Previously on Spawn

by Christoph Staffl

Let’s take a look at 289 issues of Spawn:

There once was a man named Al Simmons. He was not the nicest man in the world. In his life, he had just one light: his wife, Wanda. Al loved Wanda more than anything else. But there are always two sides of a coin, and Al dedicated this other side to serve his country. No matter what the assignment, Al did it. He was/is the best. Be it infiltrating countries, hunting bad guys, assassinating people who may or may not have deserved it. He always got the job done. One day, he got killed in the line of duty. As it later turns out, his boss, Jason Wynn, orchestrated the whole thing.

Caught in a war between heaven and hell, Al had the unfortunate timing to fall in the hands of Malebolgia, lord of the eighth circle of hell. Malebolgia made a deal with Al: He would bring him back to earth, back to his wife, and in exchange Al would be the leader of Malebolgia’s army against heaven. Of course, Al made the deal. Sadly, he did not consider the small printing, and so he returned five years later. In those five years, after Al’s supposed death, Wanda moved on: married again (Al’s former best friend Terry Fitzgerald), and they had a child, Cyan (later they also had twins, Kate and Jake).

So this is where it all started. With a deal made out of love. But, as you might expect from hell, they betray everyone and everything. Fortunately for Al, he was a dedicated, ruthless soldier and trusted very few people. In his new life as one of hell’s pawns, he also could not trust a single being he encountered. And there were many. One of the first beings congratulating Al to his new “job” was Clown aka the Violator (the oldest of the Phlebiac Brothers: Violator, Vindicator, Vandalizer, Vaporizer, Vacillator).

After reading 289 issues of Spawn, I am still not sure, what Violator’s (or Cog’s, for that matter) endgame is supposed to be. Why are they doing what they are doing? I think their agendas change with each new incarnation of a Spawn. Nonetheless, they are interesting characters and would be certainly missed, if they were ever killed off.

Let’s fast forward a bit: Beginning with the first story arc, you know that Al is going to kill Malebolgia sooner or later. But I have to say that one of the best consecutive storyline is still the first (in my opinion spanning from issue #1 to #25). Everything seems to fall in line at the end. Even Sam and Twitch, the two cops who are intertwined with everything that is going on with Al and the war between heaven and hell. They are one of the best cop duos out there. And finally, in issue #100 Al kills Malebolgia and is seemingly free of his master.

But if you ever read an issue of Spawn, you know that everything is more complicated than it seems. Previous adversaries of Al come back to haunt him (e.g., the Redeemer, Bludd, and others). There are organizations involved, political forces, players put into place by beings far beyond anyone’s pay-grade. But Al goes down the rabbit hole that is hell (and heaven) – with all its circles and levels – finding the penultimate threat, defeating it and thereby becoming a god himself. At one point he even eradicates humankind, just to bring everyone back again. I like those abstract issues of Spawn, which are loosely tied to religious aspects because it adds a particular twist to it. Blurring the lines of good and evil.

Still, the fight is not yet won, and one has to ask if it is even possible for one side, heaven, hell, Al, or someone else entirely, to win. Are they really going towards an end or are they destined to keep fighting the fight, well aware that until the universe dies, they have to carry on and on and on. But as Al keeps on fighting his battles, he does something neither side expected. He took himself out of the equation: by committing suicide. No Spawn has ever done that. But he even took it further and found a replacement himself, some entirely new: Jim Downing.

As Jim Downing becomes the new Spawn, all parties fear him. Should Jim discover his past and become aware of his true power, he could eradicate them all – at least in theory. Jim is a special case. Unlike every Spawn before him, he did not die. And through his journey, Jim walked the planes of hell, heaven, and the black (the space beneath the shadows). Plus: he lives an open, public life. Being handled as the new savior of humanity; religions fight for him; heaven and hell fight for him; Cog fights for him; even his costume fights for his body. In the end, the conflict with his costumes causes New York to drown in billions of insects, rats, and bats. They form symbols all over the city: 7, V, and I.

They are omens of a return. A return long awaited and feared. The return of Al Simmons.

The Jim downing storyline, which spans from issue 185 to 250 (more than five years of comics), has the biggest ups and downs of the entire Spawn series. It feels like 40+ issues are nothing but exposition and drawn-out explanations, trying to make a big mystery of Jim’s past. It is an interesting question: Who is Jim Downing? Unfortunately, we are just told who he was – in never-ending monologues and flashbacks. Plus: Every little bit of information is dragged out over the course of several issues. The endless talks about his past do not allow for his current storyline to make significant progress.

In addition to that, he is just reacting to his situation. In his last few issues, he gets to do things on his own terms. Finally, he is acting. Though, even if he says to the symbiote that is his costume that he planned this all along; I don’t believe him. There were no signs. It was too late.

Fortunately, we get Al back with issue 250, and as the creator of the series Todd McFarlane promised, it is some kind of rebirth or reboot. Everything that has happened so far is still part of the cannon, but the stories are now more grounded, not overly complex and with the death of his wife, Al also has a new agenda. His new motif seems to be more appropriate after 250+ issues. And though I am sure, someday we might get back to the heaven and hell things, which are always epic and fun to read, I enjoy the current storylines very much.

One last thing regarding the Jim Downing story-arc: although the execution of the story was not always on point, the artwork was. In over 25 years and 289 issues of Spawn, one thing always kept me going: the artwork. Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo were the first artists to work on the series and created the iconic look for a lot of characters and the world they inhabit. No matter who else walked in their footsteps, later on, their styles and essential design elements were always there.

Another strength of the entire series is the continuity throughout the whole run. Early issues are still referenced in current story-arcs, and it always feels like a logical step or a natural evolution of the story. And due to the less complex storytelling, it feels even fresher and forward now than ever. In my opinion, it is a strength that McFarlane still recognizes the parts, that may have not worked as well as he hoped and keeping them in canon. However, he modifies them or puts them on hold, until he has a better way to integrate them into the story.

Jumping forward to the current storyline: After his battle with Satan himself (who was expertly crafted, by the way), Al was able to block the way for heaven and hell to reach earth. His new operative is to hunt all the creatures down that remain on earth and cleanse the planet. Finally becoming the (anti-)hero, he was meant to be. I am eagerly awaiting the 300th issue and wonder what McFarlane has planned for the anniversary.

He already brings back classic villains and enemies to fight a fight every single one of them has a reason to win. And it raises a plausible question: what happens to the antagonist after he or she is defeated? The example of Overtkill, his torture, and destruction over the last decade puts us in a position where we actually root for him. Spawn and Overtkill fighting on the same side with Cy-Gor, the Freak and others is something I didn’t know I wanted. Now I am excited for what’s to come.

There are so many things I wanted to cover in this recap/review, but 289 issues are a lot for one article. There are the news stations, Granny’s involvement in Al’s story, Cyan’s weird connection to heaven and hell that began with a simple shoelace, and so much more. But from now on I will cover Spawn on a monthly basis and maybe get to talk about the things I had to leave out here.

I hope to see you later this week in my review of issue #290.

Christoph Staffl

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