The Complete Todd McFarlane Spider-Man

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Wallace

Todd McFarlane is a name to conjour with in the field of comics. Some see him as the arrogant upstart artist who thought he was bigger than the iconic characters on which he was given his first big breaks in the late 80s. Others praise him as the man who stood up to the Big Two and showed them that he could break away from them and compete with them on their terms, changing the face of creators' rights and challenging the industry with the creation of Image comics, still Marvel and DC's closest competitor after fifteen years. Others may even point to him as the very embodiment of the industry nadir that was the 1990s, which almost led to the collapse of the comicbook market. Yet regardless of these perceived flaws, there are some things about McFarlane that are impossible to deny: his work was (and is) very popular, and he used his talents to become one of the leading comicbook creators of the decade, ultimately positioning himself at the head of a modest empire which still enjoys a healthy business producing comics, toys, animated features and video games today. Whilst I'm sure there's enough material about Todd McFarlane to fill a book (let alone a Soapbox column) I want to take this opportunity to look at his work on a character that cemented his reputation as a fan-favourite artist, and gave him the chance to make his first forays into writing comics: Spider-Man.

Fresh from working on distinguished properties such as DC's Detective Comics (in 1987's Batman: Year Two) and Marvel's Incredible Hulk, in a stint which was well-received by fans, Todd McFarlane was paired with writer David Michelinie on the flagship Amazing Spider-Man book. McFarlane and Michelinie's run on Amazing was a high-profile comic which earned a huge fanbase and was one of the first books that drew me back to reading comics as an adult. Whilst the storytelling wasn't necessarily the most sophisticated to have ever graced the comics page, veteran Spider-Man writer Michelinie really managed to capture the spirit of the character, grounding his stories with a strong emotional core built around a solid supporting cast with ongoing subplots and rooting his plots firmly in the wall-crawler's rich history. Yes, this was the era of the Peter Parker/Mary Jane marriage, but despite the complaints of those naysayers (including Michelinie himself) who now cite the event as a mis-step for Spidey which distanced him from his audience, the way in which the relationship is used in the McFarlane-era issues actually enabled Peter to show a stronger, more complex sense of love and emotional commitment than he had ever been called on to express with his previous relationships. It may have left less room for the exploration of soap-opera developments with the other women in Spidey's life, but thanks to the focus on the marriage as a core part of the story (rather than an element which had to be written around, as it later became), the romantic element of Peter Parker's life was never lacking. Michelinie's stories also gave his artist the chance to draw some of the all-time classic Spider-Man villains, from the Green Goblin to Mysterio, the Lizard, the Scorpion, Sandman, the Chameleon and the Black Cat, using them to create some inventive, entertaining issues with a real sense of fun and lightness which still stand up today.

Of course, the book looked great, gaining a unique visual identity as a result of McFarlane's contribution. Despite inheriting the black Spidey costume (rather than McFarlane's preferred red-and-blue outfit), the artist made a splash from the offset, and Michelinie soon found a way to return Spidey to his classic duds to keep his creative collaborator happy. With his run following on from quite a few months in which the title was illustrated by fill-in artists, McFarlane was always going to benefit from the goodwill of readers who were looking for a little more stability in the book's creative team; even so, the artist's first issues show an unprecedented level of confidence, especially given his radically different style. Todd McFarlane's art can polarise readers, and whilst some people may have been put off by the exaggerated, caricatured appearance of the artist's characters and his obvious lack of regard for accurate anatomy, others were won over by the cinematic framing, kooky poses, high level of detail and over-the-top rendition of rippling musculature, all of which made him a perfect fit for the wall-crawler.

McFarlane's individual style on Amazing Spider-Man was fairly well-defined from the start, but became even more comfortable with its idiosyncrasies as his tenure on the title continued. The artist had clearly thought about how he wanted to approach Spider-Man in quite a lot of detail, and he tailored his style to the character closely. Particularly noteworthy additions were the wide "bug-eyed" approach to Spidey's eyepieces, the detailed webbing on his costume, the tweaked spider-design on his chest, the more "spidery" poses and the new, more three-dimensional take on his webs (which editor Tom DeFalco dubbed "spaghetti-webbing" due to the tangled appearance of its multiple strands). This unique, novel take on a character whose look had remained virtually unchanged since his creation in the 1960s drew a lot of attention to the book - much of it positive, but there was the occasional negative reaction by those who saw the character's look as sacred (Michelinie even wrote a great gag about McFarlane's take on the character into one of his later issues where Spidey confronts a giant balloon of himself which is modelled in the Ditko vein, dismissing its design by saying "The guy’s eyes were all wrong anyway"). McFarlane's detractors also latched on to the idea that the artist's approach was flashy and attractive, but ultimately hollow, relying too heavily on big splash pages to carry the book - a criticism that the artist still rejects to this day: "People still remember all those big panels. But if you actually look at my Spider-Man run, there aren't as many big panels as you think there are. I just became very good at timing them so that they were more memorable. Very rarely did I do art for art's sake."[1]. In fact, McFarlane was probably a harder-working artist than people give him credit for, inking his own pencils from issue #300 onwards - even at a time when Amazing was sometimes shipping bi-weekly: "…that was tough. I tried to do it all. I tried to pencil and ink two books a month, and it was just too much. If you count a pencilled page and an inked page as two separate pages, there was one month where I did around one hundred and thirty pages. That’s a Jack Kirby number!"[2]. Michelinie's opinion of his co-creator is also glowing: "Todd was a real joy. I loved his art style, he was a good storyteller... And he was always professional. I've heard some people say that he has a big ego, but that was never my experience"[3].

Kicking off with a fairly disposable two-parter which saw the return of the Michelinie-created villain Chance, McFarlane barely had time to get to grips with the book before it reached its landmark #300 issue, and the debut of one of the era's most enduring villains: Venom. Venom is perhaps the perfect example of a character who gained instant popularity in the '90s due to his simple characterisation and striking appearance, but who is capable of introducing very little depth to a story once you scratch the surface of his personality. To give the writer his dues, Michelinie had originally wanted the character (a result of Spidey's involvement in the off-world crossover event Secret Wars) to be a very different sort of villain, not least because he originally conceived Venom as female, but he was told by editor Jim Salicrup that "he wasn't sure that readers would see a woman as a physical threat to Spider-Man, even a woman enhanced by the alien costume"[4]. As such, Spidey was left with a deranged carbon-copy of himself in the black symbiote suit, albeit one with a sinister grin and an even more exaggerated physique than McFarlane's take on the wall-crawler provided. Nevertheless, Venom still proved hugely successful with readers, leading to numerous return appearances and limited series which cast him as a violent anti-hero in the Punisher mould. He is due to be featured in the third Spider-Man movie later this year.

Future issues saw McFarlane take on a whole host of characters, both new creations and established heroes and villains, and his work continued to delight fans to such an extent that the TPB collections of his work are still in print today, some 18 years later. The Michelinie/McFarlane partnership continued for almost two years and 28 issues before the team finally parted company. McFarlane's decision to leave didn't reflect any animosity towards his writer, but a growing sense of dissatisfaction with his lack of control over his own work. Early signs of McFarlane's soon-to-be outspoken beliefs in creators' rights mixed with the creator's desire to grow as an artist (and as a nascent writer), and as he started to miss issues of Amazing, it became clear that Marvel was going to have to do something to appease the hot young artist or risk losing him completely. Therefore, in 1990, Marvel gifted him with a new Spidey project that he could both write and illustrate: the "adjectiveless" Spider-Man.

As Jim Salicrup explained in his introduction to the book's first collected edition: "Why was Todd allowed to write a new Spider-Man title in the first place? Many cynics felt it was purely economic. Todd sells comics, give Todd anything he wants. Whilst I don't have much of a problem with that logic, it’s just not how things really happened" [5]. Regardless of his editors' loftier, more artistic ideals, Spider-Man #1 was, above all else, always going to be a huge seller. The first issue alone sold anywhere from 2 to 5 million copies, depending on who you believe (just to put things in perspective, that's more than twelve times the business that Civil War has been doing at its absolute peak), with multiple cover variants issued to cash in on the popularity of McFarlane's name. Unfortunately, commercial success didn't equate to critical acclaim for McFarlane's new venture, and many found the artist's attempts at writing to be clumsy, unsophisticated and pretentious: "I was Todd, the neophyte writer, on a book that also happened to have artwork by Todd, an experienced penciller and inker. It was interesting the way that people couldn’t separate the writer, who was only ten seconds old, from the artist who was maybe seven or eight years old. They wanted the writing to be just as sophisticated as the artwork. It took me years to get to that level... I kept working at it and eventually I improved"[6].

McFarlane's first five-part arc, "Torment," featured a bloodthirsty, rampaging Lizard and a voodoo priestess, Calypso, in a dark, moody story which set the tone for the rest of his run on the book. There was a frequent sense - as with many writer-artists - that McFarlane's scripts were being written in such a way as to give himself something "cool" to draw, rather than to provide a particularly compelling or satisfying story. The adolescent, heavy-handed writing that would go on to characterise Spawn is evident from McFarlane's first issue, and even when colourful guest-stars from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe were dropped into later storylines (such as Ghost Rider, X-Force, and the perennial Wolverine), it was difficult to see his approach as a positive way to handle Spider-Man. Spidey was no longer fighting guys with mechanical arms or fishbowls on their heads; McFarlane pitted him against drug addicts, child abusers, and demonic killers, and the dark and often downbeat stories were seen by some as ill-fitting for a character who had traditionally been so light and airy.

The introduction to the "Torment" collected edition details some of the headaches that Jim Salicrup experienced in working with the writer-artist Todd McFarlane, tellingly comparing him to John Byrne on Fantastic Four, and outlining some of the compromises that he had to make with regard to Todd’s work on Spider-Man (including the enforcement of McFarlane’s minor costume changes across the entire line of other Spidey comics, the placing of limitations on his choice of villains for his stories, and some strong disagreement over how the role of Mary Jane should be handled). The tone of the piece suggests a certain defensiveness on the part of the editor over the perception that McFarlane was being given whatever he wanted in return for his agreement to stick with Marvel at a time when his relationship with his editors continued to be strained. A quick look at the letters pages during his run shows a surprising amount of public disagreement between Salicrup and McFarlane as they responded to their fans’ missives (however, it also shows McFarlane as a canny artist, with some of his comments showing real insight into the way the industry was going: in one issue, he foresees the telling of comic books solely with pictures - as with Marvel's "'Nuff Said" event a few years ago - and in another he predicts great advances in the use of computers in the field of colouring). The extreme, adult themes of one storyline, "Perceptions" - which dealt with police corruption, child rape and murder - even led certain stores to stop stocking the book, and this generated further tension between McFarlane and his editorial superiors. In retrospect, it's surprising that Marvel let the artist get away with so much, but it's also surprising that McFarlane stayed around so long after his stint on Amazing; after all, his fundamental concerns that he didn't own his own work weren't really addressed by giving him his own solo title (it was a still work-for-hire assignment on a company character), and it was becoming pretty obvious that he had done as much as he could with Spider-Man on a visual level.

The problems eventually came to a head just over a year into McFarlane's run on Spider-Man. After a couple of disposable issues in which a black-suited Spider-Man aided a band of downtrodden, homeless mutants in a fight against Morbius, the living vampire (showing hints of the direction in which he would take Spawn?), the cracks started to show. McFarlane was again starting to require help in order to meet his art deadlines, and missed an issue with #15. His final issue on the book, #16, is a sad testament to the contribution he made to the history of the Spider-Man character and is possibly the weakest of his entire run, featuring a crossover with X-Force. It's surely not the finale that McFarlane would have wanted, but clashes with the book's new editor Danny Fingeroth ensured that his position was soon untenable with Marvel, and he left the company under something of a cloud. McFarlane's fifteen issues of Spider-Man are now (perhaps slightly unfairly) held up alongside the likes of X-Force as the epitome of everything that was wrong 1990s comics, and their cash-in approach to the then-booming speculator market precipitated the near-collapse of the industry.

After leaving Marvel, McFarlane went on to establish Image Comics and started to work on launching the company's figurehead character, Spawn. McFarlane has been quoted as saying "Without Spider-Man, there would be no Spawn"[7], and it's easy to see why: his new character was a lithe, athletic and muscular figure, encased in a black, shifting, liquid costume (which also happened to be alive), with white and red markings and big, white bug-eyes. The grey webs of Spidey may have been replaced with clinking chains, but there was no denying the inspiration, even when the characterisation and tone of the book was substantially darker. Spawn #1 sold 1.7 million copies - still a record for an independent comic book - and remained the flagship title of Image comics for some time to come. The company made waves in the comics industry with its emphasis on its creators' ownership of the books that they wrote and illustrated; McFarlane's new company ethos was a clear reaction against his experiences with the Big Two, and he hammered his point home with the help of Dave Sim in the heavy-handed Spawn #10, in which the hero comes across a prison full of recognisable Marvel and DC superheroes - including Spider-Man - in a clear attack on companies that have exploited characters without the involvement of the original creators. Unfortunately, the innovations that McFarlane made in the field of creators' rights and the high sales generated by his output didn't always translate to artistic success, with his books' style-over-substance approach and emphasis on art over story feeding an industry trend which almost signalled the death knell of comics. Nevertheless, this approach was one that McFarlane fiercely defended, even going so far as to publicly debate the importance of artists over writers in creating successful comics[8]. Series such as Spawn are interesting to look at today from a historical point of view, but their shallow excesses make for a difficult read, especially in comparison to today's more sophisticated, writer-oriented comics, and McFarlane eventually became less and less involved with his company's comics in any meaningful way, taking a more managerial than hands-on approach to Image's output as time passed.

Whatever you may think of his personality as a creator, Todd McFarlane deserves to rank alongside Steve Ditko, the Romitas and Mark Bagley as a true visionary for Spider-Man, whose influence can still be felt on artists working on the character today. His take on Spidey stands as a visual interpretation which is so definitive that it not only informed the style of the character for the years which followed, but also helped to usher in a whole new era for comics in general in which, for better or worse, the artist was king. We may look back on the '90s with distaste thanks to the benefit of hindsight, but it's easy to forget how profound McFarlane's influence was on the industry, and what a crucial part of his career his stint on Spider-Man turned out to be. To give the final word to the artist himself, "I almost think of the time I spent on Spider-Man as being like the time I spent in high school. I don’t regret high school. I loved the people and had fun times, but I don’t plan on going back. I had my time at Marvel. I enjoyed it for the most part, and it helped me learn a lot of skills... I wouldn't be standing where I am today without Spider-Man. I know that for sure."[9]




Todd McFarlane illustrated the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #10, and Amazing Spider-Man issues #298-#323, #325, and #328 (providing additional art for issue #350). He wrote and illustrated Spider-Man issues #1-#14 and #16 and provided covers for Marvel Tales #223-227.




Notes:
[1] Comics Creators On Spider-Man, Titan Books 2004, p.150
[2] As per [1], p.150
[3] As per [1], p.140
[4] As per [1], p.136
[5] Spider-Man: Torment, Marvel Comics 1992, pp.3-4
[6] As per [1], p.151
[7] As per [1], p.156
[8] McFarlane participated in a debate with writer Peter David at Philadelphia's Comicfest convention in November 1993, which was moderated by artist George Perez. The topic of the debate was McFarlane’s claim that Image was not being treated fairly by the media, and by David’s weekly "But I Digress" column in the Comics Buyer's Guide in particular. The three judges, Maggie Thompson, editor of the Comics Buyer's Guide, William Christensen of Wizard press, and John Danovich of the magazine Hero Illustrated, voted 2-3 in favour of David, with Danovich voting the debate a tie. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Mcfarlane
[9] As per [1], p.156

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