By Jake Zawlacki
Abstract: The practice of the homage cover dates back to the very beginnings of the superhero genre, beginning as early as Action Comics #8’s homage to N.C. Wyeth’s painted cover for The Last of the Mohicans, and occurs in the present day. There are a variety of reasons for its continued practice: market pressures to inspire purchases from collectors, cashing in on nostalgia, placing new storylines within a past lineage, and more. We also find traces of “autoclasm,” as coined by Christopher Pizzino, in that the homage cover has a layer of “self-breaking” in terms of building and defacing its own legitimacy. With the formation of Image Comics in 1992 by seven of the most successful comic artists at the time—Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio—, and their distinctive and charged styles, Marvel and DC had to make some room for the new guys. Existing outside of the decades-long history of Marvel Comics or DC, however, would mean Image was starting from ground zero. As a comic trying to build cultural cachet without a lineage to rely on, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn will be a perfect case study to illustrate the tensions of legitimacy within the homage cover. We find the homage employed at distinct moments within Spawn’s run, from early issues with guest writers such as Alan Moore and Neal Gaiman, to milestone anniversary issues, to the present day, all with traces of Pizzino’s “autoclasm.” In looking at the foundations of Image Comics, the constant concern with respect by McFarlane, and the story of Spawn itself, a variety of tensions involving legitimacy will coincide with the homage cover. This analysis will also look at the complications in defining homage, the controversies involved with homage covers, McFarlane’s masculine elements in homage, and the strange feedback loop of McFarlane using the practice on his own previous work. Ultimately, I will use these various aspects to put the homage cover on full display, one that includes the paradox of claiming the past to build a comic’s present while simultaneously undermining the comic’s legitimacy by not allowing the comic to stand on its own.
The Past, Presently
On February 9th, 2022, Todd McFarlane, famed creator of Spawn and one of the founding members of Image Comics, tweeted, “Folks! We’ve EXTENDED the deadline to order for SPAWN #327! I shared my work in progress photo the other day and it got a HUGE response (thank you for that)! This is MY cover that is going to press next week. YOU still have time to reserve YOUR copy. #spawn #haunt #imagecomics.” While this might be seen as the usual marketing attempt to drum up excitement for a new release, this comic was a bit different, in that it was a bit of the same.
The variant cover of Spawn #327 features the character Haunt, co-created by Robert Kirkman and McFarlane (Kirkman et al. 2009), assuming the iconic position of the title character on McFarlane’s own Spider-Man #1. It is also a position Spawn has taken up twice before on the cover: first on Spawn #8 (McFarlane), and then Spawn #231 (McFarlane), roughly 20 years later. This is not the only example of an homage cover to McFarlane’s iconic Spider-Man #1; in fact, the oft-referenced cover was replicated shortly after its creation in Spider-Man #13 by McFarlane himself. The homages haven’t stopped since, with examples in the past year including Batman #118 (Bogdanovic), Venom #35 (Lee), Savage Spider-Man #1 (Sandoval), and more recently, Spawn #327 (McFarlane). McFarlane’s immensely popular cover designs at Marvel stand as some of the most common subjects of homage for the past thirty years. Covers referencing his work can be found on a wide range of comics from superheroes to independents, showing his influence and eye-catching appeal across genres.
The homage cover is a common practice in superhero comic books and one that has rarely received critical attention. In defining the homage, and looking at its history and practice, elements of “autoclasm,” or the “self-breaking” nature of comics and their own legitimacy, as coined by Christopher Pizzino, will begin to emerge (74). Through examining various covers of Spawn, the foundation of Image Comics, and McFarlane’s use of masculine elements in his work, this essay builds on Pizzino’s framework to reveal the deeper tensions of legitimacy underlying the homage cover as used by McFarlane, and the tradition of homage more broadly.
While it is always dangerous to try and pinpoint the first of anything, especially in the comics medium, Brian Cronin of Comic Book Resources did not shy away from the task. In the aptly named online post “What Was the First Comic Book Cover Homage?”, he proposes the cover of the 1939 Action Comics #8 in its reference to N. C. Wyeth’s painting for the cover of The Last of the Mohicans is the first homage cover in modern comic books. While it is possible that another example predates this, an homage this early shows that the replication of previous artwork on comic book covers has been a part of the medium almost since the superhero genre’s inception.
The “homage,” however, was rarely seen as such in the Golden Age of superhero comics. As Jules Feiffer writes in The Great Comic Book Heroes, often considered the first serious analysis of the superhero comics genre, “swiping was and is a trade term in comic books for appropriating . . . anyone of a number of sources and making it one’s own” (38). He writes that “swiping” was a practice so prolific it was “accepted as part of comic book folk lore” (39). Feiffer then goes on to note his own collection of swipes, determining their sources, and eventually swiping characters to create his own comic books he would then sell to neighbor kids.
This reception of artistic swiping varies considerably from contemporary sources. What was considered common practice in the early age of superhero comics is now often met with derision. Artists accused of swiping or recycling previous images are often pilloried in public forums as frauds or thieves (D2, “Laziness, Recycling, and Swipes”) and are sometimes even made the target of blog posts outlining all of their accused swipes (JimSmash). In another blog by Cronin, “What is the Difference Between a ‘Swipe’ and an ‘Homage’?”, he writes, “In general . . . the ‘line’ for when swipes annoy people is a nebulous thing and everyone decides on their own.”
To further complicate the matter, the term “parody cover” is also employed to describe a cover that references a previously published cover in style and composition. While “parody” would imply a humorous recreation, it is often used synonymously with “homage” or “swipe.”
This complicated terminology may best reveal itself in a recent controversy regarding Jim Rugg’s variant cover of Ed Piskor’s Red Room: Trigger Warnings #3. While Red Room: Trigger Warnings has often featured homage covers to popular titles such as Spawn, Love and Rockets, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Amazing Spider-Man, and more to positive reception, the response to the proposed homage to Art Spiegelman’s Maus provoked an altogether different reaction. The release of the proposed cover to Red Room: Trigger Warnings #3 elicited outcry about the cover’s making light of the subject of Maus, as seen in the comments thread of an article on comicsbeat.com where user “wolfbaker” writes “Man, I thought Jim was more sensible than this.” and user “rocketship” goes for the easy “you guys are soooo stupid.”
In the eyes of many readers, the homage demeaned and undermined the seriousness of the events depicted in the Holocaust survivor tale, a subject few would find humorous. While some saw this as an overreaction to an intentionally transgressive comic (Horselover Fat), others saw the cover as a clear subversion of Maus and its story (Johnston). The cover was pulled from production shortly after its release.
As the traditions of mimesis and homage sprawl across mediums and genres, this article will focus specifically on the comics medium defining covers that replicate the style and composition of another comic cover as “homage.” Additionally, “homage” may at times be used as a verb to avoid clunky and repetitive constructions.
Breaking Down Autoclasm
In Christopher Pizzino’s Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, he characterizes the comics medium as engaged in a constant struggle for greater cultural legitimacy (10). By looking at the almost compulsive desire of journalists and academics to posit comics within a Bildungsroman, or “coming of age” narrative structure, Pizzino reveals how the question of legitimacy comes to light in the works of comic creators themselves, and how this desire or attempt to garner legitimacy often undermines the very legitimacy creators aim to establish (38).
Pizzino proposes the term “autoclasm” to describe a quality of images that is “present when an image effects a kind of ‘self-breaking,’ as if it is designed to work against itself” (75). Additionally, “autoclastic icons are resonant evidence of status problems” (76). Pizzino analyzes thematic and stylistic elements of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, and Gilbert Hernandez’s Poison River to reveal autoclastic elements in various forms.
Miller’s Dark Knight offers Pizzino perhaps the most straightforward example of autoclasm. In Dark Knight, Pizzino argues the questioning of Batman as a legitimate or illegitimate hero is central to the question of legitimacy in the comics medium. Not only does the dark and gritty portrayal of Batman throw into question the inherent good of superheroes with a revelation of their fascist underpinnings, but characters within the comic itself discuss the legitimacy of Batman as either the savior of Gotham or a vigilante nuisance (Miller 36). In Batman’s final confrontation with Superman, Pizzino points to this “asymmetry as a vivid illustration of Miller’s own view of his medium’s position relative to the forces arrayed against it” (137).
Thinking of the history of the cover homage and the recent controversy of Red Room: Trigger Warnings, we can begin to find traces of this autoclasm in terms of the self-breaking nature of the homage image itself as well as comics’ legitimacy. When looking at the beginning of Image Comics and the creation of Spawn, we will find these tensions of legitimacy play out on center stage.
The early 1990s were an altogether different era for comic books where sales figures for popular comics reached into the millions per month. (For context, the average Marvel comic in 2021 sold around 50,000 copies a month) (comichron.com). The popularity of X-Men, New Mutants, Spider-Man, and X-Force catapulted artists such as Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, and Erik Larsen into stardom. All of these artists would leave Marvel to found a company where the work of creators was creator-owned and where editors who could veto artistic experimentation were a thing of the past.
After growing frustrated with Marvel’s work-for-hire business model where artists didn’t retain the rights of their work, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld met with the president, Terry Stewart, and editor, Tom DeFalco, of Marvel. The message was simple: “We’re leaving” (Meaney 00:22:56). They then went to DC comics, a company that had recently developed more creator-friendly contracts. But they only went to tell DC they were not going to work for them either, and instead were going to create a new publishing company independent of Marvel and DC. They were to create Image Comics.
The impact of this separation from the two main comics publishing houses was substantial in challenging the work-for-hire model, but the creation of Image Comics has received little scholarly attention, like Image Comics and its founders’ work more broadly (with the notable exceptions of Beaty and Woo and Anna Peppard). The break towards creator-owned characters at this economic and popular scale was a new model in the comics industry that would change the relationship between comics publishers and creator rights and provide a “safe haven” for creators even to this day (Khoury 15). If the creators were stars at Marvel and DC, they were now superstars at Image.
The formation of Image shaped a ground zero for new titles under the publishing company with the understanding that each creator would run a flagship title: Spawn (McFarlane), Youngblood (Liefeld), WildC.A.T.S. (Lee), Cyber Force (Silvestri), Shadowhawk (Valentino), and Wetworks (Portacio). As one fan remarked, “This was something I could get in on the ground floor of and I could be there from day one” (Meaney 00:33:20). And with a rush of fans, Image Comics rose to the second best-selling comic book publisher in the United States within months of its founding, surpassing DC.
With such a meteoric rise, Image could certainly claim financial success. However, because of its young age, Image and the titles it produced did not have the cultural cachet of Marvel and DC and could not draw on previous decades to substantiate their cultural legitimacy. Additionally, this legitimacy was often targeted by the deeply skeptical comics press (Beaty and Woo, 81-82). Todd McFarlane of Spawn, for instance, chose to use the cover homage to garner legitimacy for brand new characters by calling back to the legacies of Marvel and DC characters.
Spawn debuted to the largest sales of any independent comic to this day: over 1.7 million copies sold for Spawn #1. Lines of eager customers circled the block out of comic stores in its anticipation, as fans of McFarlane, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most outspoken personality of Image Comics, awaited what the “Toddfather” had in store. For the general public, Spawn lived up to the hype with sales figures over 100,000 for each issue well into 1999, seven years after its initial release (Iñigo 2019). In ‘94, Spawn became the centerpiece for McFarlane Toys, a subsidiary of Todd McFarlane Productions. In ’97, it was the subject of the eponymous-titled film. By the early 2000s, it was not only the clear flagship title of Image Comics, but one of two of the seven original titles still ongoing created by the Image founders (along with Larsen’s Savage Dragon).
Spawn’s commercial and popular success, however, did not directly translate to critical praise. In an especially vitriolic review from The Comics Journal no. 207, Sam Henderson writes “Spawn is arguably not only the worst comic book ever, but the all-time worst contribution to the history of civilization” (5). Later in that same issue, however, Greg Cwiklik reviews Wizard World Chicago ’98 and adds a note that “Spawn with its pulp-dramatic title lettering and his big cape is probably the best superhero feature going” (23). These opinions are representative of the often-dichotomous reception of Spawn: loved by fans or hated by critics. This perspective holds especially true for The Comics Journal which took up an “antipodal position” against Image Comics (Beaty and Woo, 81).
The premise of Spawn begins with Al Simmons, a former CIA assassin, who has been brought back from the dead in a Faustian deal with a devil for his soul. Wading through confusion and amnesia, Simmons eventually realizes he signed his soul away to see Wanda, his wife, one more time. In this deal, however, Simmons has become a Hellspawn, or “Hell’s pawn” as McFarlane often points out (McFarlane, Spawn No. 100), a soldier in Hell’s army in the age-old battle between Heaven and Hell. Spawn almost immediately rejects his role in the war between Heaven and Hell and instead keeps to himself in the alleys of New York City taking down anything from massive cyborgs to cybernetic gorillas to demons from Hell, while also protecting his fellow homeless brethren of the alleys of “Rat City.”
Spawn fits the bill of the antihero archetype of the 1990s. He exists on the fringes of society, does not work for any kind of established “good,” and often rejects the invitations to superpowered fights most heroes engage in ad nauseum. It is in these ways we see Spawn also reject the opportunities to, a la Pizzino, legitimize himself as a superhero. Another constant tension of legitimacy is in Simmons/Spawn’s identity as a Black man who has been effaced of his racial identity. With rare exceptions over the first 25 years of Spawn, Simmons almost always wears the costume of Spawn or is depicted with a zombified head that barely looks human. His Blackness is eroded by his new circumstances as a Hellspawn, never allowing him to interact with other characters as a person of color, but simply as Spawn, or a monster, thus never fully a “Black Superhero” until decades later. Through the creation of Image Comics, as well as in the character of Al Simmons/Spawn, we see the concern of legitimacy central to their foundation, a concern even more apparent in Spawn’s early homage covers.
Bringing in Big Guns
Todd McFarlane wrote, scripted, and inked the first seven issues of Spawn. In a long interview with Gary Groth of The Comics Journal, McFarlane infamously said, “I mean, fuck, I didn’t let some little thing like not being able to write stop me… (italics his)” (46). The admitted lack of writing ability drew early criticism of Spawn, but McFarlane defended his decision in that he’d “have to go through the ranks” of writers lamenting that he would not be able to “get Alan Moore to just script my book” and would instead “end up getting a guy who was my 57th choice” (46). When Groth’s interview of McFarlane was published in August 1992, Spawn was on issue number #3. By #8, however, McFarlane did indeed “get Alan Moore.”
Spawn #8 is not only the first issue to be written by someone other than McFarlane, but it also veers substantially from the rough alleys of New York. Moore offers the first attempt at expanding the universe by establishing the different realms of Hell, the demons that inhabit them, and the inevitable war with heaven. Moore’s work on Spawn was to establish him in his world—to legitimize him—as a character of larger proportions by a writer who may still hold the largest prestige, rightfully or not, of any comics writer ever as the famed “leader” of the “Brit Invasion” (Beaty and Woo, 60).
Additionally, Spawn #8 homages McFarlane’s previous brainchild at Marvel: Spider-Man #1. Written and drawn by McFarlane, the fifth concurrent Spider-Man title was a direct result of McFarlane’s peak popularity and wanting to have more control over the character and design (Manning, 184; O’Neill, 10). The Spider-Man cover depicts a bug-like Spidey entangled by webs of his own creation against a plain background. The pose calls into conversation Lee Konstantinou’s analysis of Rob Liefeld’s work in Youngblood #1 where, “[The characters] appear on pages devoid of any sense of composition . . . often floating in a space with no discernable background” (“The Cartoonist as Entrepreneur”).
The cover of Spider-Man #1 fits the description. Spider-Man occupies an arbitrary space—an arbitrariness accentuated by the easily changeable backgrounds of black and green in the various variant cover editions—and the composition of the webbing is directional only in that it culminates behind his body. If anything is being “held,” it is Spider-Man himself, either by his planning as he waits to explode from his crouch, or by accident, trapped in his own “superhero as still life” configuration (Konstantinou). Spawn also, however, exhibits the hypermasculine body unique to Image.
As Scott Bukatman writes, “The Image body is massively muscled, locked into a ‘dynamic,’ heroic pose. Despite accoutrements such as logos, masks, gauntlets, epaulets, and other superhero accessories, the bodies are essentially presented as nudes (costumes are more coloration than cover-up)” (59). To play on Bukatman’s “locked,” we see Spawn and Spider-Man very much locked into their position. Missing the webs of Spider-Man #1, Spawn is entangled in his own costume now squatting on his own cape, chains looped around his feet to prevent the quick movement his dynamic crouch might suggest. Later, in the cover to Spawn #231, Spidey’s webs will be replaced by chains altogether, the arbitrary empty space resembling something out of a Hellraiser film, trapping Spawn in more ways than one: in the homage composition, in his own costume, and in McFarlane’s “excess.”
The Style of Excess
In perhaps the most astute reading of the superhero style of the ‘90s, Anna Peppard asserts that “The styles of Lee, McFarlane, and Liefeld are united by a shared love of excess” (321). At a quick glance through X-Men, X-Force, Spider-Man or any of the artists’ other works at the time, excess is most easily apparent through the massive guns, muscles, and breasts of the era. However, Peppard adds nuance to the definition in that the artists, “Take [excess] to new heights, using ultra-detailed line work and dense, complicated page layouts to depict bodies so hyper-muscular and hyper-sexualised that they seem to lack internal organs or the capacity to move without tipping over or toppling like a precarious Jenga tower” (321-2).
This excess is on full display in Spawn’s crouch on the cover of #8, as his shortened (or nonexistent) abdomen and opposable hip joints exhibit a flexibility Olympic gymnasts would envy. But for all that masculine superpowered flexibility, Spawn remains “locked” in the homage allowed him.
In a sense, McFarlane calls back to his prior work with a wink and a nod clearly seen in the “After Me” below his signature. In another, the homage must borrow the legitimacy of a prior character and series to bring to a new character and title. And in yet another, Spawn’s own legitimacy is undermined by the very fact of not having its own cover, but a cover that must call back to the recent past of McFarlane’s peak Marvel fame in an attempt to place a new character within an older lineage of legitimacy. To homage a canonized work such as The Last of the Mohicans is to claim a canonical legitimacy, but an artist seeming to call back to a work known more for its economic rather than critical success is to reveal the complicated and, in this case economically, parasitic relationship between the homage and the original.
Spawn #9, written by Neil Gaiman of Sandman fame, introduces the first non-love interest female character in Angela, the cutthroat Hellspawn-hunting angel of Heaven. Interestingly, this issue is the second homage cover of the series; homaging none other than Brian Bolland’s cover of Wonder Woman #72 that came out only a couple months prior (Image Comics). While McFarlane’s cover is substantially busier, the callback to the most iconic female superhero in American comics is not accidental. McFarlane homages Wonder Woman to place Angela, a completely new character, into a lineage of the titular female superhero with another of the most respected comics writers of the era, Neil Gaiman.
Similar to Moore’s expansion of Hell, Gaiman builds the world of Heaven, its angels, hierarchy, and system, and positions Spawn as its new target. Again, we find another writer setting out to establish new elements of the story while McFarlane calls back to an already established character: Wonder Woman. By relying on this device of the homage cover, we can see two things. First, that Angela literally cannot stand on her own as the sole character of the cover, but must stand on the history before her, or perhaps, stand in the position allowed her by McFarlane, albeit in a markedly more revealing costume. And second, that the regality of Wonder Woman portrayed in the carefully constructed shield, spears, helmet, and drapery are torn down by both Angela in the composition and also in McFarlane’s style of excess as opposed to Bolland’s refined linework.
While both covers exhibit Konstantinou’s critique of “no discernible background,” the dust clouds behind Angela imply a real-world space of destruction as opposed to the mythological stasis of Wonder Woman. Angela, and McFarlane drawing her, has just now leveled the shield, spears, and cape of Medieval Spawn as well as the helmet, shield, spears, and drapery of Bolland’s careful composition. However, Aaron Taylor warns against a simplified psychoanalytic reading of the female superhero body writing:
In a psychoanalytic mode, perhaps the absence of the literal phallus in the world of the male superhero accounts for the relentless struggles for domination of the symbolic one. Although superheroines are caught up in the same grandiose melodramas of control as their male contemporaries, their participation in the action does not necessitate a pursuit of the elusive phallus. (354)
This complicates the notion of autoclasm present in the homage that not only destroys and undermines the composition of the iconic pose but does so in a masculine framework of “melodrama and control.” McFarlane’s new female superhero may tear down what has come before her in an attempt to eclipse Wonder Woman and her part time position as a feminist superhero, but she then subverts that eclipse by being enacted through masculine representation. Instead of overcoming Wonder Woman, Angela must occupy her position in form alone. Of note, Angela does not grace another Spawn cover until issue #62, four years after her initial appearance.
McFarlane’s concern for Spawn and the comic’s legitimacy can be observed in the call for established writers to take over writing duties with Dave Sim writing Spawn #10, Frank Miller writing Spawn #11, and Grant Morrison on issues #16-18. When asked by Robert Sodaro of Heroes Illustrated if bringing in established writers gave Image and Spawn credibility with professionals, McFarlane responded, “I think it’s given us credibility amongst some of our peers and some of the critics, but ultimately, screw our peers and screw the critics . . . There wasn’t any ‘This is the right guy to get because he’s critically acclaimed.’ We just got people who we thought would do good comic books for us” (46).
Something notably absent in McFarlane’s response is the enticement of creator-owned properties at Image, a contract that would lead McFarlane into an eventual legal battle with Gaiman over the characters Angela, Medieval Spawn, and Cogliostro (Dean). While McFarlane’s answer tries to disabuse the notion of writers being brought into Image’s fold purely out of the writer’s desire, legitimacy crops up again in Dave Sim’s mashup with his own creation of Cerebus the Aardvark in Spawn #10.
In what may be the most overtly allegorical comic representative of the Image Comics mythos, Spawn encounters the hands of Marvel and DC characters reaching through the bars of a dungeon cell, their creators blindfolded and bound at the wall opposite. In an attempt to free them, Spawn tries to destroy them with his powers, but to no effect. Even after the Superman-stand-in offers Spawn his unlimited power, he still fails. But it is his attempts to do so that bring light to the autoclastic foundations of Spawn and Image Comics more broadly. To establish a new character in a medium rife with superheroes with decades of history is to attempt the impossible. As Spawn so aptly states in this issue, “Without them Spawn (I . . . he) could not exist” (McFarlane and Sim 6). Yet Spawn’s reverence stands paradoxical to his attempted destruction of those he reveres in his attempts to free them from a life of imprisonment. Like Angela in her destruction of Wonder Woman’s carefully posed regalia, Spawn tries to destroy the trapped superheroes in an attempt to liberate them, before only trying to replace them.
While McFarlane might deny any similarities to Marvel or DC as a creator at Image, his anxieties of freedom and Spawn’s deal with Malebolgia have become inverted on a couple occasions. First in the aforementioned lawsuit with Neil Gaiman over character rights and then with Tony Twist over rights to his name, McFarlane may have resembled Malebolgia more than Spawn. This also likens McFarlane to the very same absent imprisoner of the superheroes Spawn tries to destroy.
The covers of issues #8 and #9 homage well-established characters, while #10, written by Dave Sim, includes Cerebus, an established character within indie comics written by a leading advocate for self-publishing. After struggling to find well-paying work outside of Marvel or DC and watching Gene Day, his friend and inker on Cerebus, die from a heart attack at the age of thirty-one which Sim attributed to the immense pressure Marvel applied to him, Sim saw self-publishing as his only viable career path (Hoffman 19). In some ways, we can see McFarlane following the path of Sim in breaking from the main two publishers and advocating for the do-it-yourself model. But while McFarlane had already built his immense popularity at Marvel and stood on the top of the industry, Sim had always existed as an independent creator at the fringe of the industry giants. In this joint telling of Spawn, however, Sim and McFarlane’s vexations over creative control and autonomy synchronize perfectly.
In Spawn #10, Spawn attempts to destroy this lineage of imprisoned characters, the same characters homaged on the covers in the two issues prior in Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, but is unable to; the characters’ legitimacy is both invulnerable to outside attacks and impervious to their own comic creators’ will. And just as Spawn failed to destroy the superheroes after a full-on assault, the initial superhero creations of the Image founders failed to uproot the popular Marvel and DC characters as well. “In a neoliberal era that has upheld the artist as the very figure of non-alienated work,” Konstantinou writes, “it is the essence of the artist to own her intellectual property, to turn herself into a walking brand” (“The Cartoonist as Entrepreneur”). If McFarlane and Spawn were the outsiders pushing back against their Faustian deal, they did so by borrowing the powers of the superheroes before them.
It is in this attempt that we see Spawn both trying to garner legitimacy as a character separate from this greater canon of Marvel and DC characters, and yet relying on them and their cachet in homage covers. In much later Spawn homage covers, we will see this autoclasm play out in terms of marketing, its link to nostalgia, and once again, in the writing itself.
Homage and Market
With the exception of the homage covers to its first issue, with Spawn #50 and #100 both homaging the cover of Spawn #1, Spawn had not had an homage cover in close to 19 years. On the twentieth anniversary issue, #220, Spawn launched a set of homage covers for the next eleven issues. At this time, Spawn sales were at a record low with retail orders around 12,000 issues per month, a long descent from the regular monthly orders of over 100,000 in its first eight years of publishing (Iñigo 2019). It needed a bump, and a healthy dose of homage covers, nostalgia, and a bit of autoclasm seemed to do the trick.
In an unusually coherent forum post titled “The Homage,” the user D2 of the CGC Forums (a forum provided by Collectibles Grading Company for comic collectors) writes:
These have to stop. The modern era of comics have a bad reputation among many comic enthusiasts and this isn’t helping. We all appreciate callbacks and references to a point, with the warm and fuzzy appreciation of the familiar . . . the nostalgia. At another point however, the homage begins to act more like a distress signal, calling out the anxiety of a failing market, reliant on the past to secure its future . . . Let us love what was, not what reminds us of what was. These have to stop.
While the author is certainly coming at the popularity of the homage as a collector in their concern for the comics market, and, interestingly, reputation, they offer an oft-cited remark by fans and collectors alike in regard to the exploitation of nostalgia on part of the consumer. D2 and many other commenters on the thread agree in their condemnation of the bombardment of homage covers in the contemporary comic market as a way for publishers to cash in. While 2012 was not as rife with cover homages as we might see today in 2022, this is a long-standing view from many collectors and enthusiasts.
But D2’s most critical insight on the matter of the homage is in their somewhat poetic musings in that it is “reliant on the past to secure its future” and how “it begins to act more like a distress signal.” Even in the eyes of collectors, we find this paradoxical nature of the comic medium trying to build legitimacy by undermining itself.
Spawn #220’s homage covers are unique in that McFarlane opened the 11-issue series of homage cover variants with none other than references to Youngblood #1, created by Image co-founder Rob Liefeld, and Savage Dragon #1, created by Image co-founder Erik Larsen. Spawn’s twentieth year anniversary also marked the anniversary of the foundation of Image Comics and thus these two comic series. Building on the past, however, was not only reserved for the cover. Spawn #220 replicates the exact panel layouts of Spawn #1 and deals with the very beginnings of that first issue in its story.
Jim Downing, the man to take Al Simmons’s position as Hellspawn since issue #185, is a celebrity in all the ways Simmons was not. His powers include healing the sick, regenerating his own body, and flight, in addition to the powers already exhibited by a Hellspawn. Downing’s publicity, however, gives him a global stage to lead non-profit foundations and development projects. The project announced by Jim Downing in a press conference at the end of issue #220, the issue marking the 20th anniversary of both Spawn and Image Comics, is none other than the “Restore, Restructure, and Resurrect Foundation” (21). The purpose of the foundation? “To purchase . . . the area sometimes called ‘Rat City’—and rebuild it into a vibrant, prosperous community” (22).
At a point of all-time low sales with a new Spawn, McFarlane brings out all the stops. He homages two covers of the original Image Comics, replicates a panel by panel copy of Spawn #1, and must “Restore, Restructure, and Resurrect” Spawn’s legitimacy. The cover of #220 does not homage a previous Spawn cover and represent its own beginning, but it rather presents the beginnings of a movement that had since been seen as an important cultural moment: the foundation of Image Comics (Lopes 114). While the panels are a clear homage to McFarlane’s work, autoclasm presents itself once more in Jim Downing’s decision to erase Rat City, the place Spawn was founded, and build something new. The question of legitimacy is one that crops up a fair amount in Spawn’s search for the perpetrator of his situation, reconciliation with his past, and his strive for independence from Heaven and Hell, but rarely is the comic as explicit as “restoring, restructuring, and resurrecting” the very ground on which Spawn was birthed.
The next ten issues do not deal exclusively with legitimacy, but the topic does return. Downing confronts a villain, Bludd, about bootleg sales items in #221. A clandestine government-sponsored corporation discovers Nazi science experiments and decides if their use will undermine their operation in #223. And characters that had not been in the comic for over 50 issues return in Cogliostro (220) and Jason Wynn (224). The only way to build Jim Downing’s credence as Spawn is to call on the old rogues of Al Simmons, thus delegitimizing Downing on his own grounds. As perfectly put by the user D2, Spawn is “reliant on the past to secure its future” in more ways than one.
If we can read Pizzino’s idea of “autoclasm” as arising from tensions of legitimacy and comics seeking respect as an artform, McFarlane himself offers his views on the matter on many occasions. In the famed Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth, the word “respect” is mentioned fifteen times. In what appears to be the fundamental issue to McFarlane regarding his reason for leaving Marvel, he laments, “It’s not a money thing: I think some people have lost it—it’s not a money thing. It’s a respect thing, you know?” (Groth, 62). While McFarlane’s views on respect are not always consistent, as Groth is quick to point out, we find it at the forefront of the creator’s philosophy.
This association with McFarlane and his concerns with respect was so strong that it was often the subject of parody. In Hart Fisher’s parody Kill Image #1, Todd McFairlane, McFarlane’s stand-in, yells, “I’ll rip out their goddamn throat and piss in their fuckin’ faces, maybe that’ll get me a little respect” (Fisher 8). In Splitting Image!, an Image Comics-produced parody issue of the seven creators and their creations, “Godd McFarthing” says to “Jerry Stumart,” a stand-in for Marvel’s then editor Terry Stewart, “So this is the kind of respect you show to us, eh, Stumart?” (Simpson 9).
In some ways, Spawn can act as a stand-in for McFarlane’s own battles with the two main publishing houses. In the entry for Spawn under a critical survey, Ben Hall writes, “Marvel and DC might represent the two supernatural powers, God and Malebolgia, in the war of souls, with humans standing in the place of the creators” (557). Or, perhaps, with Spawn stuck in the middle. The comic has also been described as “a pure liberation fantasy, a former soldier fighting to regain control from the forces of heaven and hell” (Miles 2022). This is an apt observation for the only founder of Image to never return to Marvel or DC.
With these links between McFarlane and Spawn in place, we find the legitimacy of both McFarlane and Spawn bound together. These examples are often found in the interviews at the end of anniversary issues. In #100, he writes “In a perfect world, Spawn will be relevant to a number of people and outlive me,” and in #250, “You don’t want to be known for doing Stan and Jack’s characters . . . you want to be known for doing your own characters.”
The cover homages of Spawn, then, carry traces of autoclasm not only in the previous referents, but in McFarlane the person. McFarlane, however, is an exception to the rule of homages in that he often creates homages of his own previous work, thus initiating a strange feedback loop of legitimacy. He first homaged his own cover of Spider-Man #1 in Spider-Man #13, just two years after the initial publication. Later, in the 11-issue run of cover homages, McFarlane calls back to his other previous work on The Incredible Hulk (Spawn #226), Amazing Spider-Man (Spawn #227), Batman (Spawn #230), and again Spider-Man #1 in the final cover homage of the series in Spawn #231.
For an artist to homage his own work in these ways is to call on the legitimacy not of the cover art, as they are by the same artist, but on the characters they represent. Remembering Benjamin and his proposed “aura” of an artwork (4), these homages attempt to reproduce the aura of McFarlane’s original work by placing Spawn in literally the same positions as these classic superheroes. To complicate this, however, one might place McFarlane the artist at the forefront of the image and question whether the image of Spider-Man in a crouch, for example, is Marvel’s image or McFarlane’s. By McFarlane creating homages to his own cover creations for Marvel, he tests if they are in fact more his work the public responds to or if it is the Marvel characters. In his tweet around the cover of Spawn #327, he is clear in stating, “This is MY cover that is going to press next week” (McFarlane, Twitter). Many comics fans would agree with him.
These homages also, however, reveal the pressures of legitimacy in Spawn, McFarlane, and Image Comics because of this very need to be placed within a greater lineage. To put it simply, if Spawn was a completely legitimate superhero, the series would not be homaging the covers of other comic books to boost sales and place it within the larger comic culture. Instead, it would be the comic other new and upcoming superheroes would be homaging. And while Spawn #1 is sometimes the object of homage, the Spawn series is more often the subject.
A New Specter
It should come as little surprise that the most recent homage cover to McFarlane’s famous Spider-Man #1 would be a character in need of more cultural legitimacy. Spawn #327 depicts Haunt on the cover in what is Haunt’s 9th appearance in the Spawn series, his first being nine years prior, and Haunt’s first ever solo cover appearance on Spawn.
Haunt, co-created by McFarlane and Robert Kirkman, follows Daniel Kilgore, a Catholic priest, bound with the ghost of his recently deceased CIA agent brother. When the two merge spirits, they become Haunt, a hero covered in an ectoplasm suit. The series was first created in 2009 and received moderate commercial and critical success before an artistic change resulted in the brief 28 issue run ending in 2012. Haunt has since made sporadic appearances in Spawn but is still a minor character in the pantheon of Image Comics creations.
With Spawn #327 being the third consecutive issue in which Haunt appears, McFarlane attempts to place him not only within the Spawn pantheon, but also the larger pantheon of superheroes outside of Image. Being a relatively unknown character, Haunt is catapulted into the same space as Spider-Man and Spawn by occupying the same compositions depicted before (and as equally “locked” in his own ectoplasm). Given that Haunt is not the central concern of McFarlane or Kirkman, both creators having success in other titles, Haunt likely will not be a central figure within Spawn. Haunt’s depiction on Spawn #327 not only reignites interest in a past hero and garners a “HUGE response” from fans (McFarlane, Twitter), but also attempts to build cultural legitimacy through the homage while simultaneously undermining the character on its own grounds.
To Be Continued…
The popularity of the most recent homage cover in Spawn #327 shows that this trend of homage is clearly not going away any time soon. Even the Spawn universe title Scorched homages Jim Lee’s connecting covers to X-Men #1 over multiple issues (Corley). But the aim of this essay was to complicate the practice of homage covers and reveal the strain and tension of the desire for legitimacy through Christopher Pizzino’s concept of autoclasm. We find autoclasm present within and around Spawn: its early struggles with critical derision, its lack of a larger lineage in Image Comics, its creator’s own desire for respect and legitimacy, and in its use of homage covers. As such, Spawn, and McFarlane’s complicated use of homage that often incorporates masculine elements and various positionings within legacies, offers a clear opportunity to find autoclasm rooted in the practice of the homage cover.
Within comic studies, additional discussions of the homage cover may take a closer look at their usage in response to the ever-present market pressures of the industry. Examples for future research include further defining the terms of parody, swipe, and homage or observing the careers of artists trying to build their own legitimacy. It is also my hope that this analysis can spark future academic interest in Image Comics, its founders, and their creations—all of which have been remarkably understudied given their impact on the comic industry and medium.
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