So what does a cartoon that airs at midnight on HBO look like? Oh, you know, the usual: limbs being torn off and snapped in half, flesh gouged from caved-in faces, blood spurting forth like Old Faithful, vomit dripping from contorted mouths, interracial couples romping in bed, nude buxom women at play, S&M displays. “Speed Racer” was never like this.
Such is the twisted and sometimes arresting world of “Spawn,” the first project from the envelope-pushing HBO Animation unit, adapted by artist Todd McFarlane from his hugely successful comic book series —which evidently has more editions than the Reader’s Digest.
The very adult animation is surrealistic, the violence disturbing, the erotic overtones abundant, the language oft-profane. It’s as dark and complex as anything HBO has attempted in the live-action arena. And visually, it’s quite the stunner. HBO wanted different, and it surely got it.
That said, “Spawn” is not necessarily a place you would voluntarily return to week after week, unless recurring nightmares happen to be a personal favorite. It’s difficult to identify with much of anyone here, our devil-connected antihero included. And the story, or at least what it’s trying to say, is often bewildering.
“Spawn” is at its core the story of a CIA operative named Al Simmons who was murdered by his former partner in the line of duty. Unable to come to terms with being separated from his wife, Simmons makes a soul-selling deal with the devil Malebolgia and returns to Earth.
The series finds McFarlane picking up his story five years after Simmons’ death. He now roams the planet as Spawn (voice of Keith David), your basic indestructible, metal-encrusted, morally vague soldier of evil with some pretty gnarly powers. Spawn is forced by his satanic creators to do their dirty work, even as he comes to terms with the fact his former wife, Wanda (Dominique Jennings), has taken up with his best friend, Terry (Victor Love).
But the guy can’t get too upset. I mean, he’s, you know, dead or something.
This is where things start getting murky for the unenlightened (those born minus the violent-fantasy gene). Spawn becomes entangled in a Mafia hit of two reporters in part one, runs into crooked politicians in part two and locks horns with cyborg hitman Overkill (James Hanes) in the third installment.
There are lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards and limitless ruminations on the ambiguity of existence. Fire is also a constant. For one thing, just about everybody smokes, which is the very epitome of 1990s evil. Rip out somebody’s colon and that’s just fine, but fill your own lungs with nicotine and you can’t draw spit to your funeral.
The shock value of “Spawn,” which is considerable, wears off quickly and is replaced by a hardcore menace and gloom. It takes itself a mite too seriously for its own good but is at times wildly, jarringly original.
McFarlane, who introduces each episode a la Rod Serling, obviously knows how to make a popular comic book. Since being introduced five years ago, it has been near the top in popularity ever since. It’s now available in 40 countries and translated into 16 languages.
Whether an audience flocks to “Spawn” the TV series likely depends upon a tolerance for tortured souls and torturing devices — and a sixth sense to understand just what the heck is going on.