By Michael A. Lipton
Updated August 18, 1997 12:00 PM

IT’S A BLISTERING SUMMER MORNING IN Phoenix, and Todd McFarlane is feeling cranky. Scorching heat isn’t the problem, though, scorched flesh is. Seated in a cluttered office over the garage of his five-bedroom, ranch-style house, he’s fuming about a charred action figure. “This does not look like road kill!” he roars. Inspecting another figure, identical except for a glossier ooze of pink, he brightens. “See how that looks like road kill?” he asks. “Now that works for me.”

If anyone knows the value of burnt offerings, it’s the 36-year-old comicbook artist turned mega-entrepreneur. As the creator of Spawn, the horribly scarred reincarnation of a murdered black government assassin who returns to Earth as a bone-breaking vigilante, McFarlane has raked in an estimated $75 million for his illustrious creations. In addition to action figures, there are Spawn video games and comic books (sold in 96 countries, they’ve been translated into 15 languages) and an animated Spawn series on HBO. On Aug. 1, McFarlane’s otherworldly vision invaded the multiplex with the premiere of Spawn the movie, a $45 million thriller starring Michael Jai White (from HBO’s Tyson) as Spawn and John Leguizamo as his nemesis Clown.

McFarlane’s secret? “His artwork is very captivating,” says Stan Lee, creator of Amazing Spiderman and McFarlane’s former boss at Marvel Comics. “It just draws you to it.” To parents worried that their offspring might identify with his dark hero, McFarlane advises lightening up. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning there,” he says. “Kids like creepy stuff that scares Mommy. I’ve never grown out of that sensibility.”

It was a sensibility forged in Calgary, Alta., where he was born the second of four children of a printer and his home-maker wife (who divorced when Todd was in college). “I was the guy,” he recalls gleefully, “who ran around with frogs and spiders and put snails under my brothers’ lunch boxes because it bugged them.” In high school he was a jock and, he says, “the best doodler in the class.” But he was 17 before he discovered comic books. “I was a late bloomer,” he says, “but [soon] poof, I was buying every comic I could find.”

While attending Eastern Washington University on a baseball scholarship, McFarlane began to draw his own superheros, Spawn among them. Sending out portfolios of his work, he got 300 rejections until, three weeks before he graduated in 1984, New York City’s Marvel Comics hired him to pencil in the artwork for an obscure title called Scorpio Rose. The steady paycheck enabled him to marry his high school sweetheart, Wanda, now 32 and an executive in her husband’s production company.

After a brief stint at D.C. Comics, where he worked on Batman, McFarlane returned to Marvel, writing as well as drawing Spider-Man, a hip offshoot of Lee’s original. The first issue (September 1990) sold a record-breaking 2.5 million copies. Soon, McFarlane was the industry’s highest-paid artist, making almost $2 million a year. But in 1992 he turned his back on the bucks and, with five Marvel colleagues, started Image Comics with Spawn as its gory centerpiece. The gamble paid off. In May 1992 the first issue of Spawn sold 1.7 million copies—the most successful independent launch in comic-book history.

For all his success, McFarlane considers his family his biggest achievement. “I’ve got a wife I’ve been with for 20 years,” he says, “and my kids [daughters Cyan, 6, and Kate, 2] like me.” As for the “creative child” he calls Spawn, the nurturing has only just begun. “I want to raise him properly,” McFarlane says. “To me he’s still in grade two. I’ll be ready to give him away when he’s in college.”


JOHNNY DODD in Phoenix