Calgary-born comic and toy entrepreneur Todd McFarlane holds one of his home-run-record baseballs. (Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press)
Artist spawns a web of influence
Todd McFarlane is huge in comic book and toy circles, but not often recognized as a Canadian entrepreneurial success story
Last Updated Dec. 24, 2007
Only Todd McFarlane could imagine Santa's wife as a stripper.
"One of the coldest places on Earth is getting hotter," reads the promotional material for the Mrs. Claus action figure in McFarlane's latest "Twisted Christmas" line of toys. Decked out in a red bikini, garter belt, black leather boots and a Santa hat, Mrs. Claus hangs off a candy-cane-shaped pole in a stripper-like pose.
The Mrs. Claus action figure in McFarlane's latest "Twisted Christmas" line of toys.
"Mrs. C finds a new way to work the North Pole — just doing what she can to keep Santa happy," the blurb says.
It's the kind of shocking camp that has made Calgary-born McFarlane a millionaire, not to mention an influential and sought-after comic book artist, toy designer and television/movie producer.
The 46-year-old operates a trifecta of companies — McFarlane Toys, comic publisher Todd McFarlane Productions, and entertainment production house Todd McFarlane Entertainment — out of his offices in Tempe, Ariz. The privately-held firms have won scores of awards for their work, but many people in financial circles still don't know McFarlane as a Canadian entrepreneurial success story.
If you ask McFarlane, that's just fine.
"I'm an artist who's learned a second language, and the second language is called business," he says. "I'd rather be drawing all day … it's just part of the gig."
McFarlane did, however, learn his business chops the hard way, starting out as the proverbial starving artist. He was born in Calgary and spent much of his childhood in southern California. He returned to Calgary at the age of 14 and attended William Aberhart high school, then went to Eastern Washington University on a baseball scholarship, where he studied graphic art.
After a career-ending ankle injury in his junior year, McFarlane focused on drawing and worked in a comic book store to make his way through college.
After hundreds of submissions and subsequent rejection letters, he got his break in 1984. Industry leader Marvel Comics gave him a job penciling a short back-up story in its Coyote title.
From there, McFarlane built his portfolio with gigs on The Incredible Hulk and several titles from Marvel's main rival, DC Comics. His breakthrough came when Marvel gave him the regular penciling job in 1988 on its signature title, what was then the under-performing Amazing Spider-Man . McFarlane was told to do "whatever he had to do" to bring sales of the title back up.
"The comic book was stagnant because it was too ordinary, so I said let's put the spider back into this guy," he says.
McFarlane took the character in a different direction, drawing him in impossibly contorted positions, with giant bug eyes and heavily detailed, swirling webs. Women characters, who in comic books have traditionally been sexed up, became even more busty and scantily clad.
Amazing Spider-Man rocketed to No. 1 and a host of artists began emulating McFarlane's larger-than-life style. Marvel eventually created a spin-off, simply titled Spider-Man, for him to write and draw — the first issue of which, with 2.5 million copies sold, is one of the best-selling comics of all time.
Among comic book fans, McFarlane had become somewhat of a rock star. But with the success came changes. McFarlane says Marvel started censoring his work, complaining that it was too racy and violent.
In 1991, McFarlane and six other artists who were fed up with creative conflicts and the fact that they didn't own the characters they were drawing, quit Marvel to form their own company, Image Comics.
McFarlane launched the seriesSpawn, based on the demonic anti-hero character he had created in high school. It, too, was a success and helped Image establish itself as the third-largest comic company, as well as an influential force in the industry.
"Some of his contributions shook up the comic industry, like breaking sales records for independent comics," says Ajax, Ont.-based comic book artist Valentine DeLandro, who currently draws comics for Marvel. "He and the other guys who left to form Image pulled a readership on their names alone. Before Todd, there were a couple of creators that you may have followed from title to title. But people were picking up Todd's books because his name was on the cover and his art was on the pages."
Moving beyond the page
McFarlane set up shop in Arizona, both to escape high Canadian taxes and so he could enjoy his lifelong passion — playing baseball — year round.
After turning down licensing offers for Spawn from major toy companies, McFarlane struck out on his own once more in 1994. The issue again was creative freedom — he couldn't understand why toys, particularly action figures, were so stolid.
"I wondered, 'How come they're not sculpting that stuff cooler?'" he says. "There's no answer. It's just clay, and clay will do whatever you tell it to do. God bless 'em for missing the obvious from time to time, because it allows me to run a business in that space."
McFarlane Toys took off as well, expanding into licenses that large manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel had not touched. He inked deals with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, movie companies and musicians, resulting in a diverse product range that included action figures based on everyone from Wayne Gretzky to Freddy Kruger to Alice Cooper.
Toy industry analysts credit McFarlane with expanding the market beyond just children by creating a segment of what are essentially mini-sculptures, which have proven popular with young adults and collectors. Other toy makers have had no choice but to follow his lead in making their products more detailed.
"They're not the biggest toy company around, but they're hugely influential," says independent toy analyst Chris Byrne. "They are the gold standard when it comes to detail."
McFarlane moved Spawn into movies and television as well, with a high-grossing 1997 film and Emmy-award-winning HBO animated series. He also created music videos for grunge rockers Pearl Jam and heavy metal outfit Korn, which won him a Grammy.
Facing the critics
He has had his share of critics, however.
Some fans criticized McFarlane's comic book work for over-emphasizing the art at the expense of the writing. He has also been a frequent target of groups opposed to violence in entertainment.
McFarlane is staunch in his anti-censorship stance and says market forces eventually win out when it comes to deciding whether something is of quality, or whether it is too violent.
"If people don't like it, they can stop buying it. The proof is in the end sales," he says.
McFarlane has also used his success to dabble in his passion for sports. In auctions, he has bought record-breaking home-run balls from Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, and in 1998 he joined the Edmonton Investors Group to gain a small stake in the Oilers NHL team. In 2001, he designed the Oilers' third jersey.
McFarlane is as stubborn in running his businesses as he is in his opposition to censorship, and is steadfastly against ever taking his companies public. He says Marvel's initial public offering in 1991 was part of the reason for the comic book industry's deep swoon in the mid-90s. The need to satisfy the desires of its shareholders, who were constantly hungering for higher profits, resulted in Marvel flooding the market with low-quality products that turned many fans off. The company operates in direct contrast to the creative principles it needs to survive, and its publishing business has consequently still not recovered, McFarlane says.
"My public buddies rue the day they went public because they just can't do what made them successful," he says.
McFarlane won't reveal how much revenue his companies pull in, but says it's more than enough to keep growing. After all, shareholders of a public company would never have gone for Santa's wife as a stripper.
"I'm usually fairly happy if I can get to a break-even proposition, because then I get to do another year of business and not have anyone tell me how to do it," he says. "If I ever go public it's because I'm getting out."