In the late 1980s, artist Todd McFarlane exploded onto the comic book scene with his dark, hyper detailed superhero art. Alongside several other up-and-coming young artists, McFarlane represented the new age of comic books, and his art not only helped usher in an era of dark, edgy superhero stories, but also rode the massive financial wave of the speculator boom.
Eventually, McFarlane’s popularity led to him debuting his own new Spider-Man title as writer and artist, with Spider-Man #1 selling a whopping 2.5 million copies in 1990 thanks to a media blitz, variant covers, and collectors HILARIOUSLY thinking that owning a comic that had millions of copies in print would make them a millionaire. It did, however, make McFarlane a millionaire.
And in 1992, McFarlane and 6 other high profile comic book creators founded Image Comics as a place for their creator-owned books without ever giving up their rights and financial stake in the characters they made. The publication launched with several high profile, ultra-90s series – Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, Eric Larsen’s The Savage Dragon, Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s. – but the Image flagship would be Todd McFarlane’s Spawn.
Spawn is the story of Al Simmons, a mercenary who comes back from hell to be reunited with his wife, only to be turned into a superpowered antihero caught in a war between the forces of good and evil. But really, the story of the Hellspawn is the story of Todd McFarlane – a superstar artist and writer who used his popularity and the booming comic book industry to help form a new publication and build a multimedia empire while entire publications floundered and ran out of money.
Spawn may be most well known for its chains, goo, and ’90s extremity, but the impact of the right comic at the right time can’t be understated, even if the years haven’t been kind to McFarlane’s signature creation.
As of this video’s publication, Spawn has published more than 300 issues and become the longest running creator-owned comic book in history. Along the way, it’s produced an animated series, a movie, many video games, and an entire toy company. And from its massive debut through its constant ups and downs both creatively and financially, Spawn has changed the comic book industry, even though it sucks.
The Story of Spawn
Spawn opens with our antihero already back from hell and trying to remember who and what he is. And while the early issues of Spawn peel back the curtain on Al Simmons, now filled with power and seemingly doomed to become a soldier in Malebolgia’s demonic army, the primary directive of Spawn’s first 100 or so issues is brooding, stumbling into fights, demonic angst, and definitely not moving the plot forward AT ALL. And this is the problem with Spawn the comic.
Its story is simultaneously the most and least important thing in the book.
While McFarlane had originally created the character when he was 16 years old, Spawn is also very clearly a product of its time. Blend together a little Dark Knight Returns Batman, a little Spider-Man, a whole lot of Venom (who McFarlane helped create), and a dash of Faust: Love of the Damned, with necro goo and chains (kids like chains) in a hyper violent ‘90s aesthetic, and you have Spawn.
To match his hero, the world of Spawn is kind of a cosmic gumbo filled with forces from both sides of the afterlife who see him as either an eternal enemy or an ally that must be controlled, with Violator and Angela being the most iconic of its early issues. Besides its demons and angels, the villains of Spawn tend to fall into 3 categories: big guys, babes, and dang-ass freaks. Most often, they’re in the employ of the mob or shadowy government director Jason Wynn, which creates a strange blend of mythic forces and banal crime, with McFarlane almost always leaning into the crime side, seemingly out of a lack of knowing what to do with the bigger picture he and his collaborators had created.
But over the course of hundreds of issues, McFarlane and company constantly rework the Spawn mythology. Over time, secrets are revealed and then proved to be lies years later, the world of Spawn is given contradicting backstories, the hierarchy of the afterlife is rearranged again and again, characters careen between trusted allies and sworn enemies due to misunderstandings, and Spawn slowly gains more and more power as the supposed chosen one. .
And my god is this book overwritten. McFarlane FILLS the pages with walls of text, detailing out every thought, emotion, and plot point in excruciating, redundant detail. Often with Dark Knight Returns-inspired news talking heads reiterating exposition three times on a single page, multiple times an issue. Elsewhere, characters are rendered into motionless tableaus to allow the omniscient narration to fill the page as necessary. Even though it is rarely necessary.
This means that Spawn has absolutely no narrative thrust. Of course, not every superhero comic needs to have a grand overarching story, but McFarlane is constantly telling readers that something, anything is going to happen any moment, only for nothing to ever happen. Will Spawn discover that it was Jason Wynn who betrayed him? Will his ever-lowering necroplasm counter hit zero? Will his special role in the war between heaven and hell be revealed? Will that supposed war ever actually happen? Yes, but the answers will only come dozens, sometimes even hundreds of issues after it should have for any of this to matter to the reader.
It’s a funny dichotomy because Spawn was founded on and continues to be successful because of how it looks, not what its characters are saying or the mythology being haphazardly built.
In the early 90s, you could see Spawn and its similar breed as being edgy and even a little taboo within the larger world of comics. The hero is tortured, often covered in filth, and kills. The villains are remorseless and often grotesque. The world is both literally and figuratively dark. Generally, Spawn’s outlook is very grim. Not only is New York City a cesspool of rats, disease, and abuse (at least in the Canadian McFarlane’s mind), but Spawn’s larger mythology implies that every soul is a pawn in the larger war between heaven and hell. The afterlife is an oppressive, exploitative place, with Hell being a pit of writhing flesh and fire and heaven being a power-mad bureaucracy. Living is pain. Death is torture. Existence itself seems pitted against those who exist.
All this points to the most frustrating element of the early Spawn comics. There’s a larger world and plot available to McFarlane that’s almost never utilized. Instead, it’s just our hero brooding in alleys and gangsters plotting for dozens of issues at a time. Whenever the larger mythology is actually put to use, it’s almost always written by someone other than the Toddfather.
And that happens a lot early on, with the first 20 comics seeing McFarlane bring in a cavalcade of superstar writers to take over the book for a few issues at a time, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison. It’s clearly a tactic to bring some extra critical cache to the title in its early days as well as back up McFarlane’s public commitment to creator freedom at Image. And while each guest star would bring new ideas into McFarlane’s world, it would later get McFarlane in hot water, with Gaiman suing the creator over the rights to the characters of Angela, Cogliostro, and Medieval Spawn, who greatly expand the mythology.
Over time, McFarlane would scale back his duties on the book, drawing less and less due to his commitments to the larger Spawn empire (more on that later), with McFarlane not drawing a single issue between #50 and #195. By issue 71 in 1998, McFarlane would co-write with Brian Holguin and eventually stop writing entirely as he focused on the business of Spawn, only to come back to the title for good at issue 190 in 2009 when the comic was losing relevance.
But the book is simply better when he’s not writing it. Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison not only create the foundation of Spawn’s mythology in just a few issues, they have much greater control over narrative structure than the art-first McFarlane.
Under the pen of his creator, Spawn is mostly a passive protagonist. He almost never seeks out the action that propels the comic. Almost every issue has some villain make their way into the alleys to either accidentally or purposefully target the character, forcing him into action and drawing him out into other parts of the city.
You would think that a character as tormented and in need of answers as Al Simmons would be more proactive, but he just isn’t. The result is that the plot moves like molasses throughout the first 100 issues (yes I read them).
Speaking of guest stars, special note needs to be made of issue 10, written by Dave Sims of Cerebus fame. The story has Spawn travel to a sphere of hell that breaks the fourth wall, as the comic depicts every character and creator who sold their rights to comic publishers as imprisoned, bound, and gagged. It’s Sims and McFarlane’s ultimate statement on how they view their status in the industry: filled with power because they own the rights to their characters.
As the heroes, including Superman, give their power to Spawn, McFarlane illustrates that his creation is stronger than any hero because he’s creator owned. It’s a very pretentiously depicted statement, but it reveals McFarlane’s beliefs and his intentions behind creating Spawn and founding Image. Your mileage regarding the success of this issue’s statement may vary on how much you agree.
But let’s face it, Spawn’s selling point during its heyday was its art. The story of much of Spawn is a conveyance to put McFarlane’s creatures into dynamic moments.
It was McFarlane’s unique, contortionist approach to Spider-Man and his hyper detailed violence that brought success to his early books and it’s that same sensibility that attracted an audience to Spawn. The extreme detail, the ragged cape, the flailing chains, the flat shadows contrasted against every line of detail, the exaggerated faces, the complex, unorthodox panel structure, it’s that signature semi-cartoonish approach that is recognizably McFarlane and synonymous with Spawn.
But that doesn’t mean the creator doesn’t care about his narrative. It’s pretty clear that he does, just that there’s a major disconnect between an author’s passions and the main reason for his sales.
Regarding his stepping away from art duties, McFarlane said, “As a guy who is a self-confessed control freak, giving up even a little bit of authority is very tough for me to do. And because of that weakness I have, I felt it was causing me to become lazy in terms of how I was drawing. Adding somebody new to the mix, such as Greg Capullo, would bring something new. If the sole reason that you are buying this book is because of my artwork, then I have failed in making Spawn, the character, interesting with or without me.”
Uh oh, Todd.
Thankfully, Capullo’s art became as much of a selling point as McFarlane’s had.
Capullo is a lot darker, gorier, and more gothic than McFarlane’s cartoony look. It’s an evolution of the Spawn style that was set – shadows, nighttime, hyper detail, grime, and gut-ripping action. But Capullo pushes it into darker territory.
Overall, Spawn gets meaner, grosser, and bloodier as it goes along, with McFarlane reveling more and more in the viscera. It seems like McFarlane became aware of what made him famous and felt the need to up the ante as the Image approach infiltrated Marvel and DC.
After decades of comics, there have been many different artists on Spawn, but every contributor’s hyper-detailed visions of Hell on Earth are a blast to look at. Even as the art changes to keep up with the times, it’s still the major selling point, filtered through a lot of admittedly cool character designs. Add in a dash of consistently insane mythology, and you have a book that can keep bringing loyal readers back.
And it’s that loyalty that built an empire.
The Spawn Empire
Really, the true cultural impact of Spawn exists outside the comic book page.
First and foremost is Spawn’s ability to put Image Comics on the map. Having a host of superstar artists defect from the Big Two and form their own publication in what was known as the Image Revolution was enough to draw attention to Image, but having Spawn debut to 1.7 million copies sold meant the publisher couldn’t be denied. After that initial splash, Spawn’s sales slowly shrunk but remained a top seller for years. But like every book on the shelves, Spawn’s numbers dropped when the comic book speculator bubble burst in 1993. All those holograms, foil covers, and limited editions weren’t going to make collectors rich after all. And when the jig was up, people stopped buying.
But Spawn’s initial popularity on the printed page allowed McFarlane to transfer that power to a lot of other assets. First was the toy line in 1994. Initially named Todd’s Toys and soon renamed McFarlane Toys, the company made its bones creating figures of basically every character that showed up in Spawn and their many different iterations. Soon, the company became known for their high quality and extremely detailed productions, which they parlayed into licenses with horror franchises, anime, musical acts, and eventually even DC Comics. All the while, McFarlane has remained CEO.
The interrelationship between Spawn the Comic and Spawn the Toy sometimes resulted in reverse engineering, with characters being made as a toy and then being introduced in the comic, like Cy-Gor – a cyborg gorilla with the brain of a man. And of course all the different versions of Spawn. If you’ve thought of a Spawn, there’s a toy of him. It’s not the first time a toy line has had media made for the sole purpose of promoting it. Famously, Masters of the Universe were toys first and cartoon second, and of course there’s Transformers. But the intertwining of McFarlane’s business as creator of both the comic and the toy business illustrates just how much the success of each was integral to the other. No comic, no toyline. No toyline, less investment in the comic.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics was filing for bankruptcy and selling off their character rights to stay afloat.
The multimedia efforts under Todd McFarlane Entertainment saw the debut of both the live action Spawn film and the HBO animated series in 1997. The film was a modest hit, and blows, but it’s also one of the first films to star a black superhero. And consider its position in the superhero movie timeline. Before Blade. Before X-Men. Before Spider-Man. And still a more coherent, satisfying storyline than the comic. But more importantly, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn The Animated Series was a true critical success, running for three seasons and 18 episodes.
Like the film, the animated series, developed by Alan McElroy and not written by McFarlane at all, is something of a pioneer as one of the first adult animated series in the United States. Yes, there had been plenty of adult anime in the decades prior and a few shows like Aeon Flux and The Maxx predate Spawn, but the show’s acclaim as part of the franchise and Emmy win for Outstanding Animation Program in 1999 set it as the crown jewel of the Spawn empire. And rightfully so.
With several contributors like producer Eric Radomski and composer Shirley Walker, the animated series almost plays like an adult extrapolation of Batman: The Animated Series.
The show’s entire tone leans hard into extreme moodiness. Deep shadows instead of hyper-detailed gore is the focus of the animation here. And unlike the overwritten prose of McFarlane’s narration, it’s far quieter to create a darker, less exaggerated take on the source material.
The cartoon is also so much more narratively tight, even though it cuts back on the exposition. Spawn’s new status quo as an undead soldier of hell and his powers are defined in the first episode, his inherent tragedy is quickly laid out to the audience, and each episode has a stronger narrative definition than any issue of the comic, with Al’s push and pull between good and evil staying at the center.
Here, Cogliostro acts as the narrator, but the closest that the series gets to the comic’s purple prose waxing rhapsodic over the nature of heaven, hell, torment, and love is McFarlane’s live action cameos at the beginning of each episode. All of these elements create the dark aesthetic that drew people to Spawn but filter it through a much more focused lens. Of course, the real star is Keith David’s incredible voice for the lead character.
There were also plenty of Spawn video games, with 5 made in the span of 8 years and the title hero making guest appearances in other series along the way.
But alongside the rise of Spawn the multimedia juggernaut came McFarlane’s decreasing engagement in Spawn the comic. Involvement in the film and the series were the cause of McFarlane ending his increasingly spotty position as illustrator at issue 50. All the while, Spawn would produce many different spinoff mini and ongoing series like Violator, Angela, Curse of the Spawn, Hellspawn, the extremely dumb Spawn/Batman crossover by Frank Miller (Batman says “punk” 11 times in this, thanks for that, Frank), another unrelated Batman/Spawn crossover, and many more comics looking to bring the story of Spawn to more readers.
The Spawn heyday was truly the 90s. McFarlane had become a multi-millionaire, a fact made obvious when he bought Mark McGwire’s 70th home run baseball for $3 million in 1999. But by the year 2000, plans for a movie sequel were scrapped, the animated series had been cancelled, and monthly comic sales were beginning to dip down to 50,000 copies sold.
More than a decade into Spawn’s run, writer David Hine would bring the long-simmering narrative to a climax with the Armageddon storyline, only for McFarlane to reboot Spawn’s story over and over again to keep the comic going and boost sales.
In the meantime, Gaiman had won his lawsuit, entitling him to several characters’ rights and plenty of royalties, and a lawsuit by hockey player Tony Twist over illegal usage of his likeness in the character of a mob enforcer cost McFarlane millions of dollars. The coffers of the Spawn empire were running dry and the juggernaut that made that money possible was not what he used to be, with each issue after #200 selling less than 20,000 copies, even though every anniversary would briefly rocket sales up by hundreds of thousands via Spawn nostalgia.
In 2004, McFarlane Productions filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But the Spawn story was far from over.
The Legacy of Spawn
A LOT has changed since the debut of Spawn and its early heydays. The comic industry went through a major collapse, the Image Comics shared universe that Spawn was part of is almost completely gone besides McFarlane’s comic and Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and Image has become a major player in the comic book world because of its many highly regarded independent series from a wide variety of creators. The vision that McFarlane shared with his co-founders at the beginning of the ‘90s lives on, but in a way they probably could have never predicted.
The edgy stories of Spawn, Savage Dragon, Youngblood, and The Maxx helped found the publication, but couldn’t be further from modern Image successes like Saga or Monstress. And when Image went through a partial breakup and diversification in the late 90s that saw many of its co-founders leave, it was Robert Kirkman’s smash hit The Walking Dead in the early 2000s that gave new life to the publication thanks to its crossover success and massive TV adaptation. But that multimedia strategy is very much a perfected, more successful modern version of what McFarlane had done with Spawn.
McFarlane’s comic continued through all of these changes, but was slowly transformed from company mascot to the weird little pet project of the Image Comics President that wouldn’t quit.
And the reason for its longevity is McFarlane’s investment. Even as sales numbers tanked, the creator remained committed to his vision, with a small but loyal set of readers coming back each month. Even with readership a fraction of what it used to be, Spawn was still profitable because of creator ownership at Image. Likewise, many comic creators today follow McFarlane’s pattern of making a name for themselves at Marvel and DC and then leaving to create their own independent comic. Their rights to most of the sales profits at companies like Image and the ability to sell the IP to voracious movie and tv studios who gobble up every new comic book during today’s comic book movie craze mean they can be financially stable in a comic book niche dominated by two major publishers who profit off creator ideas and pay them pennies on the dollar for what they made for them.
The steady profits from the comic and toys helped McFarlane Productions exit bankruptcy in 2012. Most recently, McFarlane has ridden the wave of a Spawn resurgence around issue 300 and its landmark numbering to boost sales up once again.
Today, Spawn is the longest running independent comic book, having passed Dave Sims’ Cerebus with issue 301. And there’s no sign of slowing down. McFarlane debuted
“Spawn’s Universe” in 2021, which became Image Comics’ top selling #1 issue of the past 2 decades. And off the back of it, Spawn has quickly spun out multiple new ongoing series for an expanding universe of comic books, with King Spawn #1 selling nearly half a million copies.
All the while, McFarlane’s global domination intentions remain. The creator has promised, maybe even threatened, since 2015 to bring Spawn back to the big screen with a film written, directed, and produced by him for Blumhouse Pictures, with Jamie Foxx attached as the star. Whether it will ever actually happen remains a mystery, and the same goes for the not one but TWO new animated series, one for kids and one for adults, that have been in limbo for years.
I guess there’s something undeniable about McFarlane’s signature creation. A brooding figure of the dark caught in the never-ending push and pull between good and evil. Even when his entire world changes, or he’s usurped by a white guy, Al Simmons’ hell-powered, chain-rattling dark adventures speak to the unabashed comic book fan in all of us.
Wait … am I becoming a Spawn fan? Hmmmmm. No.
Like it’s title hero’s seemingly ever-shrinking but never ending necroplasm counter, the cultural cache of Spawn has been slowly draining for decades, but it never runs out. And just when you think you can count out McFarlane and his hellspawn, there’s just enough juice to power a massive comeback.
I may not believe in the quality and importance of Spawn as a character and comic book, but McFarlane always has. And that belief isn’t just infectious, it’s powerful enough to have permanently changed the comic book industry.