Independents Need Each Other

SPAWN #10, Image Comics, May 1993
You might remember the Spawn movie, or the slightly less awful cartoon series, or the toys, but before "writer"/artist Todd MacFarlane became a media empire darling, he was just an upstart artist at Marvel Comics who got a lot of success on Spider-Man, and started asking for a lot more money, respect and women. After all, weren't they making money on his back? Marvel threw its hammer down and responded with a resounding "I say thee NAY!!!!" In their view, Spider-Man was the real cash cow and any kid with a pencil could draw him. And that's how little Todd and a handful of other upstarts left Marvel en masse to found Image Comics where they could do their OWN thing and reap the rewards of their popularity unhindered.

Of course, by "their own thing", we mostly mean rip-offs of the characters they were doing for Marvel (at least visually), but Spawn was still better than most despite his look being heavily inspired by Spider-Man. The unfortunate thing, really, was that these guys were artists first and sometimes writers not second, but a distant eighth. MacFarlane kept us interested by allowing some high-profile writers do a few issues, which certainly gave us a break from his usual splash-page-oriented plotting, inappropriately gory themes and over-rendered dialogue. Guys like Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman got to do an issue or two, and it's hard not to pick up these comics based on their pedigree.

#10 was written by Dave Sim. Now, Dave Sim used to be indie comics' greatest force. Just a guy from Kitchener who wrote and drew a 300-issue epic called Cerebus about an aardvark... but that's for another time. What's important here is that Dave has hardly ever written anything else, so his getting off the track for this was a big deal. And he probably wouldn't have done it if he hadn't felt that Image was a revolution in independent comics. He's long been a staunch activist for creators' rights - creators getting not only credit for their work, but control over their creations. So you wouldn't see him work for Marvel or DC who are plainly about stripping creators of those rights, and banking money on the their ideas (his rhetoric, not mine). Beyond the creators' rights debate (which is much more complex than this, enough so you can't easily be clearly on one side or the other), Dave Sim helped a lot of indies start out by giving them space in Cerebus and was responsible for my trying to get into comics when I got out of university (a bust, but it wouldn't even have been a starter without the documentation he freely provided).

His issue of Spawn is a right oddity. It's not really part of Spawn's continuity, and it stars "Spawn/Not Spawn" (as far as I can make it, a Spawn/Todd MacFarlane amalgam). What it is, is a big poem/manifesto about creators' rights. Spawn/Not Spawn goes down into comic book hell, and there...
I can't believe they got away with this, but there you have it. A glove does not make a trademarked costume, folks! (Maybe we can rip off a whole Justice League comic by only ever showing their boots, or something.) And opposite these trapped creations are creators with bags over their heads. The symbolism beats you over the head pretty hard, dunnit?

At least Dave decided to do a manifesto on this particular obsession of his, and not the whole "women are soul-crushing void, men are light" thing. I'll do some of that evil, evil Cerebus material in due time, folks, but for now, back to our hell chickens. Another good bit from Spawn #10 is when the original superhero shows up, "the one who is the basis for us all", to give his power to Spawn/Not Spawn to help him battle some kind of greed demon made out of money. That's not the good bit. The good bit is this panel:
"Doomsday". A sly reference to the creature who killed Superman (you did realize he was the-one-who-came-first, right?), but also to Spawn's defeat here, and just how the "publisher" can make decisions that affect these characters for good or, very often, ill. While this is spooky and clever, it does show off how debatable this whole issue is.

I mean, if Superman is the "basis" for all superhero comics (and arguably, he is), then is Spawn (or any of Image Comics) really an original work? Shouldn't MacFarlane acknowledge his debt to Superman's creators, Siegal and Shuster? How about to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko who created Spider-Man? But then "based on the creations of NAME 300 PEOPLE HERE" could be a bit top-heavy. Don't most "work-for-hire" writers and artists go into their arrangements with the big companies with their eyes open, just like graphic designers do when creating corporate logos? It's a big can of worms.

Oh... back to the comic. Well, it gets a lot more surreal after that, with Cerebus showing up (he's tan instead of gray though, which surprised me) and then Spawn/Not Spawn gets the happy ending he always wanted, but of course, this isn't "real". The last page has a cute statement of ownership: "Spawn is trademark and copyright Todd MacFarlane. Cerebus is trademark and copyright Dave Sim. Forever."

Yes, true enough. It's an interesting concept, though a bit heavy-handed in the way it's done. I am laying some of the blame at MacFarlane's feet because he's just not cut out for this type of story. The pacing is all wrong. I mean, there's a two-page panel with a big, yawn-inspiring explosion in it. Image Comics, a lot of the time, were full of pin-ups, splash pages and big action, being, after all, art-driven. It's a failure in my eyes to get some accomplished writers in and then turning the whole thing into an artfest anyway. After quite a few "posters", the rest of the story is ridiculously smushed into tiny panels.

And given that Image's founders would later employ a ton of copycat artists to make comics for them, comics these employees clearly DID NOT OWN, I wonder what Dave Sim thinks of the company now. Or did he ever really believe MacFarlane and friends were a revolution in indie comics? Hindsight is a cynical 20/20, isn't it?


snell said...

...inappropriately gory themes...? Dude, he was a Hellspawn!! If gory themes aren't appropriate there, than can they ever be??

Siskoid said...

It's all about the audience you're targeting. With low-brow writing and pretty pictures (in a cartoony style for that matter), child molesters and people chopped to bits was tonally dissonant and distasteful.

Of course by today's head-rolling, arm-ripping, eviscerating standards, it's all pretty tame ;)

De said...

I have to agree with our esteemed host here. At the time, kids were picking up Spawn (with its attendant toy line advertised during Saturday morning TV) and were treated to the Ice Cream Man Serial Killer and Violator ripping hearts out of people.

This was a great write-up, Siskoid.

Anonymous said...

Image Comics are putting out VERY interesting comics these days.

Maybe they decided their fortune was made back in the 90s and have decided to move forward into more thought-provoking books?

FoldedSoup said...

Yeah, this one really bugged me as a youngin'. I picked it up solely because of Sim, being a Cerebus fan (actually, the *only* proper issues of Spawn I own are all in the guest writers' arc. Funny, that.) It was *so* heavy handed that I almost choked on the force feeding. Perhaps he was trying to make a fairly intellectual point to Image's 14-year-old target audience? At any rate, it just felt that I was being talked down to.

Actually, the whole thing's pretty interesting in hindsight. Just ask Gaiman.

Great write-up, Siskoid.

Dan said...

Yeah, looking back, it's pretty funny that Todd McFarlane published this absoluely frocking insane creators' rights screed just a single month after the issue in which Neil Gaiman co-created a handful of characters that the Toddler then spent the next ten years trying to screw Gaiman out of his rights to...

Siskoid said...

Anonymous: Once Image became a little bit like "Self-Publishing Aid", we got some excellent projects (Invincible, Age of Bronze, etc.), I agree.


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