Spawn as seen on issue #1 cover

Spawning a New Breed of Superhero for the Nineties (and Today)

By J.T. Trigonis

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of superheroes. From the moment I bought my first comic book—Marvel Tales #210—I became hooked on the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, and The Flash. Growing up in the 1990s, we experienced some crazy sh*t in the world of superheroes. We learned that even Superman can die (temporarily, at least, but it was still a shock that made the eleven o’clock evening news); we watched the breaking of Batman by the Venom-brawned arms of bad-ass new villain Bane; and we witnessed the creation of a whole new breed of superheroes that were a bit out of the ordinary and absolutely not approved by the Comics Code Authority. 

One of those characters struck a chord with me, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately because his creator’s been in the news quite a bit, what with a new movie in development and all. I’m talking about Todd McFarlane’s undead soldier of misfortune and plaything of The Devil himself, Spawn!

If nostalgia’s revenge serves me right, I first set eyes on Spawn when issue #1 hit the racks in May of ’92, As the overarching story goes, Spawn was formerly a mercenary named Al Simmons who, after being killed, makes a pact with a devil called Malebolgia so he can return to earth and see his wife again. And Malebolgia obliges, of course, but in typical diabolic fashion and not entirely according to Al’s wishes. Oh, he’s sent back to earth, alright, but five years after his death! And he has finite powers, and once those powers are used up, he must serve Malebolgia and his evil agenda. So begins the legacy of the hellspawn.

But the storyline of Spawn was only one aspect of the overall story that intrigued me. Even as a young reader all of fourteen years old, I was impressed reading in Wizard about this group of young top-tier comic book creators that severed their own deals with the two comics giants of the time that were publishing all my favorite titles to start their own independent publishing house in their Image. Truth be told, I wasn’t a fan of Youngblood, Rob Liefeld’s super team which launched Image Comics (or Brigade, or any of his original creations, really), but I had always been an admirer of Todd’s work, particularly on Batman and Spider-Man, so I was excited about this wholly original character he was introducing to the world. In the summer of ‘92, journeyed to A&S Comics & Cards in Bergenfield, New Jersey, and I snagged myself a copy of Spawn #1. I still own that copy to this day, and I must’ve read it over 150 times ‘cause it’s got the gentle creases to prove it. A couple months later, I picked up a copy of Wizard #11 featuring Spawn, and which came with a cool collector’s card, which I also still have to this day and is one of my prized possessions. 

In the months that followed, I would come to adore Image Comics. Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S., Sam Kieth’s The Maxx; and Marc Sylvestri’s Cyberforce—even Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen and Shadow Hawk were all refreshing takes on some of the classic heroes and teams I’d been coming of age with like the various X-teams, Darkhawk, and The JLA. Not everything Image put out, even during these formative years, was top shelf, though; I never got into any of Liefeld’s original creations like Bloodwulf, Bloodstrike (so much blood!) or Brigade, and Dale Keown’s Pitt seemed a bit too brutal for me. But time and again, I kept coming back to Spawn: the storyline, the character, the villains, the lore—it all just seemed to jive with me, and I signed away my soul to all things Spawn––the comics, the action figures, the POGs, everything! I collected the comic’s original run up until at least the 50th issue; I did lose a smidge of interest after Todd stopped drawing the issues regularly and a fella named Greg Capullo took over, however. Don’t get me wrong, I love Greg’s work, but when I get accustomed to an artist, it’s always jarring to have to get used to someone else’s interpretation of a beloved character, no matter how good they are. And man, what a lineup of writers during Spawn’s initial run—Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Alan Moore—these are (some of) the names that kept Spawn fresh, luring in new readers during the early years of the series.

And then I saw the movie. 

That movie. 

And the honeymoon was pretty much over.

The fact is that no one—no one—has a kind word to say about the 1997 film with Michael Jai White as Al Simmons/Spawn and (gulp!) John Leguizamo as The Clown. I mean, it’s got a 17% on the Tomatometer, and the CG artists couldn’t even get the cape right! But now there’s a lot of news circling about the new Spawn movie starring Jamie Fox as our titular antihero and Jeremy Renner as Detective “Twitch” Williams due out in 2025, which features Todd’s directorial debut. I’m not gonna lie: I’m excited about it. Back when I was working for the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, I had a number of high octane conversations with Todd over the phone about potentially running a campaign for the film (this was prior to his landing producer Jason Blum). He talked at length about how a Spawn reboot needed to embrace the horror that the comics embody. Well, It looks as though Todd will get exactly what he wants with Blumhouse footing the bill.

As far as I’m concerned, Spawn is a horror icon right up there with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and all the Universal Monsters. The Faustian deal with the Malebolgia, and the fact that Simmons turns out to be one of an innumerable number of costumed hellspawns being groomed to wage a war against Heaven itself only adds to the horror. Even some of the stories themselves were quite terrifying. I distinctly remember Spawn #5, the tale called “Justice,” in which Spawn enacts a brutal brand of justice on pedophile and child murderer Billy Kincaid (Brutal, justified, and satisfying, as I recall). And then, in Spawn #8 (“In Heaven,” guest-written by the legend himself, Alan Moore, and featuring a homage cover by McFarlane of his own iconic Spider-Man #1 artwork), the now-deceased Kincaid takes a tour through the various spheres of hell and witnesses some trippy, grotesque, and Dante-esque terrors before he succumbs to his own wicked desires, thus becoming a brand new hellspawn (which is also the first time we realize there are multiple hellspawns).

Since these early issues—as of this writing, there are currently over 350 issues of Spawn out there, and that’s not including any of its spinoffs! I’ve realized that Al Simmons has gone on to do many things, like battle in the war between heaven and hell and even…[SPOILER ALERT INCOMING]…kill his own creator. All of this ties back to the fact that Spawn is perhaps one of the greatest horrorheroes of them all (now, I’m not sure how many horrorheroes there are out there aside from Vampirella, Blade, Morbius, and perhaps the various incarnations of Frankenstein’s monster in the pages of Marvel and DC Comics). With that in mind, I am looking very forward to seeing how Todd’s greatest creation translates to a new film even though I haven’t kept up with the full storyline of the series that started it all.

Todd eventually did run a campaign (on Kickstarter, not with Indiegogo) for a new Spawn action figure and remastered comic, which raised over $3.4 million from 23,761 backers, proving that the love of Spawn is still glowing bright green like the energy in the power meter. If this is any indication of the character’s lasting legacy, if done right, this new Blumhouse film will certainly open the character up to new audiences and those of us who have been clamoring for the Spawn movie we deserve, not the one we ultimately got two decades ago.

Will the new movie be better than Frank Miller’s Spawn/Batman crossover? That’s yet to be seen, but it’ll probably outshine DC’s War Devil and keep comics sales for Spawn going strong for years––maybe even decades more—to come.

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Thanks for giving 2024’s first dispatch of vengeful nostalgia a read, fans! As always, I appreciate it, and Retrofied for giving us the space to get jiggy with it. In a month or so, we’ll take a deep dive into yet another exciting bit of yesteryear, so stay tuned until next time!