Mon
Jun 4 2012 3:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: Spawn

Alan Moore’s SpawnTor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 32nd installment.

The story goes like this: Jim Valentino, one of the original Image Comics founders, contacted Alan Moore to see if Moore would write a few issues of Shadowhawk.

Moore, five years removed from writing superhero comics, declined. But even without having seen any of the Image Comics, he was interested in the idea of doing some work with Image, even if Shadowhawk wasn’t something he was compelled to write. He’s been quoted as saying, “all I really knew about Image was that they’re the opposite of DC and Marvel and that sounded pretty good to me.”

“I figured,” Moore added, “that if they’re making mischief, then I’m generally in favor of them.”

A bit before that, Moore had been approached by one or more of his former collaborators, maybe Steve Bissette, maybe Rick Veitch, maybe both, and they talked about jumping on board with Image by creating their own retro-series, 1963, which would be written in bombastic Silver Age style, to contrast with the modern heroes coming out from the company at the time. The 1963 project was the first thing Moore started working on under the Image umbrella, and that’s likely where the original Jim Valentino contact originated.

Still, as I mentioned, Moore said “no” to Shadowhawk, but while working on 1963 he received another call from another Image founder. Todd McFarlane asked Moore to write an issue of Spawn for him. This time, Moore said yes, and it ended up hitting the stands a month before the first installment of 1963. So while I’ll get to my reread of 1963 in a couple of weeks, we have some Spawn to look at first, and not just one issue, because Moore went on to write over a dozen issues featuring the character or related spin-offs.

That means Alan Moore wrote more pages of Spawn or Spawn-related comics than he wrote of almost any other superhero comic in the 1980s. Interesting, no? Especially because no one would ever refer to Alan Moore was “writer of Watchmen, From Hell, and Spawn” or anything of the sort.

But write Spawn he did. And though he never seemed happy with any of his Image work in retrospect — he has discussed how he tried to write for the demands of a new audience in the Image comic book stories, when he should have been just writing what he wanted to write all along – the Spawn-related stuff has its own merits.

Is it Watchmen or A Small Killing or From Hell or Marvelman? No, but it just may have helped set the groundwork for the kind of comics that would become extremely popular a decade later.

The Mark Millar/Joe Quesada/Post-Warren Ellis era of the 2000s may have actually begun in 1993, when Alan Moore tried to pander to an audience he didn’t fully understand.

Let’s see what that means!

 

Spawn#8 (Image Comics, Feb. 1993)

If you don’t know much about Spawn, all you really need to know is this: he’s a formerly dead special-ops agent who was given a second chance at life, after making a deal with the devil, or with a devil-like being called Malebolgia. Horribly scarred, Spawn wears a full-face mask and lots of cool chains and spikes and a supernaturally-long cape, and he skulks around homeless folks and pines after his old life, and sometimes fights monsters and supervillains.

As a comic book character, he’s a great visual, and the early Todd McFarlane-centric issues have a distinctive, professional-grade-but-juvenile D.I.Y. charm. These were slick-looking comics with bad taste. An entire generation of comic book readers fell in love with them, for both of those reasons.

Alan Moore came in to write Spawn not out of any love for the character or its concept, but because he could use a paying gig at the time (when A Small Killing and early work on From Hell and Lost Girls weren’t making him any money), and because he liked the challenging of writing this new kind of comic. Something based more on spectacle rather than substance.

That’s what he gives us in Spawn #8, and because he doesn’t turn the issue into an Alan Moore comic, but rather adapts his approach to suit the series, he ends up producing an unusual variation on his style, with a clear intelligence at work beneath the utterly inane violence and base humor. He tapped into the side of himself that delighted in the more brutal “Future Shocks” or the absurd excesses of “D.R. & Quinch” and then splattered that approach all over McFarlane’s Spawn mythology.

Issue #8 doesn’t even feature Spawn at all. The character appears as a nightmarish apparition, haunting a vile human who has ended up in Hell. Spawn, in this Alan Moore comic, is but a figure of terror, and yet Moore constantly provides comedic portrayals (gamely drawn by creator Todd McFarlane) of the “hero’s” costume, as we see gooey Spawn and fat Spawn by the time the story’s done. It’s all just part of Mister Chill-ee’s journey.

Mister Chill-ee, the protagonist of this Moore-scripted issue, is a child murderer, an ice-cream-truck predator, and his tour through the afterlife is the entire plot of the story. Moore gives us a vile, cartoonish version of Dante’s Inferno in this one issue, as we learn about the various levels of Hell (and Heaven, because in the Spawn cosmology, it’s all part of the same, larger structure). We also meet the Vindicator, brother of Spawn nemesis the Violator, and like all the “Famous Phlebiac Brothers” these monstrous, insectoid demons are as annoying as they are dangerous.

Moore mocks the Spawn mythology as much as he celebrates it in his first issue here, though, as the creator of four of the Phlebiac Brothers (all except for Violator), he’s responsible for expanding the mythology exponentially.

The Phlebiac Brothers, and their petty bickering and violent sense of brotherhood, will be recurring characters in much of Moore’s Spawn-related comics work.

At the time of its release, Spawn #8 was Moore’s grand return to superhero comics. He hadn’t done anything for “mainstream” audiences since he left DC. And yet Moore’s name isn’t even mentioned on the cover of this issue. But readers knew he was involved – it was certainly no secret, and the Image hype machine (loud enough at the time to generate million-selling issues for the upstart company) let everyone know that Moore was returning to his superhero roots.

But what readers of the time probably didn’t know – I certainly didn’t know it, when I picked up Spawn #8 off the comic book stands in 1993 – was that Moore wasn’t going to rehash his greatest hits. He wasn’t going to Watchmen-ize Spawn. Instead, he would just play with it. Bat it back and forth a bit, like a curious animal. And by returning to his roots, he would channel some of his darkly comic 2000 A.D. work into the Image style.

It was a shocking disappointment in 1993. In 2012, it reads like a forecast of what was yet to come in the comic book industry. But after issue #8, Moore wasn’t done with Spawn. He jumped off to produce two spin-off series starring the Violator character, and I’ll talk about those next week, but he also wrote a handful of other Spawn issues before he was finished, and though I’ve provided much of the context already, I’ll run through those quickly….

 

Spawn#32 (Image Comics, June 1995)

Alan Moore and Tony Daniel provide the six-page back-up in this issue, which acts as a prologue to their Spawn: Blood Feud miniseries. The short introduces monster-hunter John Sansker, a character who will play the lead villain in the miniseries, and like Moore’s other work for the Todd McFarlane wing of Image, this stuff is all played as absurdly grotesque comedy. 

The prologue, by the way, is titled “Preludes & Nocturnes,” presumably as a joke aimed at Alan Moore disciple Neil Gaiman whose ponderous dark fantasy Sandman series would have been the belle of the “sophisticated suspense” comics ball of the mid-1990s mainstream. “Preludes & Nocturnes” was the subtitle of the Sandman trade paperback that compiled the first half-year of stories from the series. Alan Moore’s “Preludes & Nocturnes” are a bit more savage, and ultra-violent, and about as far away from the sensitive and thoughtful fantasy of Sandman as you can get.

 

Spawn: Blood Feud#1-4 (Image Comics, June-Sept. 1995)

Now here we go! Alan Moore’s first full-fledged Spawn story, actually featuring Spawn in the protagonist’s hot seat. And Spawn is a vampire!

Except, not really.

These four issues give us an almost unbearably endless cycle of scenes involving Spawn’s now-sentient costume (possessed by a demon) and the monster hunter John Sansker who pursues the seemingly-vampiric-but-actually-a-victim-of-his-own-costume title character.

This is not prime Alan Moore, though he seems to be enjoying the ridiculous scenes he churns his characters through. Moore’s first Spawn story is a better one. And so is his first Violator story, which I’ll get to next week.

Blood Feud is too over-indulgent, and over-the-top without quite enough humor to make it pleasurable. Or maybe it’s packed with humor that doesn’t come across in Tony Daniel’s art, but Daniel seems game, and he’s doing his best Todd McFarlane impression throughout. It just doesn’t work as a compelling story. At all.

The pacing even seems off, as the disoriented Spawn (who is under the influence of the demonically-possessed costume) stumbles around and then John Sansker pursues him. Spawn ditches his costume – so it’s a lot of naked-ish, horribly disfigured Spawn – and Sansker turns out to be “Jean Sans-Coeur” aka “Heartless John,” a would-be Lord of the Vampires and his whole monster-hunting shtick is just a way to eliminate the competition. A self-mocking premise to hinge the series on, which is all well and good, but that’s about all it is: a premise with a bunch of loudness to follow. There’s a fight. Then, the characters kind of just run off. The end.

Disappointing, not because it’s unlike Alan Moore’s best work, though it is, but because it doesn’t even have the humorous edge of Moore’s juvenile-but-funny work. Violator gets it right in all the ways that Blood Feud seems like a dull, reheated story that Moore couldn’t quite grab and control all the way through.

Then again, the thing about the sentient costume and the hero’s rejection of it seems like a direct parody of the whole Spider-Man/Venom relationship, and Todd McFarlane was the artist of that story back when he worked at Marvel. So this is Moore parodying the work of the creator of Spawn by riffing on a story completed before the creation of Spawn? By using Spawn to do that? Yes. That may be a confusing layer of intent, if that’s what was going on, but that doesn’t mean there’s any additional depth here.

What about what I wrote up above, that this Alan-Moore-at-Image stuff was somehow an influence on the comic books of the decade that followed? Well, you can’t really get that sense from this small stack of Spawn issues. There’s a hint of something. A hint of an intelligence beneath all the pandering. A knowing sensibility about what’s going on, but not quite a giddy celebration of it. Moore’s execution seems uncertain here. He’s finding his footing in the new, Image Comics, spectacle-as-substance landscape. But I need to talk about some of the Spawn spin-offs and related Image titles before I can dive into my thesis about 1990s Image Alan Moore building the foundation for 21st century superhero comics. More to come next week!

 

NEXT TIME: The Admonisher comes, um, …admonishin’ – Violator and friends!


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

3 comments
Jeff R.
1. Jeff R.
Two weeks on Spawn? (And it looks like we've skipped the American Flagg run, which was much better. Although that's a silly comparison. So "which was much better and said more about the subject matter than Lost Girls, which is going to be getting at least one week I'm sure.")

Anyhow, Moore is certainly not above extremely biting satire directed at the hand that's feeding him...
Rob Rater
2. Quasarmodo
Your sign-off tagline should be "More Moore to come next week!"
Jeff R.
3. The River Ivel
Mister Chill-ee, the protagonist of this Moore-scripted issue, is a child murderer, an ice-cream-truck predator...


Those poor ice-cream trucks.

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