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Spawning A Super Hero

From comic book creator, to multi-millionaire, Todd McFarlane has always followed his own path with intelligence and daring. J. Paul Peszko meets the man behind Spawn.

Rather than try to list all of Todd McFarlane's accomplishments, it may be far easier to list what he hasn't accomplished in his youthful 39 years. He never made it to baseball's Major Leagues. He wasn't an honor student and never graduated summa cum laude. He will never launch an IPO and probably wouldn't want to either.

Spawn has become one of the most popular comic book characters in history. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

A short list, you say? Definitely. The creator of Spawn, one of the leading all-time comic books, has accomplished nearly everything he has set out to do. So, is he an entrepreneurial genius who happens to be a terrific artist or is he an artistic genius who happens to have some really hot ideas?

Todd McFarlane: I've been called a lot of things, some of them good, some of them bad. But the only thing that's sort of true is I'm stubborn as a mule. I'm very, very curious about why things are done, but equally as curious about why things aren't done. So, some of the things that I've had the good fortune to try have usually come out of the question: Why can't we do this? And people stare at you with a blank face a lot of times. You'd be surprised how many times people actually don't have a reason why they do the stuff that they do.

Then I ask practical questions. Will it slow down the process? No. Will it cost us more money? No. So, does it add any time or money to the budget? No. Well, let's go try it. Why won't you try it? Really, I hate to say it, but most of the answers are, historically, because we've just been doing it this way so long that we've forgot the reason.

Hero or not? McFarlane lets his readers decide. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

From Sports to Comics

Maybe an enigma is the best way to describe McFarlane. Oddly enough, he never took an interest in comic books until he was sixteen and started doodling some of the figures. Sports were his passion, especially baseball. But when an injury at Eastern Washington State University, where he majored in graphic design, sidelined his baseball career, he began drawing comic book figures that he thought could be improved upon. 700 rejection slips later, Marvel Comics tapped McFarlane to draw an 11-page backup story for a new title. Freelancing for both Marvel and D.C., he skyrocketed through the ranks to where he was writing, inking, penciling and coloring The Amazing Spider-Man and penciling and inking The Incredible Hulk, both for Marvel.

Although a lot of things bug McFarlane, fortunately arachnophobia isn't one of them. In 1989, with McFarlane's unique rendering, The Amazing Spider-Man became Marvel's top seller. A year later, McFarlane went to work on a new title called Spider-Man without the Amazing. However, the results certainly were -- amazing, that is. The first issue set the all-time comic book sales record, selling over 2.5 million copies.

Although this made him the hottest talent in the industry, he and his colleagues were far from pleased with Marvel's corporate policies. Early in 1992, McFarlane along with seven of the company's best artists quit to form a unique partnership called Image Comics. How does McFarlane feel about corporate America today and Marvel Comics in particular?

The visual style of Spawn is often much different than what appears in the pages of the bigger companies books. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

TM: It's [corporate America] the big thing that I rail against. But it's not the structure overall of corporate American that's bothersome because again you need to have people come in from nine to five, you need to give them overtime and have managers over people, and have a pecking order. All that makes sense. Otherwise you've got chaos. What's more alarming to me about corporate America is that they make decisions for people [employees] without really asking the various people's opinions ab0out things.

My personal experience, let's say, working for Marvel Comics Books, is that they [the executives] would go on a powwow and have a big to-do with all the editors about the direction they were going to take Spider-Man.And somehow no one was ever concerned or asked or enlightened by the fact that: You know, maybe we should have one of the writers or artists who are going to do the stuff actually in the room while we're talking about what we're planning on doing instead of coming up with these dopey ideas and trying to shove it down their throats.

Even more insulting was when they tried to come up with contracts that would be better for the freelance community. Again, somehow neglecting to ask the opinion of anybody in the freelance community. So, thank you very much for telling us what's better for our life given that you never even lived a day in our life. And you never even asked us what a day in our life was like. So, you go ahead in your ivory towers and keep making those decisions.

And on a grander scale, looking at the country as a whole, especially dealing with public companies, a public company's only goal is to grow bigger and devour more and to maximize profits. That comes at the expense of anything. And ultimately, the anythinga lot of times is the good-working decent sort of people and their families. It's asinine, complete, utter insanity.

McFarlane has had dozens of opportunities to bring his multi-million-dollar conglomerate of companies public, but he staunchly refuses.

TM: For me to go public, I'd have to put the wants and needs of my family first and foremost above everybody else. Not that I couldn't care about them [his employees], but I'd have to literally ignore them. I'd have to sit there and go: "Aaah, in order to get this stock up, I've got to cut 800 people. What do I give a shit? They're not my family."

The Trouble With ComicsAnd The Internet

Not too many years ago, kids could buy comic books for a dollar-and-a-quarter. But in recent years, comics have become costly holographic, foiled-covered collector's items. Does McFarlane see this trend continuing?

TM: Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and it's one of the reasons that, I believe, we're in the state that we are in, in the comic book world. You continue to lose your readership because you take advantage of them. And this is one of the reasons why they leave because we aretaking advantage of them. Then you go: "Wow, we were selling a hundred thousand books at a buck. Now we're only selling 50,000. So, now we've got to charge two bucks.

It's always sort of odd to me that they've got to raise the price on the loyal guys because people decided to leave. They left because we abused them as consumers. In the past five years, we've been in a shortsighted mentality. And that shortsightedness keeps getting closer and closer and closer. Shortsightedness used to be six months. Now it's like six days.

1996 cover art. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

So, will people in our industry continue to do whatever they can to grab a buck? Absolutely. Is that good for the long-term health of this business? Nope. Can you get that across to people who are a) either working for public companies and have to maximize revenue streams and/or b) Yuppie sort of kids that are running companies and trying to put food on the table? No, not really. You just grab what you can now and deal with the consequences later. Everybody's sort of heading for Armageddon here, and nobody seems overly concerned about it.

What other trends does he see arising within the industry?

TM: That's as big as it can get -- the shrinking of your marketplace. The trend is within the confine that I don't care if everyone's buying Pokemon kid stuff or everybody's buying books like The Preacher that are hard to get. If there are only six people buying it, it's not relevant any more. So, the relevancy of it, potentially -- and again it's anybody's guess -- maybe the viewership, if you will, of people looking at words and pictures, some of it might be shifted to some of the electronic media, i.e., specifically the Web.

The visual style of Spawnis much too complex for the simple animation techniques of the Web today. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

And what about the Internet?

TM: I don't think anyone has a clue. I'm not a big believer in the Internet per se. I acknowledge that it's something people are using and it's here to stay. But do I think it's going to revolutionize everybody's life like everybody's talking about? Nope til somebody builds the blueprint of what it's supposed to physically do and [how] it's supposed to unify everybody. I think its a terrific informational place. I think it's like an electronic library. Any information you want, you'll probably find it there, which is terrific. It's got some Flash stuff. But I think the entertainment part of it is completely out of whack. I think everybody's delusional of what they think they're going to get out of it.

It's insane. You've got people spending fifty million bucks to develop a Web site, so they could put some streaming down, so that Hollywood might take a look at it and turn it into a TV show or a movie. You know what? You can take that fucking fifty million dollars and make the movie yourself. It seems like a long way to go to get to where it is you want to go. Just go straight! You're taking the long way around here.

One of the many examples of Todd McFarlane Toys superior products. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

And given the advent of cable that took us away from the network, it went from five channels...three channels when we were kidsto practically fifty. And now what are we going to do? Go get our entertainment on the Net where there's 50 million. You kidding me or what? I mean if anything, the downside of having variety...is that kids don't talk to each other like you and I did. When there were only three channels, you and I watched every show the same. I bet, if I asked you, and you said Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and Fred Flintstone and ad nauseum, you and I would have to have a long conversation...We could even sing the theme songs together. But now there's so many channels it's so hard to find somebody on your own block that watches the same program you watch.

Hottest Toys in Town

After Spawn was released in 1992 and became an instant success, the premier issue selling over 1.7 million copies, the toy companies were all over McFarlane trying to license his dark but extremely popular action hero. Upset by the deals the corporate toy giants were trying to cut, McFarlane started McFarlane Toys. Like Marvel Comics, neither Mattel nor Hasbro took McFarlane seriously, but since then McFarlane Toys has captured a significant share of the market. Encouraged by his success, McFarlane started a second toy company, McFalane Design Group, which licenses an incredible array of popular action figures that it distributes along with McFarlane's own creations.

If his relationship with corporate toy makers has been something less than cooperative, that has not been the case with corporate Hollywood. Originally, McFarlane wanted to do Spawn as an R-rated animated feature. However, he wound up producing the PG-13 live-action movie that New Line Cinema had insisted upon. Later, he produced his R-rated animated version as an HBO series. Does he feel that he had to back down to get the movie produced?

A shot from New Lines live-action feature Spawn.© 1997 New Line Cinema.

TM: To make people understand how you make a transition from comic books to where I wanted to go [with Spawn],then you had to take it in steps. We wanted to create an audience base at PG-13, and I agreed to it. So, it wasn't a back down, but it actually works out okay because the follow up script that's in development for the sequel is R-rated. So, I had to take one step before I could go there. It's actually the second movie I wanted to go [as an R-rated feature]. But the first one was sort of to build the audience, tell the origin and get all the Chapter One stuff out of the way. And then in movies two through ten hopefully, you don't have to talk about Superman's from Krypton anymore.

And what about Spawn, the character? Just a cool, dark super hero from hell with no social commentary or is there?

TM: I think there's a lot of social commentary there. But, again, if I gave you my thesis paper on Spawn,most people would go: "Well, I really don't get that when I read the book." The answer is I don't really believe you should be using your character and your ideas to put your political views out overall. But, Spawn is a guy who's got a chip on his shoulder -- not that unlike me. He's doesn't like being bullied around -- not unlike me. And he's sort of being controlled by people that are saying, "You're just a big pawn in this game called Heaven and Hell." You could put corporate America as either Heaven or Hell -- it don't make no difference really.

What he's saying is, "I don't care who's trying to control me. I'm going to fight, and I'm going to be a free man." So, if that means I'm politically incorrect, well, so be it.

With a pact with the devil, Spawn is the true anti-hero. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

The Everyguy Spawn

Does McFarlane draw a distinction between Spawn and other super heroes?

TM: Superman's a guy that hit the ground running as a boy scout and has always been a boy scout. And always did the right thing, said the right thing and was the right thing. I believe Superman and those kind of heroes are actually more unreal than a character like Spawn. Spawn is flawed because he doesn't know how to be a hero, doesn't really want to be a hero and he's trying to figure it all out.

Spawn's no different than if you got hit by a bolt of lightning and were able to lift a million pounds over your head. I would just sit there and go: "All right, now that you've got these powers, what's the answer to peace over in Kosovo?" You don't have the answer. "I don't know. I just can lift tall buildings."

...So, I think there's this false perception that when these guys [super heroes] get these powers, that instantly they're role models. ...You either have to grow into being a role model, or the fact is he [Spawn] might not ever be a role model. Will he be a great hero? Maybe some day, if he defeats the bad guy, in this case the Devil. He'll actually be bigger than God because God's never been able to kick Satan's ass. But he also might fall prey to his insecurities, his whining, his self-doubts and be actually a bit of a pisser and just can't do it.

If that's the case, then how does McFarlane answer the religious right that accuses him and others in the industry of creating horrific role models for America's youth.

TM: We need to look no further really than people in entertainment. Some of them are actually pretty good role models, and some of them actually get thrown in jail every now and then...Sports guys are the same way. Just because you are an elite athlete doesn't make you a hero to kids. Just because Spawn's been given super powers doesn't make him necessarily a hero.

I think we just got a knee-jerk for so long [that] if you're a comic book hero, you must be a boy scout. Because Spawn doesn't act perfect, then everybody goes, "He's dark, he's violent, he's anti-this and anti-that." No, I disagree. In my warped, comic book, geek mind, Spawn makes more sense to me than Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne's the freak... "You've got lots of women who want to date you." "Okay, send them home." "Why?" "Because at three o'clock every night, when it's dark as pitch, I go out and beat the fuck out of bad guys...Whereas, Spawn is just going: "I want to get back to my family, I want to get back to my wife, I want to get back to some semblance of normality."

Between the two of them, I think Bruce Wayne is a little more odd than my guy. My guy's just struggling to be normal given that he's got all these fantastic elements around him.

Spawn's audience starts at 12 or 13 years old -- puberty, adolescence and coming of age. Does McFarlane see any sexual overtones in Spawn?

TM: Not really. Only maybe in the big picture as we try to assert ourselves as an individual. And I think it goes way beyond adolescence. Some of us struggle until we're thirty trying to find our foothold in life. So, it's just more of again sort of saying that Spawn's just trying to find his identity and assert himself. And I can say that's sort of the big metaphor for what all of us are trying to do on a day to day basis, especially those between the ages of 15 and 30.

When McFarlane was an adolescent, who were his super heroes?

TM: My mom and dad. I'm 39, and they still are. I was never somebody that looked up to athletes for their role model or movie stars. I've been at places where people ask, "If you were stranded on a desert island, what female, other than your wife, would you like to have?" I was at a blank. I never thought about it. You know why? This may seem weird for a guy who deals with fantasy -- that's a fantasy. So, why think about something that's not going to come true. I don't really spend time on wasted energy. I was never there [into fantasizing]. So, I just looked at the easiest, closest examples that were around me like my parents and teachers.

How about comic book heroes? He didn't have any. By his own admission, McFarlane was a "late bloomer" and didn't start reading comic books until he was sixteen. But, if you held a gun to his head, he would reluctantly concede that Spawn is closer to Batman than Superman. Still, both of those archetypes are far from McFarlane's Spawn, which some detractors have accused of being too dark and much too violent. McFarlane takes exception.

A scene for the highly successful HBO series Todd McFarlanes Spawn. © 1996 Home Box Office.

TM: Have you seen the movie Rambo, First Blood? His thing was, "They pushed me first." So, then it sort of comes back to me. I don't consider myself violent, but fuck, if you touch me, I'll touch you hard. But will I ever touch you first? Never. But will I back down from a fight? I will never let you see fear in my eyes. And so, if you actually look at Spawn, if you analyze Spawn, very rarely does he make the first move or does he go after anybody without being provoked. They come, and they push, and they tease, and they kick and they swing at him. And finally he goes: "I gave you a warning, I told you to back off, and now fuck you." Does that make him extremely violent? No, I think it makes him like most of us. I think most of us would stand up.

Pick A Voice Your Own

McFarlane has enjoyed success in film and video as well as comic books and action figures. Spawn, the movie, grossed $100 million. He won two Emmys for Todd McFarlane's Spawn, his HBO animated series. In its first season the series became HBO Home Video's top-selling original programming video of all time, with combined sales topping 1 million units for three seasons.

In February, McFarlane won a Grammy in the Best Short Form Video category as well as two MTV Video Music Awards for Korn's Freak on a Leash. In 1999, he received a Grammy nomination for Pearl Jam's Do the Evolution. Both music videos were animated. In fact, Eddy Vetter of Pearl Jam picked McFarlane to do their video after watching a Spawn episode on HBO.

What does McFarlane see as the future trend of animation? More CG? More special effects?

TM: I'm not a big fan of CG animation when you can see it. But they're getting smarter and smarter with it because they're starting to hide it now. They're actually starting to make the CGI look like animation...

Unlike typical superhero yarns, comic titles from McFarlane, like Sam and Twitch, feature very developed characters. © Todd McFarlane Productions

They're going to have this movie coming out, Titan A.E.,that's going to try to integrate the both of them. I'm betting it doesn't do what they're hoping for. I go into Hollywood now and I say, "Somebody needs to do a balls out, animated theatrical release." And they go, "Oh, Titan A.E."

No! If Tarzan is a one in terms of cuteness, then Titan A.E. is maybe a three. I'm talking about a fucking twelve! I'm talking about an R-rated show that's like Armageddon animated, The Matrix animated, Blade Runner, animated. I'm not saying animate those movies. I'm saying like those. Why couldn't you have taken the idea of Blade Runner and animated it? The answer is you could, but nobody wants to do it.

A young artist comes to him hoping to land a spot on his staff. What kind of skills does McFarlane look for?

The darker side of Todd McFarlane comics. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

TM: If I look at his work, and I go, "Oh, he draws a cool Superman!," then I'm not interested. I'm looking at guys that have a sort of style and uniqueness in terms of their storytelling and the way they write tales. I'm trying to do a lot of what I call anti-comics. There are a million super-hero comic books. Why would I want to do another one? I want to do other kinds of things...I don't care about some alien invasion and Doctor Doomtries to beat up the Fantastic Fourfor the fiftieth time. I've seen it, and I'm bored of it.

I just hired a new kid who has sort of a film noirkind of look...but it wouldn't work on The X-Menor Spider-Man,but for some of the stuff that we're doing, it's perfect.

An enigma, an artist, an entrepreneur who deals mainly in fantasy, yet he doesn't waste his time fantasizing, does McFarlane have a secret passion? When he played baseball at EWSU, he had attracted the attention of several big league scouts. Then he injured his ankle, and the dream vanished. Would he have preferred a career in the Big Show over what he is doing now?

TM: Even today. Yeah, Id trade it today. Are you kidding me? To get up there with the bases loaded with fifty thousand people and the game on the line. Whew! That'd be pretty good. The wise man now. I'm not so young anymore. I see that being a pro athlete sort of has its limits. I'd be retired at 37, right? Where, if you have a real job, you can actually do it til you're 65. That intellectual part of me says, "Give it up." Still, sports were what I lived and breathed as a kid and through college. Other than me and my wife, that was it. It's [making the Major Leagues] the only thing that I have in my resume that I tried and wasn't good enough.

Baseballs and Millions

Although his days as a competitive athlete are gone, sports continue to occupy a fair part of McFarlane's interest not to mention his wallet. When the Edmonton Oilers were in financial difficulty, McFarlane bought in as a minority owner. To commemorate baseball's fantastic 1998 season, he bought ten historic home run balls from the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run derby, including McGwire's 70th, for which McFarlane shelled out a cool $3 million. They are now part of a road show he calls The McFarlane Collection, which tours Major League cities and raises funds for the ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) Association.

He spent $3.3 million in all, and yet McFarlane's Wall of Fame has only brought in about $60,000 in donations for ALS. Why didn't he just donate a couple million to ALS?

McFarlane isnt just buying memorabilia; he makes it with his many movie-based toy lines. © Todd McFarlane Productions.

TM: The answer is I should've. If I was really as saintly as some people would like to give me credit for, I should've just kicked out a check for three million. I could've written three one million dollar checks to three charities anonymously and walked away from it. I mean, really, the true saint does that. So, that's that.

Now given the fact that I didn't do that, there's not much fun in that. I work hard for my money. We've got lots of money, and we want to do something good. So, I wanted to create a bridge between that...and doing nothing. And the bridge was let's go and try and have some fun. Hence the word fund-raising - those are the first three letters (f-u-n). And try and do something that a) I've got a bit of a passion for, which is sports, baseball particularly, and b) do something we can interact with people and bring an awareness, which is sort of a value I have, not fund-raising, but bring an awareness to this disease. And do a bait 'n switch and give them a little bit of propaganda once they're there on the disease. Maybe if they want to donate a dollar here or a dollar there, we'll take it and turn it over.

That just may be the key to what makes Todd McFarlane tick. Whatever he does he tries to have fun doing it. And for McFarlane having fun is trying to find different ways of doing things.

TM: Basically, when I go into any project, I like to see if I can skin the cat differently. It doesn't make it better or worse, you know. If you just try to repeat what everybody else has done, why would anybody pay attention to you?

They wouldn't - unless you can lift tall buildings.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes feature articles, interviews and reviews for regional publications. He currently has two scripts under option and is working on a feature comedy, in addition to just completing his first novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.

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