Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More Moore part 30: Spawn and Violator, part 1

After spending the twilight of the '80s and the dawn of the '90s writing captivating, dense non-genre works, the stars were right again for Alan Moore to come back home, and it was thus, when the early '90s were in full swing, our hero had at last been lured back into the capes-and-tights fold, this time by none other than the face of the comics boom himself, Image Comics' founder Todd McFarlane. Especially in the early '90s, MacFarlane must've seemed like a breath of fresh air to just about everyone else looking for an alternative to the monolithic terrible twosome of DC and Marvel, and Moore was no different in that regard; in Image he would remain for nearly the entire decade. This was a different Moore than the one we are used to, however: flipping through his Image work, the reader doesn't find the grand experiments with form and genre that made him a household name. Rather, Moore at Image was towing the party line much more than Moore the iconoclast ever did before, trying hard to make work that the type of audience who read MacFarlane's Spawn would appreciate. What we are left with is a smaller, simpler Moore, who forsakes density and literary technique for black humor and mindless '90s violence. Not that these works are bad, necessarily...they're simply something new for the Magus.

Spawn chapter 8: "In Heaven" (1993)

I've always felt like Todd MacFarlane is the Quentin Tarantino of his medium: his work is big and loud, not terribly bright, and he works best with a collaborator. Even the most rabid Spawn fan has to admit that Todd's scripts are seriously lacking and occasionally borderline moronic; apparently MacFarlane felt that way himself, and beginning with chapter eight of his (apparently still-going) saga, he called in some heavy-duty help to do the work with the writing, including Neil Gaiman (leading to a decades-long legal battle) and, of course, Alan Moore. Moore wrote three issues of the main Spawn comic, as well as a trio of spinoffs, all of which have the hallmarks of his Image period: loud, gory, blackly humorous, and a fair bit of fun, if not any great revelations.

For the uninitiated, the very-simplified and condensed story of Spawn is as follows: Al Simmons, covert government assassin, is killed by his superiors and sent to Hell. There, he makes a deal with the Devil to he returned to Earth, both to right wrongs and to see his wife again. Unbeknownst to Al, the Devil has given him a raw deal, and Simmons arrives back on Earth years after his death, horribly mutilated and turned into a Hellspawn, his memories erased. His wife has remarried and has a child, and Al, now Spawn, has a vicious demon named Violator out to bring him back down to the netherworld. Not that you need to know any of this backstory to follow Moore's plot for chapter eight, because Spawn himself barely even makes an appearance. Instead we follow the exploits of a child murderer named Mister Chill-ee, who had been killed by Spawn and is now getting a first-hand tour of Hell. The result is a '90s Image comic version of Inferno, with Chill-ee being lead by a young girl through the torments and tortures to the Eighth Circle, all oozing with buckets of '90s blood. When Chill-ee gives in to his perversions and attempts to strange the girl in her sleep, she is revealed to be the Vindicator, the brother of Violator, who wraps Chill-ee into a suit not unlike the one Spawn wears and drafts him into the army of the damned.

I have to admit that I went into this chapter fully expecting to hate it. I had a couple issues of the MacFarlane-penned Spawn when I was younger, and they were and remain absolute drivel, one of the worst offenders of the books that tried to be dark and vicious like Watchmen without any soul. "In Heaven" exceeded all my expectations, however, and was actually a surprising enjoyment. This is no great work, of course, but it's infused with the same kind of hilarity that made "D.R. & Quinch" so infectious: Moore simply knows how to tell a really good, cruel joke, and his timing is impeccable when he lets himself relax. Especially once Vindicator reveals himself and chases Chill-ee down the circles of Hell, he's calling to the man as if he's an escaped puppy who needs to come back home. It all leads to the send-off gag, Vindicator's words in caption as Chill-ee, all be-Spawned out, joins the ranks of evil:

"Like we could care less if you're covetin' your neighbor's ox or whatever/I mean, we're runnin' a business here.../...An' I tell ya for nothin', the two words carved on marble in Hell's lobby ain't "Good" or "Evil"/It's two other words, and what they say is this.../"Ca-ca happens" little buddy/"Ca-ca happens."

MacFarlane's art is uneven, I feel: he does great monsters and action scenes, but his humans, especially his females, all look the same, big-eyed and hard-bodied like musclebound Disney princesses (this is a problem occasionally shared by David Gibbons, but Dave's females are more aesthetically pleasing than Todd's). Of course, when the backdrop is Hell, this is rarely a problem, and if you can get past the woman in the vaguely Tarzan-esque outfit who looks ready to belt out a Disney number at any moment, you'll have plenty of scenes of squamous evil about, something that MacFarlane excels in. In all, Spawn chapter eight is a hundred times better than I ever could have imagined, and it shows what the admittedly-ripe Spawn mythos can do when in the hands of a capable writer. Not only that, but it set up several more short works for Moore in the Image universe, each one as batshit insane as can be. Mister Chill-ee shrinkwrapped into a Spawn fatsuit is far from the most ridiculous thing we'll see during Moore's Image tenure.

Violator (1994)

When Moore created Vindicator, he made Spawn chapter eight work as a perfect setup for his next work with Image: a three chapter short story starring Spawn's nemesis Violator, a lanky Hellbeast trapped in the body of a fat, disgusting, homeless clown. Right from page one, Moore and artists Bart Sears and Greg Capullo (who has since gone to great acclaim drawing for Batman) provide us with a sort of disgusting funhouse mirror-version of the overmuscled, grim and gritty blandness that Image and its compatriots had been supplying us for years. Violator is being hunted by a Punisher clone named The Admonisher, a man the size of a house who has muscles on his muscles and an all-consuming hatred of Teddy Roosevelt. In addition, Violator also has to deal with his own brothers, who include the Vindicator from Spawn #8 as well as Vandaizer, Vaporizer, and Vacillator, and are out to stop Violator's dragging the family name through the mud by being hunted by a human. The choicest scene comes during the requisite battle, where Violator's brothers try to eliminate the Admonisher while Violator himself, stuck in his clown form, discusses Oedipal complexes and family infighting with the head of a rotting gangster, which he's had stuck to his arm since about page three. The Admonisher himself is classic, exploding his way out of one of the brothers and shouting the most clearly parodic lines in the whole work:

"I am The Admonisher!/And I'm here to give you a darn good telling off!"

The whole thing could be a fantastic parody action movie, with some jacked-to-the-gills beefcake with just the right amount of self-awareness as The Admoniosher, and some nice ugly CGI to depict Violator and his family. The three chapters go by in a blaze of guns, viscera, and the most ludicrous dialogue this side of an overt humor comic, which Violator may be, but it certainly doesn't play its hand until you've already cracked open the book. Clearly, Moore isn't about to make any profound statements with his Image work, but damn if it isn't enjoyable still.

So, Moore's first work with Todd MacFarlane and Image ends up a very surprising success, and Moore shows that he hasn't lost the comedic chops that made his work with 2000AD such an enjoyment. Moore himself hasn't been kind to these pieces, which is too bad because they're more than enjoyable. If they made a collection like DC did of all of Moore's short work, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. The Admonisher alone is worth it...

“A talking-to! A dressing-down! Stern reproof, counsel or advice!!”


Up next: More Spawn!

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