There and Back Again selects a character to highlight, then showcases iconic stories and moments within that character’s history.
Welcome one and all to our weekly feature, There and Back Again. For the entire month of April we’re discussing one of my favorite comics in all of comic’dom: Spawn. We’re gathering up every link in his ridiculously long chain-belt-harness-thingy, going over standout story-arcs, boasting about the best place to jump into this decades long book for new readers, and covering ourselves in his oversized, ever flowing cape, which flaps in the never ceasing wind of the 90’s. Thus far we’ve covered a few of the basics including his origin story found in the first four issues. We’ve looked at the first monumental book (issue five) and why it mattered, and now this week we’re going to take a step back and look at some of the struggles, pitfalls, and triumphs of a book that’s run this long (over twenty years).
First off, I can’t imagine attempting to keep a single story going for over twenty years. As of this writing, Spawn has been ongoing for twenty-four years, with only the smallest of gaps in printing. On average, the Spawn title has consistently published eleven issues per year nonstop since its inception, with Todd McFarlane nearly always governing the wheel of the book, in some capacity, since that first day. There’ve been other writers, artists, and contributors, but at the end of the day, as best I can tell, McFarlane has been at the helm calling the shots. I’m not trying to impart my own feelings onto McFarlane, nor do I want to misrepresent him in anyway, but as for this writer, that shows me a deep passion for this character. That’s more than a little impressive considering all the critiques and negative opinions both McFarlane and Spawn have garnered over the last two decades. I don’t know Todd personally, I’ve never met him, but in my opinion, that’s one heck of an admirable characteristic. Todd has never given up on this book.
In today’s market, if a book starts to drop in sales at all, the entire creative team starts sweating and looking elsewhere because more than likely that book is getting dropped. Any title that isn’t pulling it’s own weight, in today’s market, is at risk. Sure there are some titles such as Batman, Superman, Spider Man, Iron Man, and all the other “man” titles that would have wildly popular creative teams thrown into them if sales dip. However, at the end of the sales quarter, if even the biggest names in the industry couldn’t breathe life into one of those books…it’ll get dropped. I understand that’s the business of comics, but here we are, with a title running consistently for over 20 years, and not one plug has been pulled. That’s a monumental feat for any comic to accomplish.
Some would argue that a book sticking it out like that doesn’t matter, stating that the bottom line–the profitability of a book–is what determines it’s lifespan. Unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account one of the largest benefits of running a character for decades: the depth and intricacies you can explore through a long rich history. Many fans would even point to books like X-Men and Justice League, both of which have existed longer than Spawn, and both of which have huge standout stories that fans everywhere remember. Yet, how many times have those books been wiped clean because of rebooted universes? There isn’t deep history, you just remember cool stories that took place before the universe exploded…or time is unraveled somehow so now everyone gets a new/same origin story again.
I’ve read reviews of Spawn, digested what some people call “critiques” of the series. Some of them have been wonderful, well written, and although I may disagree on certain points, all of this is opinion anyway so it’s easy to just agree, one fan to another, to disagree. However, one “review” in particular really stuck out to me because it stated that there’s not a single memorable story arc out of the now 260 issues, thus the writer concluded the entire series was trash. I remember sitting there reading that, then rereading it, and then I just paused. Had this writer actually read the entire series? Was he there when Al Simmons struggled with the power he now wielded? Was he forgetting the Heaven and Hell arc when Spawn is basically attacked by every side of the Armageddon war? What about when Simmons decided to kill the Spawn symbiote by blowing his own head off in the deadzone…c’mon…Endgame was amazing. Sure, some of the earlier arcs of Spawn are drenched in 90’s gore, and are often pointed at as pinnacles of what made that decade horrible, but that was twenty years ago…it’s time to move on folks.
Yet, there in lies the problem. Spawn was absolutely a book that helped launch both Image Comics, and indie books in general, into the mainstream world, and it was born during one of the bleakest moments in comic history (the 90’s…shudders). Unfortunately, many of loudest criticisms of Spawn seem gravitate toward that birthplace, as though this comic will forever be forced to carry with it the shackles of that period. Yet, I argue against holding it’s birthplace as some sort of defining characterization of the entire book. At the very least, admit that Spawn isn’t the only guilty party of 90’s, knocking out double-page-spread after double-page-spread. With that said, I challenge anyone to weave around the 90’s hatred and examine the book for what it is, not what was or when it was. If you take an honest look at what’s happening in the more current Spawn books, what you’ll find are pretty darn amazing stories.
I’m not denying that there are some dipping points in Spawn’s long history. Some of its stories have been bloated, cash grabs (Spawn & Batman…sigh), and others have been underwhelming, but why is that surprising? Batman’s been running for over seventy years, with who knows how many reboots, and of the thousands upon thousands of stories it’s been through it’s no surprise to anyone that ALL of them aren’t topnotch. Let us not forget there was a time when Batman was wearing a rainbow bat-suit…and it was meant to be serious.
When a comic, any comic, runs for twenty years, there are always going to be low points and goofy stories, but we press on because we love the character. If anything, with how the current story-arc is playing out, I’d argue that Spawn is better than its ever been. However, that’s for next week because we’re going to look at how, regardless of the low points, Spawn is making strides to refresh itself without the ever popular “reboot the character, reboot the world, reboot the reboot,” strategy that seems to be flooding major publications these days. Seriously, am I the only person who wants to flip tables with all these reboots? #rebootriot
Until next week, I hope all your comics are great, and your days adventurous.