EWU alum McFarlane finds niche, success in comic book world
Todd McFarlane calls himself “a jack of all trades, master of none,” although it’s difficult to see where he’s coming from once you take all of his accomplishments into consideration.
Born in Alberta in 1961, McFarlane came to Cheney as a student athlete, playing baseball for Eastern Washington University in its 1982 and ’83 seasons. On top of his academic and athletic pursuits, McFarlane worked as a janitor on campus and devoted about an hour every night to a skill that would later become his profession: drawing comic book characters.
McFarlane said he sent upwards of 700 submissions and portfolios to numerous comic publications, and if he heard anything back, it was in the form of a rejection letter. But someone at Marvel Comics took notice of his progress, and soon after graduating from EWU in 1984, McFarlane landed a job as an artist at Marvel.
After providing artwork for such venerable characters as the Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe and Batman, McFarlane was enlisted to bring his talents to the then-flagging “Spider-Man” series, which he said hadn’t made any creative strides in the last couple of decades.
He became responsible for revamping Spider-Man’s look – “It felt like he was stuck in a time warp,” McFarlane said – and helped to create Venom, one of the series’ best-known villains. In 1990, McFarlane was given the opportunity to write as well as illustrate, and his first title, “Spider-Man #1,” went on to become the bestselling comic book at that time.
But McFarlane started to feel creatively stifled at Marvel, and he and six of his colleagues branched out and independently founded Image Comics, releasing their first books in 1992. “At its simplest, all we were doing was putting ink to paper,” McFarlane said, but the dark, rebellious nature of Image’s material shook up the industry.
The breakout star of Image’s initial arsenal of characters was Spawn, whom McFarlane created when he was a teenager. Twenty years following Spawn’s first appearance, he has inspired a hit Hollywood feature film and an Emmy-winning animated TV series, and the release of the 232nd print edition of “Spawn” is scheduled for this month.
Spawn’s popularity resulted in numerous toy companies approaching McFarlane to develop action figures based on the character. Dissatisfied with their offers and recognizing an untapped market for adult collectors, he started McFarlane Toys, which specializes in detailed replicas of pop culture icons. Their various figure lines have included sports figures, horror movie villains, and rock bands such as KISS and the Beatles, as well as comic book and video game characters.
McFarlane’s greatest achievements have originated from his need to bust out of artistic confines, and he said his success comes from a combination of “a lot of hard work, dedication, dumb luck, perseverance and stubbornness.”
“But I don’t believe I’ve invented anything new,” he continued. “What I’ve done is to look at what’s already on the market and make it sexier and more appealing.”
The entrepreneurial spirit that drives McFarlane, the desire to make reliable formulas fresh and modern, comes naturally to him. “It requires a certain internal wiring,” he said. “You can’t teach someone to give a damn. The fire in the belly has to be there.”