In 1992, Todd McFarlane joined six other comic book as one of the co-founders of Image Comics. There he launched his signature creation, “Spawn,” whose stories continue to unfold after 24 years and 260 issues. Two years later McFarlane expanded his media outlook from comics to toys, founding McFarlane Toys and creating stunning sculpts based on everything from Spawn, to sports stars to KISS to “The Walking Dead.”
That’s what makes the 7-inch Spawn action figure CBR debuted exclusively last week so special. In addition to taking up a special place on one side of the company’s display space at New York Toy Fair, it also heralds the vanguard of a new era for the company. In addition to returning to the character the toy company was built upon, McFarlane also announced a new system called Color Tops that will engulf a variety of releases all coming out around the same time.
A of other new licenses and toys based on “Titanfall,” “Attack on Titan,” “Naruto,” Gears of War 4,” Five Nights at Freddy’s” and others were also announced or unveiled at the show, displayed in a separate separate, curtained off area. While photographs of these upcoming releases was prohibited, CBR News did one better, scoring an interview with Todd McFarlane himself. The comic book industry legend and founder of McFarlane Toys discussed how the toy industry has changed since he joined the game, how the diverse lineup of styles and licenses is determined, and what fans can expect from the upcoming Color Tops system.
CBR News: Last week we debuted the new Spawn 7-inch action figure. That seems like a nod to the original days of the company. Was that intentional?
Todd McFarlane: The Spawn toys were the introduction of my company. So, I think a lot of people who got introduced to the company, given that we did close to 35 series, that part of collecting McFarlane Toys, people had a handful of Spawn figures. It was the platform that took us to everything else. As time went by, the stock market recession came and the impact, at least that I felt on my business, was that the stores started getting a little more conservative. What that meant was that they just wanted big brands. Before you had stores like Babbages, KB Toys, Virgin Records and Tower and they were cool. I could put all this cool stuff in there. I could make up all this crazy stuff so we did Clive Barker and Movie Maniacs, just silly stuff. Then they just started getting conservative and said they wanted just the top five brands.
The downside of that, for me, is that you then limit diversity and every store has the same five brands. But, retailers are now waking up that there is this big population of geeks and collectors and it’s viable to have space dedicated to them. Now they’re saying, “You don’t have to keep everything under ten bucks and you don’t have to make it the top five brands. We’ll let you diversify and go up to twenty bucks and under.” It used to be $10, now it’s $20.
You can see we picked up some other brands, but we said, “Hey, let’s roll out the odd Spawn out there.” People have been asking arguably non-stop when he’s coming back. Again, not in a big way, but pepper a little of it in.
Has the industry changed to the point where you can drop one Spawn figure instead of feeling the need to put out a whole wave of them like in the early days?
It depends on where you go, the answer is yes and no. What we’re you going to see more from us is the packaging, the Color Tops. Instead of it being necessarily the Color Tops Series 1 being all one brand it would be five or six brands in that one release. In a weird way, I think of brands like sports. It’s still all cool stuff, it’s just from five different teams, five different brands. The upshot for a small company like mine is that then we can go and pick off some of these brands that may only be two or three characters deep. You have to hit and then move on to the next brand. Whereas, when you do a line exclusively dedicated to a property you have to mine it a bit deeper and that can be difficult. If you’re going to do “Nightmare on Elm Street” there’s really Freddy Krueger and nobody else. There’s a lot of those kinds of properties not only for film and TV, but also for video games. We’re going to see if we can’t pick off the superstars and put them together.
Is that the thinking behind some of the reveals in here like Naruto and Tokyo Ghoul?
Right. And if they’re successful, two things will happen. Either they say, “Can you give us these other characters in the brand that you’re giving us?” Or, “Can you give us a different iteration of the character you once gave us?” Again, to be silly, you could get Batman, but then you could get Underwater Batman or Astronaut Batman. We’ve done a handful of Sheriff Grimes in different poses and outfits. We’ve done more than one Peyton Manning toy. People want those. We did a lot of Spawns.
There’s a lot of diversity in this room. How do you choose which your next license will be?
I get asked that question and it’s not really complicated. If you ran your own company, you’d look at the same list I do, you’d make the same phone calls I do, you’d find out half of them are available, half of them aren’t. Once you’ve got a property you go, “Who are we going to make?” The two people I pick are probably going to be the same [two you pick].
My guess is, most fans, if I was going to give them the property and say, “You can only make one or two,” probably 80 to 90% would be the same as my picks. We’re not doing anything wholly unique. We’re seeing the same thing, the same world you are. It’s only once you get past the A-plus characters that you start having a difference of opinion. If I told you to make a list of the top NBA players, probably the top six we’d agree on. It’s only eight through ten that you and I start splitting hairs over.
Something like the big Titanfall robots and figures seems right up your alley with the mech elements and detail-oriented sculpts.
It looks cool and it’s big-ass robots. So even if the brand wasn’t popular — which it is — giant robots are just cool. There are some brands that may not be as popular overall, but they have one character that’s just visually striking. So, we’re going to be chasing some of those too. Others, the brand is pretty strong, but maybe the costumes and uniforms aren’t overly sexy. I could put Walking Dead in that with people in T-shirts and jeans, but the brand is so strong we can get away with it.
Sticking with Titanfall, those are big robots. Was it risky getting into that scale?
The risk with going big isn’t so much because it looks cooler, but it’s price point. Does the customer want to spend that much or does the retailer want that brand at that price? Those are more difficult. The change we’re making right now is, we’re going to this new packaging with the Color Tops is allowing us to [return to] our roots.
When we first came into the marketplace we were six or seven inches tall and we had the biggest toys on the market. Then everybody started shrinking and eventually the retailers pressured us to shrink with everybody else. Get in line, A for cost and B for look. Now that they’ve opened their eyes to this collector/geek community, they’re saying, “Have some fun.” And the fun for me is getting a little bit bigger and going back to make them a little bit sexier like we used to out of the gate.
Can you talk a little more about how the Color Tops system will work?
Right now the top of the first wave is going to be red. So, if you go shopping you’ll see that you’ve either bought what you wanted or say, “There’s nothing in the first wave that’s of interest to me.” It’s a smorgasbord at that point, you may or may not put something on your plate.
The next wave that comes out will then be green. Because it will be a mixture of brands what I’m trying to do is say, “If you shopped the red ones, here’s green. Green means something new. You should at least look because there may be a brand or character that’s cool that may be of interest that wasn’t there. Or you’ve already bought all of the red ones.” The next one will have a white top or a yellow top, so you’re just looking for color changes at the top of it.
And they’re all numbered too, right?
And we’ll be numbering them. If you start collecting the Color Tops, regardless of what wave, what color, what series it is, here’s all the numbers. It’s easier to make a checklist then. We can have on our website one through 100 eventually and someone can say, “I don’t have number 57, I need them all.”
Another interesting brand you’re getting into is based on the mobile game “Five Nights at Freddy’s.” How did you first hear of the property and get involved with the collectibles?
I’ve got a 15-year-old son. He downloads everything and plays video games, so I knew it. Some of his friends would talk about it. Some of the retailers recently perked up to it. They’ve been asking, “Hey, can we get something from ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s?'” If they want to give you shelf space, we’ll go out and get it.
It’s an interesting brand. Hot Topic put out a test with T-shirts and they said it was one of their best selling tests ever. Bammo. So there’s a core group of people out there and, given that the first wave is coming out at Walmart, everybody’s going to discover how wide and big that brand is.
You also have these fun looking Big Heads. What’s the story behind those?
They came about as a happy accident at the office. We have all of the small guys and we have all the six-inch figures. You just start goofing around and all of a sudden we glued some of the big heads on the small bodies and go, “It looks cool!” Some of the bobbleheads — ours don’t bobble — aren’t trying to look ultra-realistic. Pop Vinyl are cute and have their spot, but there’s something intriguing about a realistic looking head on a body. We’ve done them a couple times in sports and, to me, they’re cool. You get the small [head] too. If you don’t like it, you can pop it off and go back to the proportion you want. Some will come with a base that will expand where you can open them and 15 pieces will fall out. We’ll have a little bit of fun with it.
And, as always, the construction pieces look amazing.
We’re still trying to make our inroads. Collectors like their statues and figures and the kids like their little $10 fire station and bakery and stuff. We’ll just keep pushing it and have fun with it.
Come back for TOYING AROUND every Saturday for all the latest collectible news and stay tuned to CBR all week for even more Toy Fair coverage.