Todd McFarlane Is the Anti-Hero of American Comics
Ahead of the filming of his new 'Spawn' film, the legendary comic book mogul shares his life-long struggle to pursue his artistic and creative dreams.
Photos by Robert Hickerson
When I told Todd McFarlane that he was one of my heroes, he started to look a little uncomfortable. Up to that point in our conversation, the 57-year-old comic book mogul had been his characteristically loquacious self—he was shit-talking and pontificating so much that I had been having trouble squeezing in questions or even guiding the conversation. But when I brought up the notion that there are many people out there who might look up to the famed artist for the way he has pushed his work and his business forward, he halted for a moment and shifted in his seat.
“I make the decisions that are fit for me. And I don’t necessarily want anyone to repeat that,” he said after a pregnant pause. “The path I’ve gone down is a battle. I go to war everyday. Everyone is not built for that.”
Whether you love him or hate him (and there are certainly a lot of people who do hate him), the personal battles McFarlane has waged have helped transform the comics and toy industries. In the late-80s, he challenged the pearl-clutching regulations of the Comics Code and reimagined Spider-Man for a new generation. A few years later, he gave us Spawn, the “quintessential 90s superhero” from hell and co-founded Image Comics, the “revolutionary” independent publisher that has rivaled DC and Marvel with blockbuster books like The Walking Dead. Following that, McFarlane’s independent toy company brought subversive icons like Freddy Krueger and Pinhead to the action figure aisle of America’s big-box stores, right next to franchises like Legos and Hotwheels.
These days, McFarlane has his sights set on Hollywood. He went there before, in the late 90s, to make a big-budget, PG-13 Spawn film that made money at the box office but failed to live up to his cryptic comic vision. This time around, McFarlane is doing what he does best—taking full creative control. He wrote the script, and plans to sit in the director’s chair when filming begins in June. Jamie Foxx will be playing the titular undead hero and McFarlane promises the film will earn a “hard R” rating, staying true to the horror his fans are used to. To do that, he’s enlisted The Walking Dead’s special effects specialist, Greg Nicotero, to work on the movie. But while nerds like myself have hope that this new Spawn movie might break the malaise of overwrought cinematic universes, McFarlane made it clear to me that he never focuses on changing the game, even if that is often the outcome of his effort.
“Everyday is just a fight for my own personal sanity,” the artist told me with a laugh. “When I find something that just doesn’t work for me, I leave that situation and start a new situation. I don’t complain about it. I just do.”
McFarlane attributes his “just do it” attitude to his upbringing. His dad, Bob, was “a hard working, blue collar guy” in the printing industry. Like his son, Bob would constantly start “new situations” for better career prospects. Because of that, the McFarlane family moved more than 30 times during the Canadian-born artist’s youth, living everywhere from Alberta, Canada to California.
McFarlane’s dad’s example also went beyond his no-nonsense work ethic. “He taught me a lot of things without knowing it—especially to be as fair minded as you can be.”
Clearly, Bob’s lack of tolerance for prejudice wasn’t lost on his son; McFarlane, who is white, has dedicated most of his life to enshrining Spawn, a black superhero, into the American consciousness. While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Black Panther character rules the box office today, when McFarlane brought Spawn to comic book stores in the 90s, T’Challah was not a top-tier hero, even within his own Marvel Universe. But from the very beginning, McFarlane chose to focus solely on Spawn, building a world and a mythology around him with action figures, an HBO animated series, a live action film, and video games. The work he put in led to Spawn being the best-selling black superhero in comic book history, despite the comic hitting the shelves decades after characters like Luke Cage and Storm made their debuts.
But for McFarlane, the open-mindedness that led him to make the focal point of his life’s work a black man is actually deeper than his art—it’s something he told me he strives for when people aren’t looking. “The problem is often not the blatant racism, it‘s the ‘I’m just kidding’ stuff, too… You’ve got to work at it 24 fucking hours a day. You don’t get an hour or ten minutes off.”
McFarlane’s dad didn’t just give him an ethical foundation that impacted the choices he made in his career: he also introduced him to the game of baseball. “He just came home one day and told me he’d signed us up,” McFarlane recalled in the 2001 documentary made about his life, The Devil You Know.
The game left a profound impact on McFarlane’s tenacity and the way he views the world. (And it probably influenced his historic decision to drop millions on the record-setting asterisk balls of Barry Bonds and Mark Mcgwire, which are worth much less now that both athletes admitted to using performance enhancing drugs.) In our conversation, he could boil everything down to stark baseball analogies, from the fierce competition in the media business, to the dysfunctional way Brett Kavanaugh made it to the Supreme Court despite serious allegations of sexual assault.
“Assume the other team will never do you any favors and you’ll never be disappointed. Assume it’s the Yankees and the Red Sox,” he said, as if he were coaching politicians in Congress. “It’s just about winning now and it is a fool’s game to think that someone on the opposite team is going to do you any favors.”
Baseball was such a significant part of his youth, it didn’t leave much time for comics. Though McFarlane always doodled, he didn’t really get into superhero books until he was around the age of 16, when he discovered a few issues on a spinner rack at a mom-and-pop grocery store. After being struck by the medium, he spent all the time that he wasn’t practicing or playing ball trying to draw superheroes. He read How to Draw the Marvel Way and he studied the pencils of Gene Colan and tried to mimic the melodrama of Jack Kirby. McFarlane’s devotion to both his crafts culminated in meeting the legendary late writer and publisher Stan Lee serendipitously at a Holiday Inn in Florida when he was 16. McFarlane was staying at the hotel because he was attending a baseball camp, which was happening at the same time as a comic convention. “He let me ask questions for seven hours in between signings,” McFarlane recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
After a career-ending injury in college killed his dreams of playing in the major leagues, he took all of the obsessive, competitive, take-no-prisoners energy honed on the field, paired it with the knowledge he gleaned from studying guys like Lee, and used it all to claw his way into comics.
In the mid 80s, from a trailer park in Canada, he sent out more than 750 submissions and got back more than 300 rejection letters from top editors at DC and Marvel. Eventually, he won the war of attrition. By 1985, he’d broken into books like DC’s Infinity Inc. and Epic Comics’ Coyote, where he developed a style that compensated for some of his anatomical shortcomings with flashy flourishes like dynamic layouts. When he took on more consistent work with Marvel in the late 80s through books like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, he focused on audacious poses and extreme action, exploding heroes out of their panels to make them pop off the page. He faced those heroes off against huge, super-sized villains—like Venom, a hulking symbiote he co-created with David Michelinie. Spider-Man’s brain-eating antagonist has become so popular in his own right, he just had his own Hollywood film starring Tom Hardy.
“When I’m doing comic books, I want the hero’s journey to be as difficult as it possible,” McFarlane explained to me, when discussing how storytelling influenced the way he drew an antagonist like Venom. “It has to come at a cost.”
Despite the polarizing nature of his art, by 1990, McFarlane’s style made him a veritable rockstar, like nothing comics had seen before. Hour-long lines would form around the block to see him at comic conventions and book signings. He was so hot, Marvel did the unthinkable and gave him his own Spider-Man book to write and draw, even though he’d never written a comic before.
McFarlane’s cover for the debut issue of his adjectiveless Spider-Man is a perfect encapsulation of his iconic style. Spider-Man is depicted more like a insect than human, with arthropod eyes and the squatted pose of an arachnid. He’s immersed in McFarlane’s winding, web tendrils, surrounded by hundreds of creepy little crawling spiders. The eerie-looking cover art, which was recently auctioned off for more than $350,000, set the perfect precedent for McFarlane’s dark take on Marvel’s friendly neighborhood hero. Spider-Man number one sold more than 2.5 million copies, with comics speculators buying up multiple issues as an investment. It is still one of the top five best-selling single issues in comics history.
Of course, not everyone was enamored with the “spaghetti” webbing and bug eyes he gave Spider-Man or the way he transformed Mary Jane into a voluptuous vixen from a hair metal music video. But his exaggerated style resonated with young boys, fueling sales for Marvel.
“It’s like a Broadway play. For it to really hit someone, it’s got to be over-the-top,” McFarlane explained to me while reflecting on the art of comics and his own style. “[I didn’t] create in a vacuum. The comic book world used to be completely dominated by men, from editorial all the way down to the pencilers. These days, you get more eclectic viewpoints and more styles as opposed to only the testosterone-driven stuff, where you take the already perfect body of man or woman and add steroids to it. We’re a little ridiculous in the way that we create costumes. Batman’s got on armor, while Wonder Woman’s flashing a lot flesh... I’ve been guilty of this, too, along the way.”
But despite his seismic success, there were problems. Like a number of the industry’s top mainstream artists at that time, McFarlane was frustrated over his lack of creative control and the paltry compensation he was receiving from his blockbuster work, which was being milked for merchandise. Things came to a head for McFarlane when Marvel editor Tom Defalco refused to print a panel he drew for Spider-Man 16 featuring a sword piercing the eye of super mutant Juggernaut, because he believed the graphic violence violated the Comic’s Code. McFarlane had already been entertaining the idea of helping start a union for comics artists working in the industry. After the sword incident, in November of 1991, he abandoned the Spider-Man book that had been created specifically for him. By 1992, he’d left Marvel completely, along with seven other top artists, including X-Men’s Jim Lee and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. Their departure made national headlines and caused Marvel’s stock to take a nosedive. Together, the newly free men announced that they were venturing out on their own to create a private, artist-led comic book publishing company called Image.
“We started a company that gave us the [freedom] we wanted,” McFarlane explained to me. “Image comics can’t control any creative person because the company doesn’t actually own anything. Its role is just to create an environment for artists to do good, bad, or indifferent work. It’s up to you.”
When I asked McFarlane why he, a massively successful and powerful force in comics in the 90s, felt he couldn’t just forge this kind of freedom at Marvel, or even DC, he answered with an axiom that he would end up repeating again and again during our talk. “There is one thing I try to teach my kids,” he said, “Never bet against greed. It will break your heart every time.” When I pushed him on this, he clarified that it wasn’t the people of Marvel who were greedy, it was simply in the nature of the corporate comics system to be driven by financial gain over a love of the art.
“The people who run those companies have what is called fiduciary responsibility to maximize their shareholders value. They have to get bigger every 90 days and to do that, they do unnatural things that will be good for stocks today with no foresight of what the what the impact will be on individuals,” McFarlane said, explaining his view of the system he left behind when he co-founded Image. “If I was only driven to make more money today than yesterday, I’d make different decisions, too. But my job isn’t to max. My job is to be free. Every year I sit down with the executives of my toy company and I tell them to get me to zero. If we spend $10 million, we have to bring in $10 million. I own the company and I pay my salary. As long as I can feed my family and have a couple of dollars so that I never have to go back to that system, I’m good.”
I was born in 1988, so I missed McFarlane’s heyday at Marvel. But like many other millenials, I was right on time for Image and the iconoclastic comics it produced. I was already primed to love comics thanks to my dad, who took superhero origin stories as seriously as one might consider Homer or Shakespeare, archiving hundreds of historic, yellowed issues from the Silver Age wrapped in plastic and stacked in boxes that filled the storage under our stairwell. And for every Wolverine or Hulk toy he gifted me, he bought an extra one to keep in the box and add to his own personal collection.
But as great as that stuff was, it wasn’t mine. They were cultural artifacts of another generation. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, on the other hand, was totally different. He was the ultimate anti-hero.
“Spawn is not Batman,” McFarlane said to me with a heavy laugh, describing the space between the demonic vigilante character he created and the guys in tights that my dad used to adore. “Say the Joker gets out of jail and kills a couple of kids. What does Batman do? Beat him up and put him back in a prison system that can’t hold him. It’s happened 40 or 50 times. Batman could have saved like 80 lives if one of those times he just put a bullet in Joker’s fucking head.”
I can vividly remember the first time I saw Spawn. I was in the kid’s aisle of Marc’s, a discount drug store in Strongsville, Ohio. It was around 1994 or 1995 and I was about six or seven years old. At that point, I had no idea about the racial identity or hellish comic book mythology of McFarlane’s landmark anti-hero. I just recognized right away that the toy with the green eyes and massive red cape was a lot taller and tougher looking than all of the Wolverines and Spider-Man figures I had at home. Everything on him, from his scorched and sore-filled face to the intricate little skulls and chains on his costume were depicted in excruciating detail. It was like all of the toys I’d seen before had been out of focus and that spooky thing was in 4K.
From that moment on, every trip to Marc’s ended with another demonic-looking figure under the McFarlane brand in the shopping cart. And I worked tirelessly on my reading skills so that I could decipher the nightmarish comic books that came packaged with the action figures in that first series. Little by little, I pieced together the epic, confounding, overstuffed story: It involved a tortured man named Al Simmons, caught in the middle of a cold war between heaven and hell, smack dab in a gritty New York City filled with demented mobsters and criminals, a creepy ice cream-selling pedophile, and a demon that takes the form of a rundown version of Pennywise. Our Faustian quasi-hero deals with it all by strangling, dismembering, and decapitating soldiers of both God and Satan’s armies.
But as crazy and cryptic as Spawn was, the most surprising thing McFarlane did with the character was make him a black man.
Spawn was unlike all of the mainstream black superheroes my dad had introduced me to. He doesn’t talk any cornball jive like Luke Cage. And while the royal Black Panther has a sparkling perfection only rivaled by goody two-shoes like Superman and Captain America, Spawn is definitely no knight in shining armor.
“Just to survive, Spawn has to make decisions right or wrong... but a lot of them are wrong,” McFarlane told me as he reflected on his character. “I made Spawn completely flawed. He acts on his emotions. And those emotions get him in trouble.
“Spawn is essentially me if I was a superhero,” he explained.
By modeling his black hero on himself as opposed to an ideal of racial excellence like Black Panther or blaxploitation stereotypes like Luke Cage, McFarlane tapped into a humanity with Spawn that is rarely granted to black characters when they are being written by white men, who often other their personalities into obtuse caricatures.
Like his work with Spider-Man, McFarlane’s propulsive art drew millions of fans to the book, many of whom missed the fact that before Spawn sold his soul to the devil, he was a black dude named Al Simons. From the cover of the very first issue, the power of Spawn is blatantly apparent. The hero is literally leaping off the page, one hand brandishing the necroplasm power bestowed to him by Satan and the other hand clawing at the reader. His sharp, almost sinister eyes glow green, while the chains and skeleton clasps on his demonic suit flex with his movement. As he comes at you, he’s almost totally engulfed in his own swirling, blood-red cape, which consumes most of the cover. The parts of his body that are visible are boasting muscles in places that defy anatomy. He’s a movie monster and caped crusader all wrapped up in one. When this stirring, almost scary cover hit comic book shops in May of 1992, it defied all expectations, selling 1.7 million copies, making it the best selling independent comic ever.
But that day at Marc’s, it was the Spawn toy that first introduced me to the character. Just like he started his own company to publish comics, McFarlane launched his own business to make toys. McFarlane Toys was started in 1994 after he realized big corporations like Hasbro and Mattel would never be gory or detail-oriented enough to make toys that truly represented Spawn’s universe. Since then, he’s battled it out with multinational toy companies for shelf space in big box stores. While McFarlane Toys hasn’t chipped away at the oligopoly of the toy industry the way Image did with comics, it has moved more than 100 million blood-drenched, weapon-wielding figures since it hit the scene. And it has expanded its production beyond just Spawn and Image comics characters. McFarlane toys now makes highly collectible figures for horror films like Hellraiser, pop culture icons like Kiss, sports stars like Lebron James, and video games like Fortnite.
“The question isn’t why haven’t I slayed the giant,” he said to me reflecting on the more than two decades he’s spent fighting for a space for mature toys in the marketplace dominated by powerful players. “The better question is why can’t the giant slay me. They have one thousand times more money and people and still can’t kill what I’m doing. Why is it? Easy. I move fast and they don’t and I make the toys that they won’t.”
Despite the insane success of the early days of Image comics, there were a lot of issues. As the company faced intense pressure from Marvel and DC, the founders also fought among themselves. And although the comics were wildly popular, they suffered constant publishing delays, which hurt the business. On his own, McFarlane faced his fair share of lawsuits and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due to poor choices he made early on. Neil Gaiman, one of comics greatest writers, initiated an epic copyright suit with McFarlane over characters Gaiman introduced to the Spawn universe when he wrote the book’s ninth issue, and NHL player Tony Twist sued McFarlane for naming a mob boss character after him without his consent. Not to mention, many of the initial Image books received criticism for wallowing in the the male gaze with its hyper violence and scantily clad heroines.
Against all odds, the company has managed to survive—even weathering the comics bust of the late 90s. Today, it’s become a beacon for diversity and creativity. Image releases awesome feminist books like Bitch Planet, queer-friendly series like Wicked + Divine, along with books that have nothing to do with superpowers at all, like Warren Ellis’s sci-fi thriller Injection.
And while Spawn is rapidly approaching its 300th issue (the first Image comic to do so), it’s also experiencing a bit of a resurgence thanks to the character’s new story arc.
“If you go down the list, God and Satan all want the exact same thing. It’s just that one guy has a better PR firm,” McFarlane told me with excitement. “So Spawn’s big thing is that he has locked heaven and hell out of Earth. But whoever was here before is still here. So now he’s going to go after them, one by one. It might take 1,000 issues, but he’s going to rid the Earth of these influences so we can have our own destiny.”
In a lot of ways, Spawn’s arc sounds similar to McFarlane’s. The artist who told me that his creative and professional life has been defined by battles is now intent on creating more of his own space where he’s free from those influences. Like the creation of Image comics and McFarlane Toys in the past, his latest fight to make a new Spawn film is a great example of him opting to bring his vision to life by going his own way. As a fan, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with and how it could impact superhero movies. But for McFarlane, it’s just a natural outgrowth of his life-long war to express himself.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been about me advocating for myself because no one else on the planet will,” he said to me in that typically defiant tone he’s become famous for. “Even though Todd rhymes with God, I’ve only got control over one individual on this planet and that’s me.”
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