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Spawn: Exploring The First 100 Issues [90s Week]
Image Comics Reading Recommendations

Spawn: Exploring The First 100 Issues [90s Week]

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This article is part of our 90s Week celebrations. Learn more about it and the other articles involved here.

Since starting in 1992, as part of one of the launch series of a little start-up of ex-Marvel artists called Image ComicsSpawn has gone on to embody American independent comics and prove their success. Yes, creator Todd McFarlane was a top artist at Marvel, but Spawn propelled him to new heights on his own terms.

In the lead-up to Spawn #350, published today, I read the first 100 issues of Spawn (thanks to a 2022 Humble Bundle purchase) in the space of about two months. After reading comics originally published between 1992 and 2000, I have articulated my impressions below, looking at it analytically and historically as a first-time reader of the series.

There’s a lot to say about Spawn. As a result, this article is less focused than other pieces I’ve written in the past, bouncing to many different aspects of the series. To help mitigate this, I’ve put broken discussion points under headings to make it feel more cohesive.

Spawn #1 cover by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #1 cover by Todd McFarlane.

My understanding of Spawn going in

Spawn is a series that I’ve always been curious about. However, I didn’t know much about it before reading it. My first exposure to the character was in the video game Soulcalibur II. While I was a GameCube owner, getting the sword-based fighting game to play Legend of Zelda’s Link, I did get to play as Spawn once or twice at a friend’s house. I didn’t know who he was or what his deal was. This was years before I started reading comics.

Later in life, I remember going to a hole-in-the-wall comic book shop (which no longer exists) and the owner – who was a big fan of the series and benefited from selling many copies of Spawn in the 90s – telling me about it. I remember him telling me about the series and a famous TV segment (at least here in Australia) between reactionary Derryn Hinch and Todd McFarlane. (I tried looking for it on YouTube but had no luck.) While chummy with the owner, I perturbed him a little when I said it seemed like a relic of 90s extreme.

In the years since, my impression of Spawn has evolved as I’ve learned more about Todd McFarlane, Image Comics, and the series’ longevity. While I still didn’t know any story details, I had two core impressions of Spawn before I started this reading journey in early December:

  1. The series would be grim and gritty as an Image Comics anti-hero
  2. The series would be more style over substance, focusing on looking cool instead of focusing on storytelling

As you’ll soon find out, I wasn’t too far off. But at the same time, It was a much more than I expected.

Spawn #1 vertical spread by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #1 vertical spread by Todd McFarlane.

What is Spawn about?

Al Simmons was a CIA operative and national hero after saving the President of the United States. However, after an untimely death, he’s brought to Hell. He’s offered a deal by a high-ranking demon known as Malebolgia: become a soldier in my impending war against Heaven and I will allow you to see your wife again. But as you know, making a deal with a demon isn’t without caveats.

Al Simmons was brought back to Earth. But he got a raw deal. Now burned to a crisp and merged with a sentient costume, he’s no longer the man he used to be. Instead, he’s a hellspawn (hence the name “Spawn”) that’s on this mortal plain – spending much of his time on New York City’s streets and back alleys – to train for the upcoming war and recruit others into it.

Spawn #1 page by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #1 page by Todd McFarlane.

The real kicker? Malebolgia transported Simmons five years into the future. In that time, Al’s wife, Wanda, had mourned his death; married his best friend, Terry; and had a child, Cyan, with him.

In the first 100 issues of the series, Spawn will (very) slowly learn more about his fate, battle a menagerie of villains (both fantastical and grounded), get caught up in conflicts between Heaven and Hell, and intertwine ordinary people in his various dramas.

Panels from Spawn #28 by Greg Capullo.
Panels from Spawn #28 by Greg Capullo.

The emo anti-hero

Spawn is an anti-hero through and through. However, he’s a cut above most anti-heroes of the 90s and before. Yes, he’s grim and gritty, taking extreme justice with the villains he crosses paths with. Todd McFarlane has talked about how he wanted to make Spawn different to other heroes, using Batman as an example. In a letters page, McFarlane would state, “Spawn would not be Batman. Spawn is actually quite the opposite of Batman; Spawn would use a gun and would’ve taken the Joker out years ago.” As you can see, the character has no problem with killing criminals. But he’s also so much more.

Most anti-heroes of the time have a binary approach to showing emotion. They’re either angry, often depicted with gritted teeth, or not angry, where they might be allowed to throw in a few one-liners. Spawn differs from other anti-heroes in that he possesses a range of emotions. Yeah, he’s often angry, turning this emotion on with the flick of a switch. However, a lot of the time he’s just sad.

The sadness comes from missing his wife. While he could go see her, he knows deep down that, with his transformations and her current life, she wouldn’t take him back. (Although, that doesn’t stop him at times, making reckless decisions and burning bridges with Terry in the process.) He’s also upset that Terry was able to give Wanda a child, something Al Simmons couldn’t do. For much of the 100 issues I read, Spawn will wallow in this sadness, reflecting on the situation. Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo will often depict the character in a deep-dark alley, sitting on his thrown of trash, drenched in his own sadness and depression.

This gives Spawn extra dimensions that most anti-heroes don’t possess – such as The Punisher in the 1990s or many of the comics produced by the Image founders. Instead of being perpetually in a state of rage, Spawn is motivated by a number of different emotions. The result is a character you can be emotionally invested in, feeling for him and his raw deal.

Spawn #66 page by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #66 page by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.

Spawn’s greatest enemy is himself

That being said, Spawn is a 90s anti-hero. He’s usually pissed off when he’s not sad. Most of the time to his own detriment. He makes rash decisions, often flying off the handle or making emotional decisions that put him and others at risk.

Spawn has a voice of reason character in the form of Cagliostro. Introduced in the Neil Gaiman penned Spawn #9, this character would randomly appear from time to time to give Spawn guidance. Some of this is vague prophecies. The kind of talk that makes the anti-hero either lash out or do stupid things out of impatience. Perhaps Spawn could’ve read between the lines if he had more patience – but he’s either too sad or angry to do that. (To be fair, as a reader, we don’t find out anything substantial about this character until Spawn #77.)

Cagliostro, or Cog as he’s often referred to, is also there to call out Spawn. And he does this all the time – calling out Al’s recklessness, how he never listens, and how Spawn’s brash behaviour is exactly what the demon Maleboglia wants. However, Spawn eventually gets the message in the later stages of the 100-issue run that I read.

It’s not so much that Spawn doesn’t try. There have been a few moments where Spawn realises he needs to change his ways. Often triggered by the death of an innocent person. However, he quickly reverts back to his old ways. It’s a slow character evolution, which can feel repetitive from a storytelling perspective. I think this might be more a flaw of McFarlane as a writer not knowing how to depict Spawn in any other way and it took co-writer Brian Houglin (who co-wrote the book with McFarlane from issue #71) to show him how it could be done.

Spawn #14 cover by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #14 cover by Todd McFarlane.

But he also has other enemies too

But it’s not just Spawn making his life a living hell. He also has a range of enemies that range from the fantastical to the grounded.

On the comic book-y end of the spectrum, there is a mix of religious-based enemies blended with the more technology-based villains. As you probably guessed, the religious-based enemies relate to the conflict between Heaven and Hell. These include various demons and angels, who come after Spawn for various reasons. The most notable is The Violator – a demon who, in his human form, looks kind of like a slobbish Danny DeVito with clown makeup. Violator’s demon form is rather gnarly, with elongated limbs, a mouth big enough that you could walk into it, and countless sharp teeth. He has a few nasty confrontations with Spawn, earns his own miniseries, and then fades into mostly the subplots, where he slowly and methodically manipulates events in the background.

Most other villains in Spawn’s rogue’s gallery are a mixed bag. They often only have one or two confrontations before Spawn kills them. Some of these include Cy-Gor, the cybernetic gorilla; The Freak, a deluded man who tricks Spawn into committing crimes in his first proper appearance; and Overt-Kill, a bulking cyborg with giant guns who could be dropped into any Image Comics series in the 90s.

Spawn #83 cover by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #83 cover by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.

There’s also the Jason Wynn. He’s kind of a Lex Luthor-type character who holds much political power and unlimited resources as director of the United States Security Group. If Malebolgia was the big bad of the series, then Wynn would be a close second. He’s prominently featured throughout the first 100 issues (although he disappears in the back quarter of the run and will reappear after Spawn #100) and is intertwined with many stories and characters. As Al Simmon’s ex-boss, he also has a connection back to Spawn’s origin.

At the same time, there are several grounded enemies in the comic. Beyond the cliché mafia guys and street punks are real-world evils. Spawn punishes child murderers, deadbeat dads, the Ku Klux Klan, and generally scummy people.

Spawn #13 page by Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld.
Spawn #13 page by Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld.

A shared universe?

When you read the first two and a half years of Spawn, you get a sense that McFarlane was trying to build a shared universe with the other Image Comics partners. Where it was most prevalent was with Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. (For context, Youngblood launched in April 1992 and Spawn launched in May 1992.) At first, the Youngblood team was mentioned as if they occupied the same world, featured in news reports and through civilian chatter. However, it becomes more explicit in issue #13, with Spawn coming face-to-face with Liefeld’s team, revealing that Youngblood character Chapel was involved with Al Simmons’ death.

There would be further references to Youngblood in later issues, with Spawn finishing his story with Chapel in Spawn #27. However, soon after, McFarlane walks back on the shared universe idea and even retcons Chapel’s involvement in Al Simmons’ death.

While I can’t say this for sure, my feeling much of this came down to the difficulty in coordinating characters in a cohesive manner between books. Spawn was published on a consistent monthly schedule, only skipping a month here and there. Liefeld and co had managed to only publish 12 issues of Youngblood – Youngblood #1-10#0, and a Yearbook special – by the time Spawn had reached issue #27. It’s hard to coordinate multiple storylines if you don’t know if other collaborators can make deadlines.

Spawn would crossover with other Image Comics founders, such as Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Jim Valentino’s Shadowhawk. However, these felt more like pop-in guest appearances than any significant world-building like McFarlane tried to build with Liefeld.

Spawn #42 page by Tony Daniel.
Spawn #42 page by Tony Daniel.

In the end, McFarlane gave up on the shared universe idea. Instead, focusing on building up Spawn’s universe with a few spin-offs over the years. This feels most telling in Spawn #42, where Spawn meets a comic book-obsessed boy. As the boy lists off the comics he likes, which include many Marvel and DC series, he also mentions some Image comics. These relegate them to being fictional characters and never really mentioned them again. (The exception is perhaps an encounter with Savage Dragon in hell, although it’s questionable if it was actually in Spawn’s mind.)

Structurally, it’s kind of a mess to begin with

The first two years of Spawn are a mess. A lot of ideas are introduced and are not expanded upon until much later down the line. While that’s fine if it’s meant to be a mystery. However, much of it comes off as introducing an idea, moving on to the next one, and then repeating.

Things are exacerbated by the revolving door of creators during this time. After writing and drawing the first seven issues, McFarlane recruits several guest writers, which includes Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison. These are big names known for their quality of work and also shield him from the criticisms of his writing. (Dave Sim also represented independent freedom in comics, being the most successful independent creator up til this point. For those wondering, Sim hadn’t quite become notorious for all the wrong reasons quite yet but is not too far away from being so.) In theory, this should allow for stability, even if each writer only gets one issue. However, McFarlane gets them to explore a different corner of the growing Spawn mythos instead of moving the story forward. There is a pinball effect of bouncing between ideas that are well executed but don’t have the connective tissue that’s required in this foundational period for the series.

There are a lot of balls in the air by the time McFarlane returns to writing duties on a more permanent basis with Spawn #21. You’d think he’d start connecting some of these to make it more cohesive. Nope. Instead, he focuses on a story that intertwines several characters introduced so far but ignores most of the dangling concepts.

Much of this mess could attributed to McFarlane’s inexperience as a writer. Yes, he had a small batch of writing credits before the launch of Spawn – namely, the adjectiveless Spider-Man series that launched in 1990. However, that had the guardrails of an editor to keep things flowing. (Letterer Orzechowski is credited as an editor, but from my understanding was more a copy editor, correcting grammar and typos.) The Image Comics founders, especially Todd McFarlane, were against the idea of editors as they were seen as agents of stifling creative freedom and independence. Without anyone to tell McFarlane “no” or to suggest alternatives, Spawn’s early days are all over the place.

Spawn #26 cover by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #26 cover by Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane.

Greg Capullo comes in to save the day

Spawn won’t be a mess forever. Greg Capullo comes on board as the core artist with issue #26, with him and McFarlane finding a system that meant no need for the revolving door of guest creators. (There are the occasional fill-in artists such as Tony Daniel and Dwayne Turner. But these feel more like giving Capullo a break instead of keeping the train on the tracks.) Capullo would pencil the series, with McFarlane writing and inking over the pencils. This way of working allowed the book to continue feeling like it was McFarlane’s but allowed him to keep up with his busy schedule of working on Spawn and his roles as part of Image Comics and McFarlane Toys.

In the letters page for Spawn #29, McFarlane admits that he’s a “self-confessed control freak” and that giving up any bit of authority is difficult. However, he also mentioned it was a weakness, stating, “I felt it was causing me to become lazy in terms of how I was drawing.” That makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got to wear all of the creative hats, then you’re going to lean on what you know. Capullo’s role as penciller allows him to focus on the writing. It becomes evident soon after this creative pairing is implemented that the series gets back on track. McFarlane’s scripts are much better, picking up on several dangling plot threads and concepts.

It’s a partnership that works well for the title. McFarlane even gives Capullo a glowing reference in the letters page of Spawn #50, saying: “since I haven’t been pencilling this book for the past few years, Greg Capullo deserves that credit on an artistic level. Though I try to bring a little bit of flavor to it, I think the look of the characters are Greg’s and are the ones that I would emulate if I were to come back and draw the book, or have other artists emulate.” The partnership would continue until Spawn #100. (The partnership would also be very beneficial to Capullo, with readers witnessing his evolution as an artist in the pages of Spawn – also finding the perfect match of inker in Danny Miki.)

Spawn #57 page by Greg Capullo.
Spawn #57 page by Greg Capullo.

Let’s take the scenic route

Okay, the series is back on track with Capullo as a permanent member of the creative team. Stories are finally moving forward and readers start to get some answers to ill-defined concepts. Spawn still moves at a snail’s pace sometimes.

This is because ongoing plot development is often relegated to the B or C-plot, with the A-plot focusing on Spawn taking on a villain. These can move incredibly slowly, often an inch at a time. Other times, McFarlane checks in on the ideas and the characters involved to remind readers that they exist, giving readers a brief summary of what’s happened instead of pushing things forward. This happens often with the dramas in Terry and Wanda’s life and Sam and Twitch’s investigations.

However, what’s worse is the slow build of a story, only for it to disappear several issues. A notable example of this is the use of Cy-Gor. The villain is introduced in a sub-plot for Spawn #38. In the proceeding issues, the comic checks in on Cy-Gor as he travels through the US on a mission to an undisclosed target in issues #40, #41, and #42. Apart from a very brief appearance in Spawn #49, Cy-Gor doesn’t appear again until issue #56 and is swiftly taken care of in the next issue. That’s 19 issues between introduction and conclusion for what ended up being a small story in the overall saga that is Spawn.

Giving stories pushing stories into the scenic route might’ve been an intentional decision. In the letters page for Spawn #28, Todd McFarlane states that “with having such a large audience, and such a variety of different ages reading the book, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what kinds of stories the readers would like to see. So, I try to come up with a wide range of tales that can flip between being more fantasy oriented and others that are more down to earth.” Here, McFarlane’s taking a page out of Marvel and DC’s book, where long-running series have different modes – for instance, Spider-Man has dark and serious stories and light-hearted ones. This helps generate a wider appeal and keeps things feeling less repetitive. However, some stories suffer from disappearing for a while because of it.

Spawn #10 page by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #10 page by Todd McFarlane.

Todd McFarlane wears his influences

You can pinpoint Todd McFarlane’s influences once you’ve read enough Spawn. There are many, which include a few obvious ones.

From a writing perspective, Chris Claremont appears to be a big influence. Claremont is unsurprising, having written X-Men between 1975 and 1991 and aligning with McFarlane’s formative comics reading years. These X-Men comics are very talky (even during fight scenes), exposition-heavy, and very wordy. Spawn is all those things for the first 70-ish issues until Brian Houglin joins as a co-writer and makes the scripts more concise.

I can also see shades of Alan Moore in the narration style, where it’s used to paint a picture of the setting and actions beyond what’s seen in the panel. Unlike Moore, who worked in confides of mostly condensed page layouts, McFarlane litters his narration over splash pages and issues with plenty of room to breathe. This is less effective because what’s in the narration could be depicted on the page – breaking the show don’t tell rule.

Artistically, I see shades of Frank Miller. Not so much in terms of his strokes – his inking is influenced by the tightness of John Bryne or George Perez – but in the way he depicts characters. They often have geometrically hulking frames, as Miller often implemented in works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This is more evident in the villains but can be seen in some depictions of Spawn. This goes into overdrive in Spawn #11, where McFarlane intentionally mimics Miller’s style for the Frank Miller-penned script.

Spawn #43 page.
Spawn #43 page.

Speaking of The Dark Knight Returns, McFarlane lifts particular elements from it, with poses evocative of the famous jump used at various times. In that classic miniseries, TV news is a storytelling device used throughout. Spawn uses this heavily, especially in the early days. However, it’s more of a drag, taking up a whole page to give three different channel’s perspectives with very wordy dialogue.

McFarlane influences himself

At the same time, McFarlane’s previous work influenced Spawn. There are many shades of Spider-Man, the character that made him a star, in the series. This begins with Spawn’s design, with a mask with big white eye shapes like Spidey’s, and continues with some of the poses used. There’s the direct homage Spider-Man (1990 series) #1 cover on Spawn #8 and plenty of Spider-Man-style acrobatic poses throughout the series’ early days. These might not have Spawn with his feet up near his head, but you can see where drawing the web-slinger hundreds of times has left a mark on McFarlane.

While he didn’t draw Batman nearly as many times as he did Spider-Man, his work on the Dark Knight (Batman: Year Two) left a mark on how he drew the series in the form of Spawn’s cape. Both capes are prohibitively large, covering a large surface area, and have plenty of sharp folds.

With family also being an influence

McFarlane also borrow from real-life, namely his family. The character is Wanda is named after McFarlane’s wife, with Cyan named after his daughter. This feels very personal to him, mentioning in the letters page for Spawn #78 that he would “literally trade everything to have another chance to see my wife or spend a little bit more time” with his wife and family if given the chance – bringing to mind that Al Simmons traded his soul to see his wife again.

Spawn #1

The missed opportunity of the power-meter

An element introduced in Spawn at the very beginning is the power-meter. A box – starting with the numbers “9:9:9:9” – would appear without context. With every appearance, the numbers would go down slightly. To begin with, it’s vague what it actually is. It’s easy to assume it’s a clock that’s counting down to some mysterious event. However, what it really is is a meter representing Spawn’s powers.

The numbers on the meter go down every time Spawn uses his powers. If he uses a little power, the meter ticks down in a small increment. Use a lot, and the number drops more significantly. You can say “goodbye to Spawn if it reaches “0:0:0:0” – he’ll be sent back to Hell.

Spawn's power-meter from Spawn #55. 6:7:1:2.
Spawn #55

Spawn’s powers are ill-defined yet extremely powerful. A meter that limits how much he can use, with a consequence for depleting it, is an interesting storytelling device unique to the series. It also means Spawn can’t just blast baddies away with excessive power. Instead, Spawn has to rely on using the skills he learned as Al Simmons, excessively large guns (like the one below), or his symbiotic suit.

Spawn #36 page by Greg Capullo and Kevin Conrad.
Spawn #36 page by Greg Capullo and Kevin Conrad.

After a while, every use of power is attributed to the symbiotic suit and the power-meter appears less sporadically. Eventually, it disappears altogether. (It’s briefly brought back in the Armageddon arc (Spawn #150-164) and returned in Spawn #300.)

Removing the power-meter feels like a missed opportunity. Before, it meant the ever-powerful Spawn had to use other avenues for solving problems. Later down the line, he uses significant amounts of power without any consequence. The power-meter also works for the benefit of the reader. While it never got all that low. If it had, it would be a storytelling device to create tension as it ticked down closer to “0:0:0:0”.

Spawn #9 cover by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #9 cover by Todd McFarlane.

Angela, how she was originally intended

Many of you reading might be familiar with the character Angela, even if you have read Spawn. After the decades-long disagreement over the character (and others) between Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman, the character was eventually licensed to Marvel. This is where many younger readers, including myself, were introduced to the character.

It’s interesting to see Angela in her original context. Based on her attitude, attire, and lust for violence, she was clearly McFarlane/Gaiman’s contribution to the “bad girl” trend that was all the rage throughout the 90s. In her original form, she’s an angel who hunts hellspawn and combats against the threats of Hell, all while dishing out some terrible one-liners. She’s always presented as Spawn’s equal, being able to keep up with him in combat and almost besting him on multiple occasions. When they finally team up, they put their differences aside for the greater good.

These Spawn appearances will be an extra layer of curiosity for those only familiar with Angela through Marvel. We get to see the similarities and differences between the two comic universes.

Spawn #10 splash page by Todd McFarlane.
Spawn #10 splash page by Todd McFarlane.

Spawn is a marvel of independent publishing

As I mentioned at the beginning, Spawn #350 is published today. That’s an impressive feat of independent publishing. The next closest is Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which took 27 years to do. It only took Spawn 32 years to reach the #350 mark. It would still be an incredible achievement if the series finished with issue #100. No matter what the critics and neighsayers said, you’ve got to marvel at its longevity.

Is Spawn worth reading?

This piece has gone past the 4,000-word mark. While I could easily discuss the first 100 issues of Spawn for another 4,000 words (I wrote 50+ pages of notes while reading), it’s time to wrap this up.

So, is Spawn worth reading?

I can see why people enjoyed Spawn during the 90s and why people have returned to it in recent years. The first 100 issues have plenty of exciting moments and interesting ideas. While these don’t always come together as well as intended, they at least spark some form of curiosity and/or interest. That being said, Spawn can also be a frustrating read due to creative and storytelling decisions. This might’ve been more tolerable had I read these comics monthly over 8-years like they were intended instead of cramming over two months.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Spawn #1-100 will depend on what kind of reader you are. It’s the kind of comic you can easily turn your brain off and enjoy for the action and violence. You’ll burn through these issues if you’re seeking that kind of read. For the critically minded, there’s still some value to the series. It’s not always “good”, but there’s a lot to analyse and pick apart by looking at it through a 2024 lens. However, I would suggest pacing yourself. Otherwise, the series will become a slog.

Spawn #1-100 is collected in Spawn Origins Volume 1-17 or the first two Spawn Compendiums. They can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.

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