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By Ray Stern
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The animated series didn't force the same kind of showdown. McFarlane found a company, HBO, willing to commit its money to his vision. Typically, comic books lose their edge when they make the jump to TV animation--witness Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, et al. McFarlane wanted to take Spawn in the opposite direction, and HBO let him. If anything, the animated Spawn series is more hard-core than his comic book. Its dark themes, rough language, nudity and graphic violence are much closer in style to Japanese manga animation than Saturday-morning cartoons. The episodes aired earlier this year were perforated with highly stylized gunfights à la John Woo, and in one scene a cyborg assassin ripped the arm off a homeless man and used it to write a challenge to Spawn in blood on a brick wall.
Some critics were aghast. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to such a relentlessly grim, gruesome, dehumanizing experience," opined Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark. "Mr. McFarlane makes Stephen King look like one of the three Rice Krispies characters." Bark also declared the success of McFarlane's toy company, comic book and the upcoming Spawn movie "all signs that the apocalypse is upon us."
Whatever, says McFarlane. "I got a number-one movie coming out where the hero is a guy who comes back from hell. There's a lot of tight asses out there who probably won't like that much, either. I don't worry about public opinion. I just do what I do, and that's worked for me so far."
McFarlane's credo has been, if you won't let me do it my way with your money, I'll do it my way with mine. Hence, Image Comics and McFarlane Toys. He had the capital for those startups, and probably could have produced his own video game or animated series if he saw the need. In May of 1996, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $35 million. McFarlane said later it guessed a little low, and he's clocked some bank since then. "I got a few bucks in my pocket," he says.
But not enough to make a movie. Not to do it right. Not without risking everything he owns. McFarlane needed Hollywood to make a Hollywood movie--not the best bargaining position for an idealist going into a town where ideals typically rank somewhere below the bottom line. He says he was prepared to come up empty. "When I went in there, my attitude was like, 'Let's see, I'm 35 years old, and I've got a family who adores me that I love very much, and a nice house and toy company and a number-one comic book, and I've never had a Spawn movie, and I'm still a happy man.'"
But, after several major studios rejected his conditions--including Columbia, who was "90 percent there before it fell apart"--McFarlane shook hands over the table with New Line Cinema. He got his marketing and merchandising control, he got his point shares, and he got to hand-pick the director, writer and special-effects team. They watched his back on the set, McFarlane says. When New Line wanted to change Spawn's "very organic, Alien-esque" costume to look more like the Spawn toys, they gave him a red alert, and, with their help, he talked the studio out of the idea.
But to get all that, McFarlane had to make just one little change. It was a matter of pigmentation. Two principal characters who are black in Spawn the comic book, Spawn the action-figure line and Spawn: The Animated Series are played by white actors in Spawn the movie.
In the second comic-book issue of Spawn, the superhero tries to use his magic powers to temporarily regenerate his charred skin. In a flash, he turns into a white guy. "No," Spawn cries. "This can't be. I'm a black man!" Apparently, all it took for two of McFarlane's characters to undergo a similar transformation on the big screen was a Hollywood studio's insistence.
New Line president Michael De Luca says he doesn't remember any discussion about there being too many black characters. "I think we just wanted more casting options," he says.
McFarlane tells a different story. "If I'd stuck by my guns and it were perceived as a 'black movie,' they [New Line] would have only given us $20 million," he wrote in a recent issue of Spawn. "The movie deserved more."
Diehard Spawn fans were outraged. Especially the black ones.
"I recognize that you being a white man, you may not totally understand my anger with your decision," a fan from Delaware wrote McFarlane in a recent "Spawning Ground" letters section, where the casting change has been a topic of debate between McFarlane and his readers for several months. "But I challenge you to give a valid, concrete reason that doesn't center around you selling out to please the executives who funded the project."
McFarlane tried: "Given that we had to make some concessions, the up side is that we've got a $47 million movie that's promoting the lead as a man of color. I feel that it's far more advantageous to have a better movie with a bigger budget that will get more attention and stars a black man as a hero instead of a $20 million movie with four black actors that will come and go and disappear."