The Empty Writing of Todd McFarlane
Todd McFarlane’s two recent books lack one critical thing— actual writing.
I don’t believe that Todd McFarlane actually has anything to say.
That may not be a fair assessment of his writing capability based on only the two books written by him that I’ve read in I don’t know how long (my OG Spawn collection ends around the original McFarlane-drawn Spawn/Batman crossover and I don’t even know why it lasted that long.) But if there was going to be anytime to re-evaluate his writing, now seemed like a good time with the newest demanded-by-no-one Batman/Spawn crossover or the out-of-nowhere Spawn: Unwanted Violence #1. Greg Capullo (the crossover) and Mike Del Mundo (Unwanted Violence) are two artists that I like so I guess it made sense to pick up both issues to see their art. The only problem with that logic is that based on any monetary investment made by purchasing the books, I felt like I needed to read the dang things.
And ultimately, I feel like maybe I should just be happy looking at pretty pictures.
Let’s start with a kind of mind-blowing concept— there are over 31 years of Spawn comics and over 300 issues in that time. So if 1994’s Spawn/Batman was the last time I checked in on Spawn, that is a mere 29 years ago. You would think a lot would have happened to the character during that time but I’m not too sure if there’s any evidence of that. McFarlane’s plot for 2022’s Batman/Spawn is what… Batman and Spawn team up? I think it’s basically just that and that’s almost rehashing the whole of Frank Miller’s 1994 crossover script. They fight each other, realize the other is not the true villain, turn around to fight the actual villain of the piece and then go their own ways, grumbling about how the other’s methods of fighting crime are weak or ineffective. And for better or worse, that’s been the general template of these kinds of crossovers for a long time.
"Spawn is just caught in the middle of this with no real role in this story but to annoy Batman."
Working with Greg Capullo, McFarlane seems to be doing his best Scott Snyder imitation here, using Snyder’s Court of Owls and Talon as the big bads here. And in a nod to Frank Miller (the first of a couple in this book,) the pearl necklace that Martha Wayne wore the night she was killed is some kind of MacGuffin here, a prize sought by the Court of Owls for some significance or another. It’s nothing other than a motivational tool: the Court wants the pearl and Batman doesn’t want them to have it. Spawn is just caught in the middle of this with no real role in this story but to annoy Batman.
With no real depth or even character work, McFarlane’s script’s sole purpose is to give Greg Capullo allegedly cool stuff to draw. It hopes that you get so sucked up in Capullo’s work that you don’t notice just how thin everything else about this comic book is. There’s a sense of playing the hits on this one, as key characters show up in terms of fan service in this comic. A Joker here, a Clown there. McFarlane brings them in with no purpose and no real impact on the story. The audience is here for the hits and I guess McFarlane and Capullo deliver them.
But it’s a crossover, you say. All anyone wants from a crossover is just their favorites to show up and play with other characters that they wouldn’t normally get to. That’s all we want. Any kind of story or anything is just a bonus if it’s there.
O.k., if that’s what you want.
How about another recent McFarlane-penned comic, the first part of Spawn: Unwanted Violence #1, the first of a 2-part miniseries with art from Mike Del Mundo? Curiously here, McFarlane is credited with Script/Plot (in that order?), maybe suggesting that this was done “Marvel” style where McFarlane gives Del Mundo a general plot, Del Mundo goes off and paints it, and then McFarlane comes back and does the writing over the artwork. That was the way that Stan and Jack did it. Looks like the way that Todd and Mike are doing it as well.
"If you squint just right, you maybe see some kind of anger toward injustices starting to peer through here"
Normally in an analysis piece like this, there's some kind of plot summary here, explaining what happened and maybe diving a bit into the motivations of the characters and what they’re fighting for. But no matter how many times I’ve read this comic, I can’t figure out what any of that is. There’s a sequence about Spawn dealing with a child abuser which somehow leads to a Black Lives Matter protest to something in a hospital, before ending with Spawn being surrounded by cops with their guns pointed at him. But how any of these events relate to the ones before or after them follows a logic that probably only exists in McFarlane’s mind because it doesn’t appear anywhere in these pages.
Much like the crossover, the art in Unwanted Violence is nice. Del Mundo steps into this world and gives it visual depth and is doing yeoman work on pulling a story together but he can’t make the connection between the varying sequences of this book. That should be McFarlane’s job here, establishing the connective tissue in the plot that gives the readers something to latch onto here. If you squint just right, you maybe see some kind of anger toward injustices starting to peer through here but Spawn is not a character here: he’s a delivery tool to move through the pages, for the reader to follow. Normally that would lead to a story but in McFarlane’s hands, it just leads to confusion and ambiguity.
So here are two examples of Todd McFarlane’s writing that should be a bit more high-profile than just another issue of Spawn, where anyone who’s still reading that maybe has an idea of who this character is and what drives him. But the big conceits of these issues are 1) he’s not Batman and 2) he’s angry. Shouldn’t there be more to a 30-year-old character than that?
At least the art is nice.