I didn’t get to read a lot of comic books as a kid; growing up in the United Kingdom in the mid-nineties, it seemed my access to DC and Marvel Comics was far more restricted than it is these days, when comics are available in almost every corner shop or newsagent. Mostly, I read the odd graphic novel from the library or annual compilations picked up from car boot sales and the like.
Nevertheless, I had a fondness for Bruce Wayne/Batman, Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Clark Kent/Superman; these were the heroes I had the most exposure to growing up, which was lucky considering the movies and television shows these characters had around this time. As my exposure to more comics grew, however, I soon gravitated towards the likes of Eddie Brock/Venom, Frank Castle/The Punisher, and Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, skewing my preference towards the more violent and aggressive comic heroes.
In the nineties, there was no superhero that embodied violence, aggression, or edgy angst more than Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Initially an assassin for a covert arm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Al Simmons was betrayed by his commander, Jason Wynn, and murdered as part of a pact between Wynn and the ruler of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Malebolgia.
Simmons returned to the world of the living five years later, with few of his memories, decked out in a living, symbiotic costume and wielding tremendous (if finite) hell powers as Spawn. Constantly plagued by Malebolgia’s chief lieutenant, the Violator (who generally assumed the form of the disgusting Clown), Spawn was torn between wanting to reconnect to his previous life (specifically his wife), rejecting his apparent destiny as the general of Hell’s armies, and using his abilities to protect those in need.
Few superheroes had the impact that Spawn had upon his debut; after breaking away from Marvel with a bunch of talented writers and artists, McFarlane founded Image Comics and spearheaded his new company with Spawn. Issue one sold over a million copies and Spawn’s place as a cultural icon has since been secured thanks to a fantastic animated series, an…okay live-action movie, a bunch of surprisingly decent videogames, and a whole host of fantastically-detailed toys and merchandise. While Spawn may not be as prominent a figure in the world of comics as he once was, his impact certainly changed the way the industry viewed independent publications.
So great was Spawn’s popularity that he featured in a number crossovers; initially, this was restricted simply to Spawn appearing alongside other Image characters, or other independent characters popping up in Spawn comics, but, after some cheeky, barely legal cameos from some famous faces in issue ten, Spawn officially teamed up with Batman in 1994 for a couple of crossover specials.
Spawn/Batman saw artist Todd McFarlane join forces with celebrated Batman writer Frank Miller. Being that this was 1994, Miller was still riding high off genre-changing titles like The Dark Knight Returns (Miller, et al, 1986) and Batman: Year One (ibid, 1987) and knee deep into his Sin City (ibid, 1991 to 2000) series. Yet, the signs of Miller’s degradation into self-parody and absurdity still managed to crop up in this one-shot title; while it’s nowhere near as bad as what we got in The Dark Knight Strikes Again (ibid, 2002) or All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder (ibid, 2005 to 2008), Miller’s writing and characterisation of Batman is noticeably lacking and questionable, especially compared to what we saw in The Dark Knight Returns or Year One.
But we’re jumping ahead a bit. Spawn/Batman is one of those crossovers that, rather than having the DC and Image characters exist in separate universes, acts as though they all co-exist in the same world at the same time. Honestly, I always prefer it when crossovers are handled this way as, while it can be difficult to believe that Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Teen Titans all co-exist but we never hear about it until they cross paths every once in a blue moon, it’s a lot less messy than dreaming up another reality-shattering Crisis or out of place dimension shift.
The story opens with Batman (described as “Protector. Avenger. Detective. Champion”) busting up some thugs transporting high-tech weapons and getting into a throwdown with a massive robot. Slipping on a robotic gauntlet that fills him with superhuman strength, Batman is able to tear the robot apart…only to find that it is a cyborg that is powered by a still-living severed head.
Back at the Batcave, he examines the head while his loyal butler and father-figure, Alfred Pennyworth, tries in vain to patch up his injuries and recommend some tea, rest, and relaxation. After running the head’s dental records through the Batcomputer, Batman discovers it belonged to a homeless vagrant from New York City.
Batman heads there immediately (and, as you might expect, is immediately reminded of the night his parents were murdered…) and, as he stalks the alleyways and dark corners of the city, overhears “legends” of a bum named Al with magic powers, which he dismisses as “nonsense”. I find this a little out of character for Batman, who rubs shoulders with Atlanteans, Amazons, and aliens on a regular basis and has a long-standing friendship with an actual magician but who am I to question the legendary Frank Miller?
Anyway, this leads to a natural segue into Spawn’s introduction to the story. Spawn’s not happy (but then again when is he ever?) because a lot of his friends have suddenly gone missing; after returning from the dead, Spawn found a home amongst the bums of New York City and made it his mission to protect them. This mission (which was more of an obsession, in many ways) leads to him mercilessly burning alive a couple of thugs who want to set alight a sleeping bum.
Although this is perfectly in keeping with Spawn’s brand of justice, it catches the attention of Batman who, none-too-pleased with what he sees as cold-blooded murder, leaps in to attack without a second’s hesitation. However, Batman’s confidence (more of an aggravating arrogance under Miller’s pen…) is misplaced against Spawn, who is tough enough to take everything Batman can dish out and repay it in kind without mercy.
With Batman having made a strategic retreat, Spawn is free to continue his investigation and soon runs into another of the cyborgs that messed up Batman at the start of the story. Spawn is horrified to find that the cyborg was powered by the severed head of a bum he knows, Chuck, and is further disgusted to discover that the cyborgs are the product of Margaret Love, an old acquaintance of his from his days as an assassin.
Love fuels Batman’s newfound obsessive vendetta against Spawn and, armed with the robotic gauntlet he picked up in the opening panels, Batman soon engages with Spawn once again. This time, the fight is a bit more even but it suffers from some really out of character “trash talking” from Batman, who criticises Spawn’s lack of discipline and sloppiness as a fighter.
After beating each other senseless, the two are easy pickings for another of Love’s cyborgs, which mortally wounds Batman. Though tempted to leave him to die, Spawn ultimately opts to expend his limited Hell power to obliterate the cyborg and then save Batman’s life.
Spawn also uses this opportunity to telepathically communicate with Batman in a bid to find some common ground. You know it’s bad when Spawn, of all people, is trying to be the bigger man and the voice of reason; his efforts are met with extreme resistance by Batman (who calls Spawn a “twit”) but, after being shown what Love is capable of, Bats begrudgingly agrees to postpone his vendetta against Spawn to put a stop of Love’s experiments. Luckily, Love is hosting a fancy fund-raiser on a luxury cruise liner to help raise funds and interests for her almost hypnotic campaign to “heal the world” with a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world ten times over.
Still in telepathic contact (much to Batman’s chagrin which, again, I find odd considering the Martian Manhunter often enables the Justice League to communicate in very much the same way…), Batman and Spawn crash the party and wreck Love’s cyborgs. The entire time, all Batman does is criticise Spawn for being a “blunt instrument” (even getting a very Miller-esque dig in at Superman while he’s at it) and lacking any finesse…which runs a little contrary to Spawn’s military training and seems to be present only to artificially extend the gulf between their methods when it was sufficient enough to focus on Batman as a practical, mortal man doing the best he can and Spawn as a violent, magic-infused undead man-monster.
Speaking of which, Batman is unable to come up with a viable reason to spare Love’s life. Again, this is very out of character for Batman who surely would not hesitate to come up with a reason to spare a life; this is the same man who has spared the Joker time and time again but, when it comes to Love, he “has no answer” and does nothing to save her from being skewered.
In her dying breath, though, Love launches a nuclear missile directly into the center of New York City, forcing Spawn to further expend his finite magic to teleport himself and Batman to the missile so they can disarm it. Miller gushes over Batman’s genius, his mind, his skilled hands, as he uses his unparalleled abilities to disarm the weapon without any assistance or input from Spawn. Instead, Batman ignores Spawn’s knowledge of the missile and is more concerned with the fact that Spawn dared to touch his cape!
With the threat ended, Batman takes his final moments to berate everything about Spawn: his motives, his discipline, his moral compass. Literally everything. He vows to one day find the means and power to put an end to Spawn for good but Spawn, again acting massively out of character, instead pleas for Batman to recognise all the good they did together and asks that they bury the hatchet.
Batman responds by lobbing a Batarang right into Spawn’s face, which would leave a wound that Spawn would, eventually, seal up with a shoe lace rather than waste his precious magic.
If there’s one thing that Spawn/Batman has going for it, it’s Todd McFarlane’s absolutely gorgeous artwork. McFarlane is truly without peer in the comic’s world and he doesn’t get enough praise for his distinctive art style. Spawn is featured in his original, far more heroic and less complicated costume in this story as it takes place not long after his debut; while I prefer his later tattered look, McFarlane obviously makes his signature character look great whenever he puts pen to paper. Similarly, his Batman is a dark, gritty avenger constantly swamped in deep shadow, with pointed tips to his cape and often appearing more as a wraith-like silhouette than a man.
The story is full of violent action as the two exchange blows on more than one occasion but what really lets this down is Miller’s writing. His narration is repetitive and almost embarrassing to read at times; it’s clear that Miller is only interested in praising Batman as the be-all and end-all of superheroes as the narrative boxes (and Batman’s “dialogue”) are all geared towards explicitly stated how amazing and well-disciplined and unbeatable Batman is even as he’s bleeding to death at Spawn’s feet.
Spawn, for the most part, reads quite well but his characterisation falls off a cliff during the rematch between the two, where both characters simply sound like children having a punch up. Maybe that is the point? Maybe Miller is making some kind of commentary on childish “tradition” of superheroes always fighting each other before teaming up and I could appreciate that…if it didn’t come at the detriment of both characters, who just come off as foolish.
Batman should be smarter than that, for one thing; you would think that Miller, of all people, would know that too, especially given the lengths Batman went to battle Superman in Miller’s seminal work. Instead, Batman slips on a robotic gauntlet and thinks that’ll be enough to stop a guy who can literally reassemble himself with his magic. Batman then spends the remainder of the story chastising Spawn at every opportunity despite the fact that, without Spawn’s help and his powers, they would both have died.
I get that Miller’s Batman is this gritty, unrepentant hard-ass who doesn’t need help from anybody but this emphasis on him being some ultra-disciplined “soldier” who knows better than anyone else just comes across as supremely arrogant. Again, maybe that’s the point, but it’s an extreme, ill-fitting characterisation of Batman I don’t like at the best of times, to say nothing of when he’s teaming with an actual soldier! Given how protective Todd McFarlane is of Spawn as a brand and a character, it seems weird to me that Miller was given such free reign to, effectively, bury Spawn every chance he got in this story. Sure, it’s probably to make explicit the differences between the two but I think that could have been handled better with about forty percent less “stupid punk!” being sent Spawn’s way.
Nevertheless, Spawn/Batman is a pretty decent read, mainly for the artwork and for the thrill of seeing Spawn side-by-side with Batman. This wouldn’t be the last time these two teamed up either, as DC and Image released Batman-Spawn: War Devil (Moench, et al, 1994) that same year; while that’s a slightly more cohesively-written tale, its artwork is nowhere near as good as in Spawn/Batman. These crossovers were even referenced in Mortal Kombat 11 (NetherRealm Studios, 2019), in which Spawn appears as a playable guest character, though, since Image Comics isn’t quite the trend-setting powerhouse it used to be, I wouldn’t expect to see these two teaming up again any time soon.
What did you think of Spawn/Batman? Were you a big fan of Spawn’s or did you, perhaps, find him over-rated? What are your thoughts on Frank Miller, specifically his Batman? Which comic book crossover is your favourite, or which characters would you like to see cross paths and butt heads? Whatever you think, good or bad, drop a comment below.