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Neither man made the big leagues, and after he stopped playing ball, Simmons went to work "for the government--as a CIA assassin! I'll kill ya! Pow! Naw, actually I was in transportation. But I always told the guys at the plant, 'One day I'm going to go do something, and you guys are going to freak.' And that's just what happened. The day I left, I told them, 'See you later, dudes. I'm gonna go be a superhero!'"
Here's the deal: After Spawn went supernova, McFarlane hired the real Al Simmons to play the imaginary Al Simmons--and, in costume, Spawn--at comic-book conferences and in-store appearances. "See, Todd is not an accessible, easily approachable guy," says Simmons. "He's really inward directed, whereas me? I'm the promotional king. I do the store appearances, I go out shaking the hands, kissing the babies. In the last two years, I logged 100,000 miles on a Ford truck, pulling the Spawnmobile around the country. I love my job. I love all the people. It's good to be Spawn."
Within the comic-book culture, Simmons has become a celebrity in his own right. Several fans at the Comic Con asked why he didn't play Spawn in the movie. Simmons says he was supposed to have had a cameo role in the same scene where McFarlane plays a bum who hands Spawn a gun during a fight with The Violator.
The shooting schedule got moved around, however, and the scene was filmed while Simmons was in Boston for an in-store appearance. McFarlane offered to fly him out, Simmons says, "but I decided the job I had to do was more important.
"I don't really regret that decision, but when the sequel comes out? I'm going to make sure I'm in there. It doesn't have to be a speaking role. Just let my face be on that screen. I think I deserve that."
Simmons says he wasn't really into comics before he got the Spawn gig, and, though he stayed in touch with McFarlane sporadically, had no idea his friend was becoming a star. "Then one day, he called me when he was still at Marvel, and I was like, 'Hey, Todd, how you doing?' and he said, 'Well, I just got back from Singapore.' And I go, 'Singapore? What the hell were you doing there?' And he says, 'Signing comic books,' and I thought, 'Hmmm. This comic-book thing might be a little bigger than I thought.'"
McFarlane started working for Marvel in 1984, shortly after he graduated from Eastern Washington University with a fine-arts degree. Like most artists, he started out doing odd support jobs on titles already under way. Superior work on a 16-issue run of The Incredible Hulk starting in April 1987 led to a coveted job doing the inside art and covers for Marvel's flagship title Amazing Spider Man.
Spider Man's intricate costume has long been the bane of comic artists, but McFarlane ran with it, playing to his strength as a superb detailer. He also gave Spider Man larger, more sinister eyes, drew his body in spidery, contortionist positions, and draped the pages with sheets of the superhero's webbing, which McFarlane drew in 3-D whirlwinds rather than the usual, more expedient flat grid pattern artists had used for decades. His work boosted Amazing Spider Man from the ninth best-selling title in the country to number one. In his first issue, McFarlane co-created a new villain, Venom, with writer David Michiline. Venom quickly became Marvel's most popular supervillain, and the company gave the character his own title, which McFarlane had nothing to do with. He thought Venom should become "creepier, even more ruthless," but Marvel's bosses turned the character into "sort of a good guy."
"It was pussy," says McFarlane. He protested, and Marvel gave him a spin-off title of his own, called simply Spider Man. By this time, McFarlane was a big name. When the first issue of Spider Man came out in September of 1990, it sold a record 2.5 million copies. McFarlane continued to write and draw Spider Man until August 1991. During that time, with his own series to draw and write, McFarlane created not one new character. "What stopped me? Simple. The atmosphere was not conducive. I knew they would just rape and pillage my idea."
Since the 1930s, many of the brightest creative minds in comics have had their work creatively and financially strip-mined by publishers who, under standard-practice work-for-hire contracts, owned everything the artists put on paper.
"The creators of childhood myths like Superman, Spiderman, Captain America and all the rest were, to say the least, treated abominably by publishers who reaped millions from their work," contemporary comics legend Frank Miller wrote in his 1995 introduction to a Spawn anthology. "Many of these creators died in poverty. Virtually all were denied proper credit, any compensation beyond slave-wage page rates, even the possession of the physical artwork they drew with their own hands."
Late in 1990, McFarlane started rousing the rabble. He and several other top Marvel creators, including his close friend Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Jim Valentino and Erik Larsen, started talking about breaking off to form their own company, one where creators enjoyed full ownership of their work. They represented a new breed of comic artists--college-educated, business-savvy and rebellious. Valentino and Larsen got their start in underground comics, and were increasingly uncomfortable with Marvel's corporate structure. And a few years before, Liefeld and Lee had created X-Force, a spin-off series of Marvel's popular title The X-Men. The title's sales had skyrocketed, and Marvel had recently sold licenses to toy companies and tee-shirt manufacturers without Liefeld and Lee's consent or compensation. Lee, who has an MBA, knew he'd just gotten screwed.
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