me? I dunno...). Reading the Frank Miller introduction is like looking back at the early stages of a gold rush where - it turned out - there wasn't actually any gold in them there hills: like - it's nice that they were so happy and hopeful - but it's sad that nothing really came of it and that the Boston Tea Partying didn't actually manage to kick-start a revolution after all: and the bad, broken system is still in place today.

Oh well.

On to the comic (which is a bit of a shock after the hallowed tones of the introduction - like - hell: hearing Thom Yorke wax lyrical about the way music can stir the soul and sooth the savage beast: and then having Marilyn Manson come out and do his cover of Tainted Love [12]) and from it's very first lines ("I don't belong. Not here. Not now.") which (is this just me?) reminded me of another popular hit from the early 90s [13] - the whole thing positively reeks of teenage-boy-ness (with that too-much-Lynx smell hanging over every page like a damp cloth): I mean - hell: a hideously scarred outcast that can't communicate his romantic intentions to his beloved: it doesn't take that much for your average hormone-drenched male youth to relate - you know? And with hard boiled dialogue like "Funny how being a walking dead man can screw up your life." existing in the dunderheaded spot between Sin City and - hell - every other superhero comic ever: then - yeah: I can see why it used to appeal to me so much that I paid good money to go and see the movie. All the darkest bits of Batman, Spider-Man and Daredevil all mixed up in a blender and sprinkled with a shot of hell-fire? I mean: reading it now it all seems coldly calculated for the widest possible appeal: but what the hey right? No one is that discerning when they're that young - so what's the harm?

Of course - there are a few things that put it ahead of the curve: one of which I remember appealing to me at the time is that right at the start there's a promise of an expiry date (I'll just say 9999 and leave it at that): I mean - I knew at the time that every superhero comic out there just went on forever and ever and ever: and hell - who wants to be caught in a story that never actually goes anywhere? No thank you: not for me [14]. But Spawn presents itself right from the start as something different as something that seems like it has a finite story to tell: rather than just another never-ending franchise [15].

What else? Well: as you may or may not know: one of the more notable features of Spawn is that for 4 issues (Spawn #8 - #11) Todd McFarlane somehow (my best guess would be: by using loads and loads of money: but whatever) managed to get four of the best comic writers of - like - ever to write a single guest issue of Spawn: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller (which - in case you didn't realise was like a big deal): it would be like if Marilyn Manson had an album which had songs written by - well: hell - you can fill in the rest: you know.

Sadly for whatever reasons [16] the only two stories that appear here are the Alan Moore one and the Frank Miller (strangely tho - although Frank Miller gets credit for his story - I couldn't find Alan Moore's name anywhere in the entire book: which is a little strange - and I had to google the name of the story "In Heaven (Everything is Fine)" just to make sure it was him [17]) and - hell - even if you don't feel like you have any interest in the adventures of Spawn: I would still recommend you trying out the Alan Moore story: it's like an expanded edition of one of his Future Shock stories that he used to write for 2000AD (The Frank Miller story? Meh. That's less good: but then it doesn't really seem like he's really trying that hard - but I guess it's more him bending his approach to Spawn rather than Alan Moore who bends Spawns to meet him).

But yeah: as for the rest: I mean - if you've ever seen Todd McFarlane's artwork anywhere - then you should know what to expect: everyone stands around posing - and there's loads of finickity little details hanging around the place: but the feeling it tends to leave you with is the same one you get after you eat a Big Mac: I mean - yeah: it's kinda tasty: but it's not particularly nourishing - you know?

And - of course: it's doing it's best to keep you hooked: so there's not much closure at the end: just another cliffhanger to try and keep you coming back: although if you don't know your Image Universe that well (like me) then it's not that much of a hook (I thought it was the introduction of a new character - but instead it's someone that you're already supposed to know: oh well).

In conclusion: SPAWN. You already know if you're gonna like it or not - so what more can I say?

[1] Like a Myspace page or something: in fact - YES: if I could somehow write this whole thing so that it came up like a Myspace page: that would be absolutely perfect (oh well).

[2] "Spawn: The Album was released in July 1997 and brought together popular rock bands at the time including Metallica, Korn, Slayer, Marilyn Manson and Silverchair with well known DJs and electronic producers such as The Crystal Method, Roni Size, and The Prodigy." So - yeah - something like that.

[3] According to lastfm there's more than one band who go by the name “Spawn.” (a 90s alternative rock band from Buffalo, NY (I mean - obviously) a German straight-edge band, a happy ska-punk band from the Netherlands, a brutal Death Metal band from Germany, a hip-hop MC and a metal band from The Netherlands also from the 90’s). frankly I'm surprised that there aren't more: although I guess that most people would associate Spawn with Frogs rather than Hell - but whatever.

[4] Which - to Todd McFarlane's credit - is delivered a stinging put -down by one of the ever-present TV presenters (who I would say act as Spawn's Greek Chorus - if saying so didn't make me sound like a English literature paper): I thought I wrote it down somewhere - (because it made me chuckle when I read it) - but now I can't find it: oh well - you'll know it when you see it.

[5] Which - ok - were invented in 1964: but for some reason (to me) seem like a 1990s thing. Whatever.

[6] Ok - so maybe more than a few issues: in fact - reading through this Volume a hell of a lot of it seemed very familiar -so I think that I might have got a good 12 issues in before I dropped out (or did they stop publishing them in the UK? I dunno - one of the two anyway....).

[7] In fact - I mean: while we're admitting stuff - I guess I should also 'fess up that on the week it was released me and my sister walked down the Brighton seafront to go to a evening showing of the (aforementioned) Spawn feature film (directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé and starring Michael Jai White: both of whom (according to their wikipedia entries at least) hold up Spawn as their career highlights: so - erm - yes): which - strange (and as sad) as it may seem: is kinda one of my happiest memories from my teenage years: not so much for the film (which I can barely remember [8]) but for the heart-to-heart me and my sister had walking there and back (moral of the story I'd say is that - even if your life is full of trashy junk entertainment: it's still possible to build some pretty beautiful moments round the side of them: or something...).

[8] Ok - fine: I can't remember a single frame. Hell - maybe I fell asleep when I was watching it or something?

[9] And just to be clear: I don't have a problem with cheesy bubblegum nonsense: I just normally expect it to be treated as such. (And of course (as every comic fan should already know) - Frank Miller is - well - gonzo enough (especially in recent years) that I guess I shouldn't be surprised by anything he does: but - you know: the introduction (according to the notes) was written back in the 1990s back when he was still (relatively) sane and known for stuff like Sin City (which is good) rather than stuff like Holy Terror (which is not good)).

[10] Although it should be pointed out that reason that Todd McFarlane could do this is because he did Spider-Man for Marvel and got loads of mainstream love and a massive cult following which he then brought with him when he jumped ship: it's like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails and whoever selling their albums with a "pay what you like" system: it works for them because they already have a fan-base in place - but for anyone just starting out with superhero comics or making music or whatever - well (massive understatement) - it's a lot harder.

[11] You know the one: "And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

[12] I told you that you should come up with your own analogy because now it looks like this is the one we're stuck with.

[13] Hell - if they ever get around to making another Spawn film: I reckon they should use it as the theme song ("I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul" etc).

[14] The only other comic that I used to buy every week at that time was 2000AD: and seeing how that was an anthology - it seemed less like something that was trying to cheat you with never-ending formulations on the same basic concept and more like something that had actual stories with beginnings, middles and ends (well - most of the time): and hell - even Judge Dredd got older each year: which just seemed like - I dunno: a much fairer way to treat your readership (or maybe that's just me?).

[15] But - oops (reading the wikipedia page): it turns out that was a lie: "On January 12, 2011, issue #200 completely sold out within that single day. This marks the bicentennial issue of the series and features an all-star creative lineup, including Greg Capullo, David Finch, Michael Golden, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Danny Miki, and Ashley Wood all contributing to the anniversary issue. A second printing was released on February 9, 2011. Despite its remarkable sales, it has endured terrible reception from fans and reviewers alike." (oh dear).

[16] Most probably in Neil Gaiman's case legal ones (see here, here and here for more information if that's what turns you on).

[17] I mean - even tho he does a pretty good Todd McFarlane impression and is only coasting on 10% of his usual 5000 horsepower ways: just from the jump in quality and the power of the ideas: you can still obviously tell that it's someone different at the controls (for whatever reason I'm reminded of that line from The Simpsons: "You wouldn't believe the celebrities who did cameos! Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson. Of course, they didn't use their real names, but you could tell it was them.") 

Links: Comics Alliance Article: ComicsAlliance Reviews Todd McFarlane's 'Spawn' Year One, Part 1: QuestionsPart 2: Justice & PaybackPart Three: WritertownPart 4: 'Flashback'

Further reading: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, RoninHeavy LiquidElephantmenThe Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Complete Future ShocksProphet.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

I read all of those issues of spawn by guest writers but don't remember much about them except being a bit disappointed by them aside from this pretty powerful image in the Dave Sim issue (from an otherwise muddled and fairly leaden story about creator rights)

The Alan Moore one was particularly underwhelming although he did a Spawn spin off 'The Violator' which was much more fun although also completely throwaway.

As for 'Tainted Love', check out the excellent comedy Sightseers (which must be out on DVD soon if you haven't seen it already) which uses the song very, very appropriately...

Islington Comic Forum said...

Sightseers? Oh - cool. That's that Ben Wheatley film isn't it? The same guy who did Kill List? Yeah: I'm really interested in seeing that. Hopefully Islington will get a copy when it gets released....

The Alan Moore Spawn: I mean - yeah - it didn't really do much (and maybe it's just because I had to wade through all the other issues to get to it) but I thought it was pretty nifty - and took a mostly throwaway character and gave him a reason for being (and turned the notion of Hell and the afterlife and all that into something with a LOT more teeth than just the typical abstract concept of - erm - yeah: the place with all the fire (which was what it seemed to be before that): but maybe that's just me?).