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Comic books hit the big screen

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The cameras roll, and our hero roars down the grimy backstreet on a Pop-artsy, two-wheeled motorcycle-turned-arsenal. Behind him, his costume’s gothic cape billows with equal parts majesty and menace (at least it will in theaters, through the magic of digital tailoring). His face is little more than a moonlit motion blur, but it’s easy enough to see that he’s grim and determined and driven by inner demons. More striking still: He’s not Batman. He’s Spawn, as in ”of the devil,” a tragic, tormented avenger from beyond the grave. And he’s easily the biggest comic-book phenomenon that the mainstream hasn’t gotten hip to — yet.

The $39 million live-action Spawn movie, due in August from New Line Cinema, could go a long way toward giving this brooding subculture sensation some coveted brand-name recognition. ”I think Spawn will be cool to the right people,” says the character’s 35-year-old creator, Todd McFarlane. ”Mom might not get it, whereas she gets Batman. But the kids will get it. On some level, I think that makes it cooler.”

Hollywood executives may not entirely get creations like Spawn either, but they’re willing to try. More studios and production companies than ever are turning to largely unsung superheroes in the hope of latching on to new franchises — complete with sequels, toy lines, and fast-food promotional tie-ins. With Batman and Superman already spoken for, the movie industry has suddenly discovered comic book characters that are familiar only to collectors, viewing them as underexploited rather than unexploitable.

Given the recent successes of The Crow and The Mask, both of which successfully morphed from low-profile comics into high-profit movies, the sudden boom is no mystery. The new teen-superhero group Gen13, which consistently outsells Batman, has lassoed both live-action and video-animation deals. Warner Bros., home to Batman and Superman, has placed its bets on sister company DC Comics’ comparatively obscure Steel (an armor-plated Superman spin-off who will show up this summer in a $23 million film starring hoopster thespian Shaquille O’Neal), as well as a 1993 cult fave about the Grim Reaper called Death: The High Cost of Living. Meanwhile, comic-book sales leader Marvel, bogged down for years in disputes over the film rights to its flagship character, Spider-Man, is now making its first hands-on foray into live action with a little-known hero called Blade, an obsessive vampire hunter being played by Wesley Snipes.

”It’s easy to look at Spider-Man or the X-Men and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a slam dunk [movie],’ because everybody knows them,” says Marvel Studios CEO and president Avi Arad. ”But at the end of the day, what made Batman Batman was Tim Burton. If Blade is a good movie, it won’t matter who knew or didn’t know the character beforehand.”

Blade is being made by New Line, which seems to have an unmatched affinity for the comics-to-movies genre: In addition to releasing The Mask and overseeing the Snipes vehicle and Spawn, the company is developing Badrock, the story of a nerdy teen turned invincible stone monolith; Avengelyne, about a fallen female angel seeking redemption on earth; and Venom, featuring a morphing, razor-toothed monstrosity initially introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man as a new supervillain. ”Any source material may have limited appeal, whether it’s novels or plays or comic books,” admits New Line’s hipster production boss, Michael De Luca, a professed comics fan who cowrote the story for the comics-to-movies dud Judge Dredd. ”But that same source material may also contain really strong stories, stories that can easily be turned into movies.”

Spawn was even more camera ready than most. Concocted by McFarlane in 1992 right after he and some fellow comics all-stars bolted Marvel in a creative rights dispute and started their own firm, Image Comics, it’s the saga of murdered government assassin Al Simmons who deals with the devil in order to be reunited with his wife. The catch: Simmons is returned to the land of the living with a face that looks like something out of the Dumpster behind Jack in the Box only to discover that his widow has started a family with his best friend. Sure, Simmons also now has incredible powers and (as the kids will tell you) a totally kickin’ costume covered with chains, spikes, and skulls, but that’s small consolation. Once his extended lease on life has expired, he’s contractually bound to head back down under and become general of hell’s army.

For a comic that reaches many preteens, Spawn is awfully grisly; early issues showed one villain tearing out his victims’ still-beating hearts and depicted an ice cream truck driver-turned-serial sicko impaled with a scooper and Popsicle sticks. But if it all sounds somewhat harder-edged than the usual comics-to-screen fare, just remember The Crow, with its bleak story line of gangland anarchy and righteous revenge. In fact, nontraditional heroes with ambiguous moral codes are what have driven the comics business for the past decade—to the point that “grim and gritty,” once the marketing buzzwords for them, is now a groan-eliciting cliche in comics shops.

“For whatever reasons, today’s audiences seem to enjoy dark stories where reality comes unglued, be it The X-Files or Millennium,” says Larry Marder, Image’s executive director. “Comic books have been mining that vein for a while now, so we’re a good place for the studios to look for dystopian fantasies that are well worked out and self-contained.”

It seems, then, that there’s a fair amount of market sense in McFarlane’s Spawn sensibility. “We know more and more about what goes on in the world, so the material we read has to change to match,” reasons Alan McElroy, writer of both the Spawn film and an ultraviolent adult-themed Spawn cartoon series debuting this spring on HBO. “And as we grow closer to the millennium, that always brings up issues of the veil between good and evil growing thinner. How do we face that? I think Spawn touches on that.”

Back on the Spawn movie set, costumed baddie John Leguizamo is being hoisted via a forklift to the top of a hazardous-waste disposal truck. Such is the suffering the actor is enduring for his art: He’s unrecognizable as Spawn’s arch-nemesis, Violator, a shape-shifting demon whose bloated “human” guise looks like a cross between Danny DeVito’s Penguin and The Simpsons‘ Krusty the Clown.

Along with Martin Sheen, who plays Al Simmons’ double-dealing former boss, Leguizamo is the biggest name in the production. (Michael Jai White, last seen in 2 Days in the Valley, plays the title role.) While Columbia Pictures was courting McFarlane with name directors and producers shortly after the comic first hit, he ultimately went with Mark Dippe, Clint Goldman, and Steve “Spaz” Williams, a trio of Industrial Light & Magic staffers whose collective resume includes effects work on The Abyss, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and The Mask, and who were itching to make a film of their own.

“Because Todd sees himself as a maverick, he thinks it’s cool that he was able to make this with the new kids on the block,” says Goldman, Spawn‘s producer and one of the overseers of its $13 million effects budget. “If he made this movie with Joel Schumacher and Arnold Schwarzenegger and it wasn’t a super-huge success, it would be a failure. If we succeed at a high level, it will be a bigger accomplishment.”

McFarlane’s career has always been about getting to a place where he can thumb his nose at his bosses, his rivals, and his critics. He still runs his multimillion-dollar mini-empire from an office above the garage of his Phoenix home—including McFarlane Toys, which he launched three years ago as a way of showing up the big manufacturers that had scoffed at his demands for final design approval. Similarly, after lengthy wranglings with Columbia, McFarlane brought Spawn to New Line because it offered a deal that the studio says allowed him to keep many of the merchandising rights.

How has it paid off? McFarlane estimates that toward the end of his reputation-making years drawing Spider-Man for Marvel, he earned between $1 and $2 million annually. With the start-up of Spawn in 1992, his yearly paycheck jumped, earning him a write-up in a 1996 Forbes profile of successful non-corporate achievers. And for last year alone, Dun & Bradstreet put McFarlane Toys’ annual sales at $23 million.

But much of the future of Spawn Inc. hinges on the movie, which could either push all of Spawn‘s tie-ins toward stratospheric sales or place a permanent cap on its ultimate potential (A fairly well-established character in Britain, Judge Dredd suffered the latter fate stateside after the ’95 movie stiffed.) With this summer shaping up to be perhaps the most fiercely competitive in history, Dippe, Williams, and Goldman will need to be at the top of their digital-effects game to help Spawn score big.

McFarlane, though, will let those guys sweat the details. He’s got a few hundred other matters demanding his attention: Spawn toys, Spawn comics, Spawn video games, Spawn on HBO…. “I’m just looking to spread the word Spawn across the planet,” he says. Can he? “Maybe not to the degree of Batman,” he concedes with a grin. “But he’s got a 60-year head start.”

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