In order to further understand this character and his relevance to our study, I would also like to introduce Spawn’s author and some aspects of its historical context. Todd McFarlane was born on March 16, 1961, in Calgary, Canada. He developed a solid career in the United States of America as a comic books (hero) artist for large publishing companies in the field such as DC Comics and Marvel Comics. His great talent in making drawings for Batman and Spiderman won him acclaim as one of the best comics artists of his generation.
Todd McFarlane admits that, of all the most famous comics heroes and villains, his primary source of inspiration for Spawn was Batman, but there are also similarities with Spiderman, Spirit, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and the villain Venom.
With the first issue in 1992, Spawn sold 1.7 million copies, breaking the sales record in the independent comic books category. It was turned into an animated TV series (HBO) and a movie in 1997. For the comic book series, McFarlane had the creative contribution of other renowned comics writers and artists such as Frank Miller, Allan Moore, Nail Gaiman, and Greg Capullo.
Until the beginning of the twenty-first century, Spawn maintained its position among the best-selling hero comic strips in Brazil and the United States. However, it was also a significant success in many other countries and has been translated into ten different languages. The outlandish, dramatic, innovative, and lavishly artistic style of McFarlane is one thing that has clearly contributed to Spawn’s achieving such remarkable popularity.
Spawn’s financial triumph gave McFarlane (mercurial) wings to invest in many other attractive entrepreneurial projects — new comics titles, toys, cinema, video games, animated features, sports items — which inevitably pulled him away from close participation in the creative process of Spawn’s drawings and narratives. Moreover, ironically, Image Comics soon became the stage of legal battles between McFarlane and other artists over copyright and royalty payments.
All this affected the quality of Spawn’s stories and plots and contributed to its progressive decrease in popularity.
Although Spawn currently doesn’t have the readership that it enjoyed at the height of its success, it is still being published, and it still seems to have a solid place in the pantheon of comic books.
In 2012, McFarlane held a special event to celebrate Spawn’s twentieth anniversary with the release of Spawn No. 200. With that issue, the story saw a major turnaround. Behind the mask, we no longer find Al Simmons, but a new character, Jim Downing.
With this skilful change, of course, McFarlane, akin to Dr Frankenstein, tried once more to instil new ‘ectoplasm’ or ‘spiritual life’ into Spawn’s mythical series.
This necessary and astute manoeuvre in the trajectory of a superhero, to keep him living in a state of ‘continuous present’, is emblematic in the history of comic books, as Umberto Eco (1972) brilliantly analysed in The Myth of the Superman. It is a creative strategy that draws a clear line which separates comic book heroes and the heroes and gods of the ancient and classic mythologies.
The amplification of this topic — namely, the fundamental differences between ancient mythology and what one could designate as pop-secular mythology — is beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth mentioning for the purposes of further analysis. In an article about McFarlane on the website Comic Book Resources we can glimpse how this works: “While some fans might long for the days when original Spawn Al Simmons starred in the book, McFarlane said he appreciates the opportunity that this new one (Jim Downing) offers from a storytelling perspective … ‘Some of the fans do not like change, but for me that is the exciting thing,’ McFarlane said. “It means now I can bring back all your favourite characters, but because this is a new guy with a new mindset, who actually do not know any of the prior histories and will act completely different from the other guy, the outcome, the circumstance and the flow of the story will be different than if this was the same guy … How can I bring the Clown back, but have it be different? Well, if he is talking to someone different, he is going to act differently, too.”
This extract also shows how much the comics artist and his public interact to give shape to the final layout and narrative of a superhero. This dynamic gives us some clues about the social function of this type of mass production mythology. Moreover, this leads us to one of our main concerns here: how much can this type of postmodern superhero or antihero be seen as a progressive, critical agent of psychological transformation and maturation?
Alternatively, in other words, how much is this type of antihero just reinforcing and protecting the status quo of traditional, dominant discourses, and fulfilling, in this way, the principal mission to preserve society, not reinvent it? Where on this gradient could we place Spawn and other comparable comic book antiheroes? What kind of motivation do these comics’ antiheroes inspire in the young public and adult readers?
My view is that Spawn’s series contains moral and ideological conservative elements but, at the same time, they transgress and question many American traditional beliefs and ideals, exposing delusions and contradictions inherent to its social and political system: democracy/imperialism, freedom/control, exceptionalism/arrogance, justice/violence, peace/war, puritanism/capitalism, pluralism/fundamentalism, tolerance/prejudice, morality/corruption, opportunity/inequality, etc.
Spawn is a conflicted popular anti-hero for rendering manifold conscious and unconscious features and “personality” traces of the American collective soul and its cultural complexes (Singer, 2007)
In the further articles, I wish to analyse some evidence of the symbolic impact that Spawn has had on American society and Western culture. Taking into account that a significant number of academic books from a variety of perspectives and disciplines — cultural studies, philosophy, psychology — have been published in the past fifteen years related to the world of American superheroes, comic books, and graphic novels, I wonder why Spawn is still poorly studied and scarcely mentioned, considering its stirring stories and striking imagery on the one hand, and on the other, the evident and broad popularity that this pop hero rapidly achieved and sustained for at least a decade. Does it touch issues that are still taboo in western society?