We recently kicked off our commemoration of IMAGE Comics 25th Birthday with a review of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood Number 1. We now take a turn down a darker, supernatural road as we gaze back at the debut issue of Todd McFarlane’s demonic urban avenger SPAWN.
SPAWN Issue 1 (May 1992)
Image Comics / Malibu Comics
Words and Pictures by Todd McFarlane
With SPAWN’s debut issue arriving in the late Spring of 1992 it was already clear that the IMAGE 7 were on to something with their new edgier more EXTREME heroes and buzz and hype was already building.
You can of course argue the merits of many of the IMAGE creators and put forward a case about who was the biggest draw but there is no doubt that, even among the 7 Founding Fathers, McFarlane was one of the driving forces behind the revolt against the House of Ideas.
Here’s what McFarlane had to say on the split when he spoke to the Comics Journal in the summer of 1992.
“If you’re asking me, my interpretation is that Rob Liefeld and I were always talking about doing something on our own anyway. Rob had this idea for Youngblood, and I hadn’t really thought about what I was gonna do. “
(you can read the full interview here but warning contains course language)
There was no doubt that McFarlane was white hot, permanently enshrined at the top of the Wizard Magazine Top 10 Artists levels of hot.
His relaunch of Spiderman in 1990 was one of the key catalytic events which kicked off the 90s Speculator Boom selling an unprecedented 2 Million Copies!
Did Todd have the hubris to think he could reach such Olympian Heights again with a creator owned title from the fledgling IMAGE Comics or would he spectacularly crash and burn like Icarus?
The records, such as they are, will show that SPAWN Number 1 shipped a staggering 1.7 Million Copies! The truly telling thing is that this was barely enough to place it in the Top 10 biggest selling comics of 1992.
Still in a year dominated by the Mass Media Mania surrounding the Death of Superman, the launch of Venom’s first solo title and the unlikely success of Marvel 2099 Spawn was big business.
But was it any good!?!
The first thing astute readers would have noticed if they dared to flip open their copy of Spawn Issue 1 (and therefore ensure it would never be graded as “Mint” any time in future) is the dedication to Jack Kirby. As a reasonably naive and uneducated teenager I didn’t really know who the Kirby was or just how large Kirby’s legacy looms over the whole comic book industry but looking back on it now it is very telling.
Firstly the entire industry’s debt to the King can not be downplayed or ignored. Kirby’s contribution to the foundations of the medium of comic book storytelling in general and the Marvel Universe specifically make him arguably one of the architects of modern pop culture.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly Kirby is also a symbol of the ongoing struggle for better creator recognition which has plagued the comic book industry almost as long as there has been one. Kirby’s falling out with Stan Lee and Marvel over profit sharing and ownership of both original art and characters created is legendary and his similar lack of recognition by DC for the creation of Darkseid, Orion and the other Fourth World Characters is no small tragedy either.
On balance then it should be no surprise that McFarlane choose to honor the King with some of the very first words you will see in SPAWN’s premier issue.
Page One Panel One places the reader in Heavens as Earth floats all blue and innocent in the Milky Way while a jagged-edged narrative captions dripping with existential angst ground us very quickly in a night time silhouette of an as yet unnamed city,
It’s very clearly very early on that Kirby isn’t the only legendary artist which McFarlane has been channeling as things get VERY Frank Miller VERY quickly. It starts with a homage to the legendary DKR Lightning Silhouette cover before switching to another of Frank’s favourite story telling devices through the 80s, the TV Anchor Talking Head.
I talked previously about Youngblood’s haphazard approach to storytelling with recycled characters, paper thin plots and seemingly unfinished art. SPAWN 1 feels the exact opposite to that.
SPAWN feels like an idea that Todd has been kicking around for a while. Maybe McFarlane saw the potential in the character and decided it was too good an idea for a Spiderman Villain or a Midnight Sons era Antihero.
The Talking Heads provide an initial exposition dump which sets many of our key players on the table very early on. Through them we are quickly introduced to a majority of the key elements of SPAWN lore.
- Heroic military man Al Simmons was killed behind enemy lines by a skull-faced figure on a blacks ops mission.
- Wanda, the grieving widow trying to navigate through a maze of morbid celebrity in the wake of her husband’s death.
- Simmons whose love for his wife made him accept a shadowy Faustian pact with Hellish forces to Come Back.
- Police Officers Sam Burke and Twitch Williams are two hard working, no nonsense cops, fatigued by the inability to keep the criminal element off the streets.
- A strange Four Digit Number counting down from 9999 to something?
The remainder of the first issue continue to lay the groundwork for the story will putting SPAWN through a pretty stock standard urban vigilante story straight from the pages of one of Miller’s Batman or Daredevil stories.
SPAWN comes across a gang of street toughs intent on robbing and assaulting a woman and the proceeds to demolish and dispatch them all while shouting “NO!!!!!” into the cold uncaring night sky.
The issue culminates with SPAWN first catching a glimpse of his disfigured visage while “somewhere in time” a leathery winged demonic figure cackles to itself promising that the best is yet to come (so make sure you pick up issue 2 True Believers!)
One of the unexpected things that does stand out reading this again 25 years later is the repeated reference to Liefeld’s Youngblood. IMAGE had not committed to a shared universe at any point in time to my knowledge but maybe Todd and Rob were riffing on each other as suggested by the earlier quote and maybe that was the plan for them. Of course this would change as the relationship between Liefeld and the other Image Founders would soon begin to sour but it is an odd little hint at what might have been.
Like Youngblood SPAWN is a very specifically kind of 90s comic excess. While Youngblood is the distillation of the Hyper Active Cartoonish Ultra Violence of Iron Age Superhero decadence SPAWN rides the 90s Horror / Goth Zeitgeist which made books like the Crow and Poison Elves Cult Hits and set the stage for CHAOS Comics to push onto centre stage in 1996 with such high concept ideas as Lady Death and Evil Ernie.
SPAWN is clearly the most successful series produced by the 7 Founding Fathers and perhaps secondly only to the Walking Dead as the most successful character in the publisher’s 25 year history. It is still published more or less monthly from IMAGE. It’s approaching its landmark 300 issues with McFarlane being involved in most of those in some capacity. There was of course the Movie, along with the HBO cartoon series and an entire action figure empire. There’s no denying McFarlane got something right when he unleashed SPAWN on us back in May of 1992.
What this Book Gets Right:
- Laying the Foundation: As highlighted it’s clear looking back that Todd McFarlane had done more than sketch out a first issue plot on the back of a bar napkin unlike some of his other colleagues
- Design: The iconic Spawn look hasn’t really changed much from the cover of this first issue 2 and half decades ago. The cape, the mask, the spikes, the chains they’re all here and here to stay
- Branding: As with Youngblood you don’t have to look too far on the comic book rack to get from Spiderman to Spawn
What this Book Gets Wrong
- Art Inconsistencies: there seems to be a clear distinction between splash page and art regular art. This is not a problem unique to this issue or McFarlane as an artist but is enough to throw you off at times.
- Relying on Rob Liefeld: In hindsight tying the origin of your lead character into the Youngblood Universe probably wasn’t the best decision.
- A Product of Its Times: This is something I suspect we will see with all the IMAGE number ones but I suspect we’ll see that there is only a very small window of time between say 1992 and 1996 when these stories could have been told
Final Verdict, should I read this book? A big step up from Youngblood and again something that’s readily available in physical and digital formats. There was certainly a period where SPAWN was the hottest character in comics so you probably should see what all the fuss is about.