Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year 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 36th installment.
Heroes from a devastated future sent back to the past to save the present.
The Terminator franchise is built on it. So is the seminal “Day of Future Past” story (and all that followed) from the time when Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men was the greatest comic on the planet.
It’s also a Doctor Who thing. And an Outer Limits thing. And though I haven’t read every science fiction novel or short story ever published, I’m guessing that more than a few might have something similar in their narrative guts.
Alan Moore riffs on that old sci-fi plotline when he mashes together the cast of two of the Image comics he’d already written for the four-issue Spawn/WildC.A.T.s miniseries. And it’s yet another example of the way Moore’s work at the time would power the mainstream superhero comics that would follow in his wake.
Once again: widescreen comic book storytelling, writ large. With a playful irony, buried beneath the bombastic execution.
Spawn/WildC.A.T.s(Image Comics, Jan-April 1996)
Alan Moore (along with artist Scott Clark) produced this miniseries while he was in the middle of his relatively lengthy run on WildC.A.T.s, but the story he tells here doesn’t overlap with his work on the monthly series. It seems time-tossed, and not just because much of the story takes place in the narrative future. I’m not wearing my Image Comics Continuity Expert cap and gown today, so don’t hold me to this, but because the WildC.A.T.s team featured in the story – with the “original” membership of Spartan, Grifter, Maul, Voodoo, Zealot, and Void – reflects a pre-1995 status quo, and because Spawn is depicted with the shoelace stitching on his face caused by his 1994 battle with Frank Miller’s Batman, it seems like this series must have taken place during a relatively small window of time, in the months after Todd McFarlane stopped drawing Spawn for good, and in the months before Alan Moore’s monthly WildC.A.T.s run began.
Why would any of this matter?
It doesn’t of course, because it’s only comic books.
But it totally matters, because we are here to talk about comic books!
And because Spawn and WildC.A.T.s were two of the flagship series at the still-young Image Comics, and comic book legend Alan “Best Writer EVER” Moore was writing a massive mega-event crossover between the two teams, one would think that the story would have been a bigger deal. But, not so much. It either takes place out of then-current continuity or it takes place between issues and then is never spoken of again.
Today, with comics that popular and a writer that significant, USA Today would feature headlines and articles about the series. And Nothing Would Ever Be the Same Again!
Moore and Image Comics, circa 1996, just kind of cranked these four issues out. Then some people read them. And mostly said, “okay. That was something I read.”
I distinctly remember reading it upon release and finding it mostly loud and mostly ugly and substantially less clever than not only Moore’s best work, but less clever than the work Moore was doing on WildC.A.T.s and less amusing that the work Moore had completed on the ridiculous Violator miniseries. In short, in one particular house, in the wilds of Western Massachusetts, in the early months of 1996, Spawn/WildC.A.T.s was deemed a failure.
I enjoyed it a lot more when I reread it this year.
Spawn/WildC.A.T.sis still an ugly comic book, with grotesque demons and chisel-faced characters and super-skinny supposedly-sexy women, but the whole thing reads like the work of a writer playfully spinning a preposterous yarn using the tropes of the mainstream comic book industry at the time. It’s not as fiercely parodic as some of his other Image work, but the series aims higher in other ways – it shoots for grandeur and spectacle of the sort that make comics so visually mesmerizing. Unfortunately, Scott Clark’s gritty angularity doesn’t serve those spectacular visuals as well as they might.
Imagine Brendan McCarthy drawing dystopian cityscapes with tentacled-eyeballs peering from the sides of buildings. Imagine Brian Bolland drawing the imperial harem. Imagine Bill Sienkiewicz drawing the monolithic future-Spawn looming over the heroes with sinister fury.
That’s not fair, of course. Those artists can make any story look interesting, and all we have in front of us is a four-issue series not drawn by anyone named Brendan or Brian or Bill. And though Scott Clark isn’t in the same league as those guys – and he was still a young artist when he drew Spawn/WildC.A.T.s – there are moments when the story looks as if it might live up to the premise of its implied spectacle: with the cosmic whirring of the fates, with the doltish future-Maul chained as a monstrous pet, with Ipsissimus fiercely and judgmentally sitting on his throne. In those scenes, Clark shows the potential this comic book might have had.
As it is, it looks like so many of the Marvel and DC comics that have been rushed into production in the years since Image Comics changed the marketplace for good.
But the story beneath Spawn/WildC.A.T.s garish, occasionally impressive, imagery is a massively epic one. The four-parter begins with a space-scape and an ominous narration: “Beyond the rim of all things, there is only magic,” the captions read by the end of page one, after building outward from the nothingness of the void in the opening panel. And on the double-page splash that follows, we see Aiwass, Lord Horse, and the Ladycube, the fates of this story, hovering over all, toying with the “fabric of infinity.”
A heady opening sequence for a comic that will almost immediately devolve into near-naked women posing with weapons in front of deformed guys in costume. But that’s what you get when you smash Alan Moore into something involving both Spawn and the Wild Covert Action Team(s).
Still, it sticks to its epic-ness throughout the entire series, even if it’s all dressed in high-1990s superhero fashion. The plot pulls Spawn and the WildC.A.T.s into the future, where they join a future Grifter and a future Zealot (who has much darker skin than the one in the present day, and that’s an important clue as to her real identity) to fight the Ipissimus, a gigantic, demonic overlord who is actually a corrupted version of Spawn. Yup. It’s a big story.
Alan Moore uses the future setting to provide some commentary on the status of the Image characters of the then-present. Besides the epic scope, that’s what makes the story most worth reading, as we see the cardboard cut-out characters explored by showing their evolved (or devolved) variations in a future not-too-far away. Moore is able to explore the essence of the characters by pushing them to an extreme, and though there still isn’t a whole lot of depth, the striking symbolism of a massive Maul in chains or a crucified Lord Emp or a Spawn unrestrained by human morality combines to give the story some emotional scope that so many other Image comics of the era completely lacked.
Moore even gives us a twist – a psychological tragedy of the sort we saw back in his Superman story with Dave Gibbons, when Superman was forced to acknowledge that his delusions of Krypton, and his chemically-induced imaginings of time spent with a family that never existed, were all just a lie – and in the Spawn/WildC.A.T.s miniseries the psychic cost is paid by Al Simmons, Spawn himself, who realizes that future Voodoo is the grown up almost-daughter he never had. It’s Cyan, the little girl born to his wife after his death. As history is righted, and as the Ipissimus is defeated by never existing (time travel!), the grown Cyan fades away, another reminder to the tortured Spawn that he will always be alone in the end.
Perhaps it’s maudlin, cheap genre storytelling, but it has a potency to it. Alan Moore, playing in the fields of superficiality and pandering artifice, still weaves a bit of humanity into everything that occurs.
And in the end, we’re back at the outskirts of space and time, where the strange forces of fate admire their work, and the final caption reads, “Outside the universe, there is the ghost of faint applause.”
NEXT TIME: A Wildstorm potpourri, with Deathblow, Voodoo, and Mr. Majestic. Alan Moore provides the spice.