Comic Book Logic: “Spawn and Gen 13” Pt. 2

by Kevin on May 24, 2012

In high school I had a friend who was a comic book fan, and she did her best to introduce me to some of her favorites. She read a few major series like The X-Men, but she also liked a lot of “alternative” and “indie” comics, so I encountered titles like Bone, Johnny The Homicidal Maniac, and the unbelievably weird Milk & Cheese. Although I enjoyed some of those books, for whatever reason they never really stuck.

This was the same period that I first encountered Spawn and Gen 13, two flagship series in the early days of Image Comics. Last week Joe wrote a bit about Image’s history and their place in the comic landscape, and the introduction by Frank Miller in Spawn Vol. 1 seems to confirm this version of events. Miller paints a picture of Image as heroes and creators, liberating the abused and under-appreciated artists and writers from the chains of corporate bondage. It’s a profound image (heh), and one that came at the right time in the early 90s when underground music, cinema, and art was quickly becoming more and more mainstream and commercialized.

But reading through the first issues of Spawn and Gen 13, I got the sense that Image’s early days were less about making art than about tapping into adolescent fantasies of violence, blood, and sex. The writers and artists come off as petulant children, finally free to draw bloodier fights and bigger tits than ever before, with no one to say “No.”

Don’t get me wrong: blood and tits are fine. They’re trite, sure, particularly reading this closer to 30 than to 13, but I’m no prude. More graphic displays certainly have their place in comics, just like any other medium. But let’s not pretend these books have anything profound to say about the violence and sex depicted on their pages. It’s pure indulgence, offered up without commentary, for better or worse.

Reading these books was a very different experience from X-Men: Fatal Attractions or The Death Of Superman, and I suppose that was the point. Perhaps it was because those stories were well into established storylines, and a lot of the kinks had been worked out. Or perhaps it had more to do with the way Image wanted to set itself apart. Either way, Spawn and Gen 13 were some unique books, and not all of them was lamentable.

Behold Spawn's glowy hand powers!

Spawn is the story of Al Simmons, a former CIA operative and trained killer who was betrayed by his boss and murdered on the job. Because of his life as a killer he’s sent to Hell, where he bargains with a demon (a giant monster that looks like a cross between Venom from Spider-Man and Beavis) to return to Earth as a “Hellspawn” in exchange for being able to see his wife again. Since anyone can tell you deals with devils backfire exactly 100% of the time, he returns a disfigured amnesiac, but he does get a gnarly outfit, a bunch of chains, and some neat powers.

Spawn Vol. 1 contains the first five issues, which introduce all of this plus a few additional players, particularly The Violator, another agent of Hell sent to keep tabs on Spawn who alternates his form between a giant heart-eating monster and a tiny, disgusting clown (I haven’t decided which is worse). We also learn that Spawn’s role on Earth will be that of a vigilante, dispatching low-lifes—such as a recently freed child murderer—while mourning his lost life and coming to terms with his new identity.

It’s revenge fantasy, but it’s colorful revenge fantasy, which is something that translates to these pages brilliantly. I might chide Image for being cartoonishly indulgent, but cartoonish indulgence really works for Spawn: the oversized red cape, the studded armor, the endless, symbolic chains. Everything about Spawn the character is simultaneously awesome and hilarious, and to a teenager in the early 90s Spawn must have been an enticing change of pace from the more PG rated characters of DC and Marvel.

Spawn mostly gets by on this gratuitousness, filling every page with its larger than life characters, big, bold lettering, and vibrant colors. It’s pure eye candy, less focused on its story than on its artwork. If Spawn is Image’s opening statement, it’s a hell of a loud one.

Not long after Spawn debuted, Image published the first issues of Gen 13, which is probably the most 90s thing I’ve ever seen outside of MTV. From character names like “Grunge” and “Burnout” to authentically 90s slang (I had all but forgotten about ending sarcastic sentences with “…Not!”), Gen 13 is a relic, but still a reasonably entertaining one.

Gen 13 has a lot in common with Spawn. The bold colors are there, and the cartoonish silliness, and the story that isn’t quite fully formed. It also has that same gratuitousness—particularly with regard to its female characters, which I’ll get to in a moment. But where Gen 13 excels is how it differs from Spawn; where Spawn is a figure who stands alone, the kids in Gen 13 are in this together, and that unity helps the writers maintain focus, even when they’re in danger of letting the story completely fly apart.

But that focus is limited. Gen 13 suffers most from its own inherent immaturity. What the writers would have you believe is unfiltered nihilism seems, in retrospect, to be mostly adolescent narcissism. This is a group of kids, abused by adults, manifesting superpowers and rebelling against authority. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Caitlin Fairchild’s, um, “transformation” from a skinny, awkward teen into a ludicrously leggy, buxom bombshell. Instant puberty at the hands of those mean old grownups.

Her sexiness barely fits on the page.

It’s worth pointing out that the first volume of Gen 13 is essentially a prologue, introducing the characters and basic plot, hinting at future conflicts and alliances, and giving each of the heroes and villains a chance to demonstrate their powers and motivations. As an extended introduction it mostly works, giving us the understanding that if we stick with these characters, the writers promise to flesh them out and follow their relationships and adventures to satisfying ends.

But that’s as far as it goes. Fairchild’s absurdly proportioned physique dominate the pages, and while the writers try to hint at her potential for leadership and cleverness, her legs (quite literally) take up half the page. Even poor Roxy—who looks practically Amish next to the overexposed Fairchild—spends an entire chapter completely nude, even after her powers manifest and she should be able to take care of herself. And our villains… let’s just say the artists seem incapable of drawing anything below a C cup.

Based on what I read here, the Image well isn’t exactly one I’ll be eager to revisit. But there’s a lot of potential in these stories, and I admit I’ve read some of Spawn before, so I was glad to see how these early pages held up. Hindsight may be 20/20, but I still find it surprising that we ever fell for the silliness, even if it is tremendously fun silliness.

What I Liked:

  • Spawn gets a lot done in its five issues, and the character development is commendable. Image had a lot of early hurdles to clear, which results in a lot of repetition as the concepts get hammered home and new readers constantly have to be acclimated. I get the sense by the end of Vol. 1 that the writers were eager to move on, and I’m sure the readers were, too.
  • While I didn’t approve of a lot of the choices Gen 13 makes, I do appreciate the chances it gets to take by having an all teen-aged cast. For kids their age, everything is life and death, and thrusting powers onto them and making their situation literally life and death is a fun and promising concept, even if it’s one that’s been done before. I don’t know how well Gen 13 delivers on this promise in later issues, but someday I’d be curious to find out.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Man, the 90s were rough. Grunge is ridiculous, but I realize that we pretty much all idolized that slacker mentality, constantly churning out buzzwords and catchphrases. It’s something that was packaged and marketed pretty easily, and it makes Gen 13 difficult to read without my bullshit detector going off.
  • I’ve already talked about the ridiculousness of Fairchild’s transformation, but I want to again voice my disapproval at how openly misogynistic the team behind the books are at this time. Granted, absurd physical proportions weren’t invented by Gen 13 or by Image, but it’s disappointing that they wouldn’t take the opportunity to say something new about women in comics and their often shameful representations.

Odds & Ends:

  • So… that whole thing with Timmy and his giant monster pal Pitt was pretty weird, right? It’s something I’m sure Gen 13 returns to in future stories, but it was completely out of place in this prologue.
  • Doing a little research, I saw that Image also produced a series called Youngblood, which I noticed is a term they used in both Spawn and Gen 13 without explaining much, other than to suggest that it refers to some superhero team. This kind of clever cross-promotional foundation-laying shows Image was a lot more marketing savvy than their renegade early days might have suggested. Well played.

Final Impressions:

Image may have found their niche with darker titles like Spawn and The Walking Dead, but these early days leave a lot to be desired. Strong in visuals but hollow in substance, I can only hope that as these titles progressed they relied less heavily on The Real World and more on the stronger elements of the medium.

Read along with Joe and Kevin!

Next up: Batman: Knightfall


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