Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Hey, it’s Todd McFarlane! Remember him? Probably not if you’re under the age of, like, 25. But for those of us older Millennials and younger members of Generation X, he was the hottest name in comics for nearly a decade.
McFarlane was part of that wave of “superstar artists” along with guys like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee who found more success and fame starting in the late 80’s than any comic book artist ever had before. Unless your name was Stan Lee, whose knack for self-promotion was truly one-of-a-kind, artists usually attracted more attention and fans than writers, and this reached its apex in the 90’s during the Speculator Bubble.
Sure, introductions and deaths of major characters were expected hits, but even the most mundane issue of Secret Origins and The Uncanny X-Men were able to turn a huge profit solely on the name of who was drawing it, and McFarlane was part of that phenomenon. His work on The Amazing Spider-Man in particular cemented him as one of the hottest celebrities in comics, especially his part in drawing the first full appearance of Venom (maybe you’ve heard of him, he had a pretty good 2018), and it wasn’t long before he was treated as a celebrity. Marvel was so desperate to keep him happy that they even allowed him to write a solo Spider-Man title himself… even though his grim and pretentious tone was off-putting even by the standards of 90’s comics, and he frequently missed deadlines. You would never be able to tell that from the sales figures, though — those first fifteen issues of McFarlane’s Spider-Man alone made him a multi-millionaire.
But, as expected with a celebrity who is heralded as the greatest thing since sliced shoulder pads, he felt like all the unprecedented creative control and paychecks and fame he was getting just wasn’t enough for him, so he and a bunch of other superstar artists decided to quit working for The Man (specifically Marvel, who was getting a bad labor reputation at the time) holding them down and start their own publishing company: Image Comics, which found immediate success thanks to the big names attached to their brand, but also ideological support for their mission statement of artistic freedom, creator-owned properties, and artist’s rights; if you created a new character or comic, you automatically owned a part of that character and any revenue the character generates, even if you only created the character in a guest spot on someone else’s book. Before even putting out their first comic, Youngblood #1 in April 1992, Image was already seen as the David to DC and Marvel’s Goliath.
McFarlane’s contribution to the company? Spawn, a former soldier-turned-undead antihero imbued with dark magic powers from Satan himself and no I did not make any of that up. He’s pretty much the most 90’s superhero ever, and despite being an allegorically-loaded black homeless veteran conscripted by the literal Devil against his will, the series itself was mostly shallow posturing and brooding as a substitute for any actually mature thematic content. But it was the best-selling independent comic book of all time (a record I believe it still holds to this day), and was such a hit that it resulted in a feature film adaptation back when superhero movies not starring Batman were still considered risky commercial prospects. We got this a full twenty years before a proper live-action Wonder Woman movie:
Ah, the 90’s… ’twas a sillier time. But even during the height of Spawn‘s popularity, McFarlane was well-aware of his reputation as an, at best, clumsy writer, so in order to correct that and get his flagship character on more solid storytelling grounds, he got top writers Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller to guest-write issues #8-#11. Gaiman’s stint on Spawn #9 introduced mentor Cogliostro, buxom demon-hunter Angela, and Medieval Spawn to the series. In 1996, remembering all those lofty aspirations of respecting creator rights, Gaiman came looking to collect his half of the revenue for creating three of what turned out to be major Spawn supporting characters.
And in one of many signs that Image’s, erm, “image” was not quite as noble or held-to as initially believed, McFarlane insisted that nope, sorry, you were just a hired gun, those characters are owned by me. But before Gaiman went to court, McFarlane was willing to make a deal with him. See, at the time, Gaiman was trying to secure 100% of the rights to a character called “Miracleman,” a superhero originally called “Marvelman” created in 1954 by Mick Anglo to be the U.K.’s answer to Captain Marvel after Fawcett Comics ceased publication of its superhero line as part of a litigation settlement (in case it hasn’t been made clear, yet: the comic book industry’s relationship to intellectual property management is a hot mess). Alan Moore revived the character for Eclipse in the mid-80’s and was his first instance of developing the dark, postmodern deconstruction of superheroes that would define his career before handing the series off to Gaiman. His run was cut short, however, when Eclipse went bankrupt in 1994 and had their assets sold off to, drumroll please… McFarlane.
So a deal was proposed: if Gaiman ceded all ownership claims to Cogliostro, Angela, and Medieval Spawn, McFarlane would agree to sign off his portion of the rights to Miracleman to him. Seems like a simple transaction, right? It’s not like McFarlane was able to do anything with Miracleman anyway since he (allegedly; we’ll get back to that) only owned about 70% of the character, and with a Spawn movie set to come out the next summer starring one of Gaiman’s characters and the scantily-clad Angela being one of the best-selling products from McFarlane’s burgeoning toy company, it would seem to be a win-win to just hand over Miracleman to get Gaiman off his back, right?
Except McFarlane suddenly withdrew all offers, claimed to own all rights to Miracleman, Gaiman having no claim to any of the characters he created in Spawn #9, and publicly announcing plans to introduce Miracleman into the Spawn universe, kicking off a protracted legal battle involving several lawsuits hashed out over the course of fifteen years. The rest of the story gets really convoluted involving complex legalese hashed out over many years, but the short version is that McFarlane lost most of the cases and appeals, managing to burn every single bridge along the way while Gaiman received the moral support of most of his contemporaries in the industry and eventual financial backing from Marvel Comics, who wanted to be the ones to publish Gaiman’s conclusion to his Miracleman saga and formed an LLC called “Marvels and Miracles” to help him accomplish this. But despite being given a few opportunities to have the court enforce their original 1997 character-swap agreement, Gaiman never took it, opting instead for financial settlements and his cut of the new Spawn #9 characters, including his portion of blatant ripoff characters McFarlane created to try to circumvent Gaiman’s claims to the original ones.
Why? As Gaiman himself detailed on his personal blog, during the discovery process of the lawsuit, he and his lawyers finally saw the paperwork related to McFarlane’s acquisition of Eclipse, and found out that he didn’t actually own any of the rights to Miracleman at all! At around the same time this discovery was made, Todd McFarlane Productions had to file for bankruptcy because of a completely separate lawsuit he lost when a famous hockey player alleged McFarlane named a gangster villain character after him without permission, and once again, I’m not making any of this up. After that, McFarlane’s ability to cause headaches dropped significantly and he and Gaiman finally settled their dispute in May 2012.
Image, meanwhile, still exists. And to their credit, they did pave the way for creator-owned comics as a viable idea. But the company is only a shadow of its former self today. The superstar artists who founded the company were even worse businessmen than writers, and reading McFarlane’s deposition from the first lawsuit, it’s honestly stunning that the company even survived its first five years.
So why am I bringing all of this up? Turns out, McFarlane wants to make another movie starring his once-popular hellbound antihero. Well… okay, he’s been “wanting” to do this for several years, now, but unlike most of his half-cocked ideas since leaving Image, this “dark and gritty reboot” (because of course it will be) has been picked up by Blumhouse Productions, has signed on an Academy Award-winning actor to star in it, and is set to shoot in late 2018 this summer.
At first I thought this was a terrible idea doomed to fizzle out. After all, McFarlane is legally hamstrung from being able to use several of Spawn‘s core supporting characters anymore, and Warner Bros’ big bet on a dark, nihilistic, macho, joyless take on Superman backfired so disastrously it nearly killed their “DC Extended Universe” and is now being rescued by their resident “girl superhero” and a crime-fighting merman who lives in an undersea kingdom with drum-playing octopi and sharks with freakin’ laser beams attached to their heads. This should be the worst time to attempt a grimdark edgelord reboot of this:
But then I remembered just how well Venom did at the box office last October, and how a seemingly small-but-pretty-damned-committed fanbase is still loudly demanding “The Snyder Cut,” and now I think maybe this is the best time to attempt to revive Spawn? Plus, the also-joyless and violent HBO series was… not bad, actually, and proved that good adaptations of this property are possible. Maybe if those fanboys who keep harassing me and my colleagues with passionate defenses of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice can have a movie catered to their tastes, they can finally calm down and leave the rest of us alone?
During the 90’s, comics readers looked back on the Silver Age and cringed, but over time was viewed more affectionately and with nostalgia by later generations. I think it’s time to consider that we’re far enough away from cyborg mercenaries with silly names like “Cable” and pouches and gritted teeth and sword blades and artists who can’t draw feet that there exists a generation of fans who look back on them fondly today, because those stories were their introduction to comics. Why shouldn’t they have their own cinematic object recalling them?
Then again, Todd McFarlane is both writing and directing this thing. The same guy who, you know, thought it would be a really good idea to have Spider-Man chase down a child murderer. So make of that what you will.
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.