McFarlane, Todd

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Todd McFarlane

Born March 16, 1961 (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
Canadian author, illustrator, publisher, toy company founder, movie producer

To comic fans, Todd McFarlane is best known for Spawn, a character he introduced in 1992 through Image Comics, an imprint he co-founded with several ex-Marvel colleagues. Before quitting Marvel he was the industry's highest-paid artist, making $2 million a year, and when it launched in May 1992 the first Spawn issue became the most successful independent launch in the history of comics with sales of 1.7 million copies. By 1997, McFarlane was estimated to be worth $100 million. McFarlane's former boss at Marvel Comics and the creator of Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee (1922–) pinpointed the foundation of McFarlane's success in People: "His artwork is very captivating. It just draws you to it."

"Kids like creepy stuff that scares Mommy. I've never grown out of that sensibility."

Harbors dreams of sports stardom

Born in Calgary, Canada, on March 16, 1961, McFarlane moved to southern California while he was still a baby and lived there until he was fourteen years old, when his family moved back to Calgary. He discovered comic books while he was in high school and collected the work of comic book creators such as John Byrne, George Perez, Marshall Rogers, Michael Golden, Art Adams, and Walter Simonson. But McFarlane's first love was baseball. He played in Little League, in high school, and in 1981 went to Eastern Washington University on a baseball scholarship with dreams of playing professionally.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

(Illustrator with David Michelinie) Stan Lee Presents Spider-Man vs. Venom (1990).

(With others) Batman: Year Two (1990).

Stan Lee Presents Spider-Man: Torment (1992).

(With Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza) Stan Lee Presents X-Force and Spider-Man in Sabotage (1992).

(Illustrator with Sal Buscema, Gerry Conway, and David Michelinie) Spider-Man: The Cosmic Adventures (1993).

(With Steve Ditko, John Romita, and Mark Bernardo) Spider-Man Unmasked (1997). (With Frank Miller) Spawn-Batman (1998).

Todd McFarlane Presents: Kiss Psycho Circus (1998).


(With Greg Capullo, Angel Medina, and Philip Tan) Spawn, issues 1–150. (1992–).

Film and TV

Spawn (live action movie). (1997).

Spawn (animated TV series). (1997–99).

Video Games

Spawn the Eternal (1998).

Spawn: In the Demon's Hand (2000).

Spawn: Armageddon (2003).

McFarlane graduated in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in general studies, having specialized in graphic arts and communications; he had worked at a comic book store to help fund his time at college, but he remained focused on baseball. When recruited by a Seattle Mariners scout to play for a semi-professional baseball team in British Columbia, he jumped at the chance. It was there that he befriended a man named Al Simmons, whose greatest (and perhaps only) claim to fame came when McFarlane later named the Spawn character after him. McFarlane's baseball career was short-lived, however. His skills had been damaged after breaking his ankle during a college game, and he failed to attract interest from any major league teams while playing in British Columbia.

Although he had always shown talent for drawing, McFarlane only began to think about doing it professionally when hopes of a baseball career began to fade. He approached the difficulty of breaking into comic book writing with determination and persistence. He sent off drawings to almost every publisher in North America, receiving almost seven hundred rejection letters over a period of fourteen months; his approach was to send a monthly package of drawings to editors with the idea that they would eventually hire him just to make him stop. Editors at Marvel Comics were the first to give in, and in March 1984 he was hired to work on a minor series called Scorpio Rose.

Begins working for Marvel Comics

McFarlane's opportunity at Marvel Comics began a career that saw him become one of the most recognized and highest paid comic book artists of all time. In 1987, he worked on one of Marvel's biggest series, The Incredible Hulk, and was also doing freelance work for Marvel's main competitor, DC Comics, including several issues of Batman: Year Two. By then he was one of Marvel's top artists. His cover art and drawings had helped revive the declining Amazing Spider-Man series; he transformed the look of the character, giving him enlarged eyes to make him more spider-like and a more sticky-looking web. McFarlane was finally allowed to write and draw his own series in 1990 when Marvel gave him the Amazing Spider-Man series, which debuted in September that year. With eventual sales of 2.5 million copies, the first issue became the best-selling comic book in history.

One of the peculiarities of comic book publishing is that artists and writers are paid for their work, but in most cases the publishing company retains the rights. Many artists feel that they are being exploited by companies like Marvel, and McFarlane was one of them. As he became more influential, earning almost $2 million per year by the early 1990s, his dissatisfaction with the arrangement began to grow. In 1991, he and several other writers and graphic artists at Marvel began to think about setting up their own company that would allow artists to retain rights to their work. In February 1992, he and six other Marvel artists walked out on the company, protesting that Marvel was denying them control over their own work. They created Image Comics.

Creates Spawn

The first issue of Spawn appeared in May 1992 under the Image Comics imprint and sold 1.7 million copies, a record for an independent comic. The character of Spawn (short for Hellspawn) is former CIA agent Al Simmons, who has been murdered by his boss and makes a pact with the devil in order to see his wife again. Taken forward in time five years, Spawn finds that his wife, Wanda, has married his best friend and that they have a daughter, Cyan. McFarlane has said that there is a lot of himself in Spawn. He named Simmons's wife and daughter after his own wife and daughter. Also, it is possible to see Spawn's search for his family, and his attempts to shake off the demon who owns him, as a metaphor for McFarlane's own attempt to break free from Marvel Comics and regain his personal and artistic independence.

With its appeal aimed squarely at teenage boys, the Spawn series contains grotesque images of ripped flesh and extreme violence, but there are also elements of absurdity amidst the gore, such as severed limbs used for writing. Spawn has also been praised for being part of a trend away from the clean-cut white male superheroes of the past, since its lead character, underneath the rotting flesh, is clearly black. McFarlane told Rolling Stone in 1997 that he was tired of "everyone [in comics] being good looking white guys." Whatever the motivations behind it, the series was a huge hit. It was translated into seventeen languages and sold in more than one hundred countries. Spawn quickly attracted the attention of toy manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel, which wanted to make action figures from the series. But McFarlane wanted more control over the figures than the companies were willing to give, so he set up his own business, McFarlane Toys.

Having already become a competitor for Marvel and DC in the arena of comic book publishing, McFarlane now took on the toy industry with huge success. Within a few years, McFarlane Toys became the fifth-largest toy manufacturer in the United States, with a reputation for detail and the high quality of the likenesses of its action figures. By 2003, it had expanded to make action figures for rock bands such as KISS and AC/DC, movie tie-ins from Shrek to Austin Powers, and entertainment personalities such as Ozzy Osborne. In 2002, the company became the official manufacturer of sports action figures for the four major North American sports leagues: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. In 2005, McFarlane Toys produced action figures for Tim Burton's animated movie The Corpse Bride and for Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Diversifies career

McFarlane's publishing business thrived in the late 1990s, but by then he was more involved in other business and media ventures than in drawing comics. As early as 1993, other artists were producing artwork and stories for the Spawn series, including Greg Capullo, who had made his name with the X-Force series of comics. McFarlane also diversified into movies, TV, computer games, CD-ROMs, trading cards, and other promotional material. TV and movie companies became interested in the Spawn series soon after it first appeared, and by the mid-1990s—after a bidding war that involved most of the major Hollywood studios—McFarlane had signed with New Line Cinema to make a Spawn movie. The movie appeared in August 1997, making more than $50 million in its first few weeks. The same year, McFarlane also worked as executive producer for an HBO series, Todd McFarlane's Spawn, which first aired in May 1997. The series went on to win an Emmy Award, and the DVD release of the movie won a Gold DiVi award. Further episodes appeared in 1998 and 1999. The video release of the HBO series was the channel's biggest-selling release up to that point. McFarlane has also produced music videos, winning more than forty international awards and a Grammy nomination in 1999 for his animated video for Pearl Jam's "Do the Evolution." Further, he was producer of the Grammy- and MTV-Video-award-winning video "Freak on a Leash" for Korn's Follow the Leader album.

Image Comics

Todd McFarlane, along with Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino, left Marvel Comics in 1992, after they realized that they shared the same frustrations with the way Marvel Comics was run. In particular, they resented the management culture that saw writers and artists as replaceable and the titles and characters as the real assets. They set up Image Comics, an umbrella company for separate publishing ventures each owned and run by the individual artists themselves. The idea was to win back control and ownership of their creations. The company had two founding rules: that Image would not own the artists' work, and that no Image partner would interfere in the work of another. Over the years, the separate production companies diversified into publishing other artists, and, in McFarlane's case, making action figures, TV series, and movies. Image grew quickly, but the partners lacked business experience and ran into difficulties. Nevertheless, by 2005 Image had become a direct competitor with Marvel, DC, and other major comics publishers; it ranked among the top four comic publishers in the United States.

While his career in comics made him well known in that area and his business and movie success made him rich, McFarlane's passion for sports memorabilia made him truly famous. In 1999, he paid $3 million for the baseball Mark McGwire hit for his record-breaking seventieth home run in the 1998 season, beginning a collection of historic baseballs that has become known as The McFarlane Collection. It also includes McGwire's home run balls numbers 1, 63, 64, 67, 68, and 69; Sammy Sosa's 33, 61, and 66 home run balls; and memorabilia from other twentieth-century home run heroes. In 2003, McFarlane bought Barry Bonds's 73rd home run ball from the 2001 season, for which he paid $450,000. The value of the latter was dented when Bonds became the subject of a steroid scandal in 2004. Since 1999, the traveling collection has toured major league stadiums and by 2001 had been seen by more than two million fans. Proceeds from the exhibit go toward research into Lou Gehrig's disease (a rare progressive degenerative fatal disease affecting the spinal cord).

McFarlane lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and their three children. He is part owner of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team and remains an amateur baseball player. Despite complaints from purist fans that the Spawn series has suffered since McFarlane began hiring other artists to do the writing and drawing, the series continued to sell well into 2005. McFarlane explained to Underground Comics Online that his drawings now form the foundation on which his products are made. "I do lots of drawing still, but a lot of it is hidden drawing. When I was doing comics, whatever I drew got published and that's not true anymore. I do a lot of concept sketches for toys and concept toys for movies and background drawings." Perhaps that is why his products are so successful.

Having contributed to transforming the comic book industry in the 1990s, McFarlane seemed set to have a similar influence on the toy and collectibles industry in the twenty-first century. McFarlane Toys set new standards of production and quality of likeness. On the Spawn Web site, which claims to receive 200 million hits monthly, he attributed his success to "a little talent, being in the right place at the right time, a lot of hard work and perseverance."

For More Information


Bernardin, Marc. "Spawn." Entertainment Weekly (December 19, 1997): p. 81.

Eichhorn, Paul. "Devil You Know: Inside the Mind of Todd McFarlane." Take One (Fall 2000): pp. 34–36.

Lipton, Michael A. "Spawn Meister: Todd McFarlane Draws a Superhero from Beyond the Grave." People (August 18, 1997): p. 99.

Wild, David. "Spawn." Rolling Stone (June 12, 1997): p. 126.

Web Sites

Epstein, Daniel Robert. "Todd McFarlane Interview." Underground Online. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Spawn. (accessed on May 3, 2006).