I have always maintained that Todd McFarlane had the makings of a really great cartoonist. The problem has always been that he had almost no interest in being a cartoonist, choosing instead to devote the whole of his energies to being an entrepreneur, and furthermore, choosing the most cynical and degraded vehicles with which to make this a reality. No one has ever accused McFarlane of overestimating his audience's intelligence.
His early work on Incredible Hulk and especially Amazing Spider-Man stood out for a number of reasons. Although it may be fashionable to retroactively downplay his success, he was incredibly popular, the first "superstar" artist of the Image generation, and probably the biggest as well. Jim Lee still nabs headlines whenever he announces a run on something or other, and even Marc Silvestri and Rob Liefeld retain quite a cache in the fanboy imagination, but if McFarlane were ever to return to comics (actually drawing them for a sustained period of time, and not just plotting them or producing an odd Anniversary story), well, that would be a mainstream event of almost unprecedented explosiveness. Given McFarlane's well-established business acumen, it's surprising he has yet to figure this out - either he's holding it up his sleeve (considering how far the Spawn franchise has already fallen that seem unlikely), or he just doesn't like drawing very much.
But if you look back at his early work, it still holds up. Sure, he suffered from a great deal of the first Image generation's failings - sometimes storytelling sense was sacrificed for bombast, sometimes the endless stylistic filigrees overwhelmed good drawing, sometimes anatomy was questionable. But more than almost any artist up to that time, he also seemed to really understand Steve Ditko's peculiar contributions to the mainstream storytelling vocabulary. Ditko specialized in a sense of mood and atmosphere that stood at a stark contrast to Kirby's clearly-delineated action sequences. He may not have been anywhere near as hatch-crazy as McFarlane, but when Ditko inked his own material there was a similar sense of foreboding in his splotchy feathered blacks, a cultivated awkwardness that made his figures seem consummately human even in the midst of high-flying superhuman adventure. The fact that Ditko often took pains to establish light sources in his panels made the use of shadows to accentuate noirish mood stand out all the more against his peers. Later on, when didactic preoccupations became more prominent in his work, the emphasis on shadows and awkward gesture made his exploration of moral absolutes all the more convincing. It has almost seeemed as if there was something corrupting in the very nature of his physical universe on display that could otherwise catch an unsuspecting, upright citizen off-guard with its perfidy.
Looking at McFarlane's journeyman work, it's clear he had a firm understanding of what had made Ditko's work stand out. But unfortunately, the advent of Spawn pretty much dictated the end of McFarlane's aesthetic evolution. It's not even that Spawn itself started off with a bad idea - it's basically Faust with a cape, hardly a bad start for any potential franchise. But as the series progressed, all early promise was abandoned in favor of an increasingly repetitive and insulting focus on murk, mire and consistently puerile morality -- all of which added up to quite possibly the most unbelievably pandering achievement in comics history. To his credit, he was able to figure out exactly what would sell: faux-Satanism, big guns, half-naked women and reprehensible attitudes all around. But it must be noted that as soon as people figured out that they knew exactly what could be found in every issue of Spawn, sales took a dive and have never recovered. He may have known what people wanted, but he never really learned that giving the fans exactly what they want in excess is also a really good way to render yourself obsolete. Why bother picking up a new issue of Spawn if you can just reread an issue from last year or ten years ago and get pretty much the same thing?
Anyway, the early Image stuff also stood out for the fact that they were among the very first creators and publishers to take advantage of advances in publishing technology. For how little they've held up (not that they were great to begin with), early issues of Spawn really jumped out from a crowded field. This cover in particular has always stood out in my mind: I remember nothing of the story inside, but man, that's some nice color work. It may seem elementary now that everything is colored by computers as a matter of routine, but back in 1993 it really was new. I am not ashamed to say I bought Spawn for a while simply because it was a damn fine looking book. Almost nothing else about it stands out today, but in terms of how modern comics are produced and printed, Spawn is probably the most important book of the 1990s.