What Spawn Means to the Future of Image

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Launched by former Spider-Man artist Todd McFarlane in 1992, Spawn was only the second series released by Image comics, the creator-owned publishing line founded that same year. Fellow cofounder Rob Liefeld beat McFarlane by one month with Youngblood #1, which is ironic considering that Liefeld would later gain a reputation for perpetual lateness. Twenty-three years later, McFarlane’s creation is one of only two Image series that has remained in publication since the company’s creation. The other comic, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, recently published its 200th issue. Spawn, on the other hand, recently crossed the 250 threshold, with the new creative team of Paul Jenkins and Jonboy Meyers beginning their run this week in Spawn Resurrection.

Unlike Savage Dragon, which has been singlehandedly drawn and written by Larsen throughout its history, McFarlane has frequently left Spawn in the hands of outside writers and artists. The series began with McFarlane as the sole creative force, but harsh criticism of his writing quickly led him to seek out high-profile guest writers. As a result, top writers like Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) all contributed issues. Gaiman’s story in Spawn #9 even became the source of a protracted legal proceeding that ended with Gaiman selling Angela, a character he created for McFarlane, to Marvel. McFarlane left the book entirely for a period, and nearly half of Spawn’s 250 issues were written or co-written by other writers including Brian Holguin and David Hine. McFarlane also left the book as its artist fairly early on, and pencillers like Greg Capullo, Angel Medina, Philip Tan and, most recently, Szymon Kudranski, took over.

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Like all the Marvel titles they cut their teeth on, the Image founders—who also included Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Jim Lee—opened their new company with superhero comics. Spawn followed in that direction. It tells the story of Al Simmons, a covert CIA operative who’s murdered by his boss and sent to hell for his wartime sins. There, he makes a deal with the demon Malebolgia, who turns him into a superpowered demon. Simmons returns to earth five years later, but with no memory. The series has since drifted far afield from its original premise, but throughout its qualitative ups and downs, the comic has retained the capes, costumes and bombast that made Spawn such an iconic ‘90s character.

The first issue sold a reported 1.7 million copies, and as the speculator bubble grew, the series rode a wave of intense popularity. Shrewd business decisions by McFarlane buttressed the book against the bubble’s crash, but it was never able to match those inaugural sales. Since then, Spawn’s endured its financial bulls and bears. It’s managed to stay above water, but its appearance on the Diamond Top 300 chart has been intermittent in the last decade. It grabbed those fearsome figures with the first Image revolution, but interestingly enough, it doesn’t appear to have benefitted at all from the second one.

In 2008, Eric Stephenson took over as publisher at Image and within 4 years, the imprint was the mainstream alternative to Marvel and DC. Writers and artists associated most closely with the Big Two began flocking to Image and, in 2010, the company became the third largest U.S. comics publisher—a position it’s held ever since. Image’s operations favor creators significantly more than the company’s competition, and as Image has become more prominent, it’s become a more attractive and lucrative home for comics writers and artists.

Writers like Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan and Scott Snyder began posting immense sales, with individual issues going into 4th printings and paperback collections topping New York Times best-seller lists. Part and parcel of this success was the power the creators retained and the freedom they enjoyed. Creators utilized that freedom and explored every genre under the sun. There were crime comics and spy comics and shojo westerns. Sci-fi sex comedies and zombie horror dominated the sales charts. Slice-of-life even made an appearance. If Image was successful, it was because it had something to offer the readers the comic industry never knew it had.

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Because Image was not only enjoying a financial explosion but a critical one as well, the cultural narrative has become that the company is saving comics. But as the publisher’s reputation becomes more deeply rooted in titles like The Walking Dead, Saga and Sex Criminals, its beginnings as a third-party superhero publisher grow foggier and more obscure. In fact, the company has almost entirely divorced itself from traditional superhero comics. Under the Image heading, only four hero titles remain that aren’t—like Joe Casey and Peter Kowalski’s Sex—a deconstruction of the genre: Spawn, Savage Dragon, Invincible and Tech Jacket. Top Cow, Marc Silvestri’s studio under Image, offers more traditional superhero titles, and like Todd McFarlane Productions, which owns Spawn, it’s technically a separate publishing entity; unlike Image proper and Todd McFarlane Productions, however, Top Cow books have their own logo, shared universe and cohesive aesthetic.

As Image finds its identity as the mainstream hub of non-superhero readers, these superhero titles become more anomalous, artifacts of Image’s larval state, and with each action figure and each spin-off mini-series, McFarlane’s creation becomes more indistinguishable from the icons at Marvel or a DC. However, there are three characteristics in particular that separate Spawn from its Image compatriots: 1) With his face on action figures and his name on movies and cartoons and videogames, Spawn, with the possible exception of Rick and Carl from The Walking Dead, is the most recognizable face from Image. 2) The series is also the longest-running title at Image. At 251 issues, it’s longer, denser and more complicated than half of the books currently being published at either Marvel or DC. 3) Spawn is one of very few Image titles to operate for such a long period of time without any official credit to its original creator; it’s a book that, for a time, people continued to buy because of the character instead of the creator. It has become as much of an institution as it is a comic.

Spawn represents where Image began, but does it represent where it’s going? As critical discourse emphasizes Image as a company where creators are emphasized over characters, does Spawn even have a place where it’s going? Over the last five years, Image has greatly expanded the kinds of comics it publishes and the kinds of creators it fosters, too. The imprint has made its reputation on providing something for everyone. Publisher Eric Stephenson told Vox in January that “the only thing connecting the books we publish is that they’re unique, and I think I’d rather Image’s legacy be that our creators were brave enough to follow their own path rather than simply do the same thing as everyone else.” And he’s not wrong. In terms of genres and creators, Image comics span every inch of the comprehensive comics map. In terms of style and length, no two are the same. And that’s in keeping with the current ethos of comics, an ethos that has allowed Image to nearly triple its market share in just five years.

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In this environment where no demographic or market goes untapped, not only is there a place for something like Spawn, a dense saga and evergreen institution, but this ethos says that it’s of vital importance that Image publish something like it—simply for the sake of publishing it. It holds a position that that no other book at the publisher occupies, and it’s the only book that Image publishes that draws its audience. For a company that’s made its name by presenting a spectrum of options to readers, it’s necessary to include something institutional, something flagship, something recognizable—if only to tick that box.

And even though Spawn lies at a vertex of several things that are typically anathema to non-Marvel or DC comics, it’s not the only Image series to run long, it’s not the only Image comic to become a board game or a TV show, and it’s not even the only Image comic to function largely without its original creator or creators. The Walking Dead has been spun-off into TV, action figures and videogames. Savage Dragon is still being published after 23 years, and it’s as dense and unwieldy as anything the Big Two currently publish. Tech Jacket isn’t being written or drawn by its creators, and Thief of Thieves was legally created by Robert Kirkman but he hasn’t officially scripted a single issue.

Ultimately, Spawn allows Image to diversify its offerings that much more, to offer a third-party superhero in addition to their Heavy Metal homages, an institution in addition to its ephemera. This flagship role is recognized whether people are conscious of it or not. Spawn’s sales figures remain consistent, if modest, but take a huge bump on special occasions, like the 200th issue or the return of Todd McFarlane. It’s no different from the sales bump that Marvel and DC books receive when they hit a milestone issue—fans flock back for the anniversary.

Even though its star has waned somewhat, Spawn’s place on the Image publishing slate is affirmed time and time again. The book is emblematic of the Image days obsessed with sex and spandex and blood and bones, but it’s also become something greater than itself. It’s become an exemplar of the totality of the publisher’s offering.

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