The 1990s is a decade that is looked at with revulsion and embarrassment. Whereas some critics and fans are embarrassed by some of the clunky storytelling and dialogue found in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most fans genuinely still appreciate the talent and merit of the classic comics. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the 1990s. So many comic fans are either disgusted or genuinely ashamed of the ‘90s comics as the epitome of all that is wrong with superhero comics. Only the seminal creator-owned material of the 1990s (From Hell, Sin City) and serval titles published by Vertigo (Sandman, Animal Man, The Invisibles) are critically lauded.
Most of the hugely successful comics of the 1990s were dominated by art-dominated stories of hyper violence and dark morality. This style of storytelling was most prominent in the early work by Image Comics. Image Comics were incredibly dark, violent and appealing strongly to an adolescent and collector fanbase. The highest selling and most influential title of this era of sequential art was Todd McFarlane’s art. Of all the works published by Image, McFarlane’s Spawn had the strongest potential of being an undisputed classic of the superhero genre. If McFarlane succeeded is purely subjective, but McFarlane for all his brash statements has never been shy of his shortcomings. McFarlane did not disagree with critics who said he was a poor writer, and chose to invite four of the greatest writers of comics to write an issue of Spawn: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller. It was a strange experiment to have guest writers contribute to a title that was less than a year-old. But McFarlane’s trust in the writers and open desire to defy the major two comic publishers hold over talent swayed some of the more reluctant writers to agree to working with McFarlane. Each of the four writers offered four distinctive possibilities of where McFarlane could choose to take his comic going forward, and each single issue is an intriguing window of some of the most respected minds writing for a more mainstream audience.
The first to helm an issue of Spawn was Alan Moore. It seems strange to many that the writer of such somber and complex works like Watchmen and From Hell would write for the kitschy playground of Image. But Moore, while obviously benefiting from the financial aspects of working with Image saw writing for mainstream superheroes as both an interesting challenge and a welcome cleanse to writing his dark and serious independent material. In fact of all the guest writers who wrote Spawn, Moore would work in Image for a long period; including two Spawn miniseries, a run on Jim Lee’s Wild.C.A.T.s and a lauded run on Rob Liefeld’s Supreme. Although Moore has stated in hindsight that his Image work was not very good, there is an amazing energy and joyful irreverence at work in his take on Spawn.
For Spawn #8, Alan Moore chose to preserve all of the gratuitous violence and darkness of McFarlane’s previous issue. Yet Moore clearly presented the violence in a satirical manner that emphasized the ludicrousness of “the Dark Age” of comics. The comedic intent of Moore’s Spawn is not immediately apparent at first read, but the sociopathic ludicrousness of the setting and characters is self-evident.
The story follows the dark protagonist of Billy Kincaid, aka Mister Chillee, a horrid child molester and murderer who was murdered by Spawn in a fittingly grotesque manner. The choice of protagonist is appropriate given that the entire narrative takes place in Hell. However, as Moore himself alludes to in interviews, there is a certain delight in the writer for writing violent sociopaths, ie Rorschach, Mister Hyde, and the Joker. Furthermore in presenting a narrative in which Spawn or Al Simmons is a peripheral character at most, Moore is the first to supgest to readers and Todd McFarlane an alternative direction for Spawn. Moore tries to suggest in following Mister Chillee that Spawn does not have to solely be a superhero series. In fact, Moore may intentionally be attempting to altogether avoid writing a superhero narrative while writing for Todd McFarlane. It is an interpretation that Grant Morrison argues in his comprehensive superhero history book Supergods.
Regardless of intent of avoiding Spawn, the impact of Spawn # 8 is excellent for Spawn fans as it is an opportunity to gain a more expansive knowledge of the universe of Spawn. Moore offers a Dante’s Inferno inspired journey through Spawn’s version of Hell. To complete the structural mimicry of Dante Moore has the Violator’s sibling the Vindicator being the Virgil to Mister Chillee’s Dante. To have a re-imagining of a literary classic in a ’90s Image Comic seems both absurd and too high-brow for a series like Spawn, but that is Moore’s intent. Moore wanted to encourage a greater amount of substance in Image Comics and saw that there could be subtext in Spwan if the series distance itself from the typical superheroics.
Overall it is astounding how Moore repurposes the entire story of Spawn from a narrative regarding the journey to redemption into a story of divine indifference. Moore’s representation of Hell is worthy of an athiestic nihilist. In Moore’s Spawn, the ultimate tragedy of Hell is that Hell is utterly apathetic to the good deeds and sins of any individuals life. As Billy Kincaid journeys through Hell his companions are abducted, consumed or literally used as a decorative commodity. The entirety of Hell is either oblivious or disturbingly uncaring of any past transgressions of anyone and are instead interested in how any human soul can slightly benefit their well-being. Moore reveals that Al Simmons is one of countless victims to Hell and by extension God’s utter indifference to humans. The Vindicator marked Al Simmons and now Billy Kincaid as an excellent tool for the Malebolgia’s attempts to gain a sizeable army in his war with Heaven. In essence anyone in Hell is reduced to an object. Some are food, some are playthings, and the best are tools for war. The ultimate cruelty lies in Chillee having everything unique and original stripped away as he becomes part of the machinery of Hell. The Hell that Moore imagines is a heartless dimension that is so viscious in it’s apathy that it disheartens even the cruel Billy Kincaid. In a way, divine ignorance and objectification is shown to be much worse than receiving a Dantean punishment that is worthy of the specific sin. No human is even worth Hell’s time or concern for any unique punishment or reward, one is simply a pitiful object that any resident in Hell could care less about.
While the obvious literal intent of the narrative is clear Moore also offers greater subtext within one issue of Spawn. Moore moved by both the rebellion of Image and forever aware of the harsh treatment by “the big two” presents an allegory on the nature of corporations. Spawn # 8 offers a serious indictment to corporate homogenization and sociopathic indifference to it’s employees. Just as Billy Kincaid is suffocated and forced into becoming a Spawn, it is easy to draw parallels to any artistic creation in comics. All of the originality that defined Billy Kincaid is swallowed away as he becomes another generic part of the gigantic heartless corporation of Hell. Furthermore as Chillee is forced to become an employee of Malebolgia all clear identity of Kincaid is lost as he becomes just another Hellspawn. Moore suggests that anyone forced into the corporate world will quickly lose all of their individuality as they become an indistinguishable cog in an uncaring machine. Moore’s single issue of Spawn is certainly not a masterpiece when compared to his other work, but it is a fascinating demonstration of all of the potential of Spawn as a substantive commentary on the human experience through an allegorical setting.
These are some of the few issues of Spawn I actually enjoyed. I remember seeking them out because I liked the work of Moore, Miller, Gaiman, and Sim. Before reading those issues I made an effort to read the preceding issues. It was a chore. I’m really not the kind of audience that McFarlane was seeking.
I agree this issue isn’t a masterpiece. I’d argue the same is true of the three issues that followed. Yet it was a very interesting experiment and I wish more comics would have attempted similar things.