HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The 90s SPAWN-ed A Monster (Success)

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll talk about Image Comics and their sole represented film, Spawn.

The 1990’s were the era of the speculator in comics, where sales were at an all-time high due to investors buying numerous copies of particular comics books with the hopes that they would increase in value as the years went by. This was spurred on by the comic book companies themselves, who added special covers—be they metallic, die-cut, or just plain variant—to entice these wanton speculators in.

The 1990s were also the era of the superstar artist. Certain artists would become so popular that having them draw a particular comic book would be like printing money. These artists became the rock stars of the comic book world, and were treated—and behaved—accordingly.

These two characteristics were not mutually exclusive. In fact, they fed into each other in a symbiotic relationship. If a hot artist would be able to sell hundreds of thousands of copies on his own, put a variant cover on the comic that artist worked on and it could sell millions of copies. And selling that many copies would increase the cache of the artist which would mean he would attract more customers on his own.  Which means variant covers or new number one featuring the artist’s artwork would sell even more and so on.

It is into this atmosphere that Image Comics was born. It started when seven of Marvel Comics hottest artists—Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld and Jim Valentino—came to Marvel president Terry Stewart and demanded creative control and ownership (therefore a bigger piece of the profit pie) for their work or else they would walk.

These artists were comparatively well paid for the time, yet were making a pittance of what their work was bringing into Marvel’s coffers. However, their demands were impossible to be met by Stewart, who believed creators are interchangeable and the true value lied in the characters they worked on.  The group of seven knew they would be refused and had a plan in motion to start their own company. Each creator would own whatever characters they created for this new company, which they called Image.

Image was an immediate success as the fans followed the new superstars to their new home in droves. And one of the breakout hits of the company was Todd McFarlane’s contribution—Spawn.

Spawn probably wouldn’t have existed and Image wouldn’t have been as popular as it was if Todd McFarlane was easily discouraged. There was an exhibit dedicated to Todd McFarlane at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City several years ago, and one of the display cases featured hundreds of rejection letters McFarlane received before he finally broke in to comics.

McFarlane started in comics doing fill-in work on titles such as Coyote, All-Star Squadron, G.I.Joe and Daredevil before landing his first full time assignment in Infinity Inc.. From there, high profile works at DC Comics such as Detective Comics and the crossover Invasion! led to work at Marvel on Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man. It was on those titles where McFarlane became a superstar and allowed him the freedom to create Spawn.

Spawn was a character that McFarlane created as a young child, one he would revisit periodically as time went by. The character was Al Simmons, a CIA agent with skill at performing Black Ops. After he is killed on a mission by one of his team, Simmons goes to Hell. There, he is offered a deal. He can return to Earth to see his wife Wanda again if he acts as a Hellspawn, a soldier with limited demonic powers who helps populate Hell’s army with the souls of the people he kills.  However, this deal had a catch as Simmons returns years after his death to see his wife remarried to his best friend Terry and that they have a daughter together.

It’s easy to see why Spawn resonated with 1990’s fans. The classic elements of the anti-hero are woven in to the character’s very design (a man returning from Hell itself to try and do good). On top of that, the character has a succinct and powerful weakness (a finite power supply) and a load of angst in his life (a family that he can never be reunited with). This is characterization 101, and made Spawn an obvious choice to be the first Image character adapted to the big screen in 1997.

The film is a rather faithful adaptation of the comic book, considering Simmons’ killer being changed out of necessity (the character that killed Simmons in the comic, a man named Chapel, is owned by another Image partner, Rob Liefeld), Terry’s skin color being changed from black to white to appeal to the latter demographic, and more emphasis put on the action part of the mythos than the supernatural.

The film was a moderate success, almost doubling its production budget. Talk of a sequel began almost immediately, but it took so long in development that the sequel talk morphed into talk of a reboot. Mcfarlane has pledged that there will be another Spawn film, even if he has to produce it himself.  But that film is still a longtime in coming.

Next week, we look at how DC Comics film began their decline that lasts to this very day.

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About William Gatevackes 1982 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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