I’ve talked about how I USED to have a pretty big comic collection in my previous reviews, but that I LOST the majority of it in one of my last several moves; (technically, I abandoned several long boxes worth of books when we left a falling down house that my family had owned for decades---with every intention of going back for them as soon as we had a place to store them, but through bad luck and indecision, we just never went back for the comics OR the truckloads of other stuff that had accumulated in the house over the course of more than thirty years…) Since then, I have started rebuying certain titles, although I now prefer collected editions or graphic novels to individual issues---and sometimes I buy paperback editions, and sometimes digital. (I’m buying STORIES now, not collectible books, so as long as I can READ the tales, I don’t really care what format they’re in.) One of the series that I used to have a dozen or more issues of was Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Thus, when I spotted a digital collection of the first six issues for cheap, I jumped on it. (I think it was about six or seven bucks…definitely less than ten). Does this series, almost thirty years after its release, still hold the same magic for me NOW that it did when I was 18??? Let’s find out!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital comic that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Todd McFarlane – Spawn – Origins Collection – Volume 1 (2014)
First off, I want to mention that I appreciate what McFarlane and the rest of the Image creators did when they took a gamble, left their high-profile jobs at the BIG comics companies, and decided to start their own, independent, creator-controlled comics. It was a bold, potentially disastrous move, and it ended up paying off for them in the end. And I think that’s all great!
Second, I was a fan of McFarlane’s art before he jumped ship from Marvel. I had several issues of his 1990 Spider-Man reboot, and I thought they looked fantastic. (I don’t remember any of the STORY from those issues---and I haven’t read them since I bought them off the shelf at my local comic shop when they were new---and they are some of the books that I lost when my collection went away---but I remember them rather fondly, regardless. I was also an occasional reader of Web of Spider-Man from roughly the same era, but this might have been because Bill Sienkiewicz did some guest covers for a few issues… It’s hard for me to remember now… It was almost three decades ago, ya know!!!)
ANYWAY! With that Spider-Man fondness in mind, I remember buying the first probably ten or twelve issues of Spawn and thinking they were pretty good at the time. McFarlane’s art is expressive and textured and a bit creepy---and the COLORS are jaw-droppingly good. I grew up reading shitty four-color books from the sixties and seventies (stuff that I found for cheap at garage sales or was given by relatives who found boxes of comics in their attics and gave them to me instead of throwing them in the trash…seriously), and Spawn came out when computer aided colors were still pretty new, and I really wasn’t used to seeing these blended, complex color schemes. It was shockingly well colored for the time. (Hats off to Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude, and Olyoptics for the stunning work!) In addition, the main character for the series is something like a cross between an undead Spider-Man and a supernaturally enhanced Batman, (visually, at least), which I can get behind. So, just looking at it, the book still holds up, without a doubt.
BUT, speaking now as a writer and as a guy who worked in college writing centers for nearly ten years, the writing in the comic is BAD. Like REALLY bad…
I’m not saying the STORY is bad, because the concepts here are interesting, and the character ideas are clever (a Danny DeVito looking demon clown, called the “Violator,” who turns into a monstrous, shark-toothed baddie when he attacks people and enjoys tearing hearts out of people's chests??? It’s so ridiculous it’s BRILLIANT!), but the EXECUTION of the story falls flat because this book goes against the primary principle of storytelling, which is (of course) “Show---don’t tell.”
In this comic, we have characters delivering PAGES full of exposition, sometimes as internal dialog with just them in the frame in various poses with floating word-bubbles full of text around them, sometimes speaking AS IF they are talking to another character---even when that character isn’t anywhere near them (as when the “Devil” is talking about how he’s going to make Spawn’s existence a living nightmare---but Spawn is on Earth while the Devil doing all the threatening is in Hell… It’s weird.) McFarlane also borrows the “floating news heads” trope from Frank Miller’s Dark Night Returns to give general exposition about what’s happening in the city. And then there are numerous pages where two characters chat back and forth for panel after panel: Spawn with his widowed wife (we get more exposition in this scene), Spawn with Violator (bickering and bantering…with bits of exposition thrown in just for flavor), and a detective and his assistant who are investigating a series of murders in which a bunch of mobsters and thugs have had their hearts torn out (and who ALSO provide a bunch of exposition…)
And, honestly, dialog is a completely acceptable place to slip exposition into a story---if it’s done subtly and if the verbal exchange seems natural---but that is NOT the case here. This is heavy, CLUNKY exposition…and probably the worst thing about it is that we get about ten pages of exposition for every ONE page of “action”---in these first six issues, at least. And I get it. McFarlane is creating an ENTIRE universe with this series, basically from scratch (with multiple ties to the other Image titles that were coming out about the same time, especially Youngblood and Savage Dragon… I’ve never read either of these books…) So he needed to introduce some backstory for his world and his character, but why couldn’t he have done this VISUALLY (it’s a comic, after all), with flashbacks or little six or eight page vignettes instead of just having the characters SAY everything?---even when there isn’t anyone around to hear them! At one point, the Violator is giving a massive, multi-page, exposition dump in an alley, and the only one around to hear him is a CAT sitting on a trash can, so that’s who he pretends he’s talking to: “I gotta tell ya, Mr. Pussy, I’m having far too much fun.” It’s pretty nonsensical…
Perhaps that’s something I should address. For SOME reason, I give older comics a pass, like Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four, to be as ridiculous and nonsensical as they want, leaving plot holes large enough to swallow the Hulk whole, but for a comic that came out in the 1990s, it seems like there should be some slightly higher standards. (Plus, you never see a Kirby comic with huge numbers of pages devoted just to exposition. Kirby was an ACTION man!) I’m not against nonsense---in fact, I LOVE nonsense (see my reviews of Michael Kupperman’s Snake ‘n’ Bacon, Jay Stephens’ Land of Nod, and Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot); however, that’s not the MOOD that McFarlane is going for with this book. There are some obvious jokes in the book, but it’s a dark and gritty comic in tone, with a few humorous moments, usually very dark humor, to break up the tension, (which, again, might be a nod to Frank Miller’s style.)
Overall, I’m not quite sure the book holds up FOR ME. The art is still fantastic, the colors are grand, and the CONCEPT is solid (notice how I didn’t even really talk about what the STORY entails---that’s because it almost doesn’t matter…but I suppose I should…): a tough guy dies and goes to Hell, makes a deal with the Devil to be brought back to life so that he can see his wife again, and comes back full of dark magic, which he uses to fight bad guys. Despite the solid “superhero” premise, what we mostly get IN THE COMIC ITSELF is just talking. There is SOME action, but most of what takes place is people telling us stuff that has already happened---instead of showing us these events AS THEY HAPPEN or in a series of flashbacks, and unfortunately, (in my opinion), the things that DO happen in the comic aren’t really interesting enough to keep me engaged. (We get a couple of short scenes of hearts being torn out (usually off panel) and a big bruiser named “Overt Kill” smashes some stuff---and there is some solid character development when Spawn eventually encounters his beloved wife, face to face, and learns that she has remarried and had a child since he died.) These few scenes of “story” might have been enough to keep me on the line when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t really enough for my old, grouchy brain to want to stick with. I vaguely remember that Neil Gaiman wrote an issue a bit later in the series, and even though Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, I’m not really in a hurry to buy the next volume in this series, even with the promise of a decent story somewhere down the road… Thus, my final evaluation: looks good, concepts are interesting, but the execution is severely lacking…at least in these first six issues. Perhaps the story gets more compelling later on, but personally, I don’t think I’ll be reading the next volume any time soon to find out…
Okay, now go read a damn book! And if you find something that’s really great, feel free to drop a note about it in the comments below!!! Later, skaters!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
SUPPORT INDEPENDENT FOLKS WHO ARE JUST MAKING STUFF BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!!!