I remember greedily snapping up the first two issues of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic in the spring of 1992. Comics fans were excited about it — it was the de facto flagship title of the newly created Image Comics, which was bringing its own ambitious interconnected comic book universe to the shelves to compete with “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.
There already was a competitive third major comic publisher — Dark Horse Comics. But it had no successful superhero titles or shared universe; it instead was known for science fiction and horror comics. I also remember seeing comics back then from the short-lived Valiant here and there — or maybe it was mostly ads in the Comic Shop News. I didn’t know a single soul who read them, though.
McFarlane was nothing short of famous in the comic book fan community, after his broadly popular work on “Spider-Man.” (I still love his unique style.) And “Spawn” had an absolutely subversive flavor to it. Its title anti-hero was nothing less than an agent of hell, and the comic revolved around hell, sin, damnation and various demons. There was also far more violence and gore.
“Spawn” felt subversive, too, because of the impetus behind its creation. Image Comics was launched by a group of artists who were unhappy with Marvel’s failure to grant them creative control over their work (or, according to the artists, proper merchandising royalties). They included McFarlane, and fan-favorite artists Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, among others.
I don’t pretend to know how justified their complaints were, as I was only a fan and not an industry insider. But they sound right … I’ve always heard that major comic companies have historically screwed over their creative talent with restrictive “work-for-hire” payment arrangements. (This is why Stan Lee, creator of so many of Marvel’s first heroes, is not absurdly wealthy.) The start of Image seemed to fans like their favorite artists rebelling against the status quo, and that was kind of exciting.
Some of McFarlane’s acrimony with Marvel was pretty overtly expressed in the pages of “Spawn.” There was a weird, slightly confusing plot digression early on in which McFarlane editorialized heavily about creator-owned characters … Spawn actually visited a kind of purgatory where various leading Marvel and DC heroes were imprisoned. It seems in retrospect like a labored and self-indulgent metaphor, and it detracted from the title’s story. But the college kids then reading “Spawn” had never seen anything like it. It was interesting at the time. (Bear in mind, please, that this was before the Internet.)
I started picking it up regularly. I was going to the comic shop that was on … George Street, I think, in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. There were only two comic shops in the downtown area in the early 1990’s — this one, and a seedy shop across from the Hardee’s on northern Princess Anne Street, in a tiny corner of a ramshackle, abandoned hotel. There was a categorically unpleasant, batshit-insane woman staffing the latter – she was nasty to everyone who entered, and accused them of touching the merchandise. (That part of Princess Anne Street has since been improved – I think the huge hotel building has since been renovated.)
As the “Spawn” title progressed, its fandom became firmly entrenched. The art truly was fantastic, and of course it remains an incredibly successful group of comic properties today. Over time, McFarlane’s critics also grew in number … no matter how gifted he was as an artist, fans said he wasn’t a terrific writer. (And I do get what they’re saying.) I will say this — the “Spawn” comics I was reading were a thousand times better than that weird movie adaptation in 1997. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of that, but they were terrible bits and pieces.
I still think I’d have a great time perusing my back issues.