Ask a rabid comic book reader to name a landmark book of the 1980s, and they’ll likely throw out stuff like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and maybe even Roger Stern’s heartwrending Amazing Spider-Man #248: “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man.” If you ask that same rabid reader to start naming landmark books of the 1990s, there’s a good bet that Spawn #1 would be near the top of the list.
Whether the debut issue of what’s become Todd McFarlane’s signature creation is good is a matter of debate, but there’s no debating its impact. It sold nearly 2 million copies on its initial release (an earth-shattering number for an indie comic) and cemented Image Comics as a major player in the industry. McFarlane was already a superstar, but Spawn helped to make him a mogul. That it arrived in the middle of a collectors’ boom didn’t hurt the success of the comic, but the fact that it’s still in publication nearly 20 years later (one of only two of Image’s flagship titles – the other being Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon – to hold that distinction) is a testament to its permanent place in the comics pantheon. Mammoth sales figures aside, Spawn #1 is far from a masterpiece of modern comics, but that’s never managed to slow it down.
The issue’s official title is “Questions,” and it’s an apt description both for the plot and for what it leaves the reader with. The book manages to cram a lot of art and what seems like a lot of action into a single issue, but hardly anything actually happens. In the beginning, we’re shown a trio of talking heads in 1987 as they talk about the funeral of an American hero named Al Simmons. The talking heads bear a great resemblance to a similar device used by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, and they’re here to make it clear to us that this Simmons character is an important guy, and that his wife is still alive and on the arm of someone else (these, by the way, are used far less effectively than Miller used them, but at least they’re not terribly drawn).
Cut to five years later. A shadowy figure in a jagged red cape and a black and white mask is shifting mysteriously through alleys, asking himself all manner of cryptic questions about his past, which he doesn’t seem to really remember anything from. A sizeable portion of the issue is devoted to this kind of self-questioning, and neither this figure (assumed to be Simmons) nor the reader really get anywhere with the answers.
Very few comics writers can really do a convincing inner monologue. Alan Moore can do it, Jeph Loeb can do it, but Todd McFarlane only gets away with it because everything else that’s happening on the page is so dynamic. The kinetic frenzy of McFarlane’s pencils in Spawn #1 are what make it not only important, but fun. There’s no particular problem with the story, but for the moment, there really isn’t much of a story. All we have is a concept, and one that isn’t cemented yet. The issue is really just a big teaser for the reveal at the end that Simmons is now some creature from another world, but somehow it doesn’t matter. It’s got all the balls and ambition of a McFarlane book, and that’s enough to propel it forward.
Looking at Spawn #1 now, it’s such a quintessentially 90s book that it’s almost hard to imagine its success today. It’s all about the style, all about that polished Todd McFarlane art, that brightly colored cover and iconic, angsty superhero swagger. Like much of the bestselling comics work of the 1990s (any number of the Batman stories and the infamous Death and Return of Superman, to name just a couple), it relies on the event to sell itself, not on the story, and it’s a fair bet that a good many of the 1.7 million copies of this issue Image unloaded came from people who weren’t buying Spawn, but Todd McFarlane’s name on the cover. (To be fair, you could say the same thing about a good many titles being published now – I’m looking at you, DC – but that’s another post.)
Still, somehow it doesn’t matter, because Spawn, at least in its early years, is just…badass. You can call it overwrought or corny or glossed over with eye-popping full page panels all you want, but that doesn’t change its unrelenting sense of cool. Pick up Spawn #1 even now and you can see that.