The Devil and Todd McFarlane

Spawn's creator revolutionized the comic-book industry. But did he survive Hollywood with his soul intact?

Spawn is the story of Al Simmons, a black CIA assassin who loves killing almost as much as he loves his beautiful wife, Wanda. When Simmons is betrayed by his superiors and burned alive, his soul goes to hell, where the devil, Malebolgia, offers him a deal: Simmons gets to see his wife again if he accepts an officer's commission in hell's army. Malebolgia demands a split-second decision, and Simmons signs in blood. Of course, there's a catch. Simmons comes back to life as a ghoul with charred skin and fragmented memories, who can only gaze upon his beloved wife from afar. On the upside, he's got superpowers and a badass costume. So while he waits to lead a battle host of demons against the forces of heaven on Judgment Day, the Hellspawn (Spawn for short) seeks revenge on those who wronged him.

There are similarities between McFarlane and his most prodigious brain child. He, too, has a taste for payback, and, not coincidentally, a beautiful wife named Wanda. And, like Simmons, he leads a double life. One side of Todd McFarlane is an artist, devoted husband and doting father. The other is a ruthless businessman with the instincts of a pit fighter.

Here's McFarlane on negotiating:
"See, you play poor, dumb creative boy around them, so they feel good about making the deal you want. They don't feel like they got swindled, they're like, 'Such a nice little kid, just let him have the pony.' So going into a deal, I think, 'Okay, what do I need to make this work for me? I need a carrot.' So I go into the room, and I go, 'You're right, you got it right, you know best, I'm dumb, you're smart, how's your wife?--by the way, can I have a carrot? Thank you--so how was your weekend? Did you see that show last night? Yeah, yeah, I'll sign there. Okay, see ya.' And I walk out and"--Pop! McFarlane snaps his fingers--"I've got my carrot. I don't care how their weekend was. I don't even know their wife's name. But I got my carrot, which is all that matters. And that's business."

There's more:
"I'm a creative guy, bottom line. But I can sit in some fancy room with some Wall Street guy, and we can talk spreadsheets and we can talk investment capital and we can talk importing, exporting, manufacturing, we can talk stock options, mergers, financing, whatever. You want to talk business? I'll bore you to tears. Do I like to talk business? Fuck, no. So I try to keep that hat off as much as possible. But I'm a lot smarter about that game than I like to let on. I didn't get this far without knowing how to move in the jungle."

Spawn is a chunk of comics history, and an important one. Spawn is a Boston Tea Party, a loud, rude act of defiance against a bad, broke system built on abusing its finest. Spawn is a bold gamble that paid off and made comic books a better field for anyone with talent and a fresh idea.

--Batman: The Dark Knight Returns writer Frank Miller, 1995

Ungodly howls from the Wookiee-imitation contest punctuate the excited crowd chatter at the 28th annual San Diego Comic Con International, the largest comic-book gathering in the world. This year, the four-day conference drew more than 40,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center in mid-July. Spawn's presence is ubiquitous inside the 250,000-square-foot exhibit hall. The Sony Playstation booth, just north of the Batmobile, had the Spawn video game running on seven free-play monitors. HBO's booth featured excerpts from the animated series. The Spawn-movie action figures are fresh off the boat and everywhere. Todd McFarlane Productions had a booth. So did Todd McFarlane Toys, Spawn the movie and Spawn the comic book.

It's the first day of the Comic Con, and John "Dak" Morton, who had the distinction of playing Luke Skywalker's co-pilot in The Empire Strikes Back, is signing autographs in a second-floor meeting room. Two celebrity appearances from the Spawn franchise are far more popular. On the west end of the convention hall, several hundred fans of all ages stand in line clutching various arrays of Spawn merchandise. They are waiting to meet Todd McFarlane, who signs autographs at a table, sitting next to his 5-year-old daughter Cyan, who is coloring.

Several hundred yards away, another long line snakes along the graffiti-sprayed, fake concrete wall of "Spawn Alley," a walk-through tunnel containing props and scale models from the Spawn movie set, action-figure displays and a disarmingly realistic statue of The Violator, a demon in the film.

Near the alley's entrance is a man wearing a baseball cap and a Spawn hockey jersey, signing autographs. His name is Al Simmons, and he's more than happy to pull out his driver's license to prove it. Simmons--the real one, not the assassin--is a friend of McFarlane's from back in the day. In 1982, they both played baseball for a Seattle Mariners farm team based in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. McFarlane was a center fielder. Simmons, second base. "We were the two fastest guys on the team," Simmons said while mowing through a plate of pasta salad after signing autographs--"Al Simmons, AKA Spawn, '97"--for five hours straight. "But I was always just one step faster."

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