Spawn of the Devil?
Back in the 1980s, when Reagan was allegedly at the helm, much was made of the fact that despite administrative scandal and regular political shelling, he somehow managed to deflect nearly every shot fired and subsequently was anointed “The Teflon President”. Bill Clinton, also a master of avoiding lasting tarnish no matter what assailed him, has emerged unscathed, and more popular than ever -- even though his influence has receded from the front lines of the political landscape. In the world of professional sports, the actions of law-breaking star athletes are no longer given a second glance as long as they perform to the benefit of a sports franchise and put butts in seats. In short, it seems Americans, when assessing our politicians’ and sports heroes’ actions rely upon a measure of blissful ignorance.
A similar phenomenon seems to have been spawned by the comics industry.
Despite seemingly countless rumors, stories and accusations by his peers, coupled with his evident abandonment of the craft for which he was best known in comics culture, Todd McFarlane remains as popular as ever in the world of comics.
Is it because he’s such a maverick businessman and a corporate rebel -or so he tells us? Out of the gate at Image, McFarlane racked up an impressive amount of marketing and merchandising accomplishments --parlaying a comic book into a toy manufacturing company, an HBO animated series, a relatively successful film and wide recognition of his character. The rewards of all one can achieve in comics were his. A multiple winner of Wizard Magazine’s no doubt unbiased (cough) “Most Powerful Person in Comics” roundup, McFarlane became the embodiment of every wanna-be comic creators’ dreams. Come up with something cool. Market the hell out of it. Create buzz. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars!
Then he stopped writing and penciling his monthly comic. Not long afterward, he stopped inking over someone else’s pencils, except a page or two, or panel here and there. His empire had expanded to the point that running Todd McFarlane Productions and laboring over a monthly comic, were undoubtedly a tough schedule to ask of anyone, and he ceased personal hands-on work on his comics – leaving Spawn’s production to those he hired (granted at a high rate of pay). He retains all trademarks and copyright’s himself and does not pay royalties to those who physically produce the comics he publishes.
His fans are loyal and legion. The TMP convention booth teems with faded Violator T-shirt-wearing disciples of Spawn. The message boards of McFarlane’s homepage often play shelter to a protective, defensive and vociferous lot, who tend to the image of “Todd” and rabidly guarding the legend like hellhounds straining at their chains. The words “I think Todd…” have likely become a ubiquity near unavoidable in the average fanboy posting, unless the posting is by “The Secret Squirrel” (purportedly the alter ego of McFarlane, who has had a career-long, nauseating habit of referring to himself in the third person). McFarlane’s fans have plenty of toy releases, comic publications, conventions, memorabilia and whatnot to talk about. What they don’t have to talk about is what McFarlane is actually doing when it comes to penciling comics again. Sure, he writes Sam & Twitch now, but it’s the pencils the fans want and have begged for, tantalized by any possible prospect of it actually occurring. It’s the pencils that could possibly help to get an anemic industry talking and maybe even revitalize interest by garnering some major-media coverage.
In paraphrased terms that few but a professional major-sport athlete could blindingly appreciate, McFarlane’s fans must wonder “what has he done for us lately?”
Or do they?
One could assume that after he “went corporate” and began hiring others to write, draw, develop, market and merchandise the characters he owns (in effect becoming that which he once purported to loathe), McFarlane would be off the comics “HOT!” radar and fanboys would find someone else (talent optional in post-Liefeldom) to lavish praise upon. This hardly seems the case given the throng still eyeing his every move. Even though he rarely picks up a pencil to draw something for publication anymore, or a pen to do a signing, McFarlane retains his fan’s idolatry. Like a felonious linebacker, he enjoys the fan mentality dictating that as long as he delivers the goods, he will flourish even when behaving badly.
The recent and not wholly unsurprising allegations that he’s less than delightful to work for, adverse to his employees needs and an active participant in corporate cronyism (among many others) leveled in Rich Johnston’s All The Rage column, if true, are quite damning indeed. A casual assessment of the litany of complaints, accusations and pitiable tales of his treatment of fellow creators seems enough to enlighten the uninformed to wonder just what it is about the man himself that others find so admirable?
In a March, 1999 posting on the Comicon website message boards, Stephen R. Bissette related an experience he shared with Cam Kennedy when they were invited to McFarlane’s former Oregon residence. According to Bissette upon his arrival, they were met by McFarlane’s assistant who promptly “handed me a page and showed me to a board. We were there for about an hour, during which I inked the page backgrounds. Todd said neither hello or goodbye; in fact, he said nothing to me at all.”
Bissette continued “The only available seat for Cam was across from Todd's drawing board, at the end of which sat a bowl of M&Ms. Todd talked AT Cam for the duration ("you gotta tell these fuckin' toy guys how to do everything" blahblahblah), never responding to Cam's attempts at conversation or offering Cam an M&M. I finished the page, Cam and I nodded at each other, and we left.”
During the stay, Bissette recalled that McFarlane “stepped on an industry award belonging to one of "his" colorists. Todd's wife was aghast, but Todd said, "Ah, fuck it, tell him it arrived broken."” After which, Bissette and Kennedy left “in a daze, astounded by the hour we’d spent”.
McFarlane’s sidestepping of the questions surrounding the ownership of Miracleman and whether or not he possesses the legal right to muscle through the impending appearance of the character in an upcoming issue of Hellspawn, demonstrate what Neil Gaiman patently referred to as McFarlane’s “astonishingly cavalier attitude to creator rights, to ownership and to property”. Gaiman commented further on the Engaged.well.com message board for his new novel “American Gods”, relaying that McFarlane has now "broken every agreement he’s made with me, every promise he’s ever made, everything he’s ever signed, everything he’s ever said. I guess he’s done it because he thinks he can”. The Secret Squirrel himself responded to Gaiman’s accusations in a Spawn message board posting in the mangled syntax that is his trademark: “I have found over the years that one of the ways to show your ignorance is to talk about things of which you have little or no knowledge” (a statement that, considering the source, takes nearly all the sport out of any rebuttal it may inspire) and “PERHAPS, just perhaps there may be another side to this intriguing story, he continued. One in which I am not willing to discuss. Now it can be percieved [sic] as an attempt to hide something, but I’m sure all you Todd-bashers can think of at least a couple of reasons why a person may not want to talk about something. Go ahead, try it…. I’ll wait.”
OK. How about not wanting to incriminate oneself any further by saying little more than the grade-school level comebacks that there are two sides to every story and “no comment”? How about not wanting to lose face in the light of being in the defenseless position of someone who is doing something he hasn’t the legal or moral right to do? How about the fact that his fan base may begin to notice that he’s a massive hypocrite when it finally sinks in that his peers feel that he has repeatedly thumbed his nose at that which he referred to as a “grossly over used [sic] term… CREATOR RIGHTS” on more than one occasion,
A subsequent posting by The Secret Squirrel clarified one of his followers’ posted assumptions by stating, “In my own self-righteous way I will not be badgered into talking about crap,” and in a later posting warned his message board users to “get ready for some changes. And some won’t like it.” Messages from a poster on the Comicon message boards indicate that some users (evidently his critics) have since been banned.
McFarlane seems to think his position on things legal is legitimized when he further observed “you should not once again show [your] ignorance by stating things that are of the legal world.” Which, somewhere within that statement, is the notion that casual observers don’t know the legalities surrounding the dispute and are therefore in no position to comment. True, but then again, a brief layman encapsulation of said legalities can be touched upon without sacrificing plausible deniability. Secret Squirrel closed by noting, “with or without my voicing anything out loud still means that there are some percptions [sic] that may not be completely accurate”.
McFarlane’s dealings with Gaiman shine a big spotlight on his own capacity for hypocrisy regarding creator’s rights, particularly in light of the fact that he is often been held up as an example of the benefits of creator ownership. When one considers the original concept of the ownership of Miracleman was, according to Gaiman “to hand it down, like a legacy,” the irony of a creators rights symbol like McFarlane denying Gaiman and Buckingham their rights as co-owners of Miracleman is not lost on an industry observer. “When we left we planned to hand over our ownership to the writer-artist team that followed,” Gaiman lamented. McFarlane evidently feels that although he has absolutely no creative ties to Miracleman, and a full one-third of the characters’ ownership does not belong to him, it is still his right to do with the character as his whim pleases. The fact that he would disrespect the legacy of a historic, ground-breaking character like Miracleman by having him appear where he doesn’t belong against the wishes of a co-owner with more creative ties to the character than himself is a staggering display of arrogance and complete disrespect for both creators rights and comics history. It seems Gaiman may have been on to something when he once said “Todd is really big on creator’s rights as long as the creator in question is Todd McFarlane”.
Recently, as the one-time “wanna-be” ballplayer fielded softballs in an interview posted on the Comic Book Resources website, McFarlane, in his trademark arrogance addressed the Miracleman debacle, stating matter-of-factly that he owns Miracleman “until someone proves otherwise” and would be publishing a Miracleman appearance in Hellspawn. McFarlane went on to say, “If somebody feels as strong about Miracleman as I do, then I invite them to take as hard a stance as I will. If somebody steps that way, then we'll let somebody else decide which of us is right. Maybe neither of us will be. Maybe [we] both partially will be. Who knows? Until any of that happens, then I take the position that I own Miracleman.”
Translation: I bought and own Miracleman, and I will sue anyone who says different. You are just a writer and I’m a man with the wallet to break you for sport over something I haven’t any personal ties to and see merely as a commodity to be exploited.
Evidently McFarlane hasn’t grown up much since his day in the Elysian Fields. His insolent stance conjures the image of the playground bully, holding the possession of a smaller child above his head where the kid cannot reach. He does not care about the possession itself, it’s significance to those with closer ties to it, or what is the moral and just thing to do --just the humiliation of its owner who wants it in proper hands that will care for it. One could conclude that a lawsuit filed by Gaiman and Buckingham upon the publication of Miracleman in Hellspawn is the logical recourse for the claimants of one-third of Miracleman’s ownership. Why don’t the two of them just play at McFarlane’s farm-league level, find him at a Con, haul him into the little boys room and give him a good old-fashioned swirlee?
And how will McFarlane explain away Gaiman’s claims of having the Miracleman printing film in his basement, which he says McFarlane gave him as an initial step in the full transference of the balance of the Miracleman rights as compensation for past Angela royalties he didn’t share in? Sounds as if McFarlane was once on course to doing the right thing – and came up short. Then again doing the right thing would require acting in an adult-like manner instead of a common bully. To act like an adult, one has learn to swallow pride, assess what’s right and at least metaphorically possess that which thus far two home-run sluggers, scrappy fans (including a research scientist) and millions of dollars have thus far been unable to provide…a real set of balls.
It appears as if, in his world, the injustices of the industry’s past he’s believed by his fans to be such a rebel against, were merely a primer on how to conduct current business. In addition to this appalling display of disregarding other creators’ rights, McFarlane seems to hold little respect in reserve for his fellow writers. In their “debate” at the 1993 Comicfest, Peter David chided Todd McFarlane for having once told the Comics Journal, “I didn’t let some little thing like not being able to write stop me.” This statement can either be interpreted as the “damn-the-torpedoes” statement of a maverick, or an arrogant and ignorant disrespect of the necessity of a solid wordsmith to create good comics.
The former interpretation is reliant upon believing McFarlane’s (in retrospect, empty) bluster shortly after the formation of Image when he was selling himself as a champion of creators’ rights in the debate, interviews in Wizard: The Guide to Comics and in the now-defunct Hero Illustrated. Even going so far as wearing boxing trunks and being backed by Image-contracted Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders when he and Peter David took their opposing podiums. Maybe at the time he was possessed of one of the “ghost personas” he rambled about during the course of their debate.
As for the latter interpretation …keep reading.
Brian Michael Bendis left the writing chores on TMP’s Sam & Twitch for seemingly political reasons - rumored to be the result of his increasing amount of high-profile freelance work for Marvel and little to do with the quality of work Bendis was producing on the TMP monthly. TMP didn’t have much comment on the matter at the time other than printing “Brian Michael Bendis is leaving Sam & Twitch,” and that he would be “pursuing other interests and we wish him well,” in the letters page of S&T #18. Bendis has not commented on the matter other than having been quoted as saying he was “canned.”
An additional dustup had also ensued over Bendis’ scripts being rewritten (something he has publicly stated he will not tolerate) for issue #’s 6 and 7 of Hellspawn. Addressing the fallout, Bendis, in a very telling manner, closed with, “and like so many, many others before me, my TMP days are officially done”. In the CBR interview with Michael David Thomas, McFarlane conceded that they “agreed to disagree” over their differences while lauding Bendis’ abilities and product. He went on to say that he and Bendis are still in contact regarding the TMP dealings with the movie adaptation based of Bendis’ original graphic novel Torso. When reflecting on their creative parting of ways McFarlane was quoted as saying that “we'll live past that moment and go on to do things in the future.” Whether they will do them together, he did not say.
By acting as though quality writers (in this case, debatably, the hottest writer in the industry) are little more than a grudging necessity, Todd McFarlane has, (all compliments to Bendis paid after the fact aside) through his popularity and hubris, lent to the notion among the comic book audience that writers need artists, not vice versa. To him they’re interchangeable. In comics and on the schoolyard, actions speak louder than words, right? Who needs the hottest writer in comics? Why not just write the comic himself, balls to the wall. It worked on Spawn, didn’t it? All the fans need to see is TM’s name next to the writers’ credit and sales won’t drop, right? Wherever he goes, so goes his fans.
“Being with Todd for over 8 years,” Beau Smith spartanly proclaimed in a recent press release for Sam & Twitch #20, which noted McFarlane’s return to Spawnverse full-time writing chores, “I’ve seen him grow as a writer. Not even I thought he would ever reach this kind of level. His sense of pacing and dialogue has reached the same high quality that he gave us with his artwork in its prime.”
That is what is politely referred to as a “stretch”. More like spin?
Granted, whether you liked his style or not, McFarlane’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man and adjectiveless Spider-Man for Marvel are considered by many of that generation to be the definitive visual interpretation of the character.
Saying his writing on Spider-Man was erratically ill-paced, unfocused and lacking coherent characterization is charitable at best. Had his name not been Todd McFarlane “the artist”, doubtless he would not have been writing the Adventures of Small-Press Lad (unless he owned the publisher) much less a flagship Marvel title. A reading of Sam & Twitch #20 indicates to this critic little growth in McFarlane’s grasp of characterization and pacing. The issue once again exposes the tin ear he possesses for dialogue, a lack of cohesive structure and an assumption that one cares about his opinion of NBA salary regulations --demonstrating that he’s nowhere in Bendis’ league (or Bob Costas’s for that matter).
More recently McFarlane showed little interest (much less class) in his response to Marvel EIC Joe Quesada’s proposal of a Spider-Man/Spawn crossover joint publishing venture, which besides making oodles of cash for both publishers, would ultimately benefit a good cause. Suggesting they each draw and publish a Spider-Man/Spawn one-shot (offering an initial joking $1,000.00 up front to teasingly entice McFarlane into penciling again), Quesada hyperbolically reasoned such an event would excite fans, sell a truck-load of books and maybe even gather some sorely needed mainstream press for the medium that helped launch Todd McFarlane on the path to his success. Quesada further upped the guilt ante by promising to donate both $10,000.00 of personal profits and half the art from his own Spider-Man/Spawn efforts to the ACTOR fund for disenfranchised, retired comic creators.
In a response to Quesada’s pleas originally posted on the Spawn website message boards, McFarlane could not have come across as less interested if he’d tried, placing blame primarily on Marvel’s past ownerships’ business decisions for the current comics market malaise and by extension, his current inaction. Backhandedly referring to Quesada as “some Marvel employee” and saying he “will do what I deem to be important after talking it over with my company and my fans,” McFarlane more or less dismissed the idea without even addressing its ACTOR aspects. In the CBR interview, McFarlane recalled that he and Quesada “had a different perspective on it. So we do this and it works, everybody’s happy for 30 days and the next month comes along and then what? So what? We did a temporary stopgap. Big deal! Just because you can do that doesn’t mean you should.” He also admitted in the CBR interview that Quesada’s perspective was “equally valid” and that “maybe the comic book business needs to come out with a couple of these things. Come out with Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men and then Frank Miller does Dark Knight and you do this crossover. Maybe just doing one after another… Maybe looking at each one individually, they don't mean anything, but you run them all together and there's some momentum there. Not bad, a pretty good comeback.”
The fans have spoken. Online web-polls overwhelmingly indicate fans of his work want to see him draw again. Although it is curious to note that many insist it be on his terms (better make sure McFarlane has HIS creator’s rights). It is highly unlikely anyone at his company would advise against making the profit such a publication would undoubtedly generate. So what real excuse has he for not participating? He’s probably a busy guy. The rumored relocation of his employees to where he lives must be a real pain –for the employees anyway.
So what gives?
Why is it that despite his loutish behavior and treatment of other creators, his army of fans stays adamant in their admiration of the man they call “Todd” --as if he would pal around with them and share a beer after one of his increasingly rare convention signings? Is it because TMP puts out such slick comics and toys and that he’s such a corporate rebel? Or is it the same mentality usually reserved for felonious jocks that causes one to ignore their childish, boorish and often brutal behavior because they help fans win bragging rights and feed the fans’ adolescent yahoo mentality? Then again, as McFarlane himself once told the Calgary Sun “It’s OK if they’re loyal to a character. They’re the ones who put money in your pocket.”
One wonders if he really doesn’t find it to be any more complicated than that …or personal for that matter. What a character!
There is no one person more in a position in the industry to help out the CBLDF, ACTOR or a like cause and comics culture than Todd McFarlane. He has the autonomy, power, outlet and mouth to publish, market or speak to a large audience of the needs, cause and wonders of comics and related media and possibly make a difference. If he can print a full-page add in his comics for his vanity baseball collection’s ALS Association charity tour, one would think a column by TM himself rallying the troops for, oh, say, COMICS, it’s future and the honoring of its past printed in each of his publications letters page or as a half-page ad, or maybe even in the baseball tour literature, would not be too much of a financial burden. The contributions he could make to ACTOR, comics culture and its legacy via ads in comics and on his website and blurbs on toy packaging, animation tape and movie credit scrolls alone could make a difference aside from any check he could cut.
Probing the cult of Todd McFarlane is a labyrinthine yet simple journey within the reach of Spawn’s chains to his convention booths and the TMP website message boards where the cries of “leave Todd alone” that met Quesada’s pleas still echo. Fanboys follow McFarlane lemming-like, reaching for the comfort the Spawnverse provides. His cold inarticulate toys and comics are the chains that bind their loyalty to him –to his creativity. His accountability is evidently beyond the reach of their grasp. However, if they took time to notice the absence of warm, tactful and tactile contact with the fans and creators he exploits but appears to feel he owes nothing to - evident in both his actions and inaction — his appalling lack of respect for comics' history, its creators and its culture might become blindingly apparent. Maybe only among similar-minded fans and within the Spawnverse, McFarlane’s minions feel at home, bound, shivering, but seemingly safe within the cold comforts their hero will continue to furnish them, provided they ignore his effrontery to anything outside of his own best interests.
They seem, however, destined to only feel the chilling embrace of Todd’s chains and not the enchanted cloth they seek. For not unlike the naked king of a fable of old …their hero has no cape.
Copyright 2001 Mark A. Bittmann
[Source's of the quotes used above follow:]
TM analyzes himself in "third person": Page 1, paragraph 7.
Rich Johnstons All The Rage column reference: Page 2, paragraph 5. Also serves as reference for Miracleman dealings: Paragraph .
Bissette's story: Page 2, paragraphs 6, 7 & 8.
Gaiman comments from the engaged.well.com website: Page 3, paragraph 1.
Gaiman quote: "Astonishingly cavalier attitude...": Page 3, paragraph 1.
McFarlane quote: "I have found over the years...": Page 3, paragraph 1.
McFarlane quote: "PERHAPS, just perhaps".: Page 3, paragraph 1.
McFarlane quote: "Creator rights is a grossly over used [sic] term".: Page 3, paragraph 2.
McFarlane quote: "I won't be badgered.": Page 3, paragraph 3.
McFarlane quote: "Get ready for some changes". Page 3, paragraph 3.
McFarlane Quote: "With or without voicing anything.": Page 3, paragraph 4.
Gaiman quote: "To hand it down like a legacy": Page 3, paragraph 5.
Gaiman quote: "Todd is really big on creator's rights as long as the creator in question is Todd McFarlane": Page 4, Paragraph 1.
McFarlane fields softballs: Page 4, paragraph 2.
McFarlane quote: "I never let a little thing like..." Page 5, paragaph 1. From The Comics Journal Issue #152.
Bendis quote that he was "canned": Page 5, Paragraph 4.
Bendis quote that "Like so many, many others before me...": Page 5, paragraph 6.
CBR interview McFarlane quotes: Page 5, paragraph 6.
Beau Smith quote "Being with Todd for over 8 years...": Page 6, paragraph 2.
Quesada & TM exchange: Page 6, paragraphs 6 & 7.
CBR interview McFarlane quotes Page 7, paragraph 1.
TM quote: "It's OK if they're loyal to a character. They're the ones who put money in your pocket": Page 7, paragraph 4.
CBLDF link: Page 7, paragraph 6.
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