HELL IS FOR HEROES Spawn is an alternative avenger fighter his demons and a bad deal with the devil. He's not your basic do-gooder.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first glance, Al Simmons, the hero of Todd McFarlane's best-selling comic book Spawn, seems a typical superhero.

He has a costume, of course, with a menacing black mask, spiked arm-bands, a death's head belt buckle and a red cape that billows around him as if it were alive. He has special powers, too, including teleportation and the ability to heal instantly virtually any wound inflicted upon his body. He also has a cool voice (you can tell by the way his speech bubbles are drawn), so dark and chillingly sepulchral you'd almost think it was coming from the grave.

And it is. Al Simmons, it turns out, is a dead man. A former U.S. intelligence officer and CIA assassin, the young African-American hero was betrayed by his boss on a mission and wasted. But in his dying moments, Simmons cut a deal with the devil: If he could return to Earth and see his wife, Wanda, one last time, the devil could take his soul.

Deals with the devil don't quite work out as we mortals expect them to, however. So when Simmons finally returns to Earth, it's five years after his death. Not only has Wanda remarried, but her new husband is Simmons' best bud, intelligence analyst Terry Fitzgerald. Moreover, Simmons discovers that his new duds are, in fact, a uniform, and that his powers were bestowed by Malebolgia, the devil he dealt with. Al Simmons has become a Hellspawn, one of the generals in Hell's Army.

These powers turn out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as Spawn, Simmons is free to fight bad guys here on Earth and happily dispatches child killers, Mafia hit men and other assorted miscreants to Hell. Trouble is, once there, they become cannon fodder for Malebolgia's war on Heaven. Therein lies the rub. How can Spawn fight evil and protect his loved ones without aiding the demonic warlord to whom he is beholden?

Not exactly "The Adventures of Superman," is it?

A best seller

Simmons may not be what we expect in a superhero, but that hasn't hurt Spawn's standing as a superhero comic. Since its launch in 1992, Spawn has been one of the best-selling titles in the comic book world, with a current average of 165,000 to 180,000 in monthly sales, as well as similar sales for spinoff comics like Curse of the Spawn.

Moreover, McFarlane's creation has, er, spawned a small empire of secondary ventures. In addition to the live-action movie (which opened Aug. 1), there's a soundtrack album featuring performances by such artists as Marilyn Manson with the Sneaker Pimps and Metallica with DJ Spooky, and an animated series, which originally aired on HBO and will be available on video tomorrow. Add in two separate video games -- one for Nintendo 64, the other for Sony PlayStation -- trading cards, action figures, snowboards and a clothing line, and it's easy to see why McFarlane Productions has declared this "The Year of Spawn."

As gung-ho as his marketing campaign is, however, McFarlane casts a cool eye over Spawn's prospects with mainstream America and admits up front that there's no way Al Simmons will ever become America's Most Beloved Superhero.

"I mean, here's a man who's killed, and his flesh is burnt, and he's returned from death by Hell with these supernatural powers," says McFarlane, over the phone from his Phoenix, Ariz., studio. "That's something that I would think some people can relate to, and others can't."

McFarlane is kind of glad that Spawn, for all its popularity in the comic book universe, hasn't quite made it into the mainstream. Because the moral ambiguities that color Spawn's world are nowhere as easy to digest as the black-and-white battles fought by guys like Superman and Spiderman.

Hell -- in Spawn's world, it's hard to say if there even are good guys.

"If you're looking at Spawn to be this pure, good, Boy Scout kind of character, then you're going to have a bit of a problem," says McFarlane. "He isn't Clark Kent, and he isn't Batman. He's flawed."

Indeed he is. As McFarlane put it in an episode of the animated series, the thing to remember about Al Simmons is that even though he worked as a professional killer and sold his soul to the devil, he did both for love -- love of his country and love of his wife. And that's what makes him interesting. "The character himself was chosen by Hell to be this general in training not because he was purely good or purely bad; it was because he has the potential for both," he says.

At its core, Spawn deals with issues like good and evil, salvation and damnation, on an almost theological level, something that puts it on par with such critically acclaimed comics as Sandman, Hellblazer and Preacher. But there's a reason Spawn outsells the others.

"Those books are a little more high art than what I do, in terms of presenting their ideas," says McFarlane. "For me, it's like, 'How can you give something to 12-year-olds and give something to 27-year-olds, and they both get something somewhat equally out of it?'

"I don't know that you could show Sandman to a 12-year-old and they would get it on too many levels. But with Spawn, they'll get it, because it'll be, 'Wow, there's this cool guy with a cape, and he does all these super things.' It's the fantasy element.

"At the same time, you can delve deeper into [questions like] 'What is good? Where does it come from? Why are we here? What is this world for?' You get into deep questions that, on some level, we ask ourselves every day. It just happens to be presented in a superhero comic book."

Multiple media

Spawn isn't just a comic, though. Because the story works on many different levels, the story is malleable enough to translate into a variety of media. Spawn the movie is bright and visceral; Spawn the animation is dark and grown-up; and Spawn the comic is action-packed and slyly cerebral. Each has its own charms.

"I don't think that if you watched Spawn the animation and Spawn the movie that you will go, 'Aw, it's just the same thing,' " says McFarlane. "Each one of them presents a different kind of subject matter and a different idea, with the same characters."

What carries through each version, though, is the Spawn attitude. Spawn, says McFarlane, is "not politically correct. He's not afraid to stand up for what he is, and we don't make any apologies for what he is." Moreover, that message comes through loud and clear in the film.

"There are ways to put something out there that still has teeth in it, instead of basically extracting the teeth and gumming stuff to death," McFarlane says proudly. So even though he makes no claims to cinematic greatness -- "I mean, it's not Shakespeare by any stretch, but it's not bad," he says -- there's no doubt in his mind that the Spawn movie will be a success.

"There's a frustration amongst the core audience [for this film]," he says. "They want something that's got a little bit of bite to it. And this thing has a bite to it."

McFarlane believes that this is only the beginning for Spawn. "The goal is to make Spawn a staple, not to make Spawn a fad," he says. "I want to create my Mickey Mouse." Whether that means that there's a Spawn theme park in our future ("Go to Hell -- Visit Spawnland!") remains to be seen, but there will surely be more movies.

"Will we get a sequel?" McFarlane asks rhetorically. "Yes. It's almost impossible for me to see any cracks in the armor now. And I'm not saying it's because our movie is fantastic; I'm not hyping the movie. I'm just saying that I know the number of people that are hungry for this kind of material, and there are too many of them out there not to support this product in that way."

Pub Date: 8/04/97

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