“Kids love chains.” – The Todd
I have never cared for Spawn.
And I have cared even less about its creator, Todd McFarlane.
See, I never grew up on or even heard of either. If you’d asked me, I dunno, even aged 12 about Spawn or The Todd, I’d have gone ‘Who?’
I genuinely had no concept of it, and thus I had no possible nostalgia for it or its (in)famous maker.
Coming into comics, I knew the 1990s’ Image Wave as a bold and necessary touchstone, but one riddled with a lot of terrible comics. At least, that was what I’d been told and had cultural osmosis reinforce for me. They weren’t good comics. They were important comics, they were profitable comics, to be sure, but they weren’t good. And having read a lot of those early #1’s since then? Yeah. They’re decidedly not good.
And yet…here I am, writing on Spawn, so you know ‘good’ isn’t really the point. Not really.
For so long, I’d looked at Spawn and wondered ‘Why do people like this?‘, which isn’t to demean or look down on anyone who did. But I was genuinely, truly confused. I wanted to understand. What was it about Al Simmons, the military man who makes a deal with The Devil, that was so interesting? On an aesthetic level, I got it. Spawn had the same appeal in my perspective as that of Ghost Rider. An absolutely sick tattoo, a hell of a metal visual that no youth could possibly resist, certainly not in the ’90’s. And thus, the answer I seemed to land on, consistently, beyond an aesthetic obsession, was the nostalgic component. It was huge, it was an event, it was something you had to be there for. It meant something and represented something, and is associated with, and tied up in, a number of memories.
As of this writing, Spawn remains the highest selling #1 of an American creator-owned comic in the Direct Market. It is also the longest running creator-owned comic enterprise of the industry, with over 300 issues under its belt. That’s a hell of an achievement. Symbolically, it is huge. It means so much. It represents possibility.
And I got all of that. But still, as a mountain of people I respected and loved consistently proclaimed their utter love for Spawn, I wanted to get out of my dumb bubble and actually engage with this thing that had for so long been lurking in the shadows of my comics reading experience. And so I did. And what I found was astonishing. It wasn’t good, no. But it was fascinating. I was enthralled. I was bloody in.
That’s precisely what I mean to unpack here. The specifics of that experience, of that high, of what it is about Spawn’s devilish hand that caught my heart, and refused to let go, that’s what I’m here to talk about.
What I went in expecting, given I already had a bare-bones cultural osmosis understanding of Spawn, was effectively something along the lines of ‘Supernatural Batman’. And that reduction isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s absolutely in there, but it isn’t what I ultimately found the most exciting. No, the conceptual core I found so thrilling was something else entirely.
You see, Todd McFarlane, or The Todd, as we all like to call him, is an accidental genius. As in, none of what I am about to say or outline is at all, in the slightest, what he ever intended or gave a second’s thought to. The Todd does not truly know the full scope and nature of the thing he has accidentally stumbled into and constructed into, which, honestly, kinda makes it all the better. It’s bloody amazing is what it is.
Because what I saw when I opened up the pages of Spawn? It was that The Todd had, by complete accident, through sheer miraculous happenstance, somehow built what could only be called The Anti-Captain Marvel.
Doubling back a bit, the classic Bill Parker/C.C Beck/Otto Binder vision of Captain Marvel is some of my favorite comics work. It’s riddled with a ton of awful, problematic garbage, to be sure, as is to be expected from comics going back to the 1940’s. But, amidst all that, it is also the fundamental root of superhero storytelling, alongside the Wonder Woman comics of that period. It is the Titan that had to fall, to make way for all that would come. It is the foundation upon which generations were able to build what they did. That the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel/Shazam character has fallen in prominence speaks more to just how much of what once made him so revolutionary and potent has now become common. He was strip-mined for parts, really.
But all that aside, I adore Billy. The story and idea of Captain Marvel is a fundamentally simple one. It’s a children’s story. It’s a character constructed to be a role model for children, with a moral lesson. Billy Batson is as good, as decent as Charlie Bucket or any of the most lovely kids you could conjure up. But he’s also, much like a lot of those characters from that archetype, a boy down on his luck. The story of Billy Batson is one that was destined to be a tragedy. Orphaned, and alone, he’s forced to sell newspapers or take on other jobs which no child of his age should, in all manner of absurd child-labor violations you could imagine. He’s the most pure, the most worthy a person can be, and he’s a child who’s lost it all. He has nothing.
But despite all that, he somehow endures. And this, traditionally, is something framed as something to be ‘admired’. Oh, the child with the terrible scenario and trauma is ‘so strong’! But no, that isn’t what that story is, at least, not to me it isn’t. It’s a horrible tragedy. No child should ever have to be that strong. They shouldn’t have to endure the world’s cruelties and horrors the way Billy does. But what was meant to just be a tragedy suddenly transforms, as the fundamental decency, the consistent goodness of Billy, leads to a cosmic gift. The universe essentially rewards him for being as good as he is. And it’s not because he was good in pursuit of a reward, or being perceived as good, he just…was. It’s who he is. The story of Captain Marvel is a powerful fable for children about how it can all be okay. Like, say, the touching lie of Santa Claus, it’s the idea that the universe does value those who are nice.
The Wizard who grants Shazam his power is this ambiguous figure narratively, but functionally, in text? He’s basically God. He’s basically the Abrahamic vision of God, descending down and telling this child ‘You! You’re worthy! Have the powers of all these gods and other legends!’
All of which is to say…Captain Marvel is about Man and The Divine.
But more importantly, the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson story is the ultimate fantasy of youth. It’s the idea of a gift, a blessing, one bestowed upon by the divine, to a young boy, and an orphan at that. The child gets his heart’s greatest desires, that which he does not have: a family, who he must be, and he gains some measure of power over his hopeless and helpless situation. It’s a transformation narrative that fits that period of youth. Every child wants to grow up and be able to do anything, to be treated respectfully, to be able to do all that they dream and think they can as adults. And Billy can! Captain Marvel may not be Billy in that classic interpretation, but he is the idea of Billy. The Idea-Self of Billy. It’s the person Billy would like to be, at his best. It’s the answer to ‘Who do you want to be?’ made flesh and blood, given thought. The ideal that he must always strive for and pursue, made manifest. It’s a wondrous, miraculous, divine thing.
In contrast, the Spawn/Al Simmons story is the ultimate horror of adulthood. It’s the terror of you losing your family, and them being left behind. It’s about a curse, a deal made, not a gift given. And it’s not with The Divine, but The Devil. It’s not the lovely intervention of heavenly powers to offer a better life, to reward, but a terrible, ruinous entanglement with hellish horrors.
Spawn is the supernatural product of horror, of devilry and dealings with death, to Billy Batson’s innocent magical wonder and divinity. One can transform back and forth, with but a word. There’s control there. There’s agency. The other just can’t. He had no real agency. He had this monstrous scenario thrust upon him. He cannot transform back, no matter how desperately he wishes he could. Spawn is forever cursed to be in his form, whilst Billy operates with total autonomy. It’s a transformation narrative that petrifies, because again, it speaks to this period of life. It says there is no going back. All those fond moments, they’re in the past. They’ve passed. This is who and what you are now. A crumbling creature who might fall any day, the walking dead. It’s potent horror framed through the lens of superheroic ideas and iconography.