Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Heroism Gone Awry: Image Co-Founder Todd McFarlane

As I stated in part one the founding of Image comics was an attempted act of heroism performed as a group outing. Almost all of the founders were the best in their field at the time. Coming almost universally from the industry's highest-profile and best-selling books (many of which from the Spider-man line or the X lines). Of the seven founders three stood head and shoulders above the rest at this point, Liefeld, someone who deserves an entry of their own and the subject of this article.

Todd McFarlane rose to fame on the Amazing Spider-man (the character's flagship title) so high in fact that he was given the chance to start a new Spider-man book (entitled simply Spider-Man). It seems evident that this book was the result of McFarlane wishing to write as well as do the art, and by many he was judged to do this rather well. (Full disclosure I've never read any of his run on "Adjectiveless"). Over his time at Marvel his arguments with editorial became more frequent and extreme, the final straw being an argument over a single (particularly gory) panel.

Needless to say when Liefeld told McFarlane about the new deal he'd just negotiated it didn't take hime very long to want in.

His initial project was a book called Spawn. The book drew on a number of popular ideas and characters of the time many of which he'd had a hand in shaping. The look of the character resembled a cross between Spider-man (especially in his black suit variation) and Batman, featuring a long flowing cape and chains which seemed almost characters in their own right and a sleek sealed in bodysuit which was actually a living liquid symbiote. His story drew on the background of many of the popular horror themed heroes of the time like Ghost Rider, and he had a military background and lethal tactics that would keep any fan of the Punisher happy.

I think if you want to sum the entire decade of the 90's up in one character it would have to be Spawn.

Also Spawn acted conversely to Image the way Liefeld's numerous projects did. In the early running Spawn missed two deadlines but after that it almost never happened again. Month after month would go by and distribution dates would come and go with no Image comics shipping (or more accurately shipping months sometimes even years late) but during these uncertain times, you knew Spawn would come out every single month.

A lot of this had to do with McFarlane's early focus, he refused to do numerous spin-offs and focused entirely on his main project. As a result it was not only the most consistently on-time book for the line, it was also hands down the best. The art was solid but more so the writing was amazingly mature and complex...by Image standards. It dealt with topics like lost love, moral uncertainty, racism, homelessness and crime that was at times all too realistic.

But the writing on this book was the beginning of its downfall. About a year into publishing McFarlane brought in four writers for self-contained stories. Alan Moore wrote a story which followed up on some of the story's earliest villains and further explained the structure of Spawn's hell. Frank Miller wrote a story digging deeply into Spawn's relationships with the homeless people with whom he shared the alleys in which he lived. Dave Sim wrote a story outlining much of the idealism behind Image and "creator's rights." And Neil Gaiman wrote a story which featured a Spawn hunting angel named Angela.

These stories added depth to the growing Spawn mythos but would later become a problem.

As the years progressed McFarlane started new business ventures like McFarlane toys. This company revolutionized toy design and marketing by developing beautifully sculpted (but often fragile) toys which went beyond what an action figure line normally consists of. McFarlane's line originally just did toys for his Spawn characters but later moved on to cover movies, sports, rock musicians and countless other properties. It set the tone for a whole industry even more so than the comic work.

This was rather ironic, since McFarlane's involvement in his comic continually lessened with time, first dropping penciling, then inking, then writing. At this point he's been quoted as saying "I don't ever have to do a comic again" because he's made so much already. But as a result his financial adventurism has flourished. This often extended to sports teams and history making sports memorabilia, but it also extended to comic properties.

This is where the problem came. One of the properties McFarlane bought was Miracleman/Marvelman. This was an Alan Moore written Shazam/Captain Marvel pastiche which is often considered on par with Watchmen. Moore finished his work with the project but gave Neil Gaiman his blessing to finish it.

McFarlane's claim to the character was actually less than what was initially thought (he owned two logos associated with the character) but it didn't stop him from using the character as a throw-away background gag in an issue of one of his comics. At this point Gaiman took offense and decided to put the "creator owned" in Image to the test.

Gaiman sued McFarlane with a claim on the character Angela, a major supporting character named Coglisto, and a variant design for another period's version of Spawn. Seems like it would've been resolved simply enough since the two signed an agreement for a trade of assets, but McFarlane tried to have his cake and eat it too. As a result Gaiman and McFarlane now own the characters 50/50, and Marvel purchased the actual trademark on Miricleman/Marvelman.

The lesson to learn here, if you make a decision on an ideological basis, you better make damn sure you mean it whether it's always convenient for you or not.