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INTERVIEW: Todd McFarlane On David Bowie, Spawn & Steven Universe

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
INTERVIEW: Todd McFarlane On David Bowie, Spawn & Steven Universe

Twenty five years ago, Todd McFarlane became one of the most famous comic creators in the world when he debuted “Spawn” from the then-new Image Comics. The character proved so popular, he parlayed the anti-hero’s comic into a ground breaking toy company. To this day, McFarlane Toys is still producing figures based on his comic creations, while also looking to films, television, video games and anime for other inspirations.

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Early on the very first day of 2017’s New York Toy Fair, word started getting around that McFarlane had a David Bowie figure on display. The rumor turned out to be true, with the piece in question based on 1986’s Jim Henson-directed classic “Labrynth,” in which the late musican played the enigmatic Jareth. As you can see, the piece captures the Goblin King’s mystique and also comes with his mask from the dream sequence and one of those glass balls he’s so fond of.

In addition to this new license, the company will continue producing figures based on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” focusing quite a bit on Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan who will make his presence felt as a 10-inch figure, a 5-inch figure and in a 2-pack with Glenn. They also showed off a mock-up of the Dwight figure that will hit in the fall.

Another surprise came in the form of the new direction for McFarlane’s Construction Sets. While previous entries focused on more adult franchises like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” the company will begin to focus on more colorful, animated series including “Steven Universe,” “Rick and Morty” and “South Park.” The wildly popular “Five Nights At Freddy’s” game will also lead into more Construction Sets based on that series as well.

Of course, the guy that started it all will continue his presence in the toy aisles as Commando Spawn hits next winter. With all of this in mind, and so many new and exciting projects in the works, CBR spent some time with McFarlane in his booth at New York Toy Fair to dive a little deeper into these new products.

CBR: We’re only a few hours into the first day of Toy Fair, and I’m already hearing people talking about the David Bowie “Labyrinth” figure. What’s the story behind that one?

Todd McFarlane: It’s really no different than most of the other ideas we have. You sort of look at whatever’s current and hot and relevant, then you start looking backwards in time and look at the vault of what’s out there. He just looks cool in that movie, right? It’s always interesting — given that we’re in the toy business, one of the things that does matter is what it looks like. Unlike a lot of other products, you have an open window on the figures. There’s a complete buyer beware, here. You don’t like what you see, don’t buy it. You can’t take it home and go, “I don’t like it,” because everything is there.

When I was looking at the sculpt the other day, one of the things I thought was missing was, I thought we could make the trench coat way more impressive. On a scale of one to 10, it was a five. Sometimes what I do is I talk people into letting me sex it up even more than maybe the reality of it is, but it’ll look good in packaging. That’s really more than half the battle of whether the consumer sees the eye candy and will make the impulse buy. I get it that sometimes there’s inaccuracy, but sometimes you have to just give a little bit of a wow to it so they’ll go, “Oh, that’s cool.”

Bowie’s got such a distinctive look, especially in that movie, were there any specific challenges in nailing his likeness?

Luckily, David had a pretty distinct look. You can get a couple of the key moments in a couple of the key spots on his face. Here’s the imperfect part of manufacturing toys: With an action figure, you’re dealing with a half an inch or smaller — that’s the face. If you get the eyebrows right and the lip painted right, it can really look like the person. But if somebody on the assembly line has the hiccups or sneezes at the wrong moment, if you move that eyebrow just a little bit, all of a sudden it changes. That minuscule move on a half-an-inch is like an inch on your face or my face. If you go to the factory, there’s a box of a thousand heads. You can literally put your hands in there, pull them out and some would be spectacular and others you’d go, “It’s okay. It’s pretty good.” And you hate it, because you know that there’s really awesome ones in there and you’re trying for more “awesome” than “pretty good.”

Do you plan on doing more figures from “Labyrinth?”

Every license we do, that question is a follow-up. Number one, does it sell? Number two, if it does sell, do they want more of what they just bought? It’s like they just bought Batman, and now they want Aqua-Batman and Outer Space Batman. Or do they want other characters and do you go deeper into the license with other characters? You have to weigh it.

If you’re doing someone like Freddy Krueger or someone like that, he’s sort of the guy and there’s really nobody else, so your next move is, if people like it, to do another pose of him, but it’s still Freddy Krueger. We’ll see. He wears a couple different costumes, so we could always come back and do another David Bowie, or one of the other characters.

You’re also getting into “Rick and Morty,” “Steven Universe” and “South Park” Construction Sets. Why did those franchises make sense in that format?


It was the fun factor. One thing we found is that, at least for what we do, the action figure aisle has a bigger collectible theme to it. We found that when we did the “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” building sets, which I thought were cool, it didn’t seem like the older collector who’s into action figure aisle was then saying, “Good, now that I’ve got all the figures of all my favorites actors and/or characters in this brand, I’m now going one aisle over and I need the environment.” The environment didn’t seem like nearly as big of a deal. I’m getting the sense, as we’re spending more time in that aisle, that the building block aisle is shopped by a younger audience. There’s more females and there’s a lot of mom and dad buys. I don’t think they’re buying it so they can put it away and send their kid to college; I think they want their kid to take it home and build it.

Building blocks have more of a mystique of it being an educational toy, for lack of a better word, because the kids are using their brains putting it together. So if that’s all true, and you look at what LEGO does, and it sells, so a lot of what I said has to be somewhat true, then we have to go to fun stuff where “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” were more cool. Cool and fun might not be the same bucket for me, because I think Freddy Krueger’s cool. So, if I think that aisle’s being shopped by a younger audience or their parents, then we’re going to have to do stuff that looks fun — and that means both the box presentation and the colors — or the characters themselves, even if they’re not familiar with the brand. So a mom or dad might say, “I don’t know what ‘Rick and Morty’ is, but my kid likes spaceships. I can take that home because she likes spaceships and that looks fun to me.”

This move seems like it could introduce an even younger audience to what McFarlane Toys does.

To some extend, at the end of the day, if you give people the right brand and they buy they brand, they don’t really care what the corporate name is on it. They don’t care. What I think has happened with what McFarlane stands for is that, if I’m going to do it — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a super mature and sophisticated collectible or I’m doing the Teletubbies — what I hope what you’ll get is “Oh, McFarlane, they do quality stuff.” So, if we’re doing Teletubbies — and we’re not doing Teletubbies, I’m just using it as an example — then I’m going to try and do the best quality I can within the box of what I need to present there.


I think if Disney’s 100, then we’re one, in terms of — the reason people keep going to Disney is because there’s a consumer confidence that’s there where they say, “Of, if Disney puts it out, it must be kind of good.” There’s a bit of a faith that goes with it. I think over 20 years, we’ve garnered a little of that where they go, “Okay, it’s not my cup of tea, but I know it will be at least quality.” Here we go.

The thing that’s interesting about that aisle now is that you’ve got not an 800 pound gorilla, it’s a 1600 pound gorilla called LEGO. Then you’ve got Mega, which just got bought by Mattel, and then after you get past those two big giants, all of a sudden you can compete in there. Whereas in the action figure aisle, there are a lot more companies with a lot more brands that are vying for that space. Hasbro and Mattel still own the majority of it, but you see if you can have deja vu all over again in another aisle, maybe with a little bit lower skewing brands, and have some fun with it.

Do you think there’s still a place, maybe not in the big stores, to still sell the more mature building sets?

I think there’s openings. One thing is, when you’re in a world where these are these giants like LEGO and Hasbro, then they have their models and you can take advantage of it, because you know where they’re not going to be. So, the answer is, yes. Why? It’s small business, it’s maybe going to be smaller profits, and for them it doesn’t make any sense because they have shareholders and have to show something every ninety days. My ultimate goal at the end of the year is to just get to zero, so I don’t have to work for somebody for another year and I can be my own master. I’ve been going for 25, 30 years, so I’m okay. I’m driven by a different want, a different need, so I can fill some of those gaps that they’re leaving.

You mentioned the anniversary. How has it been, getting back into the Spawn toy game?


I’m very fluent at it, and I can do it with my eyes closed. Remember, when we first came out, we put out like 35 series. The only other thing that had been out there longer was Batman. There was even a hiccup in “Star Wars!” People were going, “How can this thing that doesn’t have a TV show or a movie have 35 series in a row?”

There has been a lot of demand. You can imagine the people bugging me, going, “Todd, when are they coming?” They even ask about releasing some of the classics. Now, some of those are 10 or 15 years old. people didn’t get a chance to buy them, and they’re too expensive on eBay. Maybe. I’ve been holding off, because I want there to be a bigger reason for them to buy it than just because I can. We’re finally getting some traction in Hollywood, and I think by 2017 something’s going to happen for us in one or multiple ways in Hollywood. That may help drive the stuff.

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