Tempe comics tycoon Todd McFarlane celebrates 25 years of his breakout hit Spawn with a new TV series and movie.

Celebrity Panelist

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: People Issue: September 2017
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Todd McFarlane at a Marvel signing during his run on Spider-Man, circa 1989. Photo courtesy of Todd Mcfarlane Productions.
Todd McFarlane’s Image Reading List

Though Image Comics started mainly as a publisher of superhero stories, Todd McFarlane says the company’s ever-increasing variety has made it the comics powerhouse it is today. It’s “evolved into this super eclectic business, this company where just a small minority of our books have spandex on them,” McFarlane says. “If you want a little more diversity in your reading, Image Comics gives you a big buffet of ideas.”  Here, McFarlane selects five to check out. 

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and various artists
McFarlane loves this zombie-fied horror comic, the basis for the popular AMC television series. “I think Robert’s just put his head down to the grindstone… in today’s market, you do 10 issues [and] they call it prolific, and he’s pretty much had the same staff for almost 140 issues.”
Black Science by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
McFarlane loves this dimension-hopping science-fiction epic, featuring the misadventures of the Anarchistic League of Scientists.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
A sprawling fantasy with deep investment in its characters, Saga has crossed over into the mainstream, even earning a mention on The Big Bang Theory.  
Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory
McFarlane says that this story about a psychic U.S. Food and Drug Administration agent is “an odd, interesting one.” 
The Beauty by Jason A. Hurley and Jeremy Haun
McFarlane describes this story about a horrifying sexually transmitted disease as “an interesting high concept.” The Beauty is prime example of the depth and sophistication of Image’s current roster. 

There are hundreds of people waiting to meet Todd McFarlane. The 56-year-old artist and businessman balances atop a wobbling chair, to the consternation of his bodyguard, who’s attempting to steady the chair below the teetering comic book impresario. 

Wearing a black button-down shirt that clings to his toned arms, slim dark jeans and leather boots, McFarlane is the definition of fit. Gripping a microphone, he addresses attendees at Amazing Las Vegas Comic Con. The fans who’ve paid to meet him listen as McFarlane explains that no, his hand doesn’t get tired signing autographs all day, because if he weren’t doing that, he’d be drawing. It’s all in the wrist, he says, punctuating his speech with hand motions. 

He climbs down to resume scrawling his signature – a severe pattern of jutting lines, familiar to just about anyone who’s picked up a comic in the last three decades – on comic books and toys. Since breaking into the world of comics in the late ‘80s drawing popular heroes like Spider-Man and Batman, McFarlane’s been one of the most famous artists in the business. In 1992, he struck out on his own, starting Image Comics, which began publishing his most famous creation, Spawn, featuring a titular assassin who returns from the dead seeking revenge, only to find himself embroiled in a cosmic war between heaven and hell.

It’s a banner year for McFarlane. Image and Spawn celebrate 25th anniversaries in 2017, and he’s celebrating with tribute comics and an art collection called the Spawn Oversized Vault Edition. But there are even bigger projects on the horizon. 

McFarlane’s teaming with director Kevin Smith for a new TV series based on Spawn characters called Sam & Twitch for BBC America and he’s begun production on a reboot of Spawn for the big screen with Blumhouse Productions that McFarlane will write and direct. With “hard R”-rated comic movies like Logan and Deadpool proving there’s an audience for gritty superhero fare, McFarlane wagers the time’s right for the return of Spawn. 

McFarlane enjoys seeing his characters come to life. A few minutes later, a convention attendee impressively cosplaying as McFarlane’s most famous character is permitted behind the table to pose for a picture with the creator. McFarlane grins as Spawn raises two gigantic prop guns in the air, his cape flowing behind him. Business as usual. 

Though Spawn was first published in 1992, McFarlane created the character even longer ago, around age 16 in Calgary, Canada. “I was sort of a late bloomer,” McFarlane says a few days after the convention from his office in Tempe. “But once I sort of got smitten by comic books, North American superhero comic books, I started teaching myself that style.” 

Originally, he had hopes to play pro baseball. He remains a sports fanatic, devoting his rare downtime to cheering on the Diamondbacks, Coyotes and Cardinals, but instead of pro ball, he’s built an empire from those high school sketches. From Tempe, where he’s lived with his wife Wanda and their three children since 1994, he runs McFarlane Studios and McFarlane Toys, which he started to create Spawn action figures and expanded to create merchandise for the NFL, The Beatles, The Simpsons and KISS. 

He’s a workaholic, eating most of his meals on the go. In addition to his production companies, he’s president of Image Comics, which he co-founded in 1992 with Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (creator of Deadpool), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larsen (Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Whilce Portacio (The Uncanny X-Men).

The idea was revolutionary: Instead of creating characters owned by the publishing house, as remains the industry standard, Image creators would retain ownership of their comics and characters. In the 25 years since launching Image, the founders have all, in one shape or another, returned to work with Marvel and DC, but not McFarlane, who exclusively produces for Image. The company severed ties with CEO Liefeld (he’s since returned in a creative capacity) and began diversifying. Image became home to crossover hits like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which launched in 2003.

McFarlane applied his new business skills to the stewardship of Spawn. In addition to a monthly comic, he waded into showbiz, adapting the character for film in 1997 (you can currently stream it on Net-flix), and launching a pioneering adult animation serial about the character for HBO between 1997-1999. His toy company began creating figures that reached beyond comic fandom into sports and memorabilia. 

“I wanted to use my own money to pave my own roads for my own ideas,” he says. “Nobody is going to create a lane for your idea – sometimes you have to create your own lanes.” 

McFarlane speaks with intensity, his thoughts barreling out in a direct current. He’s excitable, his patter exhibiting the spark evident in his early renditions of Batman and Spider-Man. Now is the best time to be a creator, he says, citing the monopolization of Marvel’s and DC’s characters by Disney and Warner Brothers. 

Studios “still need content, and they’re looking at these billion-dollar franchises,” McFarlane says. He sees opportunity in the expanding fields of streaming and on-demand programming. He’s convinced Spawn’s “bad ass” nature will win audiences. 

“The current wave right now – you’ve got your Netflix and Hulu – but coming down the pipeline you’ve got your Google, Apple and YouTube,” he says. McFarlane is looking to surf that wave. And he’s encouraging other creators to join him.

“Is today a good time to do it? I would do it,” he says. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last, [but] it’s a great time for ideas.”