SPAWN [TV]SERIES REVIEW
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Hardcore X and R-rated movies came into the U.S. American consciousness with the theatrical releases of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz The Cat and its sequel (an indie comicbook movie created by that world's most famous Underground comic book artist, Robert Crumb). By the time the 1990s were here, many adult animated theatrical releases had come down the pike (most still made by Ralph Bakshi).
In the 1990s, the most vulgar adult-themed comic with the largest audience was indie comic book creator, Todd McFarlane's SPAWN.
SPAWN is about a U.S. government trained Black Ops assassin named Al Simmons. He murders people for hire and enjoys what he does because he loves his country and believes that, ultimately, he's the good guy who is stopping the bad guys.
At the same time, he's also married to Wanda whenever he isn't "In Country", and he's deeply, passionately, madly in love with her. It's because he centers his life around these two loves that he can convince himself that he's the Defender. The Protector.
The Good Guy.
Heaven and Hell watch the circus of human life, looking for standouts. A brutally efficient assassin like Al Simmons has caught the attention of one of Hell's supreme beings, Malbolgia.
During a routine mission, Al is ambushed and dies, but just before he fades, a voice within the dark of death asks him a question.
"What do you want?"
Knowing he's seconds from death, the thought in Al's head is, "I want to see my wife."
"What will you give?" the voice asks.
In his final dying thought Al answers, "Anything."
In this manner, Al made a pact with the devil Malbolgia. 5 years later Al is returned to earth as a clean slate. Not knowing who he is, who he was or aware of the passage of time. These are the things he learns throughout the first season, the mocking laughter of a clown, and the grating narration of Cogliostro.
Cogliostro, who has lived a long life though he may not be immortal, is not only exposition boy for Al, but he's also unnecessary exposition boy for us, the audience. It's grating because there is nothing in Cogliostro's narration that we don't discover through the story and action of the tale itself.
For one thing, a "Clean slate" might be how most Hellspawns are created, but not Al. Al has to know that Wanda is his wife, that he loves her, what their relationship means, for him to have any ability to see his wife. Otherwise he isn't "seeing" his wife, just watching another stranger in the city.
This tiny piece of knowledge leads Al on a voyage of discovery that most Hellspawns never have.
Throughout the course of Season 1, Al will slowly learn who he is, how he was betrayed by Malbolgia, how he'll spend the rest of eternity punished for his dying moment of weakness, born out of love, how the Angels of Heaven and the Devils of Hell do not have humanity's interests in mind, and how, as a Hellspawn, he has no choice but to do the bidding of Hell.
Or does he?
As Bakshi with Crumb's work, so animated series creator and writer, Alan B. McElroy (HALLOWEEN 4, WHEELS OF TERROR, SPAWN [movie], WRONG TURN, THR3E, TEKKEN, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES [TV], FRACTURED) was to Todd. Except for the TV series, Alan wanted SPAWN creator Todd in the loop, introducing each episode of season 1.
To get HBO's attention, however, Alan felt he needed the show to be cruder, more vulgar, push the door against a rating system that barely existed for cable. Fans of the show would get a crasser SPAWN at HBO.
What did that do to the series? It worked amazingly well. What works for comics doesn't fully translate to Movies and TV. The voices a reader hears in their head likely won't match the actor who is playing them.
The various still panels of Todd's masterpiece needed action oriented connections however true to the comic Alan wished to be. The characters have to be doing something between panel one and panel two.
As blind luck would have it, the voice acting of Keith David (John Carpenter's THE THING, THEY LIVE, THE PUPPET MASTERS, THE GRAVE, PITCH BLACK, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, KAENA: THE PROPHECY, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, CORALINE, SMILEY, RICK AND MORTY, YOU MIGHT BE THE KILLER) was about identical to how I expected SPAWN aka Al Simmons to sound like.
The same goes for Dominique Jennings (SE7EN) as Wanda. Michael Nicolosi (THE WATCHER, INFECTED) as The Clown, and well, on the other hand, Richard Dysart (THE TERMINAL MAN, PROPHECY, METEOR, John Carpenter's THE THING, WARNING SIGN) sounded nothing like I expected of the character of Cogliostro. As I read the comics, in my head was hearing more of a Nicol Williamson (who, in fact, played Cogliostro in the live action theatrical version of SPAWN. It was his final role).
For fans who crossed over from comics to TV show, there was a certain oddness in the way Alan translated Todd. Alan's world was rougher, beyond gritty, it was dying because nearly everything and nearly everyone was corrupt. It was ripe for the final battle between Heaven and Hell, for which a human like Al Simmons was transformed into a Hellspawn.
Spawn the animated version is brutal, yet nicer than his comic book counterpart. Comic book SPAWN is nearly unmerciful and when he chooses to kill, which is often, he clearly enjoys what he's doing to the point of making a light-hearted joke about his most visceral slaughters.
That said, this series is more Heavy Metal than the movie HEAVY METAL.
Episode after episode, SPAWN is relentlessly grim and nihilistic. There will never be a Happy Ever After for him and Wanda. He is physically created from hell, as he discovers in a particularly chilling scene where he digs up his grave to find the remains of his own corpse.
He is thoroughly Malbolgia's creation. The only part of him that was ever his is his soul, and he sold that off as well.
As an audience I'm drawn to the show because there are little seeds of goodness in Al and there is enough there that you want to see this thoroughly flawed former human make the right choice that will, in some way, give him peace and freedom against horrific odds.
There is no damned character in the comics - not even Mike Mignola's excellent HELLBOY - who is more damned than Todd McFarlane's SPAWN. All of his horrific mighty powers as a Hellspawn, cannot give him back his widow, Wanda. Being what he is, her life would be jeopardized in the attempt.
Alan B. McElroy did right by Todd for the animated series.
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