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For the STAR WARS Generation, SPAWN Was the Perfect Avatar of Teen Angst

For the STAR WARS Generation, SPAWN Was the Perfect Avatar of Teen Angst

It’s fitting that both Star Wars and Spawn celebrate anniversaries this year. Star Wars, which debuted when I was three years old, hit the perfect spot to define fandom for a generation. Fifteen years later, when I turned 18, Todd McFarlane‘s Spawn was there to fire up the imagination of an angry teen, much in the way George Lucas had done for a starry-eyed kid. In fact, it’s pretty fitting that when McFarlane originally conceived Spawn, he saw as a Star Wars-type character… far closer to one than what he would eventually become, anyway.

Spawn reflected youthful Generation X alienation perfectly. He was launched in rebellion, when McFarlane and others split from Marvel to form Image comics. He looked like a mainstream superhero but subverted the type: underneath the cape and spandex, he was a rotting zombie from hell, and in an early surprise reveal in the book, was also African-American–for many of us, realizing we were wrong to automatically assume that Spawn was a white guy was the first time we were made to check our privilege.

He was permanently separated from his family, who no longer recognized him and had moved on following his deal with the devil (who later became a devil, rather than the devil, mainly so Spawn could kill him without destroying religion completely). And the threats he faced were unfamiliar, different from what our parents might have prepared us for–the spindly, wormy Violator was and still is unlike any other supervillains out there in appearance.

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And the comic delivered what we wanted at that age. The Violator’s trademark was ripping hearts out of people’s chests, while Spawn was a former assassin who’d gladly use guns even though he had supernatural powers. Scantily clad angels with supermodel bodies pursued Spawn, sometimes pausing to have sex with him, and Heaven proved to be just as uncaring as Hell in McFarlane’s cosmology, with both sides merely using dead souls to bolster their own agendas. It was a fantasy world that fit perfectly for young people just old enough to have become aware of the downsides of corporatism and two-party government, but not yet old enough to see any merit in compromise.

Spawn’s biggest contribution, however, may have been in the realm of toys. Dissatisfied with all the major company proposals, McFarlane decided to make toys himself, and upped the ante on sculpting and detail, much as his artwork had done on the page. Those of us who had been the first adopters of Star Wars figures, which ushered in the modern action figure era, might have put them aside in our late teens, but here was a guy making figures that played to our current interests. Want to disturb people with your darkness? Here’s a realistic Clive Barker toy design of a medical patient hanging from hooks giving birth to a monster fetus. Want movie figures that actually look exactly like the actors? Finally, that can happen, because good sculpting doesn’t actually cost more than the mediocre variety.

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Thanks to McFarlane Toys’ attention to detail, fans let Kenner know that in their relaunched Star Wars line, a Mark Hamill figure with Schwarzenegger pecs, wasn’t going to cut it, nor would a Leia who looked nothing like Carrie Fisher. McFarlane begat many imitators like Moore Action Collectibles, ReSaurus, DC Direct, and Palisades–many of which have fallen by the wayside, though NECA still thrives, and Hasbro and Mattel have had to up their sculpt game and pitch to older collectors more than they ever did before. Had none of that happened, our generation might have put aside toys as our parents eventually did upon realizing they simply weren’t very good replicas. Before McFarlane Toys, figures needed to have some sort of gimmick or action feature; after, phrases like “points of articulation” entered the lexicon, and fealty to source mattered the most.

Spawn lost a lot of its mojo when McFarlane compromised on things he once said he never would, like when the live-action movie gave Spawn a kid sidekick and a dog, and whitewashed a major character because the studio said an all-black cast wouldn’t sell; or when, in an attempt to compete with Batman: The Animated Series action figures, he launched a cartoon-style toy line with a more family friendly retelling of the Spawn story.

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Had he waited, perhaps, ’til we grew up a bit more and became parents, such decisions might have landed better. When McFarlane Toys moved heavily into sports, those of us who’d been drawn to the alienation themes of the Spawn comics felt “our” stuff slipping away. But while you can take the zombies away from the man, you can’t take the man away from zombies for too long–McFarlane Toys’ early adoption of The Walking Dead as a license proved that, deep down, that guy who once got us is still in there.

And now he’s making Rick and Morty LEGO(ish) sets. Sweet spot = hit.

Images: McFarlane Toys/Image Comics

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