"Todd McFarlane's Spawn: 10th Anniversary Signature Edition" DVD Review

July 13, 2007 by Zach Demeter

Be forewarned: I have an intense bias with the character and universe of Spawn, the animated series in particular. I couldn’t just be a “normal” fan and purchase the DVDs of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn (which I of course did), no. I went to the extremes and took what I learned at The World’s Finest when covering Batman: The Animated Series and the myriad of shows that follow and created my own website for the animated Spawn series. Despite the show getting a full release on DVD already, I was eager to get my hands on this new set for no other reason than I’m a huge fan of Spawn in all of his incarnations.

Todd McFarlane’s Spawn debuted as the flagship title of HBOs Animation division in May of 1997 and continued through May of 1999 with a total of eighteen episodes spread across three production seasons. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn pushed the envelope in terms of what was generally done in US animation up to that point and culled talent from the Batman: The Animated Series team, bringing in Eric Radomski as the supervising director for the first two seasons and Frank Paur for the final season, as well as Shirley Walker to score the first two seasons of the show. The similarities between Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Batman: The Animated Series end there, however, as the tone of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was nothing that the general public had seen before when they thought of animation.

While there’s no doubt been a ton of adult animation made in Japan before Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was even conceived, but Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was really the most “adult” piece of animation the US had seen at that point in 1997. McFarlane stated that he wanted to define his audience in the opening act of the very first episode of the series, “The Burning Vision” and he was quickly able to do so. The violence, gore and language used in these opening minutes would quickly pick out those who would be interested in watching the show from those who would have no desire. While I may disagree with the tactics in which the viewers were weeded out as it may have turned away more viewers than necessary, it’s easy to see why McFarlane took this route in the pilot. However, in the later seasons of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, they would dial down the language and nudity found in the first season to something more akin to what was in the comics at the time.

For those looking for pure blood, gore and nudity, you’ll be drawn in by what we’re given in the first season, but the second season really pulls back on all of this, while the third season again trickles in some more nudity while amping up the mystical aspect of the season. While I originally thought that the third season of the show was my favorite with the introduction of the Jade character as the bounty hunter for Spawn (essentially replacing the role that the angel Angela filled in the comics), it’s really hard to pick out a favorite after rewatching the series for a fourth time. Watching it on DVD without a critical eye for anything more than the DVD transfer this time around, I was able to really absorb the storylines and get a feel for the world of this Spawn, which is so much different from the other renditions I’ve seen over the years.

The animation in the show is also something that’s remarkable to see. Due to the over ambitious nature of the show, the production budget was way out of proportions with other animated fanare on television of the day and the demands that McFarlane put on what would make it to screen caused a lot of animation that was sent back from the overseas studios to never make it and instead footage from past episodes or flipped views of Spawn were inserted to fill the space. This is particularly noticeable in the first and second seasons and can get distracting and make the show feel particularly “cheap” at times, but that’s what often happens with McFarlane and Spawn at times: he wants the best for his creation and in the end, studios can’t pony up to his vision. Frustrating for him I’m sure, but even more so for those backing his projects (probably why he had to produce the new animated Spawn with his own funding).

It’s odd that the most obscene version of Spawn is found in the animated world. The comic book never had as much nudity or language that I recall and the live action film was certainly nothing that shocked movie goers (except for those of the movie goers who were fans and were extremely disappointed in what came out of the movie screens and speakers). And while the comic book has since gone light years away from what we left Spawn off at in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, I am eagerly awaiting the day we get to revisit the animated Spawn, which if McFarlane’s comments on this new 10th Anniversarry DVD set are any indication, we may be seeing sometime in 2008 (of course he said that we’d see it in 2006 as well).

Still, no matter which way you cut it, this version of Spawn is important in the history of animation as well as in the world of Spawn. True, the show may have a smaller audience than your average superhero cartoon due to its explicit nature, but the Emmy awards the show won speak enough about the show: it’s a remarkable piece of work that deserves far more attention than it’s received.

The DVD
Arriving all gussied up for its 10th Anniversary DVD release, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn shows off some beautiful art on its single sized amaray Steelbook casing. Steelbook casing has just recently become popular, with Fox releasing a full line of two-disc editions of its more popular films in this new type of DVD casing, which looks and feels just as it sounds. Heavy and shiny to look at, the Steelbook is certainly going to move more units of this set than another generic cardboard sleeve release would.

On the rear of the Steelbook is a piece of cardboard that gives the purchaser an idea of what to expect from the series and DVD. This cardboard is held on by “snot glue” (I’ve no scientific name for it—you know what is is) and on the reverse side lists the disc specifics. The only drawback of this cardboard info sheet is once you take the snot glue off, you’ve nowhere to put it as the inside of the steelbook is so cramped you can’t slip it inside unless you cut it (and want holes punched in it like the paper insert advertising the Spawn comic, toys and website).

On the inside of the DVD set is a set of dual layer trays on either side, each holding two discs. Underneath the trays is a printed image of Spawn against a bookcase from the third season of the show, as well as a few model sheets of Spawn, Clown and some storyboards to pepper up the dark image. Disc art pulls images from the series to adorn the discs, except for the third season which reuses the original single disc release of season 1 as its art (a very, very odd choice and it completely messes up the flow of the rest of the discs). Menu is in 4:3 and menu art is the same animations on all discs, with the images of characters being changed around for some of the sub menus.

The video and audio for this release is all new and one of the key points in setting it apart from the previous release. Not only are the episodes finally divided into individual episodes (and not cut together as a sprawling movie for each season), but we get the original McFarlane intros with each episode as well, something we missed from the last release. Of course with the new individual cuts of each episode we lose the full length commentary of season one and three that Todd McFarlane provided (he didn’t record one for the second season), but considering McFarlane is one of the more annoying commentators I’ve ever listened to on a DVD (more on that in a bit), it’s not a huge loss. The addition of the 5.1 Dolby Surround (not DTS as was originally solicited) track is a great edition, even if the rear channels aren’t utilized too much.

On the video front it’s a mixed bag; most of the first season looks a lot better than the original transfer and all three seasons have seen a reduction in the amount of grain, but overall there isn’t a huge difference. Everything is cleaner, brighter and sharper, but the second and third seasons are so dark in the color palette that it was hard to tell if the video was grainy on the old transfer. There are ghosting and interlacing errors on this set as well, noticeable mainly on Spawn’s blood red cloak which can also show a bit of compression at times (though I watched a few of the episodes on different sets and while I noticed the compression on my 4:3 CRT TV through 480p, watching it on my PC monitor didn’t make it look nearly as bad), but it’s nothing that you don’t see on the myriad of other animated titles on DVD.

Moving onto the special features we get four commentaries from Todd McFarlane. These are all-new and have been recorded specifically for this 10th Anniversary DVD release and…I swear I’ve listened to these before. Despite his mentioning of the 10th anniversary and the new animated series in the works, nearly everything McFarlane says I’ve heard before, which means he spouted it all off on the commentaries on season one and three on the last set. On top of that he is very un-informative on his tracks, often commenting only on what’s happening on the screen and rarely dropping information about the show other than how groundbreaking it was (as much as I love the man and his work, McFarlane does toot his own horn quite a lot, not to say he doesn’t have the right too, it just gets old after awhile). The commentaries, even for those that are fans of Spawn, can be skipped as they are really nothing spectacular.

On the special feature front we get repeated special features from the exclusive fourth disc bonus in the original “Ultimate Collection” release. The extended Todd McFarlane interview is here as well as the behind-the-scenes featurette and the only other new content is the “Episode One Storyboard: Frame by Frame” which literally shows each storyboard used in the episode next to the episode itself as it plays (which is neat to watch for the first five minutes then it just gets dull). The other new feature is “The McFarlane Process” which shows how the episodes are made. I’m not sure why it’s called “The McFarlane Process” as I’m pretty sure this is how the general animation process goes on all shows, at least what I’ve heard about the production of Bruce Timm’s line of DC shows for Warner Brothers.

The character profiles are new as well and are essentially mini-bios for the characters, which accompany the menu descriptions of the individual episodes (which pop up when you click on each episode to watch on each disc). While these are a nice extra, I would’ve really liked to see some of the original promotional spots for the show that McFarlane talks about the commentaries or the test footage of the show that was on the Spawn website so many years ago. Considering the chance of getting a third release for this series is slim to none, it sucks we won’t get to see any of that.

So in the end, those who are wondering whether to upgrade to this new set over the old one are met with a question: do you sacrifice a few hours of commentary for the new extras and commentaries along with the Steelbook packaging and new video and audio transfer? I’d say it’s worth it, if only to have the episodes split individually with the original McFarlane intros and not have to worry about the flipper discs (something I didn’t really mind, but seriously—flipper discs for six episodes is annoying, no matter how you cut it). It’s up to the fan in the end, but I’d easily recommend selling your old set to purchase the new one—it takes up less shelf space and the Steelbook casing is just too awesome.

Previous Owners of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn: Recommended
Never Owned Todd McFarlane’s Spawn: Highly Recommended

Now, here’s hoping we get some word of the new series at this year’s SDCC—I can hope, right?

Todd McFarlane's Spawn: 10th Anniversary Signature Edition arrives on DVD on July 24th.

 

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