It’s hard not to admire Todd McFarlane. Despite some admittedly valid criticism regarding his artwork, storytelling and shady collaborations with other artists, it’s amazing to think that his creations once stood toe-to-toe with industry giants like Marvel and DC. While he wasn’t the only man behind the Image Comics revolution, his Spawn was the flagship title that transformed the company into a multimedia empire.
Spawn may have enjoyed tremendous commercial success in the 90s, most likely the result of loyal fans eager to support their favorite comic artists as they fled the big publishers, but the character is now mostly remembered for the botched film adaptation that only gets worse with age (though I’ll always defend John Leguizamo as the Clown/Violator). Of course, with rival publishers enjoying their own successful comic-book adaptations, Image Comics eventually fell behind. Although Spawn is still going strong as he rapidly approaches his 300th issue, having recently celebrated his 25th anniversary, sales never quite recovered.
Fortunately, Todd is currently working on a new cinematic take on his creation, hoping to return Spawn to his demonic roots in a bona fide horror flick. Though I’m hoping that the project works out, I think it’s important for us fans to remember that Spawn did get the adaptation that he deserved, it just wasn’t on the big screen. Not only did this version of the character surpass the source material, it was one of the greatest comic-book adaptations of all time. Naturally, I’m talking about HBO’s Spawn, the animated series.
Even as a huge fan of the character and his history, I have to admit that the writing behind the Spawn comics always left much to be desired. Plots sometimes felt like little more than contrived excuses to draw some really badass art instead of complete stories, and the series eventually got lost within its own convoluted mythology. You could chalk this up as a symptom of the times, with 90s comics being notorious for their edgy tales of revenge, excessive violence and oversized guns, but that doesn’t quite excuse lazy storytelling.
That’s why I’m glad that Alan McElroy (the same writer behind Wrong Turn and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) boldly decided to ditch nearly all of the comic-book-ish aspects of the story, instead focusing on the horrifying nature of Al Simmons’ predicament as a newly reborn Hell-Spawn. Having made a deal so he could return from hell and see his widowed wife again, our confused protagonist re-emerges as a monstrous creature destined to harvest evil souls so that they may fill the ranks of hell’s undead army.
By sidestepping Spawn’s relationship with other Image Comics properties and limiting our knowledge of the secretive supernatural forces that govern this world, the show presented us with emotionally complex characters that still felt grounded in reality despite the fantastical elements. This resulted in one of HBO’s most unique dramas, with episodes concerning morality, corruption and even religious discourse, concepts that the comics had previously only hinted at but never fully explored (at least during the initial run).
Hell, we never even get to see Malebolgia (Spawn’s equivalent of the Devil) in this adaptation, yet his evil presence is felt in the background of the entire show. Even the Clown/Violator takes on a more disturbing demeanor in the series, speaking with soft yet nightmarish eloquence (courtesy of both Michael Nicolosi and James Hanes), in a voice that’s sure to haunt viewers even after the credits roll.
The voice acting, in general, was spot-on, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Keith David as the definitive voice of Spawn. His tortured interpretation of the character managed to transform even the most laughably angsty lines of dialogue into genuine pathos, allowing the series to deal with serious issues without feeling forced.
In fact, the show was really at its best when dealing with the emotional consequences of Spawn’s actions. There are some legitimately moving scenes featuring Al’s ex-wife and her new daughter, and Spawn’s reluctant journey towards redemption is downright fascinating. It’s mind-blowing that all of this nuance was the result of a sensational superhero comic from the 90s.
That’s not to say that the series doesn’t have its fair share of comics-inspired action, it just didn’t dwell on those moments as much as the source material did. The chase sequence that ends the first season is just as thrilling now as it was back in 1997, and there are quite a few excellent fight scenes later on in the show, though they aren’t as exaggerated as they were in the comic panels.
However, even with its mature approach to storytelling, Spawn wasn’t exactly a perfect show. The series inherited some of the baffling creative decisions from the comics, and there were numerous instances where the limited animation budget hurt the production. Some parts of the story felt incredibly rushed, most likely due to the budget only allowing for 6 short episodes per season. Alone, these issues aren’t enough to sabotage the experience, but there are many who resist the grim-dark approach to comic-book adaptations, feeling that the over-the-top violence and heavy themes are just a desperate attempt at making the story appear more complex than it really is.
Personally, I think the show’s loyal fanbase and critical accolades speak for themselves in justifying its mature themes. While there were certainly elements of the series that could have been improved in order to turn Spawn into the adult fairy-tale that the creators intended, I feel that the genuinely tender moments between likable and believable characters make up for most of the show’s blunders. It may not be entirely flawless, but I’m still convinced that the show’s greatest fault is the third season’s unresolved cliffhanger. That being said, you can’t really blame the writers for an unexpected cancelation.
Nevertheless, about a decade ago, McFarlane began working on a sequel series titled Spawn: The Animation. However, as the second attempt at a film adaptation moves forward, it seems likely that the still-unproduced show’s future is tied to the new movie’s potential success. Until then, we can only imagine what terrifying places the animated series would have taken us to next.
For now, I’d recommend re-watching HBO’s Spawn and appreciating its attempt at introducing comic-book storytelling to a mature audience. It’s rare to see an adaptation that takes the source material more seriously than the people who created it, and we would definitely benefit from more shows like this one. As far as animated series go, this is definitely one of the best, and I’d recommend it to any fan of horror, superheroes or even good old-fashioned TV dramas. Now go see it before the impending Armageddon deprives us of our streaming services.