Spawn brings violence, swears, and nudity to superhero cartoons

Nothing quite says that you’re not you’re daddy’s superhero than by making one of your main villains a child murderer.

Post-Batman movie, superheroes were back. There was a catch, though. Brooding superheroes and psychotic villains were the new hotness. Bright, sunny, optimistic superheroes? What do you do with a guy like Superman? Kill him off, of course. Then replace him with four extreme versions of him.

But wait! You bring Superman back eventually… only he has radical new long hair. Also you turn some of his villains, like the gimmicky Toyman, into psychotic child murderers. Remember that guy with the wind-up gimmick toys who committed crimes? Well, it’s the 90’s now, son! Time to get EXTREEEEEEMMME.

Such was the way of the grim and gritty 90’s that gave birth to the Hellspawn… who, incidentally, counts a child murderer as one of his main villains. The Fantastic Four have Doctor Doom. Batman has The Joker. The Spawn has… Billy Kincaid, child murder who runs an ice cream truck. (Though a feisty one! In one scene, Kincaid takes out several mob hitmen. Nice hustle there, Billy.)

In one of the moves that sent ripples down the comic book world, Todd McFarlane and several others left Marvel to start their own imprint: Image Comics. The company was creator owned. This made it the righteous choice compared to those corporate skinflints at Marvel and DC. Reading Image Comics was like sticking it to the man! Take that, you greedy corporate monsters (who always seemed to always be on the verge of bankruptcy)!

Until certain rights issues regarding a character named “Angela” rather proved that creators rights only count if you’re the one making money. As a dusty old letter writer once said, “None are righteous. No, not one.”

Its biggest success: Spawn, the story of a soldier in service of the demon Malebolgia. Part of the appeal was how much of an anti-hero Spawn was. He dismembered, murdered, and boozed. Another part of the appeal was McFarlane’s art, which in my opinion, holds up very well. Compared to the other Image artists, McFarlane’s pencils felt assured and organic. He wasn’t going for realism. Several characters resemble caricatures. In a comics universe where everyone looked like action figures, though, McFarlane drew people who were short, squat, wrinkly, and oddly proportioned. Stylistically, he’s closer to John Tenniel and his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

The next step for Image in its quest to leave its mark on the comics world the same way that Marvel and DC did? To conquer animation. I already covered Jim Lee’s foray into Saturday morning cartoons with WildCATs. A Savage Dragon cartoon also made it onto the USA Network. From Rob Liefeld came the Youngblood cartoon that was slated to be on Fox Kids but was never produced. (Just like almost all of Liefeld’s projects, amirite guys! Though it’s not fair to just blame Liefeld. Marc Silvestri’s Cyber Force never made it past planning stage.) The Maxx would show up on MTV… not necessarily aimed at kids, but appropriate enough for basic cable.

Spawn, though…. Spawn was not going to be for the children. Not yet, anyway. (More on that later.) Spawn is tough. Edgy. Full of violence. And features a crossover with David Sim’s Cerebus. There’s only one channel in the entire world that could contain Spawn’s in-your-face edginess … late 90’s HBO, the home of The Sopranos, Oz, Sex in the CityArli$$.

Each episode of Spawn is introduced by a very awkward Todd McFarlane. He’s trying to come off as Rod Serling but instead is a little comical. “It’s been said that evil is pain deliberately inflicted on a single human being,” he says in a dark room while surrounded by Nazi paraphenalia. “But if you were to take the pointy white hood off the KKK, or strip the swastika off a Storm Trooper, these men so filled with anger and hatred, that actually look just like our neighbor.” (The odd sentence construction is a direct transcript.) “So I wonder, if the devil does exist, could Man have been made in his own image and likeness too?” It’s delivered with so much self-seriousness that I can’t help but laugh.

Every single time.

I really can’t believe someone saw these live-action intros in Season 1 and went, “These are great! Keep filming them for the next season. And then the season after that.” I seem to recall an interview where McFarlane himself admitted how bad these were, so it’s not like people thought they were works of art or anything.

Our boy Spawn is voiced by none other than the great Keith David. You may know him as the guy who just would not put on those glasses in They Live despite the please of a very insistent “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He was also on Community, first doing the voice-over for a parody of Ken Burns’ Civil War docuseries, then becoming a regular cast member in Season 6. He was also the coolest character in … The Cape (which did not get six seasons, let alone a movie). David, though, is no stranger to voice over work. His distinct deep voice can be heard as The Arbiter in the Halo series, Captain David Anderson in Mass Effect, The Cat in Coraline, Dr. Facilier in The Princess and The Frog, and, probably most famously, as Goliath in Gargoyles. Long story short: Keith David is pretty much the perfect voice-casting choice for Al Simmons. (Sorry, Michael Jai White. But it’s true.)

Spawn is invincible and cannot be destroyed by any conventional means. That makes his rogue’s gallery highly ineffective. The cyborg named Overkill, the aforementioned child killer, the street preacher who’s using his ministry as a cover to sell drugs to Wall Street wash-outs… none of them really stand a chance against Spawn. The ante doesn’t get upped until about Season 3, when we get some more supernatural nemeses worthy of Spawns mettle. So what are the stakes? Mainly whether or not Spawn can get off of his butt to do something or not. See, Al Simmons isn’t a hero. He really does not care about anyone around him. So, if there’s horrible things going around him, he’s not that motivated to do anything about it … unless someone he knows is personally threatened (i.e. Wanda).

As needlessly edgy as it seems, it’s honestly a great idea for a comic. Al Simmons was scouted by Hell, after all, because he really is a terrible person. He watches people die and feels no remorse of sympathy. Yet, because his outfit consists of a big red cape and a hero-like mask, the people around him expect him to be a superhero. The longer he lurks in the alley, the more homeless people gather around who mistakenly think that he’s going to be their protector. Simmons doesn’t want that responsibility. But maybe… he does need to embrace it if he ever wants to escape the horrible fate that awaits him what that Spawn meter runs out?

It’s a bit of a pity, then, that Spawn’s dilemma doesn’t really resonate. Every time Spawn kills, he wins a soul for Hell. So, instead, he shouldn’t kill. However, if he really doesn’t care about anyone else, and if he’s so overpowered that Spawn can conceivably defeat his opponents without killing them, then is it really that hard to not murder people? I suppose his demon side takes over once killing becomes an option, but I never get a sense that Al Simmons isn’t fully in control of his faculties. He’s not a werewolf.

Spawn is joined by a demon dressed up as a pudgy little clown. He’s sometime referred to as The Clown. Sometimes he’s The Violator. He laughs a lot, but he is nowhere near as funny as Todd McFarlane is during those intros. He also seems to have a very counterproductive work ethic. He seems to have been sent by Malebolgia to speed up Al Simmons’ transformation into a soldier for Hell. His tactic is similar to Emperor Palpatine’s: try to keep egging the hero to join the Dark Side, and with each step he creeps closer to turning full evil.

It also seems offer up the same results. Each Satanic insinuation makes Al wonder what the real game is, and as a result he eventually decides to make the Paragon choice. “Hey,” says the Violator, “why don’t you kill your old friend, Terry Fitzgerald now that he’s married to your wife from a former life, Wanda?”

“That sounds like a great idea,” says the Hellspawn. “Oh, no, wait, I followed Terry around and he’s probably the second most righteous character on the show, second to my former wife. I can’t kill him.”

“But he TOOK your WIFE!” says the Violator, his vile temptation not unlike the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

“I mean, yeah,” says the Hellspawn, “but they love each other so much! Clearly I should be protecting this guy instead.”

A free tip for you, Violator: reverse psychology. It just might work.

One of the things I thought the show did better than the comic was how it resolved the issue with Jess Chapel. In the comics, Chapel is a crossover character from Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood who was the man responsible for Al Simmons’ demise. (Chapel doesn’t make an appearance in the Spawn film, perhaps because the rights issue with Liefeld would have been too complicated. If I remember right, the Chapel stand-in is a gender-swapped version played by Melinda Clarke named Jessica Priest. Jess Chapel… Jessica Priest… get it?) In the comic, Spawn punishes Chapel by taking away the one thing Chapel values most: his good looks. He lays his hand on Chapel’s face and the skull make-up that he wore is now permanent.

This always struck me as not much of a punishment at all. Oooooh… now Chapel gets to look like a badass 24/7. Women are going to be so repulsed now that he looks like he belongs on a heavy metal album cover. And just think of the time saved! Before his missions he had to apply white clown make-up. Now he can just roll out of bed and look like a dangerous assassin from jump!

My guess is that the showrunners thought that this was rather anti-climactic as well and decided to revise Spawn’s punishment. Instead of getting a boss permanent skullface, he now has to relive the lives of all the innocent lives he killed. The memories of the lives that Chapel robbed are always in his mind now, and the crushing guilt paralyzes him. He begs to die for what he’s done, but Spawn does not grant his wish. He is doomed to wander about in a haze of insanity. That’s the sort of thing you can get away with on a TV for a character when you don’t have to worry that he has to be ready for his next covert ops mission in the pages of Youngblood (on comic stands now! Or… twenty-five years ago!)

Fan-favorite ethereal bounty hunter Angela makes a small appearance in the first season. She’s complaining to her superiors that they won’t give her the permit to hunt down Spawn. I guess she never got that permit, because she never shows up in the series again. This is likely because of the rights issue with Angela’s creator Neil Gaiman. (In a move to seemingly stick it to Todd McFarlane, Angela was sold to Marvel Comics, where she can currently be seen as Thor’s sister.) Angela is instead replaced with her non-union equivalent, Jade, whose background is more closely tied with Eastern mysticism. She’s a fine replacement. I suppose some may miss the original’s outfit (which, honestly, was the most notable thing about Angela). Jade, though, has more believable character motivations beyond the love of the hunt and striking cheesecake poses.

Al Simmons is also joined by Cogliostro, a fellow who lives in the alley who bears a more regal appearance than the other homeless denizens. It turns out there’s a reason for that: Cogliostro is a former Hellspawn. He represents the hope that Simmons can one day regain his humanity.

The animation is handled by Todd McFarlane Entertainment. Unless I’m mistaken, I think this is the same group that did the “Evolution” music video for Pearl Jam. The team behind Spawn had explored several options, including animating it in a closer page-to-screen adaptation like fellow Image Comic TV adaptation, The Maxx. Todd McFarlane Entertainment, instead, gets a platform to show off their skills. (Something that I don’t think they did too often. I’m not sure if they animated anything else. Information on that studio is a little hard to find online.) The show dispenses McFarlane’s more organic look from the comic and streamlines the designs to look a little bit like Batman: The Animated Series, a little bit likea high quality anime OVA’s. The style lends the show a sense of maturity: while the comic looks like punk decals you’d find on a skateboard, the cartoon is appropriately haunting and gothic. It’s got a lot of Frank Miller it… back when Frank Miller was good.

Also, this is HBO. So this cartoon is going to feature a lot of animated boobs… and I don’t mean beat detectives Sam and Twitch! Hey-ooooooo!

But seriously, Sam and Twitch are the only good cops left in the city. It’s disrespectful to call them boobs.

Spawn is a good show, outside of those embarrassing Todd McFarlane intros, the quality is consistently excellent episode to episode. It’s also a little exhausting. The “grim and gritty” elements are that flavor of 90’s EXTREME where the perpetrators are completely irredeemable. I don’t have to mention that child killer again, do I? Limbs get shot off, bodies get mutilated, blood gets splattered everywhere… it’s not something that’s easy to watch several episodes in a row.

Hell, it’s a tough thing to watch just once. I pulled up an episode that begins with a bunch of pimps slapping up a woman. Then in a few minutes these same shady characters menace a woman who just stepped off a subway. It’s deeply uncomfortable and I have a hard time sitting through it.

Spawn is infused throughout with cynicism and hopelessness. Only, say, an angsty teen would think it was that bad. The type that validate absolute anarchy because they believe they’re being as awful as anyone else. A comic aimed at that audience makes all the sense in the world. As a prestige animated series that is nominally aired at adults? That rage feels a little hollow. It’s also been tempered by years of headlines. We know what happens when people succumb to that world view, and the results aren’t pretty.

McFarlane has always been trying to bring back this property. A follow up series (which would have the slightly more hipster title of Spawn: The Animation) focusing on detectives Sam and Twitch was planned but never completed. As recently as last September, he’s mentioned that he’s been working on two animated series: one for kids and one for adults. (The adult one being the one that’s been in the works since the early 2000’s.) I’m tempted to say that he’s fooling himself… but shoot, it wasn’t that long ago that Joker won the Golden Lion and was a serious Oscar contender. As much as I think it’s too dark for its own good, the timing might not be better.

Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!