Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar

Wait . . . one more for the road? OK. You talked me into it.

Now, in exchange for your patience and kind forbearance I will finish this essay with my absolute best convention story. Trust me. It’s from my first big convention - Wonder Con 1993, Oakland - and an early peak. I haven’t been to a con of any kind since 2000, and honestly? I don’t think I missed much. I was at Wonder Con ‘93. It was all going to be downhill from there.

But first - can we just talk for a minute about Image?

If you weren’t around I don’t know if I can describe to you, in hindsight, just how intense the first, oh - eighteen months of Image were. It made the news. The news! These guys were rockstars to a degree that is kind of embarrassing to discuss in hindsight - even jaded and slightly suspicious as I was at the time. We were all just kids. I didn’t particularly like the kind of comics Image was putting out in the first year of their existence, but the story of the company was a compelling enough hook that I was happy to try anything that seemed even vaguely palatable.

The drama of the Image era played out for much of the country - and for myself -in the pages of Wizard. The magazine, which premiered in July 1991, had in the space of just a year managed to insert itself directly into the center of the mainstream of comics discourse. Certainly in hindsight the suddenness with which the company made itself indispensable was quite suspicious! Image was good for Wizard in that the drama of the company’s founding was the leading story in the magazine’s news section for literal years on end. Each of the early Image founders sat down for very lengthy - surprisingly lengthy - interviews. Some more than once. The Image guys really liked to talk, and Wizard sold lots of copies with Image characters on the cover.

Now, there’s really no excuse for the fact that I subscribed to Wizard for so long. It took me a couple years to get around to subscribing, but only because I was lazy about stuff like that. I hate the sensation of ordering or subscribing to something or other and then seeing it in the store before the mailbox - who doesn’t? But eventually I knuckled down and sent in the subscription card with the check. And wouldn’t you know it, I always ended up getting the magazine later than the newsstand. The newsstand! That’s some rank bullshit, as attested to by the fact that even decades later I’m still kind of raw about it.

Bullshit or ignominy, I here lay down my arms and admit all my sins: I didn’t just subscribe to Wizard, I bought the specials (the earliest ones of which were actually pretty nice), ordered some of the 1/2 issues (and you want to talk about taking forever? I think I am literally somehow still waiting for The Maxx #1/2 to arrive), and dear lord in heaven . . . I bought Hero Illustrated, because it was kind of like Wizard only with better writing, which if you recall the 90s was actually more of a “turn-off.” 

Why am I telling you these incredibly distressing factoids from my adolescence and teenage years? You would be completely within your rights to think less of me, because I know for a fact I winced while running down the litany. I mean, sure, it’s probably a venal sin to have read a silly magazine in your youth. Some good writing snuck in occasionally through the back door. Anyone reading comics at the time who won’t cop to getting something decent from Palmer’s Picks at some point is probably misremembering, because just that one column was a gateway to a lot of books that most of Wizard’s core readership would otherwise never have seen. And, to their credit, even after Palmer’s Picks ended, their actual reading recommendations tended to be a lot better than their reputation would have you believe. 

Still, in hindsight the whole thing was . . . ugh. Kind of disgusting? Vaguely predatory? Now that I’m older basically all marketing aimed at children seems profoundly sordid. That opinion is more than a little bit influenced by the sheer tonnage of comics industry marketing material I willingly - willingly! - scraped into my fetid maw at such a young and tender age. A whole galaxy of unctuous grifters, waiting for you every month in the pages of The Guide to Comics! 

It was all a scam, a pyramid scheme that depended on a wide circle of people actively convincing an even wider circle of people that these weird little pamphlets would at some future time be worth lots of money. As long as enough people believed that more people believed they would be worth money, people would buy them in quantities commensurate with perceived value. That lasted until, oh . . . hmmm, Summer of 1993?

Now flashback to April of 1993, Wonder Con. Things were still going fantastic. No icebergs off the bow, no sir!

Even at the time, I remember thinking very clearly, heading into the Summer of 1993 (AKA “The Great Disaster”), how the hell am I going to afford all this crap? Dark Horse rolled out a new superhero line with sixteen weekly issues, a buck a piece, which was a pretty good marketing gimmick for the time. Some of them could have been fantastic for all history remembers, you probably only remember Ghost. Yet, oddly, Ghost wasn’t the one that got made into a movie. Do you remember which one did?

Malibu was Image’s original publisher, until the money materialized and the founders realized they had no need for middlemen. In their absence Malibu rolled out a new superhero line, too, this time with a bunch of guys you remembered from the 70s and 80s. Which was also a pretty good marketing gimmick for the time, if we’re being completely honest. And, before we go any further, it bears stating for the record that there was good stuff under the Ultraverse banner. A lot of seasoned pros doing very confident but rarely phenomenal work.

Except for Rune, which was one of the very best comics of the decade, and you only don’t think that because you haven’t read Barry Windsor-Smith’s ode to the naked lavender space vampire who likes ripping people in half with his bare fucking hands. I mean, Rune should be a household name. If people know who Spider-Man: Noir is, then by god they should know about Rune -

- and I just realized Spider-Man: Noir’s name has a colon in it. You’d have to be a really shitty person to make a joke about that.

Sorry. I was talking about Rune. Don’t mind me, I get het up.

To make a short story very long: Image was dong quite well heading into Wonder Con. The company had actually put out a few things. Early successes were sufficient enough to justify parting ways with Malibu by early 93. And even if the books were late a lot - I mean, uhhh, a lot a lot? - I think everyone assumed that was a problem they’d get under control. Because boy howdy, if they didn’t! Why, it’s not like that chronic tardiness would ever undermine the retail and supply chain for the whole industry, now is it? Obviously not.

That show was right after Spawn #9 - the Neil Gaiman issue that launched a thousand lawsuits. The Gaiman issue was part of four issues that were guest written by industry names - Alan Moore, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller were the others, if you couldn’t quite recall - for the rather transparent purpose of bolstering the series’ perceived weakness: i.e., its creator’s shortcomings as a writer. Also significant in this context is that, at issue #9, Spawn was already the grand old man of the bunch.

Something else I remember making an impact on the eve of the show: a weird one-shot called Darker Image with three features, each stranger than the last. The first was the first appearance of The (aforementioned) Maxx by Sam Keith, the second a fruitless and pointless Lobo ripoff by Rob Liefeld called Bloodwulf (Bloodwulf!), and the third the first appearance of Jim Lee deciding he was going to draw like Sin City for a while. And I don’t mean I little bit like Sin City, I mean Deathblow looked basically just like Sin City except possibly with a better grasp of anatomy because I mean have you ever read a Frank Miller comic book?

Plus I mean . . . Deathblow. Not just the name of a character who appeared once, but a name used by a character who appeared over and over again for many years. At least he doesn’t have a colon in his name. That’s gotta stink.

The Maxx was part of the company’s second wave, which also included a brand new Alan Moore series (1963, still unfinished, still waiting), Keith Giffen’s Trencher, and Mike Grell’s Shaman’s Tears. Don Simpson also popped up to do the extraordinarily weird hagiography / roast Splitting Image, a MAD Magazine-style retelling of the company’s formation. If you ever run across it in a dollar box (and I honestly can’t imagine where else you’d come across it in 2019?) it needs to be seen to be believed. Add to that the Savage Dragon / Megaton Man one-shot which came out at the same time, another oddity that  drew an explicit genealogy between the 80s black & white indie press and Image’s decidedly more upscale version of independence. (Remember the Dragon himself first appeared years before Larsen even worked for Marvel, in the pages of Gary Carlson’s Megaton anthology.)

So there was a lot of stuff going on. My favorite Image book of the show was possibly the lowest profile release of the second wave: Al Gordon and Jerry Ordway’s Wildstar, which I remember having an absolutely perfect debut issue. I run down this laundry list for the purpose of pointing out that for all the blame Image come in for later, they reacted to criticism of their initial launch by putting out some decent books with unexpected names attached. But by the time all the smoke cleared by the end of the Summer, Image’s original bout of experimentation had run its course. The Maxx carried on but by the end of the year it was one of the few books at the company that didn’t belong to one of the founders.

(It eventually wound up on MTV, which surprised the fuck out of me at the time and honestly still does a bit in hindsight, but only because The Maxx was a genuinely strange and clearly personal project for Keith. Also, for what it’s worth? Most months The Maxx was Image’s best book.)

In April, though? Those guys were riding high. All smiles at their panel on Saturday afternoon. Weird energy with all those guys in the same room - they weren’t all friends, you could already smell. But they needed each other, and its very easy to overcome personal objections over bags of money. (Whilce Portacio had already stepped back from active involvement in the company. Wetworks did eventually come out from Image, but Portacio was the only founder not to become a partner - I believe due to a family illness.) It was twenty-six years ago and I barely remember anything about the panel except that Erik Larsen was late and literally everyone on stage spent much of the panel making fun of how many pages he drew in a day. Which, I mean, say what you will, but they certainly did have their senses of humor.

Another Erik Larsen memory - from 2000, the last con I attended, another Wonder Con. Weird energy. Absolutely dead show, even on a Saturday afternoon -

- and that reminds me of another exchange I had, with Rory Root, about how dead that show was, and then I remember the last exchange I had with him, before I dropped out of Berkeley in 2000. He didn’t know me well but we knew each other enough that he asked me my plans after the end of the semester. I said I was taking a leave of absence but that I intended to go back some day. He laughed and told me that I should be careful, because he had said that exact thing. Then he gestured to his store - the late, great Comic Relief in Berkeley, CA - and said, and look where I ended up. 

Anyway. At Wonder Con 2000 my best friend from high school and I got to spend a solid twenty minutes yakking with Larsen while he drew an extraordinarily nice sketch of the Dragon for me - one of the few sketches I own, even if now made out to a defunct name. It was around the time of his Journal cover story, so we talked about that, and the series, and a few other things.

I still read Savage Dragon through periods of my life where I read almost nothing else. That I am currently estranged from the book is a symptom of the fact that I remain estranged from almost everything in the industry. But I will almost certainly catch up on the Dragon someday, and that should tell you a great deal about my priorities in life.

Someone needs to make the Image biopic: gimme the Straight Outta Compton with Jim Lee as Dr. Dre to Todd McFarlane’s Ice Cube. Which of course makes Rob Liefeld Eazy E, and wow there’s even a famous photograph of those two together you can run with the column, Tucker. If you want to know what life was like in the early 90s, just look at that picture and drink some Surge. 

Things were great in Spring of 1993 but maybe not so much when Liefeld was forced out of the company three years later. The one consistent through-line across Liefeld’s career is that he’s a great guy who everyone loves to work with until they go into business with him, at which point bad things happen. Maybe not Spawn #9 level bad, but Spawn #9 was such a boondoggle that it set in motion a chain of events which only ended two decades after the fact when Marvel eventually won a lawsuit to which they weren’t even a party. Which, I mean, sort of actually did happen.

All that still lay in the future. At that moment Todd McFarlane was at the height of his career. And even if he is now but a shadow of the figure he was, in his prime he was simply the most powerful artist in comics.

Notice the adjective I used there. I didn’t say “best selling,” or “most talented.” Certainly, he sold very well, and he was very talented. But he wasn’t powerful because he was good, but because he was the first of the bunch of them to really figure out how to leverage that popularity into actual power. He acted like a professional athlete on free agency, not like a guy with a lot of sentimental attachment to his work. Which is not to say that he was anything other than a consummate professional, but that he was a consummate professional and increasingly so little else was a feeling in regards to his work that never left me. Certainly not as the years turned into decades and his early promise was calcified by the logic of empire into self-parody. 

His Marvel work, even as it grew bloated and baroque in the later days of his tenure, was consistently imaginative and witty in a way that Spawn never was. You know something about Todd McFarlane that doesn’t get mentioned a lot? His early work was funny. Go back to his Hulk, or the early Amazing Spider-Man - his figures stomp and scowl like Will Elder caricatures. He put lots of little touches into the work - like the Felixes - that spoke to someone who really was enjoying himself, and learning and getting better at a measurable clip.

But then he started to make a lot of money, and - let’s be completely clear, all of the gentlemen on stage in 1993 were making very good money, if not actually rich outright from selling a lot of comics for Marvel. More money than I have ever seen in my entire life, to be certain. So I can hardly blame Todd for being interested in making a lot of money, because had I been in his position I would almost certainly have tried to do the same, and most likely have failed because my business acumen is probably worse than Liefeld’s. I mean, it’s close. I’ve only declared bankruptcy the one time but I’ve also never been ousted from the company I helped found with my friends because they figured out I was using “our” company to help boost “my” company when they weren’t looking, which I mean is the kind of thing that can happen to anybody, right?

Eazy E was also notorious for employing “eccentric” business practices among friends! See? It writes itself.

Anyway. The early McFarlane was a fun artist who would have probably developed into a great artist, had he been just a bit less successful and so been forced to remain at the drawing board. As it is, every new piece I see of his seems essentially frozen in time twenty five years in the past. Or, to about when he started running his own company and quit drawing regular sequential work.

I’m not much in the advice giving racket, but if I had any one bit of advice that I would consider absolutely essential for young cartoonists (and writers, for that matter): get a gig with a steady deadline. You will learn more in a month from having to draw than you will in a year from wanting to draw. Some remarkable people can be self-starters who work every day independent of outside stimulus, but the rest of us sometimes do need to rely on more concrete forms of incentive.

The absolute worst thing that can happen to you, as an artist? Getting rich enough that you don’t have to work every day.

Now, at this late date I can’t say whether or what McFarlane cares about. I know he cares about Spawn, inasmuch as he has jealously guarded his vision of the character from any contamination. But I wonder whether or not he hasn’t ultimately suffocated the guy. Because there’s no reason Spawn has to suck. I have always maintained that Spawn had, as they say, “good bones.” He’s a Faust riff, and that’s a good template for an origin that he also shares with (Stan Lee’s origin for) the Silver Surfer. He’s got a pretty threadbare milieu - government assassin betrayed by his superiors, etc - but threadbare can be just fine if its used as a springboard to get somewhere decent. McFarlane also saw the rising trend of urban fantasy with a horror streak. Since then the genre has only grown in popularity.

And, I mean, come on: that costume. Billowing sentient cloak. Prehensile chains. So many fucking spikes. No one else could get away with something so thoroughly bizarre and purposefully, maniacally busy. It shouldn’t work at all, but it does.

But there really should be more to the guy than an iconic look. Spawn has always had a great costume and a decent premise but no saga. Nothing in his world ever has a discrete beginning, middle, or end. Nothing ever goes anywhere but in circles. It tends to work against the long term prospects of characters when all they do is tread water rehashing over and over again the greasy details of their origin.

Of course, there are also worse things than spending years at a time sitting around a garbage heap in an alley talking about your past. One of those things is Spawn Kills Everyone. Which I am distressed but also not terribly surprised to report was written by McFarlane, but not drawn by him - no, the honor of illustrating our hero goes to J.J. Kirby and Will Robinson. If you were looking for a good opportunity to check back in with Spawn after a time away, this is not that opportunity.

It’s not a good story. It’s not funny. It’s supposed to be funny, or at least I think so, but it struggles weakly to overcome a petulant premise. The premise of the book - as in, not the subtext - is that Spawn is upset that other heroes get movies and he doesn’t, so he sets out to kill them. Only, it’s not actually Spawn, rather a chibi-style “Lil’ Spawn” who basically, uhhhh, well - I’m not going to say they act just like Deadpool, because Deadpool can be pretty funny, whereas Lil’ Spawn just makes me really sad.

The first Spawn Kills Everyone one-shot is just that, him going to a comic convention to kill all the superheroes with movies. The plot of the Spawn Kills Everyone mini-series picks up from there when Lil’ Spawn, still working quite inefficiently to kill the more popular heroes, one day craps out a few hundred tiny Baby Spawns, the design for which looks strikingly similar to the old X-Factor villain Nanny.

And I realize, if you have previous familiarity with my writing - and are thereby used to the prolificacy of my swearing - you probably read “craps out” as a euphemism. But no, I must clarify: if Lil’ Spawn has anything that might be called a “signature move,” it’s screaming on the toilet. Which is most of what he spends his time doing. Again, I wish I was exaggerating, but as the lovable scamp himself might say, “OUTTA MY WAY! I’M GOING TO SHART!”

I mean, he really says that. To whom is not made clear in the moment, however, as Lil’ Spawn appears to live alone.

A few years ago I found a rather nice hardcover of Torment for under $10. Around what I paid for the series when it was new off the stands, actually. Based solely on my memories of one of the most roundly pilloried stories in the history of the medium I had no expectations other than that the art would probably be flattered by the better paper in a way that not all reprints are. McFarlane’s books have always looked dynamite, even when the story was barely a whisper.

But Torment? Honestly in hindsight not that bad. It’s a weird story inasmuch as the way it was paced and plotted - to say nothing of marketed! - made five issues of what was basically “a really bad night for Spider-Man” seem a kind of shaggy dog story. If it hadn’t been (briefly) the highest selling comic of all time you might not have otherwise had a problem with it when encountered it in the normal course of events. It would have been better as a two-parter, but so probably would have Watchmen

Alas, you hear the wind sigh, it was (briefly) the highest selling comic of all time. Revisiting the story after two and a half decades it was just a really badly decompressed Spider-Man arc that got hyped to an amount that - well, let’s put it this way: there aren’t many comic book covers from the last few decades that I still regularly see on T-shirts in the wild, and yet I just saw another Spider-Man #1 T-shirt last week in Chipotle. The hype clearly had an impact that can still be felt.

I know I’ve said - will undoubtedly continue to say many negative things about Todd McFarlane. This is The Comics Journal, after all. But if we can just reflect for a few moments, in all seriousness: how many iconic comic book covers have you drawn that look that great on a T-shirt? Hell, I hate printed tees with a passion but if I saw a new one in the store I’d be hard pressed to stop myself from buying it - I mean, I think my old Spider-Man #1 is still knocking around this very house.

Inasmuch as we can look back and identify “decompression” and “widescreen” as related trends that arose at the end of the 90s, it would be exceedingly difficult not to see in Torment an occasionally clumsy and poorly executed rough draft of something very similar to what Ellis and Hitch did with The Authority. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with deliberate pacing, or lots of splash pages, or stylized terse action movie dialogue - Todd McFarlane just wasn’t the guy to try something so new and different his very first time at bat.

It certainly seemed clear at the time that he just didn’t know how to pace a comic very well - odd how hindsight reveals strange affinities.

Anyway. 1993. Wonder Con. History would reveal each man’s motivation through their actions.

Before the decade was out Jim Lee sold his characters and studio to DC in exchange for a senior management position and, I’m assuming, a great deal of money. I’ve seen pictures of him with the other founders since then, at anniversary functions. He’s still a part of the company’s history. It doesn’t seem like hard feelings, but who knows?

Who knows what goes through their minds now, when they see one and another?

Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri both, I believe, ended up benefitting far more than any of the other founders, relative to their positions prior to the exodus. Erik Larsen is still doing Savage Dragon. He’s done every issue of Savage Dragon. He wanted a company to publish his own comic books, which is precisely what he did and has done.

Rob Liefeld? That guy’s the untrained golden retriever of comics: he still refuses to draw feet and pisses on the furniture, but dammit if he never quite seems to wear out his welcome. His work continues to get weirder and weirder. Have you read his Bible comics? Highly recommended. I honestly couldn’t guess  what all he wanted, back then. Probably to meet Eazy E? Well, he did get to meet Eazy E and that’s pretty cool, even if Eazy was in reality an absolutely awful person who you wouldn’t have wanted to know under most any circumstances. The movie sanded some edges, is what I’m saying.

Precisely why they need to make an Image movie.

And that leaves us with Todd. I forget, did contemporary news stories describe him as the group’s leader? Whether he was in name he was in deed. And, not for nothing, as even reliable workhorses like Lee and Larsen struggled against the restrictions inherent to being one’s own boss, Spawn wasn’t late - or, in any event, if the book ever was late, never enough to derail an almost-monthly schedule. (The schedule mix-ups for Spawn wouldn’t begin until the late teens, when the book decided to skip three issues and then hire Grant Morrison to write them later. The 90s were a weird-ass time, man.) He didn’t want to put out a bunch of spin-offs, which as we saw at the time entailed hiring a studio of assistants to launch a factory production line system just like the one they already left behind. But they were in charge of this factory, which I guess made all the difference?

Time passed and the industry changed, but Todd stayed the same. It’s always 1993 for Spawn. And that’s a problem, because 1993 was twenty-six years ago. Spawn Kills Everyone is a sad comic because it points to a creator and a creation still stuck twenty-six years ago, when Spawn was the hottest character in comics and literally everyone doodled his cape and chains in the margins of their science notes.

But it’s not 1993, it’s 2019, and the most frequently asked question in relation to Spawn is usually, “that still being published?” If you had asked me in 1993, I would have guessed, based on the hype, the rollout, the genuine affection people had for McFarlane’s art, and his own significant and (at the time obvious) business acumen, Spawn would have stuck around. He really didn’t, and there’s no one to blame there but the guy who turned himself into Norma Desmond. He’s still big. It’s the comics that got small.

He used to be the guy who could rise above it all, but he’s been craning his neck up at the skyscrapers for a while now.  

Anyway. I promised you my best convention story.

After the Image panel let out the crowd shuffled back to the exhibition hall. The Image booth was set up to the side of the main doors, and was the biggest presence at the show. By contrast, Marvel had a few tables in the corner.

The Image booth also had a dude dressed like Chapel. If you don’t remember Chapel, he was the member of Youngblood who originally killed Spawn, but after Liefeld was shown the door that was retconned away. Chapel was the dude with the Punisher skull on his face, who was later famous for being the guy with “weaponized HIV” in his origin, which is one reason why him being erased from Spawn continuity really wasn’t a bad idea.

But in 1993? In 1993 there were no bad ideas. The guy dressed like Chapel had a stack of Youngblood #0 to give away, and so stepped into the middle of the aisle holding aloft the pile of comics. He was instantly mobbed by dozens of fanboys trying to grab one - maybe it was closer to hundreds? In my memory it was a mob, and that poor schmuck dressed like the most regrettable superhero ever was trapped.

I saw the mob and waded into the crowd, worked my way to the center. I got the very last Youngblood #0 from Chapel. Only, it wasn’t just any Youngblood #0, it was the gold foil edition that was worth $60 for a while. In Wizard.

Now I’d be surprised if you had to pay more than a dollar for it, anywhere. Because 1993 was a long time ago. And they don’t even publish Wizard anymore, so there’s that.

Oh yeah: the movie they made out of Comics Greatest World was Barb Wire, starring Pamela Anderson as the titular bounty hunter. Not to be confused with Spider-Man: Noir’s arch nemesis, Fiber Optic Cable.

Because he’s got a colon in his name. Get it?