A Revisiting for the Future!

*I have no cute lead-in to


Tales Designed to Thrizzle #1 (funny collection of reprints and new stuff from short-form comedy master Michael Kupperman)

Astonishing X-Men #11

And, of course, the final installment my gigantic Golgo 13 examination. Why not start at the beginning, though?

No cute closing either. Sorry, all.

*UPDATE (07/25/05 11:49 PM): I loved this. Eight pages of heaven from Tsutomu Takahashi & Go Ohinata. Read it.

*I think the chatter surrounding All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder has quieted down a little by this point, with assorted sides of the Frank Miller debate settling into their newly redefined grooves; gratifyingly, the reactions to this latest Bat-exploit did not fall solidly down the party lines forged in the cleansing flame of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Certainly this DK2 fan was, on the whole, underwhelmed by the latest revivification of ye olde tropes ‘n trappings, as consummately Millerian as they might have been (which as I’ve said before, is preferable to the typical line-up of Bat-clichés, though it’s really only a transferal from one parallel path of well-trodden dirt to its neighbor; it's curious though how the Miller school has heavily influenced the standard formula for Batman storytelling while remaining remarkably pure in and of itself, accepting augmentation only from Sin City and other Miller works – the stream of influence seems to flow only one way).

But now, with the singeing glare of collective scrutiny on the new work’s flesh cooling to a blood-tightened blotch, maybe a most distanced perspective is warranted, an examination’s impatient scorch steamed away by submersion in the coolant of history. Time can give us a new perspective, a stronger understanding of weaknesses in a contemporary work, and a necessary recalibration of our psychic equipment as critical readers.

It will also let me talk about Spawn again, which is what I really desire out of my Monday evening.

Spawn - Batman

Amusingly, the book kicks off with a disclaimer, noting that the story does not take place in the ‘official’ Batman continuity, and that it’s actually intended as a “companion piece” to The Dark Knight Returns. After completing the book, I was left in abject disbelief that anyone could be shocked or taken aback by the overtly humorous tone of DK2, the ‘official’ Dark Knight sequel; Miller had been injecting heroic doses of mockery into that very timeline years earlier! Perhaps the mere presence of Spawn invalidated the title from consideration in the Dark Knight canon, or caused readers to involuntarily wipe their memories clean as to the specifics of the team-up?

Spawn is a hard book to like these days, although the damn thing still sells to a remarkably steady clientele, judging from the charts. It’s nothing like what it used to be, one of the most white-hot hype books on the market, Wizard once ranking arch-foe Violator along with Magneto, Dr. Doom, and the Joker as one of the top four supervillains in all of comics (aw, let’s not pick on Wizard today – like the Kindly Ones, it merely serves its cruel purpose, and can usually be ignored or confounded). Yes, Al Simmons as fallen far, and many of his once-fans rue their youthful Wednesday purchases, or at least lament the demise of the book’s original conception as a finite series. But even non-fans know Spawn; if you happen to be a particularly hardcore follower of such obscure talents as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, Brian Michael Bendis, or some combination thereof, then there’s no way you can avoid an encounter with rotten old Al. This is kind of how I like to picture Spawn: a nondescript angsty superhero wandering through the backwoods of a half-dozen acclaimed creators’ catalogs, a recurring figure throughout the troubled journey of ‘90s comics, subtly taking on the properties of diverse talents into his blank form. He’s like Zelig (only recruited from the blackest pits of Perdition), or maybe Forrest Gump, but more proactive (plus, we already know he’s a denizen of Hell).

So here he is stumbling across Mr. Bruce Wayne in a 56-page special, although I shouldn’t underplay the moment of the occasion; released in 1994, this wasn’t even Batman and Spawn’s first meeting (that would be the similarly-titled Batman-Spawn: War Devil from earlier in '94, not 1991 as I'd foolishly put down at first, thanks Gardner!), nor was it the first Spawn-related teaming of writer Frank Miller and artist Todd McFarlane (that would be Spawn #11 from 1992), but it would be the first crossing of both characters with the talents that defined them directly controlling the action, and the mid/immediately post-Deathmate Image still had enough capital with fans to make the book seem like a special event.

And, much like a more recent special event, Miller adamantly refuses to infuse the proceeding with what you’d think would be an appropriate level of portent; the big difference between this Miller Batman/Image Founder rendezvous is that McFarlane seem to get the joke, while Jim Lee’s work on All Star Batman remains supplely oblivious at best, rendering the moments of diminished clarity all the more glaring for lack of synch with the story’s tone. This book, however, meets Miller on his chosen turf, McFarlane drawing all of the required robots and fights and missiles with a calculated twinkle; it helps that McFarlane is one of the stronger artists among the Image founders, his pin-up prone aesthetic sufficiently detailed and muscled but also prone to whispers of caricature, round and flat heads exaggerated in members of the supporting cast, his rippling heroes possessing a certain elasticity of form, bending and curving like (*gasp*, *choke*) cartoons, in contrast to the marble carvings of Lee and Liefeld and Silvestri. As a storyteller, McFarlane is mostly sufficient, though his work on the big action climax, a siege on a ritzy cruise ship, becomes hopelessly convoluted, largely because McFarlane doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of environment, rendering everything as generic rooms with no sense of progression, occasionally in direct contrast to Miller’s trademark narration (which specifies the appearance of a crowd, which McFarlane simply declines to draw). Plus, like Jim Lee on All Star Batman, little (or even big) details slip past him; more than once does Spawn’s mask simply disappear without warning, evidencing either a total disregard for visual continuity or the insertion of pages intended for later in the book where they didn’t originally belong, re-drawing be damned. And yet, there’s also no sense of continuity to the sizes of everyone’s chains and cowls and other personal accoutrements, but it’s a strength, obviously a brand of exaggeration for effect rather than mere clumsiness; for example, McFarlane’s Batman has a cape that ranges from body-length to spanning five stories of a nearby skyscraper, depending on the mood he’s going for. Batman’s white eyes squint and bend with anger, and a manga-type crisscross bandage sometimes appears on his mask when he’s hurt; obviously, he’s plugged into the heart of absurdity at the center of Miller’s script.

Speaking of which, it’s largely generic team-up stuff caffinated with the Miller touch, with Batman starting off in Gotham, using wicked sci-fi power gloves to sock the kissers of evil robots who appear to be powered by the severed heads of homeless men (you know, the sort of thing Grant Morrison is usually praised for pioneering in modern Bat-comics). The trail leads back to New York and the mysterious clinic of Dr. Margaret Love, whom eagle-eyed readers will instantly recognize as a character from Miller’s much-altered screenplay for Robocop 2, currently being adapted to comics at Avatar as Frank Miller’s Robocop; she‘s pretty much the same character here, though adapted to fit into Spawn’s back-story, a seemingly benign bleeding-heart social liberal with vile plans of technological domination of human free will underneath (libertarian subtext is go!). Batman is fooled by her kindly exterior, however, and ends up on a collision course with that other hero of the title.

And, as so often happens in these things, they fight. They fight again and again, with Bruce eventually having to crack open the proverbial sci-fi closet to live up to Al’s damnation-fueled abilities. And though the two eventually agree to team up, culminating in a triumphant double-page splash of the dynamic duo rushing off into battle, Batman still really hates him. Frankly, ‘Batman hates Spawn’ can be used as a tidily shallow summary of the book’s theme; if you happen to think that Alan Moore’s work on Spawn seems to drip a certain dislike for the titular avenger, you really need to check out this book. Miller sets the relationship between the two heroes up as a classic generational conflict, handily playing off the young rebel posturing of the Image founders at the time. Batman constantly berates Spawn as a “punk,” with zero discipline and grotesque methods; I distinctly recall somebody on the Comics Journal message board, in a thread now lost to the ages, reasoning that Batman’s occasional use of the term ‘boy’ evidenced an evocation of race and class differences (rich white Bruce Wayne disrespecting impoverished black Al Simmons), and I wouldn‘t put it past Miller to toy with such notions. Batman certainly bosses Spawn around and refuses to respect him, even after the two nominally put aside their differences. Basically, Batman is a gigantic asshole, much like he is in today’s in-continuity books, though not funny; while Miller is making points about the chafing relationship between old-school corporate icons and the newest stars of today (and probably the fans and creative types behind the same), other writers have apparently only picked up on the ‘asshole’ bit. And maybe certain readers are the same, though I don’t see how anyone couldn’t laugh at the book’s final image: a perturbed Spawn standing around in close-up with a Batarang embedded in his skull, his soulful green eyes pleading a certain “Gosh, can‘t our generations get along in this crazy world?” Don’t fret, Al; the Batman of this timeline would come around to respecting the new methods in DK2.

So while it’s not exactly a resounding masterpiece, Spawn-Batman is a fun little superhero book equipped with a certain level of wit and insight, with art that matches the flavor of the story. It’s probably unfair to compare this stand-alone work to the first issue of a series if indeterminate length, but the creative partnership involved seems much more communicative here, more responsive. And for those who take their glasses half-full, perhaps this earlier book can evidence what to expect from Miller’s Batman in the future, a cruel man in a humorous world, even the dumbest of heroes gifted with something to say.