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TV REVIEW

Violent 'Spawn': From Comic Book to TV

May 16, 1997|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since it first appeared in 1992, "Spawn," Todd McFarlane's dark mixture of violence, cheesecake, vigilante justice and outre theology, has been one of the best-selling comic books in America.

It was influenced by the gorier manga (Japanese comic book-novels), so it's not surprising that the animated version, "Spawn," premiering at midnight tonight on HBO, resembles the more violent Japanese animated features.

As he died, former CIA assassin Al Simmons (voice by Keith David) traded his soul to the devil for the chance to come back to Earth to see his wife again. He's now a "spawn" (short for "hellspawn"), a potential officer in the devil's army, with a variety of superpowers and a flashy outfit that includes a jagged cape, magic chains, silver skulls and other touches of superhero chic.

Haunted by memories of his former life, Simmons wanders the alleys of Rat City, a grimy Manhattan slum. Although he's supposed to be Satan's own cadet, Simmons goes around killing bad guys, especially Mafia hit men, which seems inconsistent.

Writer Alan McElroy employs not one but two narrators: Cogliostro (Richard Dysart), a homeless sage from the alleys, and the Clown-Violator (Michael Nicolosi), another of the devil's lieutenants, but the plot remains difficult to follow.

McElroy preserves most of the characters, situations and action from the comic. The Violator doesn't rip out people's hearts, at least not in the first three episodes, but there's still plenty of violence, including shootings, dismemberments and burnings, with buckets of Day-Glo red paint to simulate blood.

In a singularly gross sequence in the first episode, Simmons wrestles with his own putrefying cadaver. Supervising director Eric Radomski uses dramatic camera angles, quick cutting and slow-motion to suggest the look of the comic--and to disguise the limits of the animation, which is on a par with Saturday morning kidvid.

It's difficult to imagine anyone but the teen-age boys who make up the bulk of the comic's readership being entertained by "Spawn." But media watchdog groups are going to have conniptions when they get a load of the show's extreme violence--not to mention the scenes of smoking, drinking, profanity, nudity, sex and urination.

* "Spawn" airs Fridays at midnight on HBO. The network has rated the program TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17).

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