Spawn. Artist: Todd McFarlane.

SPAWN

Original medium: Comic books
Published by: Image Comics
First Appeared: 1992
Creator: Todd McFarlane
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Cartoonist Todd McFarlane entered the comic book field in the 1980s, and quickly became a fan favorite. His work on Spider-Man during the early 1990s was particularly notable, not just for …

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… the work itself but also for the way it was marketed. Realizing they had a good thing going, Marvel Comics exploited it to the hilt. In the comic book Direct Market, that starts with a new #1 issue, and takes off from there. This one had added tricks, such as variant covers with metallic inks, some with very limited availability, to make it even more interesting to collectors of multiple copies. It was so profitable, the company did it again the following year, with X-Men.

It was profitable for McFarlane too, but not, he believed, profitable in proper proportion to how much it made for Marvel. He and a few others who felt similarly exploited decided to start their own publishing company to reap the profits for themselves, and that's how Image Comics (Witchblade, The Maxx) came to be. McFarlane's main contribution to Image was Spawn, the first issue of which was dated May, 1992.

Spawn (short for "Hellspawn") may have been the protagonist, but like Lobo, The Punisher and any number of other latter-day superheroes, wasn't entirely a hero. He started out as Al Simmons, a CIA agent murdered by his own boss, to keep the boss's private agenda intact — office politics, in other words, tho a more extreme form of it than is usually encountered by Dagwood, Cathy or even Dilbert. He then made a bargain with a demon named Malebolgia, promising anything if he could only see his beloved wife again. Of course, demon pacts usually come with hidden clauses, so Malebolgia skipped ahead five years, by which time she was re-married and had kids, which she'd never had with Al. He re-dedicated his life, or what passes for life among re-embodied damned souls, to vengeance against his killer, all the while trying to figure out how he was going to get out of the deal..

Spawn soon fell in with Count Nicholas Cogliostro (originally spelled Cagliostro), whom he met among the street derelicts that formed much of his initial supporting cast. Cogliostro (who had dealt with Hellspawn before) filled in a lot of necessary background information, such as the fact that Spawn was imbued with demonic energy, which can be very handy to have around, but when it was used up, he'd become part of Malebolgia's slave army of undead warriors and stay there for all eternity.

McFarlane's artwork was so popular, Spawn's comic book sold more than a million copies — in a market where less than a tenth of that would have made it a best-seller. But his scripting was not so highly regarded. He countered criticism by hiring fan favorite writers Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Dave Sim (Cerebus the Aardvark) and Frank Miller (Sin City) for an issue each in 1993. Gaiman's (#9, March) introduced secondary characters Angela (a warrior of the opposite side, who hunts Hellspawn for sport) and Medieval Spawn (originally called Olden Days Spawn, Al's 13th century predecessor). Gaiman's claim to part ownership of those characters, mixed in with Gaiman's and McFarlane's disputed claims on the Miracleman property, eventually led to legal action.

With the 16th issue (December, 1993), talents other than McFarlane began taking over both writing and art. Most notable is Greg Capullo (X-Force), who remained the title's penciller for years. By that time, the character was well established, and the merchandise was flowing. The action figures were so popular, and became such an interest for McFarlane, that he later took their design and production in-house, and began marketing unrelated toys as well.

Spawn's animated TV show began May 16, 1997 on HBO. Keith David (Goliath in Gargoyles) did the voice of Spawn/Al, with Richard Dysart (several voices in Orbots and Smurfs) as Cogliostro. Others heard in this series were Kath Soucie (Rugrats), James Keane (Hey Arnold) and Ming-Na (Mulan). The show ran three seasons of six episodes each. The same cast was in the feature-length Spawn 3: Ultimate Battle, which was released to video on August 17, 1999.

The live-action feature film was released to theatres August 1, 1997. The title role was played by Michael Jai White, who generally lacks toon connections but did do the voice of Superman bad guy Doomsday, in the animated Justice League of America. Cogliostro was Nicol Williamson, whose toon connections are even sparser. Theresa Randle played Al's wife, Wanda (no relation); and Martin Sheen was his killer, Jason Wynn.

And there have been mini-series, video games, graphic novels, etc. Significantly, along with Savage Dragon, Spawn is among the few founding Image titles to last well into the 21st century, and to publish more than 100 issues.

— DDM

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Text ©2005-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Todd McFarlane.