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Action Hero

How Valley artist Todd McFarlane turned his geeky comic book hobby

 by Gabriel Trujillo
 published on Thursday, August 25, 2005

/issues/arts/693528
ON THE COVER
 
McFarlane creates a world of outrageous characters, like the bird warrior pictured here, with his line of action figures and collectable toys. His figures are available to the public at his Tempe store./issues/arts/693528
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
McFarlane creates a world of outrageous characters, like the bird warrior pictured here, with his line of action figures and collectable toys. His figures are available to the public at his Tempe store.
 

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They're Action Figures, not Toys

Grasping a straw basket of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, Little Red Riding Hood sets off into the forest to visit her grandmother.

But this isn't your parents Red Riding Hood.

Dressed in a long, red leather cape and black, thigh-high boots, the masked woman smirks as she takes on the Big Bad Wolf. When he makes a pass at this savory Red Riding Hood she attacks from behind and sends him back into the woods, tail between his legs.

This more "grown up" Riding Hood is just one of the many action figure creations spawned by Valley comic book artist Todd McFarlane.

From Paper to Plastic

While Red Riding Hood is one of McFarlane's newest figure creations, his most notable character is Spawn - a United States government assassin turned Hellspawn, who lurks through dark New York City alleyways trying to decide between saving the people on Earth or ruling hell.

"The Spawn comic book character doesn't fit in the same action figure formula as Barney or Disney," McFarlane says "I didn't get a sense that the other toy companies really understood what 'Spawn' was, so I decided to just make my own."

McFarlane, 44, began his career at Marvel Comics in March 1984. After penciling for Marvel titles such as "The Incredible Hulk" and "Spider-Man," McFarlane left to create "Spawn" with fellow artists at Image Comics.

The first issue of "Spawn" hit shelves in May of 1992 and sold more than 1.7 million copies, making it the best-selling independent comic book to date.

"Once the character was established, I felt that I had to build a strong foundation for the Spawn brand name," McFarlane says "To build a strong foundation you need four pillars. In the comic book industry, those pillars are television, video games, movies and toys or ancillary products. If you have a good foundation and pillars, you'd be surprised what you can build. You could even build skyscrapers"

From the looks of his Tempe headquarters, McFarlane's independent toy company is well on its way to skyscraper status. Evidence of McFarlane's growing foundation is all around the room.

An entire wall of McFarlane's action figures, from Sammy Sosa to the Terminator to Spawn himself, greet you as you enter the office. The figures are enough to make any fan salivate, whether he or she is a 12-year-old kid or an adult.

"Many people think that toys are just for kids, but our company's main goal was to create something for adults who are kids at heart," says Al Simmons, McFarlane's best friend and warehouse manager.

Big Boys and Their Toys

Adam Garcia, a 21-year-old graphic design graduate of the Art Institute of Phoenix is proof that there's nothing childish about loving comic books or action figures. He's collected both for 10 years and says he's a huge fan of McFarlane's. He takes monthly trips to McFarlane's year old Tempe store to make sure he never misses a thing.

"I have been reading 'Spawn' comic books since they started and it's cool to see the characters jump off the page and into something three-dimensional," he says.

Garcia is by no means a little child, but he is an avid collector of McFarlane's figures; and the Spawn creator wouldn't want it any other way. Artistically, McFarlane says he wants to target a more adult market.

"Why can't plastic figures appeal to 22-year-olds?" McFarlane asks as he emphatically throws his hands in the air "The answer is they can. It's just subject matter."

The Happiest Place on Earth...For Spawn Fans

To show off his most recent adult-oriented creations, McFarlane opened his own toy store and showroom. More museum than toy store, the room is divided into several sections for each type of figure. It's a comic book fan's dream come true.

A six-foot-tall statue of the Violator, a pale, white demon with menacing horns protruding from his cheeks, greets customers as they step through the doorway. The dimly lit room is full of dioramas featuring displays of the most current figurine line-ups. In one particular display, figures from the movie "Alien vs. Predator" relive the battle scenes between the classic sci-fi monsters.

"He always sheds new light on his characters by making different themes," says Garcia gazing longingly at the comic book memorabilia "You get to see the same character in different time periods and alternate dimensions."

McFarlane opened the store to give his fans like Garcia a peek at the elaborate set-ups normally reserved only for the eyes of industry insiders.

"We aren't selling these products to just retailers, we're selling them to our fans as well," says McFarlane "And I think they should have a chance to see this cool stuff too."

The Business of Having Fun

As much fun as his job is, McFarlane acknowledges that there are duties in this business that are less than sexy.

Before construction of the toys begins, the company must obtain a license to produce them. After the contract is finalized, McFarlane says one of the most difficult parts of the entire process is choosing which pieces to create. For his new line of military figures, choosing which soldiers to create proved to be difficult.

"We knew we wanted to make the soldiers look realistic," says McFarlane.

He jumps out of his chair to mimic the types of poses he wanted to see in his figures.

"We weren't going to just have them stand straight up and stick a gun in their hand."

To achieve the highest authenticity, McFarlane had former employee Dion Bozman, who served in the United States Army, show sculptors the best poses.

"I have to believe that a soldier doesn't do everything by the book when bullets are whizzing by their heads in battle," McFarlane says "That's when survival and preservation instincts kick in and it's at that moment where you will find the best, authentic pose."

Once the line-up is selected, McFarlane views the figures at least five times during each step, from the 3-D scanning of the models to the final package layout.

"I think of Todd as our creative director," says Larry Marder, president of McFarlane Toys. "He is a visionary when it comes to creating unique figures."

Marder says the company's figures are changing how toys are defined, "We tell stories in the types of figures we create."

He calls the technique "snap-shot story telling."

"What makes our figures truly unique is that we work so hard to distill the essence of every character, sports hero or whoever into a distinct pose," says Marder "Everything the fan thinks about that character or person is put into each figure. So, when fans look at what we created, they go, 'Wow, that's my guy.'"

It's because of McFarlane's dedication, hard work and distinctive style that Marder says he joined McFarlane Toys.

"I always say that I am not in the comic business or toy business, I am in the McFarlane business," he says.

The Wide World of Sports... Figures

The McFarlane business is booming. McFarlane Toys has created 27 different series based on the Spawn characters, and has garnered acclaim for it's other series', especially its extremely detailed line of sports and NASCAR figures. The company gained official rights to create figures for all four major league sports - baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Besides his sports series, McFarlane has also found a niche in creating figures based on movies. When films such as "Terminator 3" and "Alien vs. Predator" were released, some toy companies were afraid to produce figures because of their R rating.

But McFarlane didn't back down. His figures have become so popular with the adult audience, that he has developed his own series devoted to notable movie monsters and characters.

With all of the recent success of McFarlane Toys, people in the toy industry are taking notice. Toys 'R Us honored McFarlane Toys with the 2003 Vendor of the Year award. Also, in 2002, the company earned the Best Company Award from Toy Fare magazine for the third straight year.

But in spite of their retail success and critical acclaim, the folks at McFarlane Toys stay most loyal to their fan base -- comic book collectors like themselves. Simmons says they take great pride in making a product that people can share with their friends.

"Todd and I did not know how to run a toy company," Simmons says "We just knew we wanted to make cool toys."

Reach the reporter at Gabriel.Trujillo@asu.edu.



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