Animated TV Series (1997-1999)

[Spawn - US DVD]Bloody Hell (Spawn)!

Since departing Marvel comics where he made is name, artist and writer Todd McFarlane has gone from just one of a thousand jobbing illustrators to one of the leading names in the comics industry; and the main thing that put him at the top of his profession was a character called Spawn. Initially it was just another comic is a vast sea of titles. Well, not quite. McFarlane had already established himself as one of the 'hottest' artists around after his stint on Marvel's Spider-Man comic redefined that character for a whole new, trendy generation. By the time he'd left Marvel to form his own comic book company - Image, his fans simply couldn't wait for what he'd come up with next. So, when the first issue of Spawn hit the newsstands it was an instant hit. It has since gone on to be published in over 120 countries in 15 different languages with sales in excess of 90 million copies.

Todd, knowing a good thing when he saw it, expanded the Spawn name. It has since gone on to become a huge merchadising phenomenon, with figures, trading cards, toys, and more recently a live-action film all aiding its meteoric rise. Although the Spawn movie (despite a variety of versions for different international markets) didn't quite capture the really dark aspects of the character it did manage to pick up $50 million upon its release in the US. Far closer to McFarlane's original concept of Spawn as a more complex than usual character - a man who returns from the dead as one of the Devil's 'hell-spawn' - is a stylishly animated TV series which is currently on release in the UK, on the Medusa label.

Made for the HBO cable channel in America, the animated version pulls no punches in delivering an impressive and bloody interpretation of the comic creation for an adult audience. In The UK Medusa released a specially edited feature-length version of the first series in order to gain a 12 rating. But the un-edited, 18-rated version runs for a full six, half-hour episodes for the first season, and the same again for the second. When it was screened on HBO it was a great success and has become the best-selling production in the company's history. Unlike much TV serial animation, each episode is not a self-contained, individual story; a story arc runs across each six episode series.

The plot follows reasonably closely the early Spawn comics. Al Simmons, a CIA assassin, was killed 'in the line of duty', but when he died he got to make a deal with the Devil. In exchange for his soul, Simmons gets the chance to return to earth to see his wife one more time. However, he is sent back five years into the future and his wife has since remarried and now has a daughter. With his memories slowly returning and in the supernatural and disfigured form of Spawn, Simmons finds refuge in the dark alleyways of the city, amongst societies derelicts. It is here that he becomes inextricably caught up in a web of Mafia hitmen, crooked politicians, covert government agents and even hell-sent demons.

[Spawn - UK DVD]The style and mood of the series is more Batman The Animated Adventures than Disney's Little Mermaid! Indeed, Eric Radomski who won an Emmy Award for his work on the animated Batman series, acts as the series' supervising director and it shows. Shadows abound, dialogue is realistic, the pace is thoughtful, the art direction stunning and the action both exciting and shocking. Bodies are ripped apart, heads are blown off, bones are snapped, thugs slaughter one another, people are punched, kicked, stabbed and crushed. The air is blue with swearing and there's a retarded child killer thrown in for good measure! Yet, despite all this, whilst some scenes do come as a shock - particularly because it is so unusual to see and hear such things in western animation - the overall effect is simply one of realism. Alright, I've not seen many of the Devil's soldiers wearing living red capes and carrying chains lately, but the rest is surprisingly matter-of-fact. Many of the several sub-plots have appeared in the Batman animated series. But where you'd have evil criminals calling each other "idiots" in Batman, in Spawn their dialogue is somewhat more realistic: "fucking asshole" certainly sounds closer to the mark.

In the past, McFarlane has spoken of his fondness for Japanese manga (comic books). Perhaps combining his enthusiasm with his commercial eye (Spawn does BIG business in Japan), the Spawn series credit sequence is by Japanese writer, artist and animation (anime) director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Kawajiri is well-known to fans of Japanese anime as the director of such dark, gory and stylish hits as Demon City Shinjuku (aka Monster City), Wicked City, Jubei the Wind Ninja (aka Ninja Scroll) and Cyber City Oedo 808. The voice acting in Spawn is first rate - everything from sinister, through funny to touching - and utilises a few familiar genre names. Keith David from John Carpenter's They Live provides the well-deep voice of Spawn, whilst Richard Dysart from Carpenter's The Thing, and Ronny Cox from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop also lend their talents. Despite Spawn's 'supernatural powers', the plot is primarily one about the criminal underworld, touching on corrupt government officials, gun-running and the like. It seems that sometimes the Spawn character is a little redundant in such a setting. In fact, hell-sent adversaries aside, the animated series Batman would be right at home here. But that was always McFarlane's intention. He always saw Spawn as inhabiting an area somewhere between the super-powered superhero of Spider-Man, and the dark, human vigilante of Batman.

Occasionally the pace slackens and Spawn's appearances sometimes seem erratic but these are minor quibbles. This series is a shining example of team work, but clearly Alan McElroy who developed it for television, co-executive produced (with McFarlane) and co-wrote (with Gary Hardwick) the series deserves every praise. Fans of the Spawn comic will be delirously happy at the result. Rarely has a comic book been so perfectly adapted to animation as Spawn has. I've never read a Spawn comic in my life, and I'd wholeheartedly recommend this to those new to the character, just as I would to fans of the Batman Animated Adventures series. Spawn is first-rate dark fantasy animation and easily some of the best adult animation there is.

Rob Dyer

Original version first published in Dark Star magazine #14/15

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