There was a time in the history of comics when things went truly shit-bang; a Wild West of comics, if you will, and that time was called the late 90s to early 2000s. Marvel had filed for bankruptcy and was selling off movie rights to whoever would toss them a dime, DC’s market comic value dropped to pennies after it turned out that creating new imprints to flood the market with #1s of new characters was NOT a viable investment, and everyone else either went out of business or started expanding into other endeavors. Image Comics, not one to stagnate or call it quits, did just that and started releasing waves of toys under the Todd McFarlane line and leaving the comic end to fend for itself. It also helped that they were one of the first companies to allow comic creators to own the rights to their creation, something that was very unheard of at the time.
So what happens when a company has enough money to fund a comic line and the freedom to let their creators run wild in a dying medium? Hellspawn happens. A 17-issue series featuring the work of Brian Michael Bendis, Ashley Wood, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, the comic was a secondary series to the long-running Spawn. Focusing on the events after Spawn #100, the comic dives into an alternate timeline where the time finally comes for Spawn to lead the armies of Hell onto Earth, but it seems he needs a bit of convincing. As he maneuvers along the ever shifting alleys of Rat City, the world slowly reveals itself to be the wretched hive of scum and villainy it really is, forcing Spawn to decide if it’s truly worth saving.
With such an amazing line-up of creators, it’s a wonder that Hellspawn hasn’t entered into comic history on the team alone. Bendis and Wood aside, this the comic that brought together the Niles/Templesmith power couple that went on to redefine the vampire genre with 30 Days of Night. The two teams helped launch alternative comic illustration into the public eye and darkened an already dark comic by filling it to the brink with junkies, suicides, and demons. All good things, right? So what went wrong?
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of good things about this comic. As stated, the base illustrations were wonderful and got even better when Templesmith came aboard. I say “base illustrations” because Wood seemed to pick up the unsightly habit of cutting his workload short by copy-and-pasting the same illustration into multiple panels, a bit like a really lazy anime. Templesmith managed to avoid this pitfall (or at least it’s not as obvious) and was much more dynamic with his work, paving a strong path to his future career. The work is painted with loose inks and splashes of colors that illuminate the hidden secrets of Rat City and the scurrying people that hide in the shadows. It’s a pretty miserable looking comic, in the best sense of the word.
Honestly, it’s the story where it really falls short and it’s not that the story itself is that bad, it just doesn’t age well. This was a story that was written for a very specific time and place and relied heavily on popular “millennium goth” tropes to carry it along. You know what I’m talking about. Matrix fashion, lesbian demons, Satanic violence to techno beats. Even the main story where a female junkie suicide leads to her body being impregnated and giving birth to the Queen of Hell in an unholy sacrament that kills a bunch of clergy is super corny. To be fair, Spawn was already pretty cheesy to begin with, so I suppose the creators were working with what they had, but it fails to appeal past a very particular audience and I’m not so sure that audience exists anymore.
Also, the story doesn’t make sense. A lot of the Bendis work seemed to be filler, especially when they put in The Spawn’s long time enemy/one time friend, a gorilla. Not a fun gorilla; a gorilla with an enhanced brain that is controlled by government forces kind of gorilla. This is a full-time character in the Spawn universe, so it’s not as if his existence is the weird thing, it’s the fact that he got put into a comic that was about Spawn having to bring Hell on Earth and halfway through, he’s fighting a goddamn gorilla. For like three issues! I’m sure there’s some sort of backstory to having him included, but it gets lost in between the junkie demon birth and a reporter chasing a story through Rat City. After a while, it feels a lot like easy paycheck work. Niles makes it a bit more fun once Spawn actually ends up in Hell and we get a glimpse of the world that could be, though, so that was cool.
If you’re one of those people who just has to read for themselves the wonder that is Hellspawn, there are two ways of getting it. A hardcover collection was released in 2011, but it frequently goes for over $150, so you’d better really love yourself some Spawn. If you’ve got fifteen bucks lying around, I recommend going the digital route and snatching up a copy on Amazon. Of course, you could always go out and collect all the individual issues, but what kind of psycho would do that? Though I’m sure half of them are hanging around in your local shop’s fifty cent bin, so with a bit of patience, you can get some of the issues for pretty cheap.