Todd McFarlane
McFarlane walking through the audience as he leads the McFarlane Toys’ panel at New York Comic Con

Walking the floor of New York Comic Con each year is a group of people that has to be one of the most interesting, passionate groups of people in the world. They flock to their favorite artists, actors, show creators, writers, and storm the booths of those with collector’s items that they just have to have. With metallic Sharpies outstretched, they long to turn their $100 action figure into a collector’s item worth more than 10 times that amount with a simple, permanently inked signature from these great talents.

The king who walks among them is one Mr. Todd McFarlane—comic book extraordinaire, toy company founder, Venom creator, semi-pro baseball player, butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Okay, while those last three may not be accurate (but I’m not positive; we didn’t get into the nitty gritty of his personal hobbies), McFarlane is the man at Comic Con that can seemingly do it all. Even though his incredibly vast fan base is more than thrilled to meet this living legend, queuing up in a line that snakes around the McFarlane Toys booth and the surrounding area, he himself does not see himself as the star of the show.

“At this point in my career, it’s more of getting them to see the reaction to the new products,” McFarlane says about why he attends events such as New York Comic Con. “It’s a given that nobody is going to stand in line for a long time to say something nasty … so in all honesty, it’s a bit of a false positive.”

Although he is, of course, flattered by the fans’ compliments—and trust me, they had plenty of them—what’s really important to him is how they are reacting to the product that filled up the McFarlane Toys booth; most importantly, the new line of building sets that are based on AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead.

“I don’t worry about this, although I’m glad he’s here,” McFarlane says, gesturing at the fan standing in front of us at his autographing table in Booth 1528. “God bless him—because if there’s no one here, it’d be a bigger problem—but it’s more of when we roll out the new [products], me seeing how they react and how they engage in it.”

Ever humble, it’s not quite clear whether McFarlane is really aware of the brevity his presence holds among his adoring fans. As I sat next to him at his table, he took the time to talk to each and every fan, sign something, and then take a picture. He talked about everything from the New York Mets to him and another fan piecing together the circumstances under which they met 20 years ago. And while they all inundated him with personal compliments about his work, he never really took full credit.

“Thank you,” he responds to one fan, who compliments his new work on The Walking Dead line of building sets. “I have good people that work for me that make me look good. I feel like I’m the Queen of England: They do all the work; I just come out and wave and go back in.”

However, we all know that’s not true.

Who Says We Can’t Have Toys, Too?

McFarlane.WalkingDeadBuilding
one of McFarlane Toys’ building sets from the new line based on AMC’s The Walking Dead (Yep, that’s made out of building bricks.)

For the past 20 years, McFarlane’s brain has been spouting out ideas—everything from the Spawn comics to the action figures that are sculpted with so much detail, it’s hard to believe they aren’t statues. McFarlane often recounts a tale of himself walking into a toy store and being disappointed that there aren’t any products for kids and adults over the age of 12.

“Our toys are now cars and video games and cell phones—they’re just all more sophisticated toys,” he says. “But I still say: Why can’t you sell an action figure to a 25-year-old? And the answer is: you can—you just have to put it in the shape of Predator. The content has to shift.”

And that’s exactly what McFarlane does. He takes note of what his key demographic is watching, doing, playing, and picks up the licenses that match these patterns: Halo, Assassin’s Creed, and, of course, The Walking Dead. In a panel later that day, McFarlane let us all in on his secret for scooping up the license to the most watched cable TV drama series in history.

“If you’re going to go into business for yourself, make sure one of your best friends is called ‘dumb luck’…,” he starts off. “How did I get The Walking Dead? I don’t know—someone had to invent it. Who invented it? Robert Kirkman. Who’s Robert Kirkman? My partner at Image Comics. It was easy… What are the chances of the biggest historical cable TV show being created by my dumb comic book partner?”

He then goes on to describe his friendship with Kirkman—two men who just believe they are “pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes,” who would rather talk about comic books for hours than attend glamorous parties thrown in their honor. Underneath it all—and by all I mean the praise, awards, success, etc.—McFarlane just genuinely believes that all he’s doing when creating these action figures is doing it the right way.

“I get this odd question all the time,” he announces to his attentive audience during the panel. “They go: ‘Wow, Mr. McFarlane, you do all this cool stuff. How do you make it look so much like the people that you’re making them of?’ And it’s been the same answer for 20 years: I use this new technology—some of you may not be able to afford it or have seen it—it’s called a camera,” he pauses while the audience laughs.

“You get a picture and then you sculpt it like the damn picture … The question shouldn’t be ‘How did you make it look like Derek Jeter?’ The question should be: ‘How did the other companies not?’

And don’t get me wrong, McFarlane respects the billion-dollar business models of those toy companies that are appealing to an audience under the age of 12. But he also appreciates the opening it leaves for people like him who are wondering, why can’t you create toys for people once they are over the age of 15, 20, or 30 years old?

“They just choose not to go there,” he says. “And God bless ’em because it gives me a crack.”

The Spawn of a New Era

Spawn
Al Simmons, the original Spawn, is back in Issue No. 250.

For those of you who are Spawn comic fans, McFarlane and his new writer/artist team of Brian Wood and Jonboy Meyers are gearing up for Issue No. 250. (Side note: If you don’t know Jonboy’s work—Google him. It’s outstanding.) In addition to Spawn going digital in January, the original Spawn, Al Simmons, will return in Issue No. 250, and he’s coming back with a whole new attitude.

“He’s done being passive and being hassled—kind of like me as a Canadian,” explains McFarlane.

Once Al returns in Issue No. 250, the next month the team will introduce a new book Spawn Resurrection No. 1 for all those fans who are waiting impatiently for a No. 1 issue. However, after that, they’ll head right back to No. 251. Why? Because McFarlane says so.

“I’m a dinosaur. I will not [go to issue No. 1 with Spawn] for a couple reasons. One being that I have spent 20 years of my life to get to that number, do you know how long it takes to get to 250?… I’m not going to throw it away to get a No. 1,” he explains. “Marvel and DC have decided to throw away all their big numbers. I did not see that as a detriment, but as a badge of honor. If they decide to make my book the highest numbered book in this country, I would take that.”

McFarlane is a busy man—one of his tasks being a good husband (“I’m a Wanda man”) and father to his family, read: coaching baseball teams—so Wood and Meyers will be taking over the Spawn comic books. The passionate McFarlane is, of course, approving all art and storylines, but is handing over the reigns to “young kids” with “more energy.”

“I do not want status quo. I do not want them regurgitating my own artwork and my own stories at me because I might as well do it myself. I have given these guys complete freedom,” says McFarlane.

And the responsibility of that freedom was not lost on Wood and Meyers, who also attended the panel. Both members of this new dynamic duo were thrilled to jump on the opportunity to create the next wave of Spawn books.

When asked why he took the job, Wood responded, “I have nothing but the ultimate respect for Todd and his book and this world that he’s built,” but also added in that he’ll be bringing his own strengths to the storyline as well, including a New York City focus that the story hasn’t had before. Wood stressed that he wanted to add a real-world relevance as well as a “sense of the now” to the story as well.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say … Well, It Depends on Who You Are

Even though McFarlane is well-loved and revered at Comic Con, everyone in the world is not a McFarlane fan, and the criticism of his toys will roll in. Since he respects his fans’ undying loyalty, he takes a lot of what they say to heart, but he also knows his audience. If a fan who has constantly supported him over the years becomes suddenly disenchanted with his work, well that’s something he has to take the time to look into.

“The criticism I pay zero attention to is the person that I never, ever intended to sell product to who continues to not buy my product, given that they never did,” he says. “So, for instance, that conservative mom in the Midwest that thinks I do stuff that’s too violent? She never bought it, she never supported it, and her way to punish me is to continue to not buy what was never bought before. She has no power.”

In fact, while most toy companies focus on the parent and other gift givers as their main consumer demographic, McFarlane knows that’s not where his audience lies. He shared with me that he sells 97 percent of his product to people who are 14 and older, giving him a bit of a challenge, in his opinion, and a tougher audience to please.

“I can’t BS them visually. It has to actually be what it is, what it’s supposed to represent, because they’re buying it for themselves. I think moms, when they’re buying a lot of toys, are buying logos … and they don’t care about how good the art is.”

Which, most of the time, is probably true. As long as a Superman action figure meets the checklist of what it takes to look like Superman—red boots, red cape, big ol’ Superman S on his chest, Christopher Reeve-looking demeanor—then it’ll probably satisfy the 6-year-old that Mom and Dad are buying for. However, they do not satisfy McFarlane or the majority of his consumer base. And McFarlane won’t slow down: He hinted at the panel that he’ll never stop asking “Why can’t this be better?” He’ll continue to work to even improve his own lines, so that the current figures that you see in The Walking Dead building sets will be, in his own words, laughable in two years.

When I asked him why such excruciating detail was so important to him when creating toys, he matter-of-factly replied:

“I live in a world where the art matters, and so I have to get it right.”