Here’s the four-panel illustrated version of Todd McFarlane’s life:
Panel 1: Todd McFarlane, age 25, is sitting in a mobile home in Spokane hunched over a drawing board. His thought balloon says, “If only I could make a living as COMIC BOOK ARTIST!”
Panel 2: Todd McFarlane, age 29, is surrounded by plaques that say, “Best New Comic Book - 1990” and “Favorite Artist - 1990.”
Panel 3: Todd McFarlane, age 30, is walking out the door of Marvel Comics, waving goodbye. The Marvel executives are weeping uncontrollably. Unbeknownst to them, McFarlane has a new drawing tucked under his arm for a gruesome-looking character named Spawn.
Panel 4: Todd McFarlane, 36, strikes a superhero pose and surveys a globe of the world, which is labeled “Todd’s Multimillion Dollar Empire.” The countries are labeled “Spawn Comics,” “Merchandise and Toys,” “HBO Animated Series” and “$43 Million Dollar Live Action Movie.” Todd appears to be pleased. The End.
OK, so McFarlane isn’t actually a superhero. That was artistic license.
However, this Eastern Washington University graduate does have an empire, at least a commercial one. Walk in any toy store and comic book shop in North America, and you can’t possibly avoid McFarlane products.
And when the big-budget “Spawn: The Movie” (starring Martin Sheen and John Leguizamo) roars into theaters on Aug. 8, “Spawn” will be ubiquitous across the land. The “Spawn”-storm is coming. McFarlane guarantees it.
“I’m telling you, it’s going to be the No. 1 movie that week,” said McFarlane by phone from his home near Phoenix. “That’s not even boasting. That’s a fact. I know what we’re going up against that week, and I know what kids go for.”
So far, he has certainly been right.
For those who keep score with money, Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at $75 million.
The money comes from McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic book series, which is undoubtedly the hottest comic book title of the ‘90s. In 1996, for instance, 31 of the top 65 comic books of the year were “Spawn” titles.
The money also comes from his line of Spawn action figures, which McFarlane was canny enough to keep under his own control.
And now the money also comes from HBO, which is running a six-episode animated “Todd McFarlane’s Spawn” series every Friday night at midnight. McFarlane himself introduces each episode on camera, with the words, “And now, Spawn. So turn off your lights.”
No wonder McFarlane refers to “Spawn” as “my little jersey cow that gives me milk.”
And “Spawn” was actually spawned right here in Spokane and Cheney, at least in embryo.
McFarlane went to EWU from 1981 to 1984, getting a bachelor’s degree in a self-designed program that involved graphics and art. His practical goal was to go into the printing trade with his father in Calgary, Alberta. But his dream was always to be a comic book creator.
“I was just kind of teaching myself how to become an artist,” said McFarlane. “A lot of times, I had two-a-day practices (he was on a baseball scholarship), and then I worked part time on campus as a janitor, and I worked weekends at a comic shop called the Comic Rack, down on Monroe. So I started doing my comic book drawing between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, and plugged a couple of hours into that whenever I could.”
Right before he graduated, and after plenty of rejection slips, he hit pay dirt. He was hired on a free-lance basis by Marvel Comics. After graduation he stayed in Spokane, waiting for his fiance (now his wife) to finish her degree at EWU.
“So I sat in the trailer and started drawing,” said McFarlane. “I mean, trailer living was cool, because there’s a lot of room in a trailer. I think it has a bad reputation, but after living in a trailer, I’d never go back to an apartment.”
He was beginning, modestly, to realize his dream of being a comic book artist. But he already had begrudgingly given up his first dream, to be a major-league baseball player.
Baseball is what brought him to Spokane in the first place. Right after high school, he came from Canada for a tryout at Gonzaga University. He couldn’t afford Gonzaga, but he ended up attending Spokane Falls Community College for a year and then transferring to EWU on a baseball scholarship. He was a good fielder and he was fast. But he was not exactly Babe Ruth.
“If I had been a good hitter, I’d probably be playing baseball on some level instead of doing what I’m doing now,” he said. “I guess you could say it was all for the good, but I’m still somewhat of a frustrated athlete.”
He and his wife married in 1985, and they stayed in Spokane until 1986, when they moved to Vancouver, B.C. Later they moved to Portland, and then to Phoenix, Ariz., where they now live.
Meanwhile, he was making a reputation as one of the hottest comic artists in America, responsible for the make-over of Spider Man. The first issue of the new Spider Man became the best-selling comic book of all time (2.5 million copies).
Then, in 1992, he and five other top Marvel artists walked out on the company and started their own enterprise, Image Comics, which is now the third-largest comic book publisher in America. McFarlane remains a co-owner of Image Comics, the publisher of “Spawn.”
It all happened just the way he visualized it.
“It’s kind of weird,” said McFarlane. “I used to have this way of putting myself to sleep. I’d focus on one thing and eventually get bored and fall asleep. And back then, what I focused on was, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could break into comic books?’ “Once I got the job, it was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get a regular gig on a 22-page story?’ And then, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do this character?’ … If anything, most of those wants and needs and goals have been exceeded.
“Now, the goals are pretty ambitious: Can I get this character across the planet?”
McFarlane’s name is on his action figures, and his face is on HBO. But he said his career is “not about being rich and famous.”
“Fortunately, if you put out a good product and put it out at a fair price, and people don’t feel like they’re being taken advantage of, they might actually support it,” said McFarlane. “And if they support it, you get checks. And if you get checks, you cash them.
“I don’t put out a good product to be rich. I put out a good product because I want the product to be good.”
But is the product “good”?
In a recent review, the Dallas Morning News called the HBO episodes of “Spawn” a “very unpleasant viewing experience” and then went on to ask “why anyone would want to subject themselves to such a relentlessly grim, gruesome dehumanizing experience.”
McFarlane has heard these criticisms before. “Spawn” is by any definition a violent and dark creation. Graphic scenes of blood and guts are staples of the comic, and the HBO special, billed as adults-only, also contains some cartoon nudity.
The character of Spawn itself is hardly a wholesome Superman-like creation: Spawn is actually a government assassin named Al Simmons (named after one of McFarlane’s EWU baseball teammates) who returns to Earth after making an ill-advised deal with Malebolgia (the devil). Simmons is now a Hellspawn, although one who struggles to use his hellish powers wisely.
In other words, “Spawn” is aimed at teens. It is hardly aimed at middle-aged TV reviewers. Nor is it aimed at “moms,” which is McFarlane’s generic term for everyone who just doesn’t get it.
“If it’s not basically mom-approved, there’s an atmosphere that prevails that it’s bad somehow,” said McFarlane, who easily gets worked up on this subject. “That just means it isn’t mom-approved. It doesn’t mean it’s bad.
“So to me, ‘Spawn’ is like rock and roll and MTV. It’s not meant for moms.”
He said “Spawn” is like a 6-by-6-foot painting, and a lot of people “stare at it from 2 inches away, and they just look at the dark spot.” They don’t get the whole picture. In any case, a lot of “moms” take it way too seriously.
“‘Spawn’ on some level is just a little joke,” he said. “It’s just me putting a frog in people’s pants.”
He becomes particularly upset about the notion that he is contributing to bad “family values.”
“I’ve got two little girls - age 2 and 5 - and I’ll tell you what kind of example I’m giving to them,” said McFarlane. “I don’t work weekends. I run an empire, but I quit at 5 p.m. every day.
“I’ve been with my wife for 20 years between dating and marriage, and we do a lot of family outings. I’d burn this whole company in a heartbeat if I thought it would interfere with my family.”
One thing McFarlane has in large quantities is confidence. He is so sure that “Spawn: The Movie” will debut at No. 1 that he offers to make a $10 bet on it.
He can afford to lose, of course. He probably won’t.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Comic Strips 1 Color Photo
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter