When Todd McFarlane's Spawn #1 debuted in 1992, it sent shockwaves through the comic book industry as it sold 1.7 million copies. It's a jaw-dropping number made even more impressive by the fact that the comic wasn't released by Marvel or DC but by the new kid on the block, Image Comics.
Having made a name for himself on Spider-Man in the late '80s and early '90s, McFarlane embarked on the road less traveled, seeking success with original creations. He and his Image partners risked it all, and the gamble paid off as Image Comics became the little indie publisher that could by achieving something unprecedented at the time.
Spawn's initial triumph was no flash in the pan either; the comic outsold numerous big-name titles over the next few years. One of its crowning achievements occurred in May 1997 -- in the lead-up to the Spawn feature film starring Michael Jai White and John Leguizamo -- as it became the best-selling comic of the month. And it didn't stop there. Spawn became a full-fledged franchise, with an Emmy-winning animated adaption, toylines, video games and spinoffs such as Sam & Twitch.
Unfortunately, the franchise hit something of a plateau after its meteoric rise to fame. While the character didn't go away, Spawn never again reached the same level of success and popularity it did in the mid-'90s. (Although sales picked up in the lead-up to issue #300 and there's been buzz around a reboot movie starring Jamie Foxx as Al Simmons/Spawn.)
Peaks and troughs happen all the time, but there's no doubt that Spawn paved the way for the future of superhero comics. It served as an inspiration and alternative to the "traditional" route. It doesn't often get the credit it deserves, but the title opened many doors and sparked a plethora of futures.
For one, Spawn stands as proof that creators can achieve something viable without Marvel or DC's backing. The Big Two will likely dominate the sales charts as long as they have the financial backing of corporations behind them, but there are other feasible options. The fact that McFarlane's creation is still its own empire after 27 years shows what's possible in the indie world.
Tied to this is how the comic encouraged originality in a new generation of readers/future creators. In the past, creators limited their dreams to working in someone else's sandbox, but then McFarlane and Co. proved that original creations can be cool and popular, too. By his own admission, someone like Robert Kirkman wouldn't have been able to do what he did with The Walking Dead if it weren't for the groundwork laid by Spawn and Image Comics.
More importantly, Spawn appeared at a time when the big publishers weren't as concerned with diversity-aimed titles and put a superhero of color as the central character of the series. McFarlane claimed the idea came from his stint at Marvel when he realized most superheroes were white males.
"I didn’t want to do a story of a black man because I wanted to tell a story of black people. Because who am I? I'm a white Canadian," McFarlane told The Washington Post. "I just wanted to say heroes come in all sizes and shapes and sex and beliefs. Doing good is not exclusive to being a white male in America."
With issue #301, Spawn is set to break another record as it surpasses David Sims' Cerebus the Aardvark to become the longest-running creator-owned comic in the world. It's a momentous occasion and one that McFarlane and his team truly deserve. Spawn changed superhero comics during a period when it was really necessary.