Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: Todd McFarlane’s Spawn Season One Retrospective

April 6, 2017 | Posted by Joseph Lee

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Last week, I gave you a poll about what my next retrospective will be. I gave you guys a lot of options, like the criminally underrated American Gothic or Millennium, but you overwhelmingly voted for Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. I honestly did not expect that, but I’m more than game to check out that series again as I don’t think I’ve seen it since VHS was still a thing. Even then, I don’t remember anything about it so it might as well be new. So for the next three weeks, we’re covering all eighteen episodes of Spawn, starting with season one.

It’s best not to get into an extensive history of the comic books as they’ve been around since 1992 and most recently published issue #271. That’s not even including the various spin-offs, video games, Japanese manga and the movie. It was created by Todd McFarlane, who also wrote and did the art for many of the issues. Spawn is very much a product of the nineties, a violent, extreme anti-hero full of adult material. However, it manages to be better than that with its mythology, its characters and the very human story at its core (at least as much as I’ve read…it’s been a while).

HBO acquired the rights to produce an animated series with McFarlane credited as the series creator. He was obviously involved, as his name was in the title. Not only that, but he gave his own intros before each episode. It featured Keith David as Spawn, along with a voice cast including Keith David, Richard Dysart, Michael Nicolosi, Dominuqe Jennings, Victor Love, Kath Soucie, James Keane, Michael McShane, John Rafter Lee and Ronny Cox.

The show was popular enough that it got two more seasons. Not only was it popular among fans of the the Image Comics’ series, it was critically acclaimed. It won the Emmy in 1999 for Outstanding Animation Program. It’s also been included on various lists from IGN.

It was honestly the adaptation Spawn fans probably needed, considering how abysmal the film was. It’s actually amazing that another film hasn’t happened, as it’s still a popular franchise and comic book movies are very popular. Then again, it took three tries to get The Punisher right, so maybe it’s best Hollywood takes it slow.

I’m not going to provide individual episode ratings because it’s more of a running story arc. We’ve got six episodes to get through, so let’s take a look at one of the most critically acclaimed animated shows ever!

Episode 1: Burning Visions
Written by: Alan McElroy
Air Date: May 16, 1997

I should note that I do not like the Todd McFarlane intros. I guess I get the idea, but they happen before every episode and it’s annoying. It feels like hand-holding through the story when we already have narration from Cogliostro. We don’t need to have the morality and choices Spawn has to make explained to us each and every episode. It makes it feel like they don’t have enough faith in the story to be its own thing. Which it does perfectly well without the need of McFarlane’s editorial.

One thing about this show is that we never, at least as far as this season is concerned, actually explicitly see how Al Simmons became Spawn. And yet, through the occasional bit of dialogue and trippy flashbacks, we know enough. We know he was killed and burned, then sent to Hell for five years. That’s when he made a deal to return and see Wanda only to become a Hellspawn in Malebolgia’s army. He’s followed by the Violator, a demon who takes the form of a fat clown.

Anyway, this episode is more or less the aftermath of the origin. Spawn returns to the real world confused and angry. Most of the episode is an introduction without hitting the viewer over the head like most comic book origins (including the movie version). We get some graphic kills to let you know this show isn’t playing around and a really depressing moment when Spawn digs up his own corpse to confirm that he is, in fact dead. Everything here sets up the stage for later in the season, while moving along at a quick enough pace to keep you entertained.

Episode 2: Evil Intent
Written by: Alan McElroy
Directed by: John Hays
Air Date: May 23, 1997

So in this episode we get to see Billy Kincaid, who was alluded to in the last one. He’s a child murderer, which shows you just how dark this show is going. It’s kind of hard to do a PG-13 Spawn, which someone should have told New Line Cinema. Okay, that’s the last shot I take at the film, I promise. Billy starts this episode abducting his latest victim before dumping the evidence in Spawn’s alley, which means exactly what you think it does. It’s another sign that all of the plot threads are connected so all of the subplots matter.

We also get our first look at what the Clown really is, as he transforms into the Violator and delivers a curb-stomp battle to Spawn. Spawn hasn’t fully grasped his abilities yet and he’s still new to all of this, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t do much in the fight. It’s a somewhat slow build to that point, with Spawn still dealing with his situation, but it’s worth it for the brawl.

Episode 3: No Rest, No Peace
Written by: Alan McElroy
Air Date: May 30, 1997

Overkill was introduced in the last episode and he has more of a presence here. He’s a cyborg assassin, and it’s hard to tell just how much of him is human. They fight twice in this episode, although the second time is off-screen and results and Overkill being picked apart (literally). It’s later mentioned that they are going to rebuild him, but it looked like there was nothing left to rebuild. Overkill was hired by Tony Twist, who had his goons killed by Spawn in episode one. Spawn lets Twist know not to mess with him anymore.

Meanwhile, Billy Kincaid is being stalked by Clown, which comes into play later. This had more meat to it, including the introduction of the man who actually killed Al Simmons, Chapel. He appears to be suffering from some guilt over it, although he wants to kill other people. Chapel doesn’t get to meet Spawn this season, as he spends most of his time in the shadows playing with his knife.

The animation in this show is stellar, resembling Batman the Animated Series in some ways but a lot darker than that. After all, no episode of that series had naked women or body parts being ripped apart.

Episode 4: Dominoes
Written by: Alan McElroy
Directed by: John Hays
Air Date: June 6, 1997

This episode introduces Angela, who has killed hellspawns in the past. She doesn’t show up for the rest of the season, so I’m not sure what the point of bringing her in was. As I understand it, she has a huge role in the comics and even migrated to Marvel. It seems to be implying that she’ll have a big role here, but we’ll see. I was anticipating a battle with her and Spawn but it never came.

Wanda, Al’s wife, has been investigating the child murders and her discoveries eventually lead to the final episode of the season. It’s good at building suspense already, because you’ve seen what the Senator will do to keep his son a secret. That’s right, Billy’s the Senator’s son. That’s why people were killed by Tony Twist’s goons in episode one, leading to the events that made Spawn and the homeless bums he lives with a target. It also eventually puts said child killer in Spawn’s sights. It’s great storytelling, as everything’s connected and ties together perfectly.

Episode 5: Souls in the Balance
Written by: Gary Hardwick
Air Date: June 13, 1997

This episode is the one before the finale, so it’s about tying up loose ends to finish the story this season wants to tell. Spawn has been deciding all season what he wants to do now that he’s a hellspawn. Is he going to kill for the denizens of Hell or is he going to take a nobler path? This is the start of that big choice, as he’s caught in the middle of the police hunting down a crazy priest killing people with grenades (in graphic detail). The priest has a child hostage and is very sneaky.

The Wanda investigation also comes full circle, as it leads to the death of her private investigator friend and the kidnapping of her daughter Cyan. Worse than that, Clown has alerted Billy to her whereabouts. Why he would want to kill a young girl, at first, seems like just an evil thing. It’s later revealed that it’s all part of his grand scheme to get Spawn to play ball.

Another point I want to make is how good Keith David is here. He manages to make Spawn equal parts badass and tragic. You can feel the emotion in his voice either way, which along with the animation allows you to empathize with the character. Obviously he did enough bad things to get him sent to Hell, but he still has good in him and we see him struggling with that conflict. David allows us to hear and feel it as well.

Episode 6: Endgame
Written by: Alan McElroy
Air Date: June 20, 1997

Just like that, the season ends after six episodes. And they all run at 25 minutes or so, which is probably why they were able to fit the seasons as films on VHS back in the day. “Endgame” wraps up the season, allowing Spawn to finally make the decision to be something other than a killer. It makes sense that the choice comes with Billy Kincaid, the child murderer who has Cyan, Wanda’s daughter. Killing him is exactly what Clown wants, which is why he set the stage for them to cross paths.

The final scene, with Spawn and Cyan talking to each other is heartbreaking. She’s the daughter he never had and never could have, and she has no idea who he is. All he is to her is “the sad man.” Keith David’s voice when he speaks Wanda’s name one last time at the end is very tragic, but also a tad hopeful. It’s like he’s finally realized to put her behind him. At least that’s the impression I got from it.

It’ll be interesting to see the mythology developed more in later seasons and Spawn finally meet up with Angela and Chapel (assuming that happens). It won the Emmy during the third season, so I feel like it’s only getting started.

Ending Notes:

That’s it for me. Leave some comments here, on my Twitter or my Facebook.

Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton (get your own custom artwork and commissions at his Etsy account)

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