Pipeline: Revisiting Miller & McFarlane's "Spawn/Batman"

Tue, February 4th, 2014 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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LIGHTING "THE FUSE"

"The Fuse" #1 is the new Image Comics series by Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood. It comes out next week, and it's a keeper. It appeals to me on just about every conceivable level. As a guy whose science fiction tendencies lean towards "Babylon 5" and the works of Isaac Asimov, this book feels right. As a guy who likes European style comics, this works. As someone who likes sharp dialogue that doesn't repeat itself and continues to move the story forward, or as someone who likes character-centered drama, "The Fuse" just works. 

It's a detective story set on a space station, and today is the new guy's first day in space. Of course, there's murder in the air, an abrasive new partner, and the issue of guns being bad things on a space station. Johnston makes a strong pitch on the text page at the end for why this is such a good combination of things, and how detective fiction is such a popular genre for many good reasons.

Justin Greenwood's art is open and expressive. His characters are interesting to look at, not overly detailed, but not cartoony, either. The colors from Shari Chankhamma are all over the place, but all are easy to read and bright enough to not hide the art. You'll get greens and reds and browns and grays, but it all makes sense. 

I've ever gotten to the point in life where I can accept mixed-case lettering, and Ed Brisson slots that in nicely. 

Nothing looks forced or ill-considered with this book. It's just starting to tell a mystery, with lots of elements thrown into the mix. I want to learn more about this place and I want to know it now. Guess I'll just have to wait til next month, though.

In the meantime, you can read a "trailer" for the book at FuseComic.com. It's a pretty honest sample of how the book feels.

MEANWHILE, IN FRANCE...

It was the annual Angouleme festival in France this last week. Comixology celebrated with a list of suggested French comics to read from Joe Keatinge. As a bonus, one of the choices is a silent book, so you don't need to be fluent in French to enjoy it! I was hoping Comixology would announce a new English translation program for its French comics, but c'est la vie...

The big news was the winner of the Grand Prize of the show, Bill Watterson. Traditionally, this year's winner has a strong hand in organizing next year's festival, and makes a grand appearance at the show. Also, the winners are usually more... French. Watterson is an American who hasn't drawn a comic in twenty years, and refuses to make public appearances or even comment much on anything.

And he's the winner of the show.

This will make planning next year's show more interesting. I think Watterson should go, if only because such a precedent would mean an easy win for Steve Ditko next year.

Nah, I'm sure the wagons will the circled and next year's winner will be the Frenchest winner ever.

Also see Tom Spurgeon's reaction to the news.

Amongst the winners was Les Carnets De Cerise, which is a beautiful looking album for younger readers. Check out the preview pages at that link. Nice stuff.

CAPTAIN AMERICA TRAILER

The full trailer on YouTube and the teaser shown before That Game Played On Sunday Night is about the best superhero movie tease I've seen in a while. I'm sure there's a plot in there somewhere, but for now I'll take some cool action. I'm hooked, so it worked.

Random thoughts:

  • Am I excited for this movie because it's not another origin tale? We're past that and can get into interesting stories now. That's got to be a good thing.
  • Robert Redford will turn out to be a bad guy in the end, won't he?
  • They're keeping the identity of the Winter Soldier under wraps? So it's only the comics fans in the audience who will know what will likely be "the big reveal" halfway through the movie? Interesting.
  • Of course the Helicarrier is crashing. That damned thing can't stay airborne any more than I could flapping my arms and jumping off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style. At this point, I bet ILM is just reusing stock footage from their effect vaults for this. I blame the Starship Enterprise for starting this phenomenon.
  • The Black Widow needs to have her own movie. As Marvel stretches beyond simple origin movies and moves into all sorts of genres with its characters, a Black Widow spy film would be awesome.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 TRAILER

We also saw the first trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  The thing that made me laugh was the misspelled hashtag, #spiderman. It's not Sony's fault. It's a Twitter thing. For some ridiculous reason, Twitter doesn't know how to parse its own hashtags and will think #Spider-Man is really #Spider. 

Twitter is valued at close to $40 billion, but they can't parse a hyphen. They ought to be a government organization.

It's interesting to see the tonal differences between the Spider-Man movie series and Marvel's own movies. With Spider-Man, Sony has to go for something a little more traditionally superheroic. The villains and the nature of the comics are harder to play completely straight in modern settings with the classic feel. I like that, though. It's cool to see modern takes on superheroes that look to be in the real world, but there's also something to be said for movies with a more "comic book" feel to it, that take in more of the native elements of their original format. It's more stylized and less "serious," I guess. The Spider-Man movies -- which kicked off this round of blockbuster superhero movies -- have always stuck to being closer to the source material than the others, in tone, at least. That was initially by Sam Raimi's design.

I see that they're going for a more robotic looking Rhino costume, though. I guess the image of a man in a rhino costume just couldn't be translated directly to the big screen without looking too silly. Ah, well. Can't blame them.

Looks like a tense movie. With all the plans the studio has built up around the franchise, it looks like they're going to throw everything up there that they've got. Could be exciting.

SPAWN/BATMAN

This year marks 20 years since the original publication of "Spawn/Batman," the prestige format one shot from Image Comics that teamed up Batman with Spawn, and Todd McFarlane with Frank Miller. I chanced across the book while paging through some long boxes recently, and gave it a reread.

With "Spawn/Batman," McFarlane and Miller create a 48-page fight scene for Batman and Spawn to get on each others nerves and throw a lot of punches. There's a story going on in the background with an evil woman who wants to blow up the world or something, but that's only there to make it sound like there's a larger plot. In reality, this is a book about Spawn and Batman hating each other, fighting each other, and then teaming up to take on a bigger threat while fighting each other and hating each other.

It's a completely hollow book, but it's a lot of fun. There are two things working against it that I just outlined.

First, it's another example of two characters fighting over a misunderstanding before teaming up to take on the larger threat. In a one-off crossover book like this, though, I can't blame Miller and McFarlane for going with that old plot. It works for what the readership at the time wanted. It's only blunted by the fact that, since it's an inter-company crossover, neither character can appear to lose. OK, sure, Batman is clearly the loser in this book, but holds his own just enough to keep DC from feeling embarrassed by the whole thing. Plus, the book was destined to sell a crap ton of copies, so who wanted DC to complain about the free publicity? (DC did their own "Batman/Spawn" one shot. I didn't buy it. I wasn't alone.)

McFarlane drawing Batman against a busy cityscape? I'm sold!

Second, the two characters are hardly sympathetic friendly foes. They're both miserable jerks. That's going to turn off a lot of people who want a rooting interest. It worked for me, though. I like Miller's take on Batman, and I like Batman's perspective on Spawn as being an undead killer who can only fight because he has magic powers. It's entertaining to read the caption boxes strewn throughout the book like Christmas lights on an Evergreen tree in December. Batman refers to Spawn repeatedly as a "twit." Spawn thinks Batman is a clueless egomaniac who doesn't realize how overpowered he is. Both are right.

Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, but I like this approach. It's more honest than trying to turn one character or another into something more sympathetic with a tacked-on B plot or new angle on the origin story. This isn't a book about breaking new ground editorially; it's about having fun and giving its readers what they want. Both Miller and McFarlane knew how to play that game well, and they both hit the mark.

Miller plays with his script. He references both "Year One" and "Dark Knight" on the first three pages, then tosses in an "Elseworlds" reference for good measure later in the book. You can also see the influence of Miller's staccato caption style on McFarlane. Think about that first "Spider-Man" arc that McFarlane wrote. You know, the "advantageous" one. Yes, that's McFarlane channeling Miller, who even here in this book is hoping to create a rhythm to your reading with his layout of caption boxes. McFarlane plays along well.

The real draw, though, is McFarlane's art. After years of rumors or fan wishes that a Spider-Man/Batman crossover might one day happen, McFarlane gave them what they wanted through the side door with this book. It's a superhero book. "Spawn" today goes much more towards the horror side of things, but back then it was still a superhero book trapped in a back alley with elements of horror and fantasy grafted onto it. (Spawn wore a costume, but his powers came from the Devil and his foes just weren't other masked men.)

You ever get a McFarlane interpretation of Alfred.

In the story, Spawn is tangentially fighting a woman he knows from another lifetime who's planning world domination with a cargo ship full of big bombs. She's not wearing a costume, but she might as well be a costumed villain.

It's not terribly imaginative. It literally is two characters going out it with their fists in the back alleys of New York City. Repeatedly. There's not a special trick Batman uses against Spawn to make his powers turn against him. Spawn doesn't have a brilliant moment where he uses Batman's confidence against him. It's a straightforward fight, but the way Miller and McFarlane show those scenes changes. Whether it's in close-ups or in larger panels or in black out panels, they keep things from getting too repetitious.

There are many ways to show a fight scene...

In any case, what everyone bought this book to see was McFarlane drawing Batman. That, they got. Combined with a superheroish Spawn, it's one of McFarlane's best superhero fight books. The two characters, with their grotesquely large capes, chains, pouches, and shadows, are a visual delight. McFarlane plays with lighting a lot in this book. Steve Oliff handled the coloring, clearly taking cues from the way McFarlane lit his scenes, often overpowering areas with flood lights, like in front of the Bat signal or from just behind a large glowing gun as it fires.

McFarlane played a lot of games with the lighting in the book.

McFarlane's art suffers a bit in the smaller panels, where smaller characters have odd quirks of anatomy if you look too closely at them. That's OK. You're mostly looking at the bigger images, anyway. But as an old school McFarlane fan, I love all the big things like the architecture of the city scape, and the little things, like the way McFarlane draws hands, or the occasional wonky page layouts incorporating the characters' logos.

McFarlane's art did suffer in some of the smaller panels. What's going on with Batman's arm here?

The scans in this article came out a little dark. The actual book is printed on nice glossy paper that holds the colors very well. Steve Oliff's overall color design is bright, with lots of cut-in shadows. As a sign of the times, he was accompanied by a list of 13 people at Olyoptics who did the "Computer Colors." I guess at this point, Oliff was still just doing guides It's still distinctly his style.

That goes ditto for Tom Orzechowski, "Spawn"'s founding letterer, who also came aboard for this book with his trademark style. I could stare at those letters all day. Another sign of the times it the unnecessary color gradients in the voluminous caption boxes, which also get confusing once or twice when they switch colors for random reasons. (You might think it's because it's a different person narrating, but it's not.)

Is this Greg Capullo's first Batman art?

Two pin-ups close out the book. Greg Capullo draws a double-page spread pin-up, first, featuring the high-flying Spawn and Batman. Nice pin-up. Was this Capullo's first time drawing Batman, twenty years ago? Probably.

This is the image in the book.
This is the image from "Wizard."

That's followed up by a Miller/McFarlane jam piece that once saw print as the cover to "Wizard" #32, complete with two moons. The second moon doesn't appear in the comic, though. Did McFarlane not pay close enough attention to notice this? Is it a further example of the two worlds Batman and Spawn live in? Was the second moon Photoshopped in by Wizard's staff to fill an unexpected blank space on the cover image? We'll probably never know. (Thanks to Mike Kowalczyk for pointing this one out to me.)

The inside back cover is in memory of Jack Kirby, who had recently died.

"Spawn/Batman" is not "great comics." The story is thin and feels tacked on. But who cares? Ultimately, it achieves its mission of entertaining its audience. It does so while keeping the strongest aspects of the two lead characters. It gives McFarlane plenty of opportunity to draw fun pages, while Miller can do an imitation of his own previous work to strong effect.

The cover price for this prestige format 48 page one shot? $3.95. Cheaper than the price of your standard DC or Marvel monthly today, twenty years later.

There was a sequel to this book announced at the big convention in San Diego in 2006. For reasons unknown and never spoken of, the book quietly dropped off the schedule and was never heard from again. Here's what the handout looked like that they gave out at San Diego that year:

ONE LAST ARTISTIC REMINDER

You have nearly a week left to get in your art samples to Ron Marz for his "Shinku"-drawing exercise. He furnishes the script, you draw one page. Five panels. You have plenty of time. If you did this for a living, you'd have at least enough time now for three or four pages. Get to work!

I've been drawing up my sample as an exercise. Here's a panel from my work in progress. I think I'll talk more about this process in a future column. Again, trying to do something can often teach you more about it than all the reading in the world about it.

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TAGS:  pipeline, image comics, dc comics, spawn, batman, frank miller, todd mcfarlane

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