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Todd McFarlane: A Retrospective

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Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny Todd McFarlane’s contribution to the comic art form. He came in and shook up the status quo with his unique drawing style and inventive panel structure, quickly becoming known as one of the biggest superstars of the 1990’s.

The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art * in the SoHo section of New York City is running an exhibit entitled Todd McFarlane: A Retrospective, spanning Todd’s career from his days as a teenager up until the latest issue of Spawn. In conjunction with McFarlane’s appearance at the New York Comic Con, MoCCA held a VIP and Media Preview on Friday, February 24, 2006, the night before the official opening.

The Preview was a star-studded gala that resembled a blockbuster movie opening for the comic book set. McFarlane’s Image co-founders Erik Larsen and Jim Lee were in attendance (allowing Todd to playfully jibe Lee about abandoning the company), as well as other comic professionals such as Kyle Baker and Colleen Doran. Even DC Senior Vice President of Editorial Dan DiDio was seen at the event.

MoCCA did an excellent job setting up the exhibit. The display runs from right to left in chronological order around the outside wall of the room.  You start with some of Todd’s earliest art work which was done while he was still in high school. A glass display case filled with some of his over 700 rejection letters shines through as a sign of hope for all aspiring comic writers and artists everywhere.

The exhibit follows through his DC days, to his time working on Spider-Man for Marvel to the creation of Spawn for Image. The show features many examples of McFarlane’s original art. Each piece of artwork is accompanied by a text piece explaining the importance of that particular drawing and also McFarlane’s own reminiscences about that period of his life.  It’s similar to a DVD commentary on Todd’s career, giving fans an insight into what went into creating each piece.

   

People in attendance at the preview night received a special treat. MoCCA miked up McFarlane and allowed him to add even more commentary on the art shown. He went on to relate how the untimely passing of artist Don Newton allowed him to get his big break on DC’s Infinity Inc. McFarlane also told us of how he refused to directly ink over Jack Kirby’s pencils, thinking himself unworthy of the honor, and instead used a light box and a separate piece of paper. The fact that McFarlane was still a fan of the medium also shone through in his reluctance to delete an answering machine message from Kirby offering praise for McFarlane’s work.

He also went into detail regarding his struggles to get the opportunity to ink his own work. Todd talked about his frustrations on having a different inker every month and how that affected the way his work looked.

McFarlane also spent some time discussing his work on Spider-Man, telling us that his decision to focus on the “Spider” part of the character’s name had a direct bearing on the way he drew the character. He also touched on how his annoyance with the way Spider-Man’s webs were drawn led to him coming up with what editor Tom DeFalco called “Spaghetti Webbing”. The way Spidey’s webs were drawn as lines and crosses, and the way this style’s weakness came through in certain perspective, drove McFarlane to find another way to represent the webbing in the book.

The artist also spoke about the reasons for breaking with Marvel, using a specific issue of Spider-Man as an example. Having to redraw a panel with a main character being stabbed in the eye out of fear of what the Comic Code Authority would say broke the camel’s back as it related to Todd’s continued employment at the company. According to McFarlane, it wasn’t that he had to change the art work; just that he didn’t have a good reason to do so. It wasn’t changed because it had been submitted to the CCA and sent back, but rather because they thought it might have been denied.

When speaking on the attention he got from marketers after Spawn hit big, he stated his case on why he started his own toy line, McFarlane Toys. He said he was approached by manufacturers of pajamas and games who only knew Spawn as a best-selling comic, not as a book featuring a main character who is an operative of Hell. He didn’t want to license his character to a toy company that would create cheap products and put it on the shelves next to toys aimed at a younger audience. Then, when it didn’t sell, he’d have a damaged property on his hands.

McFarlane’s emotion and enthusiasm showed through in everything he said. But his passion was never higher than when he spoke out on censorship. His use of an analogy of a woman shopping for produce who is willing to accept carrots and brussel sprouts in her supermarket, but is so hideously offended by the idea of her children being exposed to spinach that she requests than the vegetable be banned from the supermarket pointed out the inanity of the arguments of most wannabe censors. He believes that if a person is offended by something he has done, they should just ignore it, but that if someone truly likes his products, they should have the ability to enjoy them.

He also touched on parental responsibility, stating that if parents don’t want their kids watching his cartoons or reading his comics that THEY should make sure their children aren’t exposed to them, not him. He used the anecdote that his young daughter did a voice for the Spawn cartoon but to this day she has not seen the episode because he feels the subject matter would be inappropriate for her.    

Todd McFarlane’s lecture on his work was captivating and interesting. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and used humor effectively. When he revealed some “magic tricks” artists used in the creation of comics (examples: various forms of debris are good, especially when they obscure feet, and that drawing detailed backgrounds becomes easier when your main character and title take up 70% of the page), he elicited quite a few laughs from the crowd.

   

The exhibit, which is a fund-raising benefit for MoCCA, stands on its own as a success even without McFarlane’s personal guided tour. It shows us Todd’s development from aspiring artist to the hottest creator on the stands to self-publisher to multi-media mogul. It is recommended that any fan of the comic medium make every effort to see the show before it closes.

For those of you in the New York area who would be interested in attending the exhibit, it runs through May 1st. The Museum is located at 594 Broadway (between Houston and Prince), Suite 401. Gallery Hours are 12 noon to 5 p.m., Fridays through Mondays. There is a suggested donation of $3 for all visitors age 13 or older. MoCCA members and children under 13 receive free admission.  If you wish to travel to the museum by subway, the best trains to MoCCA are the B, D, F, V to Broadway-Lafayette or R & W to Prince Street or 6 to Bleecker Street.

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*The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts education organization dedicated to promoting greater understanding and appreciation of comic and cartoon art.  The Museum celebrates the unique creative achievements of graphic storytelling through study, discussion, preservation and exhibition of comic and cartoon artworks.
More photos of the exhibit's Preview Night will be released later this week at http://www.moccany.com/exhibit-mcfarlane.html .

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