Well, here we are. The first entry in my “Comic Contemplation” series where I’ll cover everything from Comic book movies, video games, TV shows and maybe even an actual book once in a while.
So, you’d think that my first review would be around something Marvel or DC related since my profile picture and cover art consist entirely of those company’s characters, you’d be wrong.
No today we’re going to reflect on a character who made his debut in the pages of IMAGE COMICS. This character of course being… SPAWN!
Spawn was the brainchild of Todd McFarlane, who in 1992 helped form Image Comics, pulling the occult anti-hero character from his high school portfolio and updating him for the 90s. This lead to a very successful series as the first issue of Spawn pulled in sales of up to 1.7 million copies and the saga continues to this day, with Greg Capullo taking over the mantle of pencilling the cloaked crusader. The character’s popularity reached its peak in 1997 when Spawn was adapted for the big screen. This theatrical outing was left with a mediocre success at the box office and a strong backlash from both fans and critics alike.
But that’s a story for another day.
The three-season run began in ’97 (which explain why the series never received much acclaim at the time, with it being overshadowed by the movie’s shitty reputation) on HBO and continued until 1999. It is receiving plenty of praise nowadays with IGN ranking it as the 5th greatest Comic Book Cartoons of all time, which sets a pretty high standard since it would be among the ranks of ‘Batman: The Animated series’, ‘X-men’ and ‘Justice League: Unlimited.’
But, before we dig into the series I’d like to mention that I don’t think the Spawn comics are very good (at least the ones I’ve read). It’s not I hate Spawn as a character. I think he’s pretty awesome. He’s like throwing Ghost Rider, Deadpool and the Prowler into a blender. Todd McFarlane is very talented artist but his writing can be a little…awkward. Like, in one scene from the comic where Spawn must interrogate a criminal and does so by saying:
“Your friend is DEAD! It’s just you and me, coward. Now, I want to know who’s after me… and more importantly, WHY!?
“Y’know what I mean?”
I’m hoping to see McFarlane’s writing improve as I continue to plough through a bunch of the early issues, but who knows how long that’ll take, if it ever does happen at all!
But enough talk about the character’s beginnings and history in other media, lets focus on the Animated Series for now.
The show is quite different from the book, dealing with alternate themes and almost fits into a completely different genre. Due to being produced by HBO it had a higher budget than most cartoons at the time and had very few restraints. They pretty much showed whatever they felt like, be it extreme violence or cartoon nudity, HBO didn’t give a fuck, and they still don’t with the amount of shit ‘Game of thrones’ shows off. It’s pretty much the only channel crazy enough to greenlight stuff this dark. And if you’ve seen any episode of this show, you’ll be wondering if I mean that figuratively or literally. Maybe both?
The story centres around a man named Al Simmons, a War Hero/ Mercenary/ Person who used guns, who dies and is resurrected through mysterious means. He doesn’t know how he came back at first or what he did to obtain a completely new body, but he is anything but human and five years have passed since he did. Now without a family, friends or a face, he takes refuge in a maze of alleyways in Harlem, New York, where he spends all his time scary homeless people and mutilating anyone who mildly annoys him. The majority of the story takes focus away from his origins and powers and looks at more realistic scenarios, like a mob boss who has his influence spread across a lot of the political world and is pulling strings to make himself more powerful. That is until, his whole operation begins to unravel because someone, or something is killing his associates and stealing weapons from him.
CAN YOU GUESS WHO IT IS!?
The more I think about it, the lack of focus on powers and origins is very similar to what Netflix did with ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Jessica Jones,’ focusing more on the current conflict and how the justice system gets in the way of vigilante heroism.
Similarly, a lot of the human characters are locked in political red tape, government cover ups, crime investigations and assassination attempts. It’s a show that captures a lot of the ugly side of humanity, between the politicians, cults, criminals and the few decent people who get caught up in all of it. After a while it stops sounding like a superhero show and more like ‘House of Cards.’ Unfortunately, the plot is so based that the weird Supervillain characters that Spawn interacts with feel like an afterthought.
You’ll almost get to the point where a police investigation into a child murderer, who turns out to be a senator’s illegitimate son, that he is hiding in order to save his bid for the presidency, is more interesting than a demon guy fighting a cyborg with rocket launchers in a dirty alley.
I guess Spawn is less of a character and more of an entity in the plot, though he does have some personality that shines through on occasion. Anyway, Spawn is constantly hounded by a mysterious homeless man named “Cogliostro.” Yeah, good luck trying to pronounce that! He encourages Spawn to do the right thing and resist the influence of the devil.
On the flip-side, a demon from Hell called “The Clown” or “The Violator” also follows Spawn around and actively creates conflict to make Spawn stronger and push him further into making bad decisions. In the comics, Violator is super obnoxious and is trying way too hard to be funny. While as in the show he is more of a creepy, disturbing horrible monster that features some of the most memorable voice acting in the show. He always sounds like he’s having so much fun being as evil as sin, and at times sounds just like Eric Cartman.
However, Keith David turns in one of his best vocal performances as Spawn. He says everything with so much intensity. When he plays someone like “Goliath” from ‘Gargoyles,’ he sounds quite sullen and thoughtful. Here he sounds like a pissed-off monster in eternal agony. Plus, his occasional witty lines make him all the more lovable as the depressed hobo ghost. His voice is what makes the show, since another actor would have sounded as bland as mud in this part.
Which reminds me, he does a great job despite not having much to bounce off of. The other character’s voices are sort of all over the place. Some sound so cartoonish that it’s hard to take them seriously, while others very dramatic and realistic. 90% of the time though, they’re all speaking very calmly and are as dry as sand. I swear, if you watch this show with headphones on some of these voices sound like ASMR. I seriously fell asleep listening to one guy mumbling about forged documents regarding military hardware shipments.
The animation for every season is very impressive, it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen out of a TV show. You can tell that a lot of time and care was put into every little scene an everything looks so gorgeously dark. I once made a joke with a friend about the 60’s Spiderman cartoon, that you can take any frame of that show with Spiderman in it and turn it into a meme. Well, with this show, you can take any frame with Spawn in it and turn it into a heavy metal album cover. The animation for the cape is so beautifully smooth and the character designs are reasonably sophisticated for something that has to be in motion so often. This must have been a pain in the ass to draw.
“Thanks Korea, you put in the hard work so that we don’t have to.”
The lighting is so stylishly shadowy that it covers some of the same ground as ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ where some scenes are so dark that you can see specs of dust that where on the animation cell when they put this together. I love fun little details like that, it makes everything feel more authentic. You don’t get charming blemishes like that in the era of digital animation. So now you get shows like ‘Total Drama Island’ or ‘Family Guy,’ where everything is the same character designs shown in the same position from the same camera angle with two types of lighting. If you’re lucky.
Look, I don’t want to be that guy, but something was lost when we started using computers for everything, it all looks so much lazier when it’s digital.
Each season does something different with the visuals. Season 1 has character designs almost made out of the shadows and light. They’re often without colour and are constructed from the differences in their surrounding area. There are often times when there are no more than two colours o the screen at a time, which contrasts nicely against the scenes set at daytime, where everything is crystal clear.
Season 2 has more of “Anime” approach since the character designs stay the same colours, but are shadowed in a more traditional fashion. It also often has this hazy, blue glow that all dark cartoons from the 90’s had. The backgrounds become much more detailed and grungy while the movement of the characters has become a little bit choppier.
Season 3 is a sort of hybrid between the two styles (depending on the tone of the scene). Regardless of the season though, Spawn is drawn the same throughout. Good ‘ol Al looks relatively normal in the first few minutes of the show, but after that you rarely see him in good lighting. He spends so much time in the shadows, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was just a silhouette with a cape.
He’s kept entirely black for the entire 2nd and 3rd seasons, as if some animation team absolutely refused to draw him in any more detail than that.
“What, you want us to have red, black and white all on the screen at once? What are you crazy, do you know how cool that would look?
“Nah, just draws an outline with some eyes and we’re done!”
Seriously, who decided it would be best to hide the title character in the dark for 95% of the show?
“The best shots in the show are the ones where Spawn is 90% black, with a little bit of red rimming him. You see the eyes, his head’s black, his cloak is black, he’s standing in front of something black, you pull back and just barely see him in the shadows. When I get those I just go “There it is, be still my heart.” ‘Cause I laid down the law; he is a head and a cape!”
Oh. Oh. Oooooh. Yeah, okay it was his fault.
I’d say this is the best telling of the story-line since it was nothing like the god-awful movie, which has the audacity to plaster this on the front of the box:
“The special-effects movie of the year!”
IN WHAT FUCKING UNIVERSE IS THAT AN ACCURATE STATEMENT!
The show manages to stabilize the tone by removing some of the sillier aspects from the books, such as Spawn having the ability to shape-shift into some goofy looking White guy, just so he can have some stilted dialogue with his ex-wife.
If I wanted to see a nerdy white guy have awkward conversations with women, I’d just strap a mirror to my face! We also get a Rob Liefield Character in the show, but he’s a lot less cheesy. Except for a scene where he has a flashback to “the war” mid-way through the Coitus and starts screaming and crying. That’s probably the only unintentionally funny scene the series has to offer.
So, if you want to get to know Spawn but need a filter for the horrifically 90’s version of the character, then I highly recommend Spawn: The Animated Series.
The show pretty much resolved its main storylines but it never continued after that leaves on a pretty rough cliff-hanger. But hey, that’s what the comics are for, right? So, if you want to know what happens next you may need to tolerate Todd McFarlane’s iffy ability to tell a story. The book looks awesome, but the details really needed some ironing.
This series was a hidden gem for me, since people always talk about how great superhero shows where in the 90’s but this one always remains strangely absent. It’s all about ‘Batman,’ ’X-men’ and even ‘Superman.’ Those were all great, but I think we need to start bugging Hulu or Netflix to start streaming this show. Oh wait, the whole things on YouTube, now I’d never encourage anyone to pirate a show or even watch a pirated show, but it’s there if you need it. Besides, Spawn deserves his time in the light… whether McFarlane thinks it looks cool or not.