Every Wednesday, after “school sport” (which I naturally chose to be in a location downtown rather than near school), I would slip into a main street newsagency and head straight for the comics. I had loved comics since my father bought me my first two: an issue of Transformers in which Optimus Prime’s head is on life support and issue 320 of The Incredible Hulk taking place in the Banner/Hulk post separation anxiety arc. Over the years I dipped into comics as I could. Given my family’s lack of wealth most of my comic reading took place next to display racks or the incomplete collections of friends. Spawn was no exception. I had heard about it from friends, it had even been on TV, it was bloody, gruesome and satanic they all cried (not long after a similar controversy would arise around Cannibal Corpse’s breakout album, Tomb of the Mutilated). To a social outsider as myself there could have been no better hook. A year later my taste was justified when I learned that the homeless kid with a coat and pet rat at school was also into the same comic! So when I found that comic on the shelf, I had to have it. With what money I had, I paid the over-inflated, gouge worthy Australian markup price, got it home and read it. A true moment of dreams coming true.
I collected Spawn for a while, largely ignorant of the significance of guest writers and artists yet fascinated by MacFarlane’s caricature meets hyper-real art style (which I had first encountered in Spiderman). Being a youth, my interests turned elsewhere and I lost touch with Spawn and comics in general. It would not be until late last year that I had an opportunity to lay my hands on a complete stash of Spawn and go back to the beginning.
The happy reality is that twenty years later, Spawn still holds up. Given it is such a long series this review will only touch on the key points which I believe are worth exploring. That said, Spawn as a series would make an excellent visual/graphic arts dissertation subject. Onward then.
I think when MacFarlane made Al Simmons, aka Spawn an African American he did not realise the significance of this decision. While there are still too few non-white protagonists in mainstream comics now, there were fewer still back in 1992. From an artistic point of view, MacFarlane was able to experiment with black aesthetics: bodies, faces, colouring. In this regard, I am reminded of the earliest days of colour film where there emphasis on lighting and colouring was on white subjects resulting in a greening of black skin tones where and when they appeared. MacFarlane’s eye for detail and his colourists’ skills were a spit in the eye of mainstream comic logic as he made liberal use of browns, blacks, purples, reds and greens to great effect. While somewhat of a stretch and I can certainly not vouch for the veracity of the connection, Spawn functions aesthetically, visually as a response to Toni Morrison’s critique of “darkness” as “evil”, eventually turning the whole logic of evil on its head and repositioning these conceptual locations. While Simmons is of hell and inhabits a world of darkness, death and decay, the series eventually locates these concepts as fundamental to the very nature of reality. Total mega-Buddha, dude! Of course there is more too it than this and a sustained critical reading would unpick some of the underlying assumptions of fear, the unknown and their relationship to blackness. What is worthy of significant praise, however, is the deliberate embrace of darkness, aesthetically and conceptually in an original and engaged fashion.
Although the emphasis on religious critique shifts over the course of the comic it remains a core concept in Spawn. What is so refreshing is the Krishnamurti style rejection of dominant concepts and dominant oppositions. God is mortal-ised, as is Satan, they are also re-placed in a pantheon and revealed as bit players in a universe much greater than even their reckoning. Spawn takes them all on and beats them. In this way, again deliberate or not, Spawn reflects a Japanese conceptual aesthetic in which multiplicity is a given. Japanese story telling makes frequent use of ghosts, demons, angels, gods and devils but rarely assumes the arrogance of Western storytelling where monotheism lies at the core. Whether conscious decision or parallel development this critically distinguishes Spawn from the pack.
Spawn has been consistently great and frequently excellent over its twenty year run and is worth reading from the start. I can only be thankful to small-minded current affairs TV for introducing me to the image of Billy Kincaid’s ice-cream scoop stabbed body strung up with chains with a popsicle protruding from his mouth. I am also thankful for the many artists and writers who have worked on MacFarlane’s creation to date. Now, onto Endgame!