In the ‘90s, heavy music and comics were both fighting hard to prove their legitimacy. The former was trying to shed the sparkly cheese and/or softcore satanism of the ‘80s, and embrace either tough-guy realism with groove metal or emotional sensitivity with goth and alternative. The latter was similarly divided, either going the ultra exxxtreme direction with its too-muscular-to-scratch-their-own-backs superheroes or delving into arthouse experimentalism that was cool to look at but rarely entertaining to read. With the world’s heroes doing their damnedest to flex massive muscles (and, it should be noted, gross fake boobs) or mope artistically, there didn’t seem to be room for the cool, dark, strange material which metalheads lived for.
The comics world’s savior ended up being an unlikely one: Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, the tale of a demonic avenger spat out of the pits of Hell. Questioning both superhero traditions and social mores, Spawn became the ultimate hero for a generation of fans looking for a newer, scarier defender. And as this indie creation became a symbol for weirdos and night creatures around the globe, he shaped the look and feel of metal for generations to come.
It’s fitting that Spawn was birthed out of a revolutionary move in the comic book industry. McFarlane had become hugely successful at Marvel as writer and artist of Spider-Man, especially for his co-creation of the immensely-popular villain Venom. But like many of his colleagues, McFarlane owned nothing he created for Marvel, and so alongside several other hot young artists and writers like Rob Liefeld (most famous for co-creating the characters Cable and Deadpool), Marc Silvestri (known for his work on Wolverine), and Jim Valentino (famous for his work on Guardians of the Galaxy), he founded Image Comics, a company with creator ownership as its central tenet. Among Image’s groundbreaking launch titles were Liefeld’s Youngblood, Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon, and, of course, McFarlane’s Spawn.
From the get-go, Spawn was a superhero who ’90s metal fans could relate to. Draped in a crimson cloak and wearing a costume covered in skulls, spikes, and chains, the character looked like the ‘90s comics equivalent of a black metal musician. His backstory also didn’t pull the typical Marvel move of turning everything into a science experiment or extra-dimensional space opera — Spawn was a black-ops soldier back from Hell, conscripted into the Devil’s army because of the terrible things he did in life. He agrees to this post for the singular purpose of seeing his wife one more time.
Perhaps even more subversive was Spawn’s social commentary. In life, Spawn was Al Simmons, a proud African American man; as a sick joke of sorts, his demon masters let him shape-change when he returns from the dead — but only into a blonde, blue-eyed white dude. By dying, he narrowly misses getting infected with AIDS by the U.S. government alongside his friend and killer Chapel, confronting a common conspiracy theory among black communities. After returning from the grave, he doesn’t move into a supernatural lair, he beds down in an alley with the bums, the only people he can relate to. Suddenly, New York is being protected by a hellborn black man who lives in garbage and murders the bad guys rather than sending them to prison — not exactly Captain America.
This sense of tangible darkness was a huge part of metal in ‘90s America. As the plastic bullshit of ‘80s glam gave way to more honest depictions of everyday life, acts like Eyehategod, Korn, and Type O Negative were expressing honest misery at every turn. One of their chief lyrical topics was true street life, living in filth, feeling out of touch with a life you were promised, and wishing a girl still loved you. And while Slayer and Possessed portrayed Satan as the grand overlord that parents feared in the ‘80s, Marilyn Manson and White Zombie illustrated him as a warty, sardonic figure who was very different from the all-powerful corrupter of the previous decade.
Most importantly, McFarlane’s aesthetic embraced the blurring of genre lines that was so important to metal’s growth in the ‘90s. Sure, Spawn was a spike-covered demon soldier, but he also rocked hi-tech weaponry from his soldiering days. His enemies were sometimes demons and monsters, but were also child molesters, crime bosses, the Klan, and even government officials, who preyed on everyday people via bigotry, ignorance, and greed. His life on the street, and his African American background and characters, were a nod to hip-hop and the growing racial disparities in America. Spawn wasn’t all wizards and spells or stark, militaristic realism, but a powerful amalgamation of both things.
The series’ influence on heavy music was immediately felt visually. Korn immediately began using the comic’s semi-mystical childhood horror imagery to great effect, culminating in McFarlane and later Spawn artist Greg Capullo illustrating the cover to Korn’s game-changing 1997 album Follow the Leader. American power metal act Iced Earth also wrote an entire concept album surrounding the series, 1996’s The Dark Saga.
HBO’s animated version of the comic took the character’s renown one step further. When Spawn become a feature-length film in ‘97, the soundtrack was filled with metal bands and electronic artists collaborating to great effect — Metallica and DJ Spooky, Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot. When McFarlane started his own toy company, horror and metal licenses flocked to him, and soon McFarlane Toys was where you could get your action figures of KISS, Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper. No one could quite put their finger on what the artist did so perfectly, they just knew that they wanted to be a part of it.
To McFarlane’s credit, as cultural tastes changed, Spawn’s aesthetic remained firm. There was never Metalcore Spawn or Hipster Black Metal Spawn; instead, the comic stayed set in its edginess, and now, with nu-metal returning and the series on issue #320, the character feels perfectly poised to make his cultural comeback. But whatever happens, it’s important to remember that in the gritty, uncertain time of the ‘90s, fans of extreme outsider culture were anchored by a hero all their own, a champion of the everyman for whom the hordes of Hell were no match from the demons within.
Words by Chris Krovatin