Back Into Hell: Spawn #218 Review

Let’s start by me coming clean: I don’t read Spawn. I’ve never read Spawn. I might be the only comics enthusiast who was actively reading back in 1992 who doesn’t have a dusty polybagged copy of Spawn #1 tucked in the back of some yellowing longbox somewhere. This is because, while Spawn #1 had the four words most likely to Pavlovianly excite any early 90s comics fan – “Art by Todd McFarlane” – it also contained one of the worst four-word curses in late 80s / early 90s comics: “Written by Todd McFarlane.”

However, I am familiar with Spawn thanks to the movie and the HBO animated series: Al Simmons, former special forces soldier, is murdered and returns to life imbued with the power of the Hellspawn. Spawn lives as a homeless person, defending the local winos and pining for his former wife, while forces of good and evil war over his soul. I think; Spawn aired on HBO on Friday nights, and it was the rare Friday in the 1990s that were conducive to my ability to form long term memories.

So, armed with that common knowledge, I returned to Spawn with issue 218 for the first time… well, ever, really. So I cracked the book, dove in and…

I have absolutely no fucking idea what’s going on. This, however, is not necessarily a terrible thing.

First off, Al Simmons isn’t anywhere to be found. Apparently Al Simmons got killed somewhere along the line, and we have someone named Jim wearing the Spawn suit. How’d he get it? No idea. What happened to Simmons? Don’t have a clue. What we do have are Clown (Played in the movie by John Leguizamo for you other non-Spawn readers) and Malebolgia, who was depicted as a demon back in the day but who now appears as Gallagher if he stopped dying his hair, was nursing a constant 220-watt electric shock and had green LED contact lenses. So we aren’t completely in the dark here… but it is in no way what you’d expect if you yanked the comic off the shelf on a whim, and appears to be only tangentially related to the most famous early Spawn stores with which most people are most familiar.

On one hand, this would be a perfect place to throw up my hands and trash the book. Because the first rule of any good individual issue of a comic book is that you can pick it up, sight unseen, and be able to follow the story, and this book, frankly, not only fails the test but forgot that the test was today and showed up naked to take it besides.

I don’t know who this Spawn is. I don’t know why Malebolgia is suddenly in (goofy) human form, and I don’t know what Clown’s motivations are beyond the “effort to thwart Malebolgia’s return to full power” referenced in the “previously in Spawn” blurb inside the front cover. This book, to the uninitiated, is a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a cover that could be about Spawn, or could be about any BP oil rig roughneck.

However, if I take a step back, what I am forced to admit is that, this is a comic book where the main character with whom I am familiar has been killed and replaced… provided it’s not some stunt casting from a couple issues back that I didn’t read and that will be retconned out of existence in Spawn #219, although in the letters column, McFarlane tells one reader that in Spawn, dead means dead, which leads me to believe that’s not the case. And if that is, in fact, the situation here, it means that Spawn is one of the few ongoing superhero comics that is showing a willingness to evolve over time and tell what might be an epic, overarching, complete story. Which is not something I would have expected from Spawn #1, where it appeared the only motivations McFarlane had for Spawn were, “I likes drawing chains. Chains look cool,” and “If I sell enough copies, I can stop drawing this shit and start buying rare baseballs.”

Szymon Kudranski’s art is arguably appropriate for a story about battling demons, but it honestly wasn’t particularly to my taste. It is heavily shadowed and front-lit, meaning that everyone is almost constantly about 80 percent in shadows, which is moody, but makes seeing what’s going on, or in fact what the characters even look like, a difficult task for the reader. It’s moody, which works, and the panel placement makes pacing and storytelling clear, even if the actual images are sometimes difficult to decode. But for a comic that made its bones on clear, gaudy McFarlane visuals, it feels like a departure from what I would expect. Further, Kudranski seems overly enamored of Photoshopped blur effects to force focus perspective and imply speed effects, which I find distracting from any artist. There’s nothing in the art to force you to put the book down and take an Excedrin, but it just didn’t work for me.

Taken as an individual issue, this comic book is a bust. It can’t be easily deciphered, the characters are either unfamiliar to new readers familiar with Spawn from its big media adaptations, or are doing things that aren’t explained or are generally inscrutable. However, it succeeds on two fronts, one of them being a truly stunning final panel reveal / cliffhanger that, once you accept that this new guy is Spawn, is truly shocking and thrilling.

The second success being that it tags Spawn as a book that seems willing to evolve and maybe, just maybe, tell a long, 20-plus year epic story with true changes, character and story arcs, and possibly a real conclusion. And while it is impossible to determine, based on one issue selected at random, whether or not that story has been, is, or will be, a complete pile of shit, Spawn #218 did something that not even the hype and excitement around Spawn #1 was able to do: it made me interested in maybe reading Spawn from the beginning.