The Comic Book Club: Spawn and Casanova

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Graeme McMillan and Douglas Wolk talk about Spawn #200 and the first issue of Casanova: Gula.

DOUGLAS: So I read SPAWN #200, and my mind is still kind of reeling from it. I’m afraid I’m going to have to cope with it via bullet points:

*A 53-page story is a pretty good deal for $3.99.

*I expected that there might be some interesting guest artists here (and hey, wasn’t Rob Liefeld supposed to draw a sequence in this issue?); I was not expecting the first four pages to be written and pencilled by Robert Kirkman.

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*And I definitely didn’t expect the bulk of the story to be pencilled by Michael freaking Golden, of all people. Or for McFarlane to render Golden’s style totally unrecognizable in everything except the flashback scenes (which seem to have been inked by someone else: Danny Miki and Jonathan Glapion are both credited with “additional art”). Michael Golden on Spawn. It’s like buying an battered Bad Company LP and discovering that the bassist is Jaco Pastorius.

*Spawn may be the most girlproof series of all time. I’ve maybe only ever read seven issues of it in their entirety (and a lot of those were the “guest writer” issues early on) (note, by the way, that in Todd McFarlane’s end-note, he claims that “the first 150 issues were either written by Brian Holguin or myself”–uh…), but perhaps somebody who’s read the whole corpus can enlighten me as to whether there’s ever been an issue of it that passes the Bechdel Test.

*The most unintentionally hilarious sentence from McFarlane’s end-note, by the way, has to be “Although we’re up to issue 200, I’ve tried to use a relatively small amount of talent on my title.”

*The note at the end from the managing editor includes the phrases “touting about,” “photo realistic,” “Todd expressed he wanted,” and “takes the artistic reigns.” With editors like this, etc.

*Here’s the dialogue from a single panel: “He can’t speak because he’s not the Omega, he’s just a replica in the Omega class. As much as Clown spouts off about his knowledge of the Omega, he still hasn’t realized he’s only face to face with a second-rate copy! But he was correct about one thing–my need to control your costume again. The transformation, from Al Simmons to you tore the suit apart for one brief moment, giving the symbiote a chance to reconstruct itself without any guiding hand to temper it. Meaning, dear Spawn, that in a very short time, your costume is staged to become the most powerful force in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE!” It’s probably worth mentioning that that’s spoken by an off-panel character–just off-panel, the word balloon has an arrow pointing off to the right side of the page–who is not visible anywhere on that double-page spread (or the previous one).

*Also, there’s the page on which dialogue in the second panel is followed by dialogue in a word balloon whose tail points back to the first panel. I’m just going to have to think of that as advanced.

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*Really, this has to be the most singlemindedly obsessive comic book this side of Steve Ditko’s current comics, or possibly Cryptic Wit. It probably makes perfect sense within the mind of its creator, and it pushes a very strong aesthetic as far as it can possibly go, but it offers no key to let anyone else in.

GRAEME: It’s rare that I feel as if a comic is actively telling me to go fuck myself, but Spawn #200 is one of those cases. This is a weirdly repellent read – storywise, terribly overwritten and impenetrably plotted, and with ugly art – that seems designed to celebrate itself and its fanbase, but just confuse and exclude anyone else. Even things like the “Previously in Spawn” recap on the inside front cover don’t help, with no context given and bland, meaningless names being thrown out (“The Clown,” “The Freak” – charitably, I guess, you could say that McFarlane is trying to go for some kind of archetypal thing with his names, but it really feels as if half the characters got stuck with generic placeholders that were never meant to be permanent). It really is as if this is a comic that requires a secret password to even understand it.

Unlike you, I felt that I could tell the Golden pages; there’s a change in the page design and the character-work that McFarlane doesn’t manage to completely demolish with his inks; there’s more space, and a more traditional, clearer sense of panel-to-panel continuity. It’s the most attractive stuff in the book, but still wasted on the material, which seems to consist of men, monsters and/or men who turn into monsters talking to each other in monologue and occasionally fighting for no immediately apparent reason. Something about Hell? More than anything, reading this reminded me of my one experience trying to watch Pokemon and just getting exhausted by the sheer amounts of energy it spent trying to spin its wheels and keep up the illusion of things happening. Spawn is Goth Pokemon. There, I said it.

DOUGLAS: I really liked the material reprinted in CASANOVA: GULA #1 when it first came out a few years ago, and I’m happy to look at it again now that Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon are bigger names than they were then. It’s a mess of a story–Fraction’s so busy trying to cram everything into every page that the narrative through-line sometimes gets lost–but there’s this crazy, wonderful friction-heat about it. (And I sometimes wish more of Fraction’s mainline Marvel work were as freaky and risky as Casanova: there are touches of that liveliness in his Iron Man, especially, but I just read a stack of his Uncanny X-Men, and he’s been playing that very, very straight.)

GRAEME: Back when it was published for the first time, I thought that “Gula” was where Fraction lost control of narrative altogether, with an ending that was pulled out of its ass and a betrayal of what had gone before. On more recent re-read, though, I realized I was wrong, and that there’s a surprisingly tight plot going on, with clues being left all over the place. This issue, as I’ve said elsewhere, has the one line that outright gives away the ending, but you don’t even realize that it’s there.

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You’re right, though, about the “friction-heat” – it’s reminiscent in that way of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, and so it was funny to see Fraction and Bryan Lee O’Malley discuss that series in the backmatter. There’s really a sense of this stuff being so important to Fraction that he’s in such a rush to get it down before he forgets that it almost doesn’t matter whether everything gets explained or not.

DOUGLAS: Also neat: Cris Peter’s colors for what was once a two-ink-colors comic. There’s a little note in the back of the paperback of the first Casanova storyline that came out this week about how Gabriel Bá suggested that green should still be its dominant color, and ended up coming up with a set of 45 shades that were the only ones used for the Marvel/Icon reprint of it. This one also looks like it’s got a limited palette, this time built around the cyan from the original version. It looks great, and it makes me wonder why more comics don’t use that sort of formal limitation. Graeme, do you remember when Detective Comics went two-tone for a while? Or, going back further, Max Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree?

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GRAEME: God, I loved the two-tone Detective. It was such a visually stunning take, especially with the Dave Johnson covers to boot.

If anything, I think that Peters’ palette this time is even more limited (and closer to the original), and it’s to the benefit of the piece. It’s not “full color” as most superhero comics have, but it’s much smarter color, and really helps the art here. I can remember feeling as if the heavy cyan of the original version of these pages was too much, overwhelming my eye as I read it, and that’s thankfully missing this time around.

Also: Dustin Harbin’s letters! It’s such a small thing, perhaps, but Harbin’s re-letters really change the book for me, in a positive way. I can’t even really explain why, but it makes everything more… personal, perhaps? More relatable? It’s a change that I find myself constantly appreciating more than I expect.

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