When we think of successful comics, we mostly think of Marvel and DC. That’s because, for a huge chunk of time, those were really the only two companies that had kind of serious success. A creator owned book could never compete with big two, even during a time when Marvel was seriously bordering on bankruptcy.
But in the early 1990s something happened that changed all of that. Feeling the pressure, feeling short changed, taken advantage of, artist and writer Todd McFarlane convinced several of his fellow artists and writers to leave with him so that they could create their own company, Image Comics.
What they did was unprecedented and a huge gamble. They were leaving the biggest comic book company in the world. If this didn’t work out, they’d all be completely screwed. They needed to put out a title that could compete with huge, big-name, iconic books like Spider-Man and X-Men. Something that, in the time of the X-Men’s biggest popularity, seemed like an impossibility.
But then Image released its first book. It was called Spawn and it changed the world of comics forever. Spawn had enough superhero flavor to draw in that crowd, but also stood on its own as a very different kind of book. It was darker, edgier, it got away with more than the strict censorship of companies like Marvel and DC would ever allow.
This was a big, dark, powerful story about a man who—like the creators who formed Image—felt he had made a deal with the devil and had come out of it completely screwed. In Spawn’s case, he’s a government assassin who is killed by his boss, makes a deal with the demon Malebogia to see his wife a final time and say goodbye in exchange for leading the demon’s army in the war against Heaven.
Yes, this comic had violence and monsters and action and even gore—there was a lot more of that as it went on—but it was also a deep emotional parable, and I don’t think it’s given as much credit for that, at least not now.
Spawn connected with readers almost immediately. Its success grew and grew, leading to toys, a board game, video games, an incredible HBO animated series and eventually a feature film.
By the time the movie was officially green-lit, every kid in America knew who Spawn was. There was a massive excitement surrounding it, which is amazing for a creator-owned character. Spawn had started out as nothing, it had come out of nowhere, but it built success and owned the bulk of the ‘90s.
When the movie came out, everything changed.
I’ll admit that when I was young and had Spawn fever, I didn’t really notice or care about the film’s problems. I was just so happy that it existed. I caught some differences right away. It was bigger, faster-paced, more action packed and loaded with more humor than I really remembered from the comic.
As I got older, continued watching, the problems became clearer and clearer. The story is not only a mess, but as convoluted as it is, it’s made worse by the fact that it has some of the most blatant exposition in recent movie history. Characters will stop in the middle of the scene to just blatantly explain the plot.
Clown has a couple of scenes that are just devoted to him, sitting by himself, not even engaging in dialogue, just recapping the major plot points.
While the major story elements are there, they’re almost an afterthought. The meat of the complexity of Spawn’s emotional turmoil, is completely brushed over. We barely get time to even tell that he’s sad, just because we have to jump into a stereotypical ‘90s action plot in which the bad guy has a virus implanted in his system that will be released and kill half the world should he himself be killed.
This might be an acceptable action McGuffin to direct Spawn’s motivation, but it’s also deeply stupid when you think about it. Yes, this mean’s Spawn just can’t kill the villain without repercussions, but the virus is released if Wynn dies, period. What if he got in a car accident? Heart attack?
Clown is obnoxious to the point of being genuinely insufferable. It’s irritating, as John Leguizamo could have done something really great with the character had he toned it down even a little.
Given that this was an action comic book blockbuster being made for less money than, say, Batman Forever, it was a mistake that it was so heavily reliant on CGI. Because there’s so much of it and a good chunk of it looks like a ‘90s screensaver. This is doubly frustrating because the practical effects are phenomenal. KNB did some of their best work ever on this movie.
They brought characters like Spawn and Violator to life in a way that looked great on screen while completely respecting their comic book origins, which is incredibly hard to do. Even a lot of great comic movies don’t get that right.
Considering that I loved it so much as a kid, I can’t really say Spawn is all bad, but the negatives far outweigh the positives, and that’s frustrating to me. Not just because I loved the comic so much, but because there’s so much good stuff in the film that could have been really successful had it just been steered in the right direction.
But then you have Clown not just making fart jokes, but going out of his way to remove his underwear and show you his skid marks. You’ve got him dressed like a birthday clown and making child molesting jokes, you’ve got him dressed like a cheerleader for—I’m actually still not sure what that joke even was. Every kind of funny line he lands is negated by the fact that, at that point, you just want him gone.
Michael Jai White is an excellent Spawn. He deserved better. But so did the rest of us.
Most comics, especially in this day and age, skyrocket to popularity after their movie is released. A blockbuster feature allows them to reach an audience they never had before. That’s even true of huge budget Marvel features. Iron Man became much more popular after his flick was released. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the best example, as even many comic fans didn’t recognize the title before the picture was announced.
Spawn was the rare title that gained success by word of mouth and then skyrocketed to the top on its own. It hit mainstream success, which allowed it to have a movie in the first place. But when the film came out, that all started to disappear.
The feature actually destroyed the success of the comic to the point that most people I talk to, even those who were fans back then, are surprised to hear that the comic is still going on. Most people just assume it was cancelled years ago. Truth be told, so did I.
There have been many bad comic book adaptations. Most of them bounce back. Even Ghost Rider is getting a second chance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But Spawn never climbed back to the top, or even the middle, after the release of its polarizing movie, and for that, it truly might be the most damaging comic adaptation of all time. Which is sad to say, given that it so easily could have been the best.