Todd McFarlaneâ€™s Spawn is a comic book character with a rough history. When he first appeared people griped he was a rip-off of Spider-Man and Venom (characters McFarlane had worked on during his tenure with Marvel). Later, his book was hailed as refreshing and original. Then, toward the end of the 90â€™s, the excitement began to die down. Now nâ€™ days, people associate Spawn with the worst things about comics during the 90â€™s. I find that assessment a bit unfair, but I wonâ€™t go into a rant about the comics in this article. No, instead, I want to talk about one of the *best* things to come out of the Spawn media frenzy: Spawn the series.
Spawn the series ran on HBO late nights from 1997 to 1999. In my honest opinion, it was an overall improvement over not only the dreadful live action film, but even the original comics from which it was derived. The comics had their ups and downs and at the beginning were much more of a superhero title; constantly pitting Spawn against super villains and making reference after reference to Rob Liefeldâ€™s Youngblood comic. The series, on the other hand, was much less a comic book story and more decidedly a horror story. Itâ€™s presence on HBO allowed it to get away with some of the most shocking scenes ever presented by American animation and allowed the show to reach heights of nastiness which was not permitted even in the comic.
The plot followed the same story as the comic: Al Simmons, a Government assassin, was killed during a mission by his own teammates. While writhing in Hell, Simmons made a bargain with the Devil, Malebolgia, to see his wife, Wanda, one final time. In exchange, Simmons would become a Hellspawn and pledge eternal loyalty to Hell. Malebolgia conned Simmons, however, and sent him back to Earth 5 years in the future. After returning, Simmons discovers Wanda has moved on with her life, marrying his best friend, Terry, and having a daughter, Cyan. Simmons, now known as Spawn, is confused and angry over the world moving ahead in his absence and is unsure what to do next. Making matters worse, he is constantly plagued by the Violator, in the guise of a freakish Clown, who torments him and orchestrates events to keep him angry and off-balance. Every action has a consequence, though, and Spawnâ€™s presence catches the attention of detectives Sam & Twitch, who begin to uncover a government conspiracy which ties into Jason Wynn, the man who ordered Simmonsâ€™ execution.
Spawn is most certainly *not* for kids, not only in regards to the gore and violence, but to the depth and complexity of the story-telling. The cast of characters are well-rounded and intriguing, each having their own angles. Indeed, at times, Sam & Twitch get almost more attention than the title character. There are several arcs running all at once, most of which are resolved in the third and final season. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after setting up some new story arcs, and it doesnâ€™t look like theyâ€™ll ever be followed up on.
Aside from the main cast, several supporting characters and villains from the comic make their way into the television series. Cogliostro, the mysterious bum, provides a creepy narration of the events of the series but doesnâ€™t become a real player until the third season. Villains such as Chapel, Overtkill, Tony Twist and Angela are present. Chapel is handled much better here than in the comic, with his convoluted connection to Rob Liefeldâ€™s Youngblood completely severed. While I did prefer his demise as seen in the comics (blowing his own brains out in the hopes that heâ€™d become a Hellspawn), I found his fate in the show to be almost as entertaining. Overtkill is probably the most â€œcomic bookâ€ villain the show has to offer, though his presence is some-what necessary, as it sets up Tony Twistâ€™s story and his troubles with the Italian Mafia. Angela got seriously gypped, unfortunately. Shortly after her appearance in season 1, there was a problem with Neil Gaiman, the creator of the character. Gaiman wanted the rights to Angela while McFarlane didnâ€™t want to give them up. As a result, she appears in one episode in season 1, setting up her story arc, and then never appears again. A few Angels appear in the third season, namely Jade, who replaces Angela to an extent.
The animation for Spawn the series was produced by none-other than Japanâ€™s Mad House Studios. Mad House might be best known for their work on Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Perfect Blue. They have a serious talent when it comes to works of horror and gore, and they really strut their stuff with this show. People getting set on fire, blown to bits, shot through the brain and tortured by a deranged serial killer provide all the gore one could want. Yet, Spawn the series doesnâ€™t rely solely on gratuitous gore to get the scares across. Billy Kincaid, the child killer from the comics, makes a disturbing appearance in the first season of the series. The sight of him preparing to commit horrible acts on children is enough to make anyoneâ€™s skin crawl. The series also has some serious â€œatmosphereâ€ going, from the lighting to the voices. It just feels uncomfortable and creepy. Particularly the way the Violator talks to Spawn after their battle in the church.
The voice acting in this series is beyond superb and contains one of the strongest casts Iâ€™ve ever seen. Kieth David (Goliath from Disneyâ€™s Gargoyles) is casting perfection as Spawn. His voice is dark, otherworldly, angry and sad all at the same time. Another voice that really stood out to me was Robert Costanza as Sam. You might remember him best as another slovenly detective, Harvey Bullock, from Batman the Animated Series. Call it type-casting if you want, but he really is perfect for the character. The entire cast of the series is magnificent, and I could go on for pages on how great they all were, but these were the two that I really enjoyed listening to. Also, keep an eye out for the voice of Pesto from Animaniacs cursing up a storm. Hilarious.
One thing that really keeps Spawn the series from being another superhero show is that, were Spawn a superhero, heâ€™d be the worst superhero ever. Heâ€™s very indifferent about the horrible things going on around him, especially to the bums in the alley he lives in. Episode after episode, bad guys invade the alleys and start torturing the bums left and right, all while Spawn looks on in a rather bored manner, not entering the fray until he feels like it. Spawn may wear a crazy costume, but heâ€™s not one for heroics unless they benefit him in some way.
Spawn the series is not without its problems, though. Due to its cancellation, it remains incomplete, which can get on the nerves of many people. The dropped Angela plotline can be especially confusing if you donâ€™t know the real world story behind it, and ends up feeling like a pointless waste of time. But my biggest complaint is that there is never a real fight between Spawn and the Violator. They have a brief skirmish in the first season, but Spawn hardly puts up a resistance. Even Cogliostro calls it â€œpatheticâ€. The Violator is rarely seen after the second season, his demon form appearing even less. The lack of a fight between the two is severely disappointing.
Spawn the series is really the best thing the Spawn franchise has to offer. It takes everything good from the comics and makes them better. If you like horror movies or animation for mature audiences (especially Devilman), then thereâ€™s a great chance youâ€™ll enjoy this series. The show has been released on DVD and at a price to meet anyoneâ€™s budget (weâ€™re talking under $10 bucks per season!), so itâ€™s very easy to pick up.