The Devil and Todd McFarlane

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

"Everyone's thinking was moving in the same direction," says Valentino. "I'd come from independent comics. Eric had come from there. Jim wanted to move. Rob wanted to move. And we all knew each other, and we all started talking about it. It was like a gestalt, almost. It had to happen."

A Marvel executive whacked the final straw across McFarlane's back on August 6, 1991, three days before his daughter Cyan was born. That morning, McFarlane had turned in his final page proofs for the next issue of Spider Man. That afternoon, he received a telephone call. There was a problem.

"I had Spidey fighting this villain named the Juggernaut, who, as you might expect, was sort of this big, immovable force. But he has slits for eyes, and Spidey took this piece of shrapnel and shoved it right in his eye, and they were like, 'You can't do this; redraw it in silhouette and lose all the blood.' And I thought that was silly--oh, what, you can poke out somebody's eye, but you just can't poke it out good. You gotta poke it out in some boring way." McFarlane was pissed. He redrew the panel, but it was the last work he ever did for Marvel. "In my head, I quit that day," he says.

Officially, he didn't resign until five months later. When Cyan was born, McFarlane went on a prearranged leave of absence. During his time off, he and the other Marvel artists quietly solidified their business plan, inked a deal with a California publishing company to print their titles, and came up with a name: Image Comics. "We built a co-op, basically," says Valentino. "Every artist has an autonomous studio. There is a no-interference policy, and a no-shared-money policy. The publications do not benefit the company, they benefit the individual artist. Each individual owner of Image is an entity unto himself."

In late January 1992, McFarlane, Lee and Liefeld scheduled a meeting with Marvel Entertainment president Terry Stewart and flew to New York City to drop their bomb (McFarlane and his family lived in Portland, Oregon, at the time; they moved to the Valley in August 1995). "In summary, the conversation went like this," says McFarlane. "We're all quitting. There's nothing you can give us or otherwise do to stop us from quitting. We're not here to ask you for anything, we're not here to negotiate. We're here to quit and tell you why. We're quitting because we don't feel like we get the respect we deserve. We're quitting because when you have editorial conferences about how to sell more copies of X-Men and Spider Man, you never bother to actually invite the X-Men and Spider Man artists and writers. And we're quitting because guys like you have been screwing over guys like us for way too long, and now you're going to get yours."

After leaving the Marvel building, McFarlane says, the group went across town to meet with the chief executives at DC Comics. "We'd called to set up a meeting and told them we all wanted to talk about Batman or something," McFarlane says. By the time the party arrived, word of their walkout had already reached the DC offices. "They were pretty excited when we got there," McFarlane says. "But we sat them down and gave them the same spiel: 'We just quit Marvel. We're not going to work for you, either. Here's why.' We told them the same thing we told the Marvel guys--'You should think about the fact that if everyone stopped drawing and writing books, none of you guys has a job tomorrow. You can't market air, assholes.'"

The cumulative work of the artists who left Marvel accounted for 40 percent of the company's total sales in 1991. The departure of the "Image Seven" was first widely publicized a week later in the business magazine Barron's. Terry Stewart was quoted trying to downplay the importance of the exodus. "The importance of the creative people is still secondary to the importance of the comic-book characters," he said. Investors disagreed. The day after the Barron's article ran, Marvel's stock took an $11 hit, and the company lost $137.6 million in market value overnight.

Image, meanwhile, was getting ready to rock 'n' roll. The company's timing was perfect. The trading-card market had just crashed, and the comic-book market was suddenly flooded with speculative buyers, who boosted a comic-book renaissance that was already under way. In 1989, comic books generated $175 million in sales. In 1991, the figure doubled to $350 million. In 1993, it was $850 million. The market was largely single-issue driven in the early '90s, and gambling investors commonly purchased hot titles by the case like stocks, hoping they would quickly appreciate in value.

Image published its first title--Rob Liefeld's Youngbloods, about a group of ultrahip, bio-enhanced superheroes with press agents and wardrobe consultants--in March of 1992, and it sold 900,000 copies. Todd McFarlane followed up two months later with the first issue of Spawn, which nearly doubled that figure. It sold 1.7 million copies, shattering the previous sales record for independent comics. For the first time, the best-selling comic in America was totally controlled and owned by the artist who made it up.

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