Welcome to Adventure(s) Time’s 115th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we’re reviewing an experiment to make an antihero who’s not exactly kid-friendly into a Saturday-morning television star. Thanks to reader Emmet for making this suggestion. And if you have any ideas for the future, let me hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Debuting in 1992, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn stars Al Simmons, a government soldier turned assassin who’s betrayed by his superior and damned to Hell. Simmons strikes a deal with a devil named Malebolgia to return to Earth and see his wife again, volunteering to serve Hell’s army as Spawn.
He reappears five years later, discovers his skin is now burned flesh, and his wife has married his best friend and started a family. And even though he has a super-suit and commands an awesome cloak and chains, he spends hours moping around an alley with New York’s homeless.
Any comics fan from the era knows this story. Spawn is the highest-selling independent comic of all time, and its creator has always been upfront with his goal of world domination with the character. Spawn launched a toyline in 1994, an adult-oriented animated series in 1997, and, later that year, a feature film starring Michael Jai White and Martin Sheen.
What Spawn has never truly been, however, is a safe property for children. Kids certainly embraced Spawn in the 1990s, but this was often behind the backs of their parents. The toyline created a bit of a stir, with its dark imagery and detailed monsters. (There was even a segment on NBC’s Today in which a consumer advocate warned parents of the line’s scantily clad Angela toy.) Initially, McFarlane attempted to play nice, not using words like Heaven, Hell or demon on the card backs and free comics packaged with the toys. “Dark” and “Light” became replacement terms, with Spawn cast as a more straightforward hero.
Any pretense of the Spawn toyline being aimed at kids under 13 was soon abandoned, however. And while Walmart and Target likely weren’t pleased with, say, the toy Clown that featured a severed head attached to his arm, the line was so successful that retailers like Toys R Us stuck with the brand, despite the controversy.
And surely no one thought Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, airing late nights on HBO, was aimed at children. While other Image Comics properties were adapted into safe Saturday-morning TV shows, such as WildC.A.T.s and Savage Dragon, the Spawn cartoon actually pushed in the opposite direction. The series was blatantly R-rated, and far more graphic than the comic book.
Still, what would an all-ages Spawn look like? That’s a question Todd McFarlane sought to answer in 2006, with the Spawn-X line of toys. The premise is that they’re a toy tie-in to an animated series that never existed.
Instead of Spawn, the undead soldier fighting against Hell’s influence, we have family man Al Simmons, who secretly fights evil as Spawn-X, a member of the “Forces of Light.” His powers come from his connection to the Necro Stone, one of the 13 Relics of Ruin. It grants him control of a powerful living costume, which Al uses as “an avenger of innocence.”
The line included a series of allies and villains, all with blockier, less-detailed anatomy and cartoony facial expressions. To promote the line of figures, McFarlane commissioned Adventures of Spawn, a webcomic on the official Spawn site to flesh out the lore of this alternate world where your mom doesn’t hate Spawn. The stories were later reprinted as a two-issue miniseries in 2007.
Written by Jon Goff and penciled by Khary Randolph, the story has Spawn-X teamed with the Redeemer (and agent of Heaven, and a villain, in the mainstream comic) and the robotic Omega Spawn (a future Spawn in a mech suit), fighting the villainous forces of Lord Mammon, who’s essentially the Cobra Commander of this canon, a demonic figure who’s attempting to free his master Malebolgia from Limbo by using a mystic relic known as the Awakening Stone.
Mammon’s joined by established Spawn foes Overtkill, Cy-Gor, and Tiffany (described as an “Amazon” and not an angel, likely due to Neil Gaiman’s lawsuit regarding her “sister” Angela). Mammon’s team is called, of course, the “Forces of Darkness.”
Early in the story, we meet Al Simmons visiting the San Diego Zoo with his wife Wanda and daughter Cyan. Their daughter Cyan notices the monkeys at the exhibit are acting angry and aggressive. Naturally, this is the work of Cy-Gor, who possesses the ability to control all primates.
As he attacks the zoo, Overtkill searches for the Stone at the New York Museum of History, and Mammon’s Plague Demons assault Satellite X, the home base for the Light warriors. (The Universe X version of the Orbital Angel Station created by Grant Morrison in Spawn #16, and likely an attempt to give Spawn the kind of base like all of the cool ’80s cartoon heroes.)
There isn’t much of a human element to the plot, outside of Spawn’s irritation at having to abandon his family day, and the revelations regarding Redeemer and Tiffany. In this canon, they’re former lovers, with Tiffany betraying the Forces of Light and siding with Mammon. There’s not much of a payoff here, but you do get the sense this is the continuation of a long-running storyline…which of course, it isn’t, but that’s part of the gimmick.
Ultimately, Omega Spawn is able to teleport the Light warriors to New York, where they face the assembled forces of Lord Mammon. The heroes and villains pair off to fight, and while most of this isn’t that memorable, we do have an amusing moment where Cy-Gor explains his desire to steal Spawn’s living suit.
Lord Mammon reveals his demonic form, reaching into Spawn’s chest to steal the Necro Stone. Yet, maintaining control over just a small portion of his costume, Spawn’s able to blast Mammon away. Omega Spawn then uses his future tech to teleport Mammon away to a randomly selected dimension. This isn’t good enough for Spawn-X, who declares they must remain vigilant for Mammon’s return. Sadly, we’re not graced with a final scene of Mammon declaring that the Forces of Light have won this battle, but they won’t win the war…
Khary Randolph says his artistic goal was to blend Bruce Timm with Mike Mignola, although it seems as if the final project evolved into more of a manga look. (Jeff Matsuda with a bit of a Timm influence might be more accurate.) They are attractively designed figures, and it’s not hard to imagine a mid-2000s Spawn cartoon utilizing these designs.
Interestingly, the actual Spawn cartoon featured the work of Eric Radomski, co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series. McFarlane wanted to incorporate the shadowy world of Batman:TAS into the series, and the comics designs had to be simplified for animation anyway, so the audience already had some idea of what a DC Animated Universe take on Spawn would look like back in the ’90s.
Adventures doesn’t only take liberties with Spawn’s backstory. The comic establishes Al Simmons has a history with both Overtkill and Cy-Gor, as all were involved with the government’s top-secret operation known as Project: Codename. (I swear I’m not making that up — the shadowy government conspiracy is this world couldn’t come up with an edgier title than “Codename.”)
Cy-Gor’s origin establishes him as a gorilla granted superhuman intelligence by Codename. His powerful simian brain also possesses the ability to mentally control all primates. Overtkill, meanwhile, is revealed as James “Tank” Howzer, a friend of Al’s from Codename whose”greed and ambition” eventually led to him becoming a cyborg footsoldier for Mammon.
Fitting the theme of old-school entertainment, the book features retro ads in the style of classic comics.
Adventures of Spawn is a clever gimmick, even though the actual comic isn’t nearly as fun as it could’ve been. The story’s played incredibly straight, and even though the tone is vastly different from what we expect from Spawn, the excessive text and overly serious narration that characterize the main book remain. If the absurdity was played up, with perhaps a few more nods to an audience in on the joke, this likely would’ve been a far more entertaining read.
But if you’re truly devoted to the gimmick, and do want to play it straight, why not hire a writer who actually worked on one of these properties in the past? Creators like Jim Shooter, Flint Dille, and Marv Wolfman are still out there, and could’ve had interesting takes on the material. Clearly, real effort went into designing this world. For years, McFarlane faced criticism for Spawn being “one-note,” so going so boldly in the opposite direction is admirable. And, visually, it’s sharp and interesting. It’s a shame a more engaging story couldn’t have gone along with it.
Hey, my comics-themed novel Black Hat Blues, is now available on Audible! If you follow this link, you can check it out with a free trial!
Did Spawn ever star in a Saturday morning cartoon? Of course not… so what is Todd McFarlane's The Adventures of Spawn?