vulture cover story

Todd McFarlane (Still) Answers to No One

“Why do they let me set foot in this place?” Todd McFarlane asks from behind a small table in a booth at the toy industry’s premier trade show, Toy Fair. As he talks, he cranes his head forward and tosses his hands in the air. “Lego, Hasbro — why do they let this punk-ass Canadian pacifist in here?”

His booth is difficult to find and — considering his status as a comic book celebrity nonpareil — curiously underpopulated, especially in comparison to the ones belonging to the giant legacy brands he’s name-checking. The small, curtained enclosure is tucked away deep in the basement level of Manhattan’s Javits Center, eluding those who walk the floor. That’s by design: In previous years, the crowds of rabid fans became too much to handle, necessitating seclusion and added security. To get into the booth you need an appointment; to actually meet McFarlane is something else entirely. The gaunt 55-year-old is here in his capacity as CEO of McFarlane Toys, the upstart business he created in 1994 with the then-novel strategy of crafting premium action figures at premium prices. But he remains best-known for the comics work that vaulted him to superstardom nearly 30 years ago. McFarlane stepped into the spotlight first for drawing Spider-Man at Marvel Comics — and shattering the record for best-selling comic book of all time — before leaving at the peak of his game to co-found a revolutionary independent publishing house known as Image Comics. It was his subsequent success that enabled him to, among many other things, launch McFarlane Toys, which has grown into a massive presence in the toy world.

“Every day I exist is a victory, because that’s two inches they’re not getting,” he says of his toy-industry rivals, turning his hands into knives and beating the table. “They have their bankrolls, but they. Can’t. Stop. Me.”

If such combative rhetoric seems peculiar in a conversation about action figures, that’s appropriate, since much about McFarlane feels out of place. He first found massive success with Spider-Man by bucking tradition, purveying an acrobatic and textured style that helped usher in the early-1990s blood-and-boobs era of comics. He doubled down on that approach with Image and its no-holds-barred sensibility, there debuting his beloved character Spawn, an anti-hero granted his powers by the devil who viciously murdered foes in the name of dark justice. Spawn was, for better or worse, unlike anything superhero fiction had seen before, and he became an iconic best seller, moving more copies than any indie comic in history and starring on screens big and small.

The vigilante character was also in many ways a mirror of his creator, right down to the contempt that many in the industry felt about McFarlane and Image. Critics and old-guard creators loathed McFarlane’s reliance on ultraviolent art and storytelling, his participation in an economic bubble that treated comics as collectible products first and artwork second, and his bombastic, blunt verbiage.

McFarlane in his studio Photo: Courtesy of Todd MacFarlane

But as Image and Spawn celebrate their 25th birthdays this year, McFarlane is still independently employed and as successful as ever. Very little about the Todd McFarlane we saw in 1992 fits in with the cultural norms of 2017, and yet the man endures thanks to a combination of talent, savvy, self-promotional flair, and belligerence.

Or, to hear him explain it: “I’m just a dick.”

Perhaps the most telling distillation of McFarlane is his bladder strategy. While explaining his approach to business, he describes, unprompted, the following tactic:

I can take advantage of people’s bladders. I’ve got a strong bladder. It’s true! Here’s how you take advantage of that. You get these punk-ass lawyers and three-piece-suit guys, and they come to my office, and it wasn’t an accident that where I used to draw, the sun would be straight this way [he shoots his hands toward me] and it would go straight past me, right to where I’d sit them. In the sun. Now, if you’ve never been to Phoenix in the summer? [His offices are located near Phoenix.] It is excruciatingly hot. Especially if you’re wearing a three-piece suit. So what I do is, I sit them strategically in a place where the sun is coming right through the window and they’re getting hotter and hotter. I’ve actually turned up the heat in my room, ’cause I’m like a cockroach — I’ve adapted. But these guys haven’t.

So what do you do to somebody who’s hot? You give ’em water and you be a good host! You pour water into them. But you make sure that, before you started the conversation, you say, “None of us leaves this room until this is settled.” And I can sit there for hours. And I can start to see when they start to move and wiggle in their seat. And I go, It’s happening. It’s percolating. And by some point, you can just see them go, “Unnghh! Fine! You can have that! You can have that point! Fine, you get that point! That’s fine! Are we done? Is this over? Yeah, good! Where’s your bathroom!” I’ve had that conversation plenty of times. The next question is, “Fine, where’s your bathroom?” So you gave it to me because you’ve got a weak bladder? [Shakes head.] Not mine.

It’s a cutthroat view of the world that can be traced all the way back to childhood observations about his father. Born in Calgary in 1961, McFarlane was the lanky son of a housewife and a man in the printing business. His dad’s job took the family to more than 30 different cities across Canada and the United States, which rarely afforded McFarlane the chance to get comfortable at any one school. He loved his father and understood his old man’s itinerant career, but he did find the elder McFarlane’s approach to life lacking in one crucial respect. “Let me just go on record: My dad is a saint,” McFarlane says with a pointed finger. “But there are people walking the Earth that will take advantage of saints. People took advantage of his niceness. And I would go, I want to be just like him, but I’m going to have lines. And once you cross the line? It’s war.”

A cocky and intimidating provocateur — “I was the proverbial kid who put frogs in people’s pants,” he recalls — McFarlane was a high-school athlete for whom academics were an afterthought. “I’m over 50 and I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve finished in my life,” he tells me. He did read, but his material was comic books. He was a relatively late bloomer when it came to the medium, only getting into it in his mid-teens, but he took to comics ravenously. He drew his own heroes, too, including a prototype for Spawn.

What McFarlane lacked in book learning he made up for in charisma. In his telling, his high school chose its valedictorians by voting, and he says he won his graduating class’s election, though a nervous principal refused to let the irreverent boy give a speech. As a teen, he linked up with his future wife, Wanda, went off to college at Eastern Washington University, and played collegiate baseball with an eye on a pro career. Then during his junior year he messed up his ankle while attempting to steal third base. He continued to play but, after graduation, unsuccessfully pursued a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor-league system.

In a life filled with and defined by remarkable successes, his baseball career is his most significant failure, one that still haunts him. “I pretty much would throw everything I have, business-wise, away tomorrow if I could play center field for a major-league ball team,” he told a documentary crew around the turn of the millennium. “In a heartbeat.”

For a time he’d harbored visions of playing baseball by day and drawing comics by night, so with the former option closed to him, he focused on the latter. He already had promising inroads, having earned a spot penciling a story in a low-selling Marvel series called Coyote near the end of college, followed by dribs and drabs of work for Marvel and its rival, DC Comics. His star rose with a short run on a Batman story, and a longer run on Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk. Then, in 1988, he was assigned to Marvel flagship series The Amazing Spider-Man, and made one of the biggest career jumps in comics history.

It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary the 27-year-old McFarlane’s visual take on Spidey was. “When I took over the book, I thought they were doing Spider-Man with an emphasis on man,” he says. “I took it and did Spider-Man, big emphasis on spider.” All of a sudden, the wall-crawler was swinging, crawling, and leaping in a way that felt thrillingly animalistic. His knees would rise to his ears, his toes would point like daggers, his mask’s eye holes grew to massive proportions, and — most famous of all — his webbing would writhe and twist around itself like cylinders of linguini.

“Todd mastered something in a way that few have — favoring things that look cool over things that look correct,” says The Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman, who grew up a huge McFarlane fan. “I love how he drew Spider-Man’s thighs. They’re bent in ways that a thigh doesn’t, because there’s a femur in there. But if you zoom out and look at how it’s moving, it’s the most dynamic thing.”

It was an approach with a lasting impact. “Now you see Spider-Man in movies being all twisted and looking cool,” continues Kirkman. “And that was achieved by not being beholden to reality.” Even the moments outside the battles were changed: Spider-Man alter-ego Peter Parker got ripped and his beloved Mary Jane became much more endowed. Your friendly neighborhood web-slinger had rarely looked more exciting.

What worked for hormonal teen readers didn’t sit well with the comics Establishment. Gary Groth, editor of The Comics Journal, was among the most vocal critics, and still feels now about McFarlane’s work the way he did then. “He doesn’t have any authentic virtues as a visual stylist,” Groth told me. “His work is so overembellished that it disguised the fact that the composition is chaotic and cluttered to the point of being almost unreadable. He never really learned the craft of comics — he just faked it really well.” But the financial success was undeniable.

McFarlane abruptly earned a rare sort of mainstream fame for a comics creator, one only achieved previously by fellow carnival barker Stan Lee, Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns creator Frank Miller. It was partly a product of being in the right place at the right time. Around the start of the 1990s, the industry entered a period of massive growth, fueled largely by a bubble for comics as collector’s items among hobbyists turned speculators. Comic-book stores began cropping up to cash in, and McFarlane’s extreme-sports take on Spidey resonated within the growing teenage-boy market. Sales of The Amazing Spider-Man leapt, lines for the artist’s autograph events grew, and it all went to McFarlane’s head.

“If I can turn in 22 blank pages and the kids buy a million copies, who cares how comic books have been done for the past 50 years?” he reportedly told a Marvel editor. Feeling that the scripts he was getting weren’t up to snuff, he demanded more freedom, and was granted a new Spider-Man simply named Spider-Man — one he would both write and draw. It debuted in 1990 and quickly sold more than 2 million copies, more than any American comic in history at the time. It all served to further embolden him. As he told Groth in an interview, during his Marvel days, “I was very talented, I was a trailblazer, and I was a fuckface and an asshole. To me, they’re all the same thing.”

Eventually, even having his own Spider-Man series wasn’t enough — McFarlane felt the company wasn’t adequately promoting the series, and that it stemmed from a lack of respect among the higher-ups. He was also increasingly fixated on ownership of the characters he created, a request akin to heresy in the mainstream comics industry, where creators had always been expected to create on a work-for-hire basis, exchanging ownership for a paycheck. There were murmurs of unionization, but nothing came of it. His dissatisfaction grew.

The situation reached a breaking point in 1991, when one of his Spider-Man scenes drew outrage from his superiors. It involved a blade being shunted through the eye and skull of a baddie named the Juggernaut, and Marvel, jittery that they might run afoul of an industry censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority, told McFarlane he was out of line. “That was the last straw,” McFarlane recalls. “I went, ‘Gentlemen, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to give you the page, as is. You do whatever you have to do with this page. Make whatever correction you need to make. This is my last issue. I’m done.’”

The issue came out with the scene preserved (though with the impact outside of direct view) and McFarlane walked from the book. Today, he says he harbors no ill will toward Marvel, but that hardly matters — the optics of rebellion were irrefutable. McFarlane had executed an earth-shaking move in the industry, one that both saw the disappearance of a major creative force from his bespoke series and raised serious questions about labor rights. And yet, it wasn’t as significant as what he did next.

As 1991 drew to a close, McFarlane learned that his frustrations were shared by other high-profile Marvel artists. Three of the most famous were Rob Liefeld of the hit series X-Force; Erik Larsen, who succeeded McFarlane on The Amazing Spider-Man; and Jim Lee, whose X-Men No. 1 beat Spider-Man’s record by more than 4 million copies. They were men whose work appealed to male teens with perky breasts, engorged guns, and impossibly rippling biceps; and they were Marvel’s biggest mainstream celebrities in generations.

Recognizing their value, McFarlane, Larsen, Liefeld, and Lee, along with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Jim Valentino, Wolverine’s Marc Silvestri, and Uncanny X-Men’s Whilce Portacio, struck out to form their own publishing company, Image Comics, which would differ from Marvel and DC in a handful of meaningful ways. Most notably, each of the founders would launch series and own all the rights to the characters they developed, as well as giving rights to future creators who produced work for Image.

Image was to be something of an Articles of Confederation to Marvel’s Constitution — each creator would have his own independent studio that couldn’t interfere with the others. No one had tried anything like a creator-owned mega-company before in the medium’s history. McFarlane and some of his compatriots took a meeting at Marvel where they gave the company one last chance to grant them ownership over their creations; when that was refused, they said they were leaving, then went across town to DC Comics to tell them that the news of their departure didn’t mean they were going to work for DC, either. On February 1, 1992, the first meeting of Image Comics was held at Silvestri’s California home.

It’s hard to describe how unusual and awe-inspiring this move was. All of these creators — especially McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee — were at their artistic zeniths, already beloved by fans across the country, and now they were making themselves even cooler by sticking it to the man. “I just can’t take fucking orders very well,” McFarlane told an interviewer at the time. “Instead of me being the thorn in their ass, and vice versa, the best thing to do is for me to just abandon [Marvel] and do superheroes the way that I want to do superheroes.” What’s more, their new stuff was even more extreme than what they’d been allowed to do before. McFarlane resurrected his teenage creation, Spawn, with an eponymous series for the character — and while the other creators planned their books to be limited series that might continue if they succeeded, only McFarlane was bold enough to declare that his title would be an ongoing.

Excerpt from Spawn

Spawn is a fascinating artifact of a different time, the apogee of a period when the most popular comics on the market were the ones that featured the biggest tits, the goriest murders, and the most morally compromised protagonists. It follows a former soldier named Al Simmons (named after a friend of McFarlane’s, whom McFarlane would later sue when Simmons tried to make money off his association with the Spawn brand) who dies and sells his soul to the devil, then is brought back to fight on the demon’s behalf. Spawn was astoundingly bloody and perpetually saturated with darkness both literal and figurative. The villains were child killers, hell-beasts, and dudes with names like Violator and Overt-Kill. The artwork was jaw-dropping in its throbbing vibrancy, gruesome creature design, and acrobatic figure-drawing. The first issue sold more than 1 million copies — the most ever for an indie comic. McFarlane had never been more famous.

But right from the beginning, there were cracks in Image’s idealistic foundation. Writer Neil Gaiman collaborated with him to create a few Spawn supporting characters, but McFarlane later allegedly stiffed him on royalties and character ownership and the two entered a protracted legal battle over it (they settled in 2012). By McFarlane’s own admission, his writing wasn’t very good (as he put it at the time, “I didn’t let some little thing like not being able to write stop me”). What’s more, Image’s business model was very unstable. The comics regularly came out late, which screwed over retailers and emphasized that the founders more or less had no idea what they were doing.

“In hindsight, the smart thing would have been to do some investigative research into the business before we started the company,” McFarlane says now. “Here’s what none of us had ever done: talked to a printer. Talked to someone who transports the books. We didn’t give two seconds of thought to that. We just go, ‘Nah, we’re not working for Marvel. We’re going to go do it ourselves.’”

To make matters worse, that speculator bubble finally popped and the comics market collapsed. Spawn lost much of its luster — a film adaptation came out in 1997 and, though it made a decent amount of money, critical reception was awful and a planned sequel was called off; an HBO series based on the character was launched that same year and was canceled in 1999. But even as the superhero-fiction market spiraled, McFarlane rose, thanks to an extremely lucrative bet he had placed: investment in the toy market.

While Spawn was still booming, there had been talk of producing a line of toys related to the comic. “I talked to every Fortune-500-and-down toy company that was on the marketplace, and they all came to me with the same pitch, which was the exact pitch they gave for Teletubbies and cute Disney products,” he recalls. “So I go, You know what? I’ll go do this myself. It’s plastic, right? We’re not talking about rocket science.” He designed a handful of figures for Spawn characters based on his own drawings and formed a company — first known as Todd Toys, then McFarlane Toys — to put out a handful of Spawn action figures. They were a smash.

“In the whole history of toys, there’s been very few individual people that you can point to and say, That guy changed everything,” says longtime toy-industry journalist Dan Pickett. “But for action figures, I don’t think anyone would deny that Todd changed a lot.” The key was the detail. McFarlane eschewed the generic sizing and cartoonish templates of G.I. Joe and Kenner’s Star Wars line, opting instead to make figures that looked like statuettes, filled with meticulous texture and pinprick gore. They were costly to make, but he felt the quality warranted it. “Everyone told him, ‘No one’s gonna buy a $10 action figure,’” Pickett says. “He kept saying, ‘If you make it look like it’s worth $10, they will.’” Sure enough, they did: A spokesperson says the company became the fastest-growing toy brand of 1994 and 1995, and that they’ve currently sold more than 109 million units to date — an astonishing number for an indie outfit. McFarlane Toys can now boast that it’s the fifth-largest action-figure manufacturer in the United States.

The other key was McFarlane himself. Toys didn’t typically have creator names attached to them before he got into the hustle, so he became the industry’s first — and greatest — auteur. He’s his own brand, and he’s a terrific manager of it. “When you interview him and the camera turns on, there’s a very P.T. Barnum, theatrical Todd that comes out that is not quite the same person as when you’re just standing in the booth talking to him,” Pickett muses. This is the only Todd I saw, to be honest: the one who waves his hands in pantomime while comparing successful meetings to beheadings. He’s remarkably good at keeping that up for extended periods of time, and I’ll confess that it’s astoundingly engaging. Todd McFarlane is the most gripping televangelist in geekdom.

It should not come as a shock, then, to learn that working for him is an odd experience. His employees all have stories and descriptions of his bizarre office behavior: He rarely wears shoes. He does much of his work inside a closet. He eats cold mushrooms out of a can. He takes public transportation whenever he can, which once resulted in him walking for miles across northern New Jersey to get from a bus stop to his East Coast office. McFarlane Toys painter Georgia Frank recounts that now-famous saga with a look of confused awe.

“Todd was on the side of the road, with all his stuff piled on an office chair with wheels that someone had thrown away, and he’s just pushing it up the road, getting to our office,” she says. It was quite hot that day, so when he finally appeared before his employees, he had long before taken his shirt off and was dripping with bare-chested sweat. “That’s very Todd,” Frank adds. “He has his own way of doing things.”

McFarlane never denies these tales, but once he’s alone, he makes sure to downplay their importance in understanding him. “I let them do their boss stories” — he turns his right hand into a yapping mouth — “but they’re for them. See, on some day when I did something quote-unquote crazy, I probably signed a big contract. They’ll ask me, ‘Hey, Todd, do you remember blah blah blah?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, but I do remember signing that contract.’ And they won’t remember the contract.” This only makes his eccentricities more captivating — nothing about them seems like a gag or a put-on. Whatever others’ visions of McFarlane may be, he looks in the mirror and sees a businessman.

He has good cause for this, as business appears to be excellent. His bread and butter is now licensed products based on entertainment brands. Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a huge seller, and McFarlane makes toys for it ranging from a $34.99 action figure of a grimy and grim-eyed Michonne to a $39.99 replica of baddie Negan’s barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat (it comes with a warning for children). He also expanded his line of realistic-looking figures to include athletes and opened up a whole new market there, too. More recently, he took aim at Lego by creating buildable sets for hip shows like Rick and Morty and edgy video games like Five Nights at Freddy’s. At the Toy Fair booth, the buzziest item is a life-size rendition of a massive gun from the sci-fi game Destiny. Though it set the company back over a thousand dollars to make, McFarlane grabs it blithely and starts swinging it around, pretending to open fire while his employees shriek — not out of a desire to play along, but out of terror that he might drop the thing.

Not all of his business endeavors have been as successful as his braggadocio may suggest — he’s moved on from a few other ventures, including a stint as a minor part-owner of the Edmonton Oilers (he sold his stake in 2008) and an ill-fated attempt to run the start-up video-game company 38 Studios alongside former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling. None of that seems to faze McFarlane, who often brings up his delight at being CEO of a privately held company, which means he doesn’t have to meet quarterly goals for shareholders and can play the long game.

At the moment, that long game involves doubling back to his childhood creation Spawn. McFarlane long ago stopped drawing issues of the ongoing series, which just saw the release of its 270th issue, at this point contributing only to the narrative direction and occasional touch-up art. He still dreams of the guy, though, and has been working on a screenplay for years, teasing it on social media to an exhausting degree. He claims now that he’s just about completed it. And though these are boom times for superhero movies, McFarlane is once again placing a clever, unexpected bet by aligning his project with another booming genre, one more thematically suited for Spawn: street-level horror.

“It’s impossible for me to believe that anyone will go to this movie and think it’s a superhero movie, if they watch the trailer once,” McFarlane says. “It will say, without using bold words, This is not a superhero movie. Period. If you think it is, don’t go. Because it won’t act, talk, feel like any of it. What it will act and talk and feel like are creepy little low-budget movies that scare the shit out of you.”

Naturally, McFarlane, who has never directed a feature*, insists that he be the one to write, produce, and direct the film. “If I write a $10 million-budget movie, you’re going to go get some 27-year-old Young Turk who’s just coming fresh from commercials, and you’re gonna hire him to direct it,” he argues. “He’s gonna be your newbie? I wanna be your newbie.” To make it even more of a gamble, he plans to self-finance the film. But to let anyone else perform these functions would be a form of philosophical treason. If winning at business is McFarlane’s religion, the language of independence is his catechism. “If you use your own money, you know what you get?” he asks me, not waiting for an answer. “Freedom. The greatest single value that anybody can give me is freedom. That’s it. That’s going to be the epitaph when I die. It’s just going to say: Here lies Todd McFarlane. He was free. Period.”

This article has been updated to reflect that McFarlane has been involved in films in the past, though he hasn’t directed a feature.

Comic Book Icon Todd McFarlane (Still) Answers to No One