Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chronic Review: Spawn # 201!

Spawn # 201
Image Comics
Script:       Will Carlton
Pencils:      Szymon Kudranski
21 pages for $2.99

I really have no business reading this book, but I just couldn't help but peek in on the debut of Will Carlton.  The guy was shagging coffee and signing for FedEx packages a few months ago, and now he gets the keys to the franchise?  Sorry, but that's way more compelling than anything that's happened between the covers of a Spawn book in well, ever.  It's like watching a real life "Devil Wears Prada", except Will Carlton is presumably less attractive than Anne Hathaway, and Todd McFarlane is certainly sexier than Meryl Streep.  But I digest.

The good news is that Spawn # 201 represents competent, professional writing.  Issues?  Sure, and I'll nitpick some of them a bit later.  This is a Spawn book, not a Grapes of Wrath sequel, so the bar here is reachable, and it is reached.  If you were waiting for a train wreck, you're going to have to find another track.

Jim Downing: 21st century Jesus
After the blockbuster smashing and epic reveals of Dragonball Spawn # 200, things have quieted down a bit as we begin the new era.  In what turns out to be the most enjoyable element of the book so far, Jim Downing sits down in front of some television cameras to tell the story of his coma, his miraculous healings, and to seek answers about his identity from a national audience.

Jim has an agent now, for crying out loud.  This was a pleasant surprise for me.  The Al Simmons Spawn was always committed to brooding in the shadows and planting a righteous reckoning on some deserving skull or another.  The idea of a TV show or a public relations department would have been unthinkable.  Jim Downing needs this kind of work, by the way.  We're two years into the character, and he's still a confused wet noodle with omnipotent powers.  He's just not a character that has you tearing open the LCS doors on a Wednesday to get the next installment.

And sure enough, just as we're starting to get some semblance of character development from Wet Noodle Downing, we get the obligatory conspiratorial rumblings in the background.  Oooh, the fix is in and somebody's going to call and reveal Jim's true identity, and there's going to be a surprise "big finish" to close the program.

Yes, Spawn we're all sick of this secret bullshit!
Cut to three hours before the Karlene Phillips show began taping, and Downing is picked up by a mysterious cop who is 39 times more interested in Jim than he should be.  He knows too much, and he wants to know too much.  After an incredibly wordy and awkward exchange, the officer stops at Frankie Holtzman's house as a favor to Jim for setting fire to that hospital a few issues ago.

And there's where the comic threatens to lose me.  Because once inside, we've got a magic brief case containing all the "answers" to Downing's identity, but he can't know them yet, because he's "not ready" for it.  He's not powerful enough.  Yawn.

The new players are vampires, and I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but when the lead suck head is named "Bludd", well, I have to wonder about the maturity level.  I know, I know, it's a Spawn comic.  I don't require this to read like a Jane Austen novel.  But are we seriously going with the vampire named Bludd?  Wow.  And then this idiot vampire stooge practically demands that Spawn tear his head off and grab a note from within his body like some undead fortune cookie.  It's just too bizarre to make you believe in it.

That's not the deal breaker, though.  No, the potential deal breaker is that somehow in this bold new direction we keep coming back to this same hackneyed "big secret" formula.  Telling the audience they don't know certain facts is not enough to call yourself a narrative.  Waiting a month, or twelve months, or twelve years for a piece of information does not make what comes before interesting.

Nobody would tell somebody this.  Ever
It has to be interesting to be interesting.  That would seem obvious to most, but the concept is apparently lost on Spawn, which seems entirely devoted to future "huge reveals", and always at the cost of it's present.  This is the exact same issue I had with the book when McFarlane came back to it with Endgame.  It was all promise and no payoff.  Every month Spawn comes to you and says "I bet you don't know THIS!"  And every month a reasonable adult reader is forced to look at the comic and say "I bet you I can't be bothered to give a SHIT!"

The difference now, if there is one, is that Carlton appears to have instilled a little hope in the form of some style and a fresher take.  The vampire with the case, in the midst of spouting the usual nebulous bullshit, seems to have a real motivation.  He like Spawn, has become a monster.  Just a little dash of something real in the larger soup of nonsense.  The fame angle could be fun, and there's some chance that we might actually see a real character inside of Jim Downing the "modern messiah" down the road.

It's hard to say which pieces of the stew are actually Will's, and which are Todd's.  My guess is that the "Big Secret" formula and obsession with "Power" are McFarlane

A few words about the art.  Kudranski seems like a fine penciller to me, and appropriate for the book.  The colors, though.  Where are they?  Yeah, I know they're going for a more noir feel, a grittier and darker atmosphere.  Fine.  This thing is so washed out, I'm wondering why not just go black and white?  It looks more ugly than moody to me, as is.  But I'm not particularly qualified to speak on these subjects.

Bottom line is that Spawn is now a competently constructed book with some promise, but weighted down by it's insistence upon a very tired "Big Secret" formula.  It will succeed in as much as it can grow out of its past and let Carlton do something clever on his own.  There's some evidence that he has it in him.

- Ryan

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