The Devil and Todd McFarlane

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

And, for the first time, Marvel and DC had serious competition.
"Suddenly, there was a big three in comic publishing, instead of the usual big two," says John Jackson Miller, the editor of Comics Retailer and an associate editor at Comic Buyer's Guide. "The influx of new buyers, combined with computer inking technology, which made the startup cost to compete with Marvel and DC much lower than 10 years ago, allowed Image to come out of nowhere and suddenly grab a 15 percent market share, which certainly threw a scare into Marvel and DC."

After Image scored two quick hits, the company started head-hunting promising artists at both DC and Marvel, and McFarlane made a quickly notorious crack at a comic-distributors conference that "Marvel is now a training ground for future Image artists." Finally, DC and Marvel started to react. Creators got substantial pay raises. Those who came up with new characters were offered royalties, involved in marketing decisions, and cut into licensing deals. In some cases, the deals were retroactive, rewarding artists who had recently created popular characters. In 1995, DC published its first creator-owned comic title, Sovereign Seven.

"Generally speaking, publishers are treating their creators radically better since Image arrived on the scene," says Miller. "Creators are getting deals that would have been pure fantasy 10 years ago. Are there still creators laboring under work for hire? Yes. But far fewer."

Five years after it was first published, Spawn is distributed in 36 countries, printed in 16 languages, and has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide. Last year, Spawn issues captured 31 of 65 spots on comic-distribution giant Diamond Distribution's annual "Top Comics 1-65" list, including four of the Top 10. Al Simmons/Spawn is the first black superhero with his own title to achieve such popularity. Domestic sales for Spawn grossed $4.4 million last year, international sales another $1.8 million.

On the flip side, Marvel never recovered from its black day on the stock market. The comic industry went into a recession in 1993, and Marvel and DC, who expanded their lines dramatically during the boom, took it on the chin. Terry Stewart resigned as Marvel's president in 1995. The company declared bankruptcy last year after a disastrous attempt to revamp its distribution system, and spent the next 16 months as a Ping-Pong ball in a buyout match between corporate raiders Ron Perlman and Carl Icahn (last month, a court decision awarded control of the company to Icahn).

"If I had taken over Marvel in 1992, if they had said, 'Todd, we love you, don't quit, here--take over the company,' and I decided to drive the company into bankruptcy to get my revenge, I couldn't have done it any faster than they did themselves," says McFarlane.

"What does this tell us about big-business guys? Those big-business guys aren't so brilliant. They just think they're better than the average guy, and what's worse, the public thinks they are, too. That's chicken shit. Too many people cower before big business, when the only thing that prevents anyone from equaling what they do is two things: cash, and ambition. Well, I'm far too ambitious for my own liking, and I have cash. You got those two things, you can do anything in this friggin' world."

Are you sure you know the difference between good and evil? Are you confident you could distinguish the forces of light from the forces of darkness? I'm Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn. And to me, there's nothing out there in life that's all black or all white. Good always has a germ of evil inside it, and evil just a touch of good. Take Spawn. An assassin in life, hell's own soldier in death--not exactly Boy Scout material. But if you consider he made his choices for love, for the love of country, and the love of his wife, well, you begin to see he's a little like you and me. Just another poor schmo, walking on razor's edge, all hell pushing one way, and heaven pushing the other, and him stuck in the middle, trying not to get cut.

--Todd McFarlane, introducing the second episode of Spawn: The Animated Series; May 23, 1997

Last month, McFarlane Toys released a wildly hyped line of action figures depicting the members of the rock group KISS. The band's bassist, Gene Simmons, recently said that Todd McFarlane is the only person he's met with an ego bigger than his own. McFarlane launched his own toy company in January of 1994, shortly after he broke off negotiations with toy giants Mattel and Hasbro when both scoffed at his insistence upon final design approval of a Spawn action-figure line. Nine months later, McFarlane Toys shipped the first line of Spawn action figures to retailers nationwide. They were better articulated and detailed than any other action figure on the market.

McFarlane has produced seven additional lines of Spawn figures since then, and Tower Records in Tempe has a sign on its door warning that the store is sold out of KISS figures, including back orders through August. McFarlane Toys grossed $23 million last year.

"Hey, I didn't start a toy company to become a toy mogul," McFarlane says. "I started a toy company because those sons of bitches sat there and told me I couldn't make a toy unless I kowtowed to them. So I was like, 'Fine, I'll make my own fucking toys. And what's more, my toys will be cooler than your toys. And I'll do it just to show you that you're not as smart as you think you are.'"

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