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Review: Spawn (1997 – 1999)

Spawn (1997 – 1999)

Created by: Alan B. McElroy

Premise: An animated series adapted from the comic book. Government assassin Al Simmons (voice of Keith David) is killed in action and goes to Hell. He agrees to become a soldier in Hell’s army on the condition that he be reunited with his wife but once back on Earth, Simmons weighs his options.

What Works: Spawn began as a comic book created by Todd McFarlane in the 1990s. McFarlane had a background working on Marvel’s Spider-Man comics but with Spawn McFarlane deliberately created a character and a story that was intended for a mature audience. Throughout the 1990s Spawn became one of the hottest titles in the comic book industry and McFarlane shrewdly managed the property, authorizing spinoffs and collectibles as well as a live action feature film. Between 1997 and 1999 McFarlane produced an animated television series for HBO. The Spawn animated series was an impressive piece of work with a vivid visual style and a thoughtful story. Al Simmons, who is known as Spawn after his death and resurrection, is not the typical comic book hero. As a soldier, Simmons led a morally ambiguous life and as Spawn he is torn between using his powers for good and his own violent tendencies. A lot of Spawn is about that conflict and what it means to be good or evil and the series has an unmistakable spiritual dimension. Spawn wants to get back to his wife but he is dead while his wife is alive and she has moved on with her life. As much as this series delivers the action expected of a superhero story, it is fundamentally about a man trying to get back to his old life and having to reconcile that it’s just not there anymore. This is more mature than we usually get from a superhero story. The spiritual aspects of Spawn are reflected in the visual style that pairs gothic and religious iconography with brutal violence and explicit sexuality. This series is a hard-R but the images are not gratuitous. The imagery supports a story that is shot through with intensity and grief but also ambition. Spawn is essentially a superhero tale but it draws together elements of noir, crime dramas, government conspiracy theories, and supernatural horror and this story reaches for some big ideas that it mostly grasps.

What Doesn’t: The Spawn animated series suffers a bit for its fidelity to the source material. In addition to recreating the look of the comic book, it also delivers exposition in much the same way with characters soliloquizing or speaking in a way that spells out the exposition. The result is a series that is very talky but sometimes in a way that is redundant and obvious. The Spawn series also tends toward a villain-of-the-week format, introducing and dispatching a new heavy in a single episode rather than building characters and their relationships over the course of the series. That’s reflective of Spawn’s comic book origins as well as the norms of scripted television at that time. Each episode of Spawn begins with an introduction by Todd McFarlane. He tried to angle himself as Rod Serling but McFarlane doesn’t have any on-camera charisma and his introductions are superfluous and pretentious.

DVD extras: The Spawn animated series has been released on home video in multiple versions including the original TV-MA cut and an edited version that was rated PG-13. Spawn: The Ultimate Collection includes all three seasons of the show as well as DVD-ROM features.

Bottom Line: The Spawn animated series stands apart in the genre of comic book and superhero adaptations. It is stylistically bold but the series is also intelligent and possesses a vivid emotional appeal.

Episode: #770 (October 13, 2019)