Judge Adam Arseneau is a hellspawn; at least, according to his mother.
"Where do the dead belong in the world of the living?"
They belong on DVD, of course! Previously spread over three separate releases, Todd McFarlane's Spawn: Animated Collection brings all three seasons of the animated comic adaptation together into a single offering for the show's tenth anniversary. If you like your superheroes tortured, filthy, and prone to anguished screams of agony in dark alleys, Spawn has got what you need.
Facts of the Case
As a soldier, Vietnam War veteran Al Simmons served his country with valor and distinction. After the war, he took a job with the CIA, working covert jobs around the world. They were bloody jobs, assassinations, terrible violence, but he had a beautiful wife, Wanda waiting for him when he returned home, and life was good…for a time. Repulsed by the repeated violence and sacrifice of innocent lives, Simmons begins questioning the motives of his employer, Jason Wynn. Wynn, head of the U.S. Security Group, a high-level task force with near-unlimited control over foreign affairs, recognizes Simmons as a threat and sets a plan into motion to deal with the discontent in his ranks. While on a covert op, Simmons is double-crossed and burned alive by a flame thrower.
To pay for the blood on his hands, Simmons is sent to Hell to suffer for eternity for his crimes. But his rage and fury against being betrayed scream throughout the wasteland, demanding vengeance and a chance to see his wife one more time. His furious pleas fall upon the ears of the devil Malebolgia, who grants Simmons a new chance…with a catch.
Reincarnated in a new body, Simmons has been reborn as a "hellspawn," a foot soldier in the army of Hell for all eternity. He's granted magical powers, strength, and weapons in the form of a symbiotic cape and chains. But Simmons soon realizes the deal he made was a bad one: his memory is fragmented and, worse, many years have passed since his death. His wife has mourned, moved on, and remarried his best friend, and now has a young child, Cyan. To add insult to injury, his body is decayed like a zombie, a horrible sight. Unable to face his wife in his condition, Simmons howls with rage.
Swearing vengeance upon the men who killed him and the devil that deceived him, Spawn is born, a hero dwelling in darkened back alleys and abandoned churches, tormented and furious with rage. Hell may expect him to live up to his bargain, but Simmons has other ideas…
Todd McFarlane's Spawn: Animated Collection set contains all 18 episodes from the show's three-season run:
• "Burning Visions"
• "Home Bitter Home"
• "A Made Guy"
Back in the comic heyday of the early 1990s, Spawn and creator Todd McFarlane were red-hot like a supernova. McFarlane, an uppity artist working for DC and Marvel Comics ended up spearheading a revolution of sorts in the comic industry. His unique style and sensational attention to detail made Marvel truckloads of cash with his Spider-Man runs, helping to stylize the "modern" appearance of the character still imitated to this day. However, he had many creative clashes with editors and made controversial statements that comic artists should maintain creative control over the characters they helped create; an idea tantamount to open mutiny by the comic conglomerate.
A cunning business man with big ambitions, McFarlane wooed and coaxed the best and brightest of his generation (Rob Liefield, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, and others) into taking the unprecedented step of shunning Marvel and DC and starting their own comic company, Image Comics. At Image, comic artists would maintain creative control over their creations and reap the direct financial reward of their success. McFarlane's creation was Spawn, an anti-hero clad in a demonic cloak, and, for a time, one of the most popular comic book characters in the word.
Created in conjunction with HBO in 1997, Todd McFarlane's Spawn brought the gritty comic book to life in animated form, a rare move for HBO, which rarely dabbles in animation. McFarlane took full advantage of HBO's liberal views on sex and violence, adapting an R-rated display of cursing, nudity, mutilation, blood, and violence. North America rarely produced adult-themed animation of this caliber, and the memorable atmosphere of gloom, doom, and brutality resonated with viewers. It had style up the ying-yang, and kids loved it.
So here we are, ten years later. Spawn has come and gone, along with the last wave of comic fandom. A feature film adaptation, Spawn, bombed horribly. McFarlane eventually gave up control of the character to other writers, pursuing development of McFarlane Toys. The property, once a juggernaut of intellectual property, has cooled, its influence receded into the darkness. Spawn used to be hot, but now, not so much anymore.
Personally, I have fond memories of the Spawn animated series ten years ago, but time has tempered the fire here. The animation style, once edgy and gritty and unique has been rendered moot by ten years of Japanese imports and shifting animation styles in North America. At the time, the design was visually striking and impressive, detailed and graphic, like a comic come to life, but by modern standards, the animation often feels clunky. Characters move woodenly, mouths fail to match dialogue, and the violence feels gratuitous and boring, not nearly as groundbreaking as it felt a decade ago. Still, there are genuinely brilliant moments here and there, scenes mirroring comic panels come to life on the screen in beautiful noir-inspired compositions. Overall character designs are top-notch, mirroring McFarlane's own character designs, set amidst a backdrop of nightmarish cityscapes, dark palates of steel and blues and bending, Caligari-like structures, perpetually shadowed in darkness.
Spawn had grit and style to spare ten years ago, and there's still plenty to go around now. The comic translated surprisingly well to animated form, capturing the tormented nature of its protagonist. The voice acting is impressive, spearheaded by the masterful casting of character actor Keith David (Requiem for a Dream) as Al Simmons. The man sounds like a six hundred-pound gorilla in a purple velvet smoking jacket, dangerous and guttural and sexy all at the same time. Without his voice work, the show would have failed; of this I have no doubt. His guttural roars perfectly suit the permanently despondent and antagonized anti-hero. Props also go to Ming Na (E.R.) as Jade, Richard Dysart (L.A. Law) as Cogliostro, and John Rafter Lee (Æon Flux) as Jason Wynn for exceptional work on their respective characters.
Like it or loathe it, the story here is a good one: a man whose desire for revenge and love for his wife brings him back to life. Spawn's every instinct—indeed, his costume—yearns for violence, for blood, to send more souls to the devil. But his humanity struggles to stay free, fights against the need to kill…except that his humanity wants to kill the people who betrayed him. If ever there was a tortured anti-hero, Spawn is it. He spends more time yelling, raging, and furiously knocking around trash cans and dumpsters in back alleys than any traditional "super hero"-like behavior. He cares not for good deeds or justice, only catharsis of his own rage, but if good deeds result from it, so be it. The dude just wants his old life back at any cost, but no matter what he does, happiness evades him. Sure he's a bit of a whiner, but if you had a demonic cloak on, you would be, too.
Overall, the series improves in quality as it progresses, in both animation and storytelling. Early on, especially in Season One, Spawn had problems trying to cram too much canon into too few episodes, making the first six episodes an incoherent mess of people and unresolved subplots, but the second and third seasons relax somewhat and settle down to a comfortable dramatic storyline. The plot stays more or less faithful to the comic; what starts off as a simple tale of revenge progresses from mob bosses into government conspiracies, tales of serial killers, and, ultimately, a climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil, with Spawn in the middle. Heaven rejects him for his evil deeds, but he refuses to side with the forces of Hell. Neither good nor evil, angel nor demon, he is a wild card in the ultimate battle of the world. The series ends before the plot can be resolved satisfactorily, but that's comics for you.
Spawn got the re-mastering treatment for this release, with a splendidly rich color palate; the vibrant tones, deep blacks, mesmerizing reds and blues all look fantastic. It looks more comic-like, more saturated and vibrant than its previous DVD presentation, but the sharpness is ratcheted up to absurd levels, and edge enhancement is just plain out of control. Borders are jagged like the blades of a saw, clearly visible and tearing the screen. Couple this with the pan-and-scan effects to simulate motion, and the final presentation is somewhat befuddling. Undoubtedly, the colors, print transfer, and overall detail have improved since last we saw Spawn, but the jagged edges are fierce, unforgiving and unbecoming of digital re-mastering.
It may be a bit of a double-dip (or at the least, a reissue) but the packaging for Todd McFarlane's Spawn: Animated Collection is sweet. Housed in a handsome slim steel case, all four discs fit nicely and securely inside the metal box. It looks great, and has a nice amount of heft and security to it. Four episodes ("Burning Visions," "Home Bitter Home," "A Made Guy," and "Prophecy") contain audio commentary tracks with creator Todd McFarlane, who eagerly recounts all manner of detail about characters, conception, and execution. He is less annoying on these tracks by several orders of magnitude than in the video introductions (more on this later) and his behind-the-scenes knowledge will certainly intrigue fans. Too bad they're identical to the tracks offered on the single-disc season releases from years ago.
A fourth disc offers up the "new" content not present on previous releases in the form of new featurettes. "The McFarlane Process: Step-by-Step" takes us into the paper process of bringing Spawn to animated form, showing us size comparison charts, hand-drawn sketches, and so on—neat stuff for aspiring artists and those interested in such things. This matches well with "Episode One Storyboard: Frame-By-Frame" which split-screen presents the first episode alongside all the original black-and-white storyboard art. A five-minute "behind the scenes" featurette interviews McFarlane and various voice actors about their impressions of the show, while a 50-minute extended interview with McFarlane touches on every subject under the sun, from Spawn to the comic book industry, creative clashes, running a business empire, the challenges of an aging demographic, and everything in between; heavy on the ego but oddly compelling all the same. Toss in some on-screen character profiles, and we're done. All told, there is probably a solid hour-and-a-half of supplementary material on this disc not present on the single-release versions; great for fans planning to upgrade, but nothing particularly groundbreaking.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The opening sequence to each episode is introduced, Vincent Price-style, by creator Todd McFarlane, who puts on his best Crypt Keeper face and tries to stimulate the viewer into fear. It is so painfully bad that it fills my mouth with bile. McFarlane is way too dorky to inspire any emotion but pure, unadulterated rage—he looks like a wimpy version of David Copperfield. You desperately want him off your television set the second he opens his mouth. He is about as intimidating as a sack of tangerines.
At least you can chapter skip them, thank goodness.
Got the original discs? Then keep moving, because there's not much for you here, save for a big extended McFarlane interview and a few other extras. The remastering is okay, but doesn't quite scream for a double-dip. However, if you've missed the DVDs thus far, Todd McFarlane's Spawn: Animated Collection gives you all the episodes with a low MSRP, in nice handsome packaging. Forget monkeying around with the old discs; this is definitely the set to have. Actually, it might even be worth that double-dip after all, if you can find it for a good price.
Todd McFarlane's Spawn hasn't aged all too well, but style wins over substance in the end. Overall, I consider the animated series a success; a gritty, blood-thirsty and brooding adaptation of a comic character who failed utterly to adapt on the big screen. The three series gives plenty of time to flesh out the tortured melodrama and spiritual brooding that make Spawn such a compelling character.
And hey, believe it or not, the animated series has plans to go back into production over at HBO, almost eight years after going off the air! So if you've missed out on Todd McFarlane's Spawn up until now, this set gives you everything you need to get a nice appreciation going in time for the re-launch.
Of course, every self-respecting nerd knows the comics are like, ten times better.
It's better than the Spawn movie. Really, that's all you need to know.
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Scales of Justice
• "The McFarlane Process: Step-by-Step" Featurette
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