Graphic novels, like implausibly thick science fiction paperbacks, have an image problem. Fans will defend them, but the rest of us can’t help thinking “anorak” somewhere in our subconscious as soon as we see them. But, just occasionally, a borrowed book on a wet Sunday afternoon can convince us that our preconceptions were wrong.
The Spawn series of graphic novels does not fall into that category. Indeed, these books run the risk of reinforcing anorak prejudice on a new scale.
The stories, originally published in comic form, are here compiled into books for the first time. According to the publisher, the original comic issue published in 1992 has since sold 1.7 million copies and the Spawn series is now the most successful independent comic of all time. It outsells Batman and Superman and is translated into 16 different languages. So what is its appeal?
The titular main character of the series is a former assassin, killed and then raised from the dead after a Faustian pact. He has various enemies, including the sinister government agents who killed him the first time around and creatures sent by the devil to keep an eye on him. Spawn (short for Hellspawn) also has the dilemma of what to do with his new life until his erased memory slowly returns, and must avoid angels intent on hunting him down for sport.
The books promise a lot. Impressive artwork by creator Todd McFarlane is backed up by the publisher’s claim that the books are intended for adults. You might also expect some level of originality, but you could be excused for not finding it.
The real problem is the story, which comes across as a mixture of pulp fiction, old movies, schoolboy Freud and daytime television. Syrup is applied in major doses for domestic scenes where our hero watches his wife, who believes he is dead, get on with her life. The scenes are all too familiar to anybody who has seen Robocop. There are shades of Dante, Batman, The X-Files and Terminator too.
Spawn spends a lot of time sitting around on rooftops, moaning about things. He’s upset that he was killed, and wants to know who by. It later transpires to be his best friend, possibly the most common plot “twist” in history. He also wants to know what happened to his wife. He behaves, actually, like an awkward, moaning, lovesick teenager. His target market? The “adult” description obviously doesn’t refer to tackling complex issues, but to liberal helpings of gore and the odd bit of cleavage.
Comic art can be excellent. Indeed, it is impossible to fault Spawn for its artwork, which bears comparison to any of its competitors. But the storyline will have to work harder than this if it is to attract anything approaching a mainstream audience.
Sadly, the lowest common denominator is often seen as the best level for all sorts of entertainment. Which might be why an action film of Spawn is to be released next month.
Spawn is published by Titan Books. Available 14 August