By Todd McFarlane, Jonboy, Szymon Kudranski, Laura Martin, and FCO Plascenscia
The history of Spawn is such a bizarre and complex rollercoaster of success, failure, disinterest, reinvention, and copyright law that it almost demands being addressed when talking about the character…almost. Despite the mountain of baggage Spawn brings with it, the recent series soft-reboot with issue #250 has made the recent run of Spawn comics incredibly easy reading for beginners who haven’t been following the series through its many permutations and evolutions. Though it’s worth considering “evolutions” is the wrong word as even though this is Spawn #256 and the character is over 20 years old, Spawn is more or less back to square 1 in this latest crop of stories. Some of that is to be expected; Spawn #250 marked the return of Al Simmons, the original Spawn, to the costume as well as Todd McFarlane’s return as writer, so some amount of retro affectations were to be expected. However, McFarlane’s Spawn has all but reverted completely to the series original status quo, a problem it’s only now beginning to rectify.
In case you’ve never brushed with Spawn before, Al Simmons was a CIA agent who did a lot of morally questionable things before his bosses had a member of Youngblood kill him. Luckily (or rather unluckily) for Al, death was not the end as he made a deal with a demon to return to Earth as one of the Hellspawn, a servant of Satan on Earth. There are some ancillary details, but that’s basically the long and short of it, with the added wrinkle that whenever Spawn uses his satanic powers he falls more under the control of Satan. This means there’s a purposefully crafted, in-universe rule saying Spawn has to be more or less inactive a lot of the time. It’s unclear how much that rule still applies in the current writing, but regardless, McFarlane has been doing his best to keep Spawn from doing anything these past 5 issues. The new status quo is that Spawn’s ex-wife and baby are currently trapped in Hell and after 5 issues of more or less padding, he’s finally decided to do something about it.
None of that is to say Spawn #256 isn’t also padding, it’s just padding of a more substantial nature. Unlike previous issues which just re-cemented Spawn’s place as an angsty anti-hero with daddy issues and a real aversion to doing things, this issue has the implication of forward motion. The biggest takeaway from this issue is that Spawn has discovered a weird sort of tunnel between Earth and Hell that he plans to use to go and get his family from the underworld. Even then, not much is actually happening here as most of the issue is either exposition of this very simple concept or incredibly shallow padding. There’s an entire sequence in a strip club that devolves into needless cheesecake shots of the nearly naked women that comes off decidedly insulting as well as weirdly off-brand for Spawn. The ‘90s were defined by a major trend towards wallowing in baser, hedonistic indulgences, but Spawn was one of the few major books of the time that didn’t really join that particular club. Spawn was more about wallowing in angst and self-pity than ultra-violence, and despite its reputation there’s really not a lot of gore or action in the early comics, so suddenly diving head first into the titillation game feels awkward and uncomfortable.
The shift is also made worse by the change of writers at that point in the story. The strip club sequence is right where previous artist Jonboy drops out and Szymon Kudranski takes over. The comparison between the two artists ultimately comes out as a wash. Kudranski’s characters are less stylized and his visual palette is more gritty and grounded, but at the same time he seems to have a real problem drawing faces. People always tend to have the expression of dull surprise or a sort of neutral mask that really flattens the scene. Conversely, Jonboy’s characters are more dynamic and animated by his stylization and can come off as manic and uncontrollable. Both artists obviously draw a lot of inspiration from McFarlane, but neither of them can reach that unique blend of grounded roughness with high impact energy. However, colorists Laura Martin and FCO Plascenscia both do great jobs getting the best out of their respective artists. Even in scenes that fall back on block color or gradient backgrounds the two find a way to really enhance the sequence and their key color balance helps dull Jonboy’s manic energy enough to be enjoyable and animate the drabness of Kudranski’s compositions.
At this point it’s tempting to say Spawn is continuing out of habit more than anything else. The incredibly substandard, by the numbers plot mixed with the static nature of the character despite how long he’s been around make it hard to ascribe any real passion to the project even if it’s actually there. More than anything this new run of Spawn stories feels like a reflex, a body spasm brought about by the animating powers of ‘90s nostalgia. This isn’t even comic making as “going through the motions,” so much as it’s being dragged through the motions against your will.