No, no offense to Todd McFarlane. The guy's got some good ideas! Great ideas, even! It isn't exactly a timeless tale though, the one told in Spawn Origins. It's not exuberantly unique; at the same time, it's not overtly familiar. This doesn't diminish its quality any, mind. This is a quality production McFarlane's runnin' here. He's got word balloons and multi-issue arcs and he even colours between the lines.
The art style is actually... I don't know. I wouldn't call it "good," but there's definitely an appeal to the grungy, sketchy look that is Todd McFarlane's signature aesthetic. The colours are incredibly bold for what should be a dark and grimy horror-esque tale - bright, chunky onomatopoeia cuts through striking silhouettes, and the framing of the panels varies from utterly pedestrian to nigh-on avant garde. Or, just weird and bad. It can be hard to tell what plane characters reside on, or - if they are on the same plane - how tall they're meant to be. One full-page panel in particular makes Spawn look like 20-foot tall gargoyle, and Clown look like a midget reaching up to his ankles. Their eyelines don't match the conversation (both of them looking off-panel, presumably at something more interesting). The book is filled with quirky, "wrong" elements like this, that makes Todd McFarlane seem like an amateur. He's hardly an amateur, though, not even when he drew these early Spawn stories. So... guh.
The first twelve issues of Spawn here are included in their entirety, as well as a substantial art gallery filled with McFarlane's sketches and concept art. This being Spawn's first outing, many timeless villains are introduced. Clown - or "the Violator" - is perhaps the most instantly recognizable, if only because he was in that godawful film adaption. But there's also other villains, like... a Russian robot man! And... an ice-cream truck-driving pedophile! And...
And yet, there's something so readable about Spawn. Maybe it's the unbridled enthusiasm bought to such an immature tale - a very grimdark 90s tale with Satan and Hell and a main character who is like Batman if he killed people (McFarlane's description, not mine), which could have been very withdrawn, very boring, very grey... instead infused with a delightful glee to the proceedings. I'd call it self-aware, but I don't think Image's early staples have the intelligence for that.
There's a degree of self-enforced "coolness" in the series that I also very much appreciated. Though eventually they'd become more of a Transformers-esque advertisement for themselves, the idea of Medieval Spawn and Weapons Expert Spawn are kind of fun. It's all juvenile, of course, but it's grin-inducing all the same; Spawn is a comic that enjoys its own company, and that's to be admired, in a way. Spawn himself continuously stands atop of buildings with his giant cape swirling beside him like an unkempt shadow, and it looks cool. Mafia mob bosses employ a cyborg to kill Spawn, and it's ridiculously awesome. Spawn strings up the ice-cream-selling pedophile in the local police precinct and jams ice-cream sticks into his corpse, and that's stupidly enjoyable.
The characters too, stereotypes though they are, are intensely fun to hang around. The bumbling police chief, mad that Spawn is murdering a bunch of mob bosses, and his uptight sidekick - caricatures by and large, and yet they're extremely entertaining. That's all though. There's nothing really "deep" about Spawn in the same way there is about Spider-Man - Spawn's power does not come with great responsibility, his need for revenge does not create internal conflict like Batman, and his alienation does not come at the expense of his humanity, like Superman. Not yet, anyway - maybe in later issues Spawn becomes more than a vehicle for violence and gore. It's certainly hinted at, if briefly, that there's much more to Spawn than amnesia and a family that's forgotten him.
...and yet... Spawn represents something quite else. There's a cultural relevance to this, one of the first successful, creator-owned, independent comic book series. The idea that writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman write an issue each in this collection certainly serves that, if nothing else, Spawn had an allure to it - even if the allure isn't entirely self-evident in the reading of it (it's essentially enjoyable, if hokey, trash).
That is, until you reach Spawn #10.
The book itself doesn't come equipped with a foreward, but Spawn #10 does. Written by the issue's scribe Dave Sim, its complexity in the retelling of the events that lead to the issue even being reprinted is one of the most interesting things I've read in comics. It helped that it came completely out of the blue - Spawn dies at the end of issue #9, then there's a page, and you turn it and what a foreward what in the middle of the book why
Dave Sim - creator of the utterly transcendent Cerebus the Aardvark - does his best to explain the context of the issue. It's satire, is what it is. Satire on the internal politics of the comic book industry, of the benefit of creator-owned characters. That doesn't quite prepare you for the weirdness and self-aware, pseudo-intellectual gunk wherin. It is entirely fascinating, if not powerful or convincing. But some of the imagery in it is superb. Cerebus - oh, yeah, Cerebus is in it - shouting "ack! Color!" on the front cover; creators of superheroes lined up with their bags on their heads, their creations sticking their arms out of a cage in an attempt to obtain freedom... the final panel, "Cerebus and Spawn belong to Dave Sim and Todd McFarlane - FOREVER!"
This was my first time reading Spawn. I had seen the film, and regret seeing it. I even cosplayed as Clown once, because I'm a fat bastard. Reading the first few issues, I enjoyed discovering what the phenomenon was all about - Spawn is a cool hero with guns and superpowers and he comes from hell and he fights people. Dave Sim's story, though, only hammers in further the importance of Spawn - of Image Comics, and I think this collection is worth owning to own a piece of history. This is one of the hits that laid the ground for The Goon, The Walking Dead, Kick-Ass, Hellboy. It's part of the reason why we now know the real faces behind our favourite characters and stories - not just the Stan Lees, the Jack Kirbys, the Bob Kanes. The entertainment factor is here in Spawn Origins; the true birth of a successful independent scene is where the genius lies, though, and so I implore you, if you haven't already, to pick up a copy and start reading.
These are the roots of the modern comics scene, and I - begrudgingly - think Todd McFarlane is owed respect for that. A little. Maybe.