Jab’s Deep Dive: Image Comics (part 3)

-Todd McFarlane remains the most famous and possibly most successful of the Image creators, though isn’t the most notorious. Born in Calgary, Alberta, and washing out of baseball, he got his start in comics with DC’s Infinity, Inc., where I remember Roy Thomas declaring in an editorial, “Todd McFarlane- remember that name”. His style was more typical of the era, lacking many of his later creative traits, though you could see him getting a little bit wilder. He worked for a year on The Incredible Hulk, drawing a more wrinkled, monstrous take on the character, but really became a sensation with his work on The Amazing Spider-Man, however- he was the first artist to draw the complete appearance for Venom, who was the biggest new character in ages- this turned Todd into a star, and he gained more and more power.

Todd’s version of Spider-Man was drawn in wilder poses than ever before, the artist theorizing that someone with superhuman agility need not be bound by what a normal human could do. Traditionalists hated the distinctive way in which he drew Spider-Man’s webs (long spaghetti-strings covered in extra bits), but he soon began being a guy to put his visual “stamp” on every character. Spidey in particular had the eyes on his costume nearly double in size. His fame grew to the point where issues would sell simply because he would draw a second-rate villain for the first time- even losers like The Scorpion got a creative once-over, as Todd would leave the costumes intact, but give them enough wild poses and creative flare to make them stand out.

Todd, of course, had his critics- his sense of composition was to fill every square inch of the panel with stuff, using detail to obscure a lack of clarity or storytelling. But it was FLASHY- it was clear Todd knew what he was doing, and not simply “faking it” like say, Rob Liefeld was. Todd’s power grew to the point where he demanded to write his own stories- the canny Marvel Editors decided to create a spin-off title just for him, called Spider-Man. This issue sold 2.5 million copies, proving Todd’s selling power, though the stories he wrote were a bit… iffy. The one about him & Wolverine hunting a pedophile in Canada was largely an excuse to draw Wolvie & Wendigo in bad-ass poses and stretch a story over several issues. One where Morbius resides in the sewers with a bunch of deformed hobos was a combination of Edgelord badassery and some dreadful “WOE IS ME!” writing for the vampiric villain.

Generally speaking, Todd’s art was beloved, while his stories were DEFINITELY not- it’s pretty pretentious at best, and a bit overly grim at worst- particularly for a Spider-Man book. Marvel’s editors were extremely annoyed with Todd’s actions, and would constantly fight over various things, like insistence on using certain villains, some of the subject matter in the books, and more. Todd’s final Spider-Man book featured the Juggernaut being stabbed through the eye with a sword- Editor-In-Chief Tom DeFalco supported editing it, which Todd felt to be “lunacy”. Eventually, it came to a head and Todd helped lead several other artists out of Marvel to form Image Comics.

McFarlane’s signature work at Image, of course, was Spawn, taking a character he’d created in his teens and turning him into this spooky, grim, alley-dwelling hellspawn who had to fight angels and demons alike while moaning about his lot in life. The criticism of his writing got to him, leading Todd to hire others to write his stories- he’d largely step aside later on. By the twenty-fifth issue, Todd himself would leave the ART chores to others, as Greg Capullo was hired away from Marvel’s X-Force and turned into the main artist, copying Todd’s art style completely (an act made easier by Todd inking the next 45 issues). In 1993, Spawn was the best-selling comic on the market, while Todd himself became the public face of the company, for better or worse. Known for his adversarial nature and quick response to criticisms, he’d have very public debates with Peter David (the biggest critic of the “Image Style”) and others, and would publicly give Rob Liefeld the boot from Image later on. The worst, however, was a VERY ugly public dispute with Neil Gaiman, with Todd more or less pulling a “Marvel” and taking Neil’s character creations and making money off of them- this arguably made Todd look worse than anything- something only exacerbated by Neil winning a lawsuit in 2012 over the character rights.

Todd tried to turn Spawn into a media empire in the 1990s, earning both a movie and a TV series, though neither did particularly well- his attempts to make Spawn a household name did not succeed, but given that Spawn is the longest-running independent comic of all time, he did SOMETHING right. The series was used to launch a line called “McFarlane Toys”, as Todd used his hyper-detailed, wild style to design a ton of very popular action figures (fifth in the United States), as well as branching into real likenesses for sports figures. Spawn himself would receive a ton of spin-off books, though McFarlane didn’t “franchise” into comics the way the others did- he was more a multimedia type of guy. He directed music videos (like Korn’s Freak on a Leash and Pearl Jam’s Do The Evolution) and even drew attention for buying baseball players’ big-time home run balls (including Mark McGwire’s famous record-breaker).

Todd is largely… notorious. Not shy to give his opinions, and rather openly a chaser of both money and power, his creative quirks are now as parodied as they are beloved- his Spider-Man writing did not truly stand the test of time, and the art is dated to the ’90s, though I personally don’t find it hard to look at. He’s become more iconic for the “Grim ‘n’ Gritty Era”, known for gruesome, occasionally puerile comics- when Todd was co-owner of the Edmonton Oilers, he redesigned their “third jersey” logo into some weird thing, and my University newspaper parodied him by drawing the U’s mascots in his style- the Pandas mascot was this huge-breasted, gun-toting bad-ass. I mean, his “style” was associated with this by the 2000s. Like, Todd’s almost as famous for being an asshole as he is for being a comic book creator.

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