Spawn: Blood & Shadows
Paul Jenkins, writer,
Ashley Wood, artist
(Image, 1999)

Someone's living in an old house which was once an asylum. Before that, it was an Indian burial ground, the scene of a mass slaughter by early American colonists.

Can anyone say "cliche"?

Blood & Shadows is an attempt by Todd McFarlane's people to break the Spawn character out of his typical hell-powered superhero role and give him some psychological depth. It doesn't work, and not just because Spawn hardly makes an appearance in the book.

(For the record, I was a big fan of McFarlane when he took Marvel's Spider-Man in a new direction, both writing and drawing the character in new and cool ways. When he went solo to begin his own company and birth the Spawn character, he made a good start and built a popular series around the character of a government assassin who, assassinated himself, makes a bad deal with the Devil, gains a whole bunch of power and a powerful lot of ugly -- and proceeds to break his bargain to fight on the side of the righteous. But McFarlane started losing it somewhere along the line, perhaps when he decided to make folk heroes of the rock band Kiss and dabble in the realm of evil clowns. Sigh.)

Based on his introduction to his book, McFarlane is pleased as punch with Blood & Shadows, which he likens to DC's landmark Arkham Asylum. But it's a poor comparison. Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum broke new ground, and the artwork by Dave McKean was so good because it was so bad -- the acid-touched style suited the mood and subject admirably.

The only similarity here is the style of art -- which in this case is merely annoying, since there's not the same sense of all-encompassing madness that made Arkham such a good story -- and the fact that there's an asylum involved.

Here's the story in short: A female cop is on the trail of a serial killer. She also is moving in with her long-time female lover, a stripper, and they've moved far from her precinct because she fears being "outed" and losing her shot at a captaincy. They move into the former asylum/burial ground and sense that things there are "weird."

Conveniently enough, there aren't any normal people living there. The place is populated by the likes of Greta, who in her youth was the lover of a notorious doctor at Auschwitz and now pretends to be a Jewish survivor of the camp; Raphael, who killed two good samaritans as his rite of passage into a gang and can't live with the guilt; Mr. Sutter, a former teacher who was too fond of his male pupils; crackheads Johnny and Cindy; and Ronnie, who likes to set fires. (That last character kinda gives things away, doesn't it?)

Leah, the cop, and Camille, the stripper, seem to argue more than anything, which makes one wonder why they decided to move in together -- particularly when Camille reveals during one of their fights that they've been together six months and never had sex. And Leah has a festering demon complex because of her domineering mother.

The story about Leah and Camille and the serial killer might have made a good story without all the extraneous garbage about Indian burial grounds and Auschwitz and such. What role do most of the protagonists' neighbors plays in all this? Nothing, except to be there as filler, to drive home the point that the place and its people are weird. And it further devolves into further cliches when we get into tired plot devices about cops who break the rules in pursuit of clues, angry police chiefs, federal involvement when the locals screw up and, ultimately, a cop who's chasing himself.

I have no clue what the bit in the beginning, with a crow and a bear and some kind of seer figure, has to do with anything at all.

The whole subplot about Leah and her mother and some very illegal surgery in Leah's youth is just silly. The climactic finish lacks climax.

And what about Spawn, the title character of the book? He flits about here and there, somehow transformed into an angel of Heaven and Hell who can foretell people's post-death fates. His relationship to the Spawn of the ongoing series is completely unclear.

Oh, and Ronnie sets fires. And none too soon.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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