Spawn's Canadian Connection

It is hard to imagine two guys who less resemble American entertainment-industry heavyweights. With his T-shirt and shorts, and brooding demeanor, Todd McFarlane looks like the bass player in a garage band.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 11, 1997

It is hard to imagine two guys who less resemble American entertainment-industry heavyweights. With his T-shirt and shorts, and brooding demeanor, Todd McFarlane looks like the bass player in a garage band.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 11, 1997

Spawn's Canadian Connection

It is hard to imagine two guys who less resemble American entertainment-industry heavyweights. With his T-shirt and shorts, and brooding demeanor, Todd McFarlane looks like the bass player in a garage band. And Steve (Spaz) Williams - with his brush cut, tattoos and omnipresent cigar - could pass for a marine drill sergeant or a crazed biker. But the duo's iconoclasm transcends appearances. For one thing, they are both ex-pat Canadians: McFarlane, who now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., was born in Calgary 36 years ago, and 34-year-old Williams, despite the secluded ranch he owns north of San Francisco, is a Torontonian loud and proud. And for much of the past decade, the two outspoken Canucks have been shaking up their respective fields. Almost singlehandedly, artist McFarlane has revolutionized the comic-book industry with Spawn, the No. 1 comic book in North America, while Williams, as the animator behind such blockbusters as Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and The Mask, has taken special-effects wizardry to new levels. Now, the two Canadian rebels have teamed up for a small rebellion of a movie, Spawn.

Call it a match made in hell. With McFarlane's dark vision and Williams's awe-inspiring effects, Spawn is an action-adventure horror flick with a back-from-the-dead superhero and more violence and grit than Superman ever dreamed of. And if things go as planned (and McFarlane and Williams are used to seeing that they do), Spawn, which opened last week, will be a hit in a summer season already packed with so-called event movies. "I just assume we'll be the No. 1 movie in the States, and we'll see if we can't make it No. 1 worldwide," boasts McFarlane, who maintained creative control over the film version of his character. "I'm not very good at coming in second."

Costing a modest - for an action blockbuster - $60 million and directed by first-timer Mark Dippé, Spawn stars relative unknown Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a political assassin for a shadowy U.S. government agency. Simmons is a killer par excellence, but when he begins to express doubts about his assignments, his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), has him killed. Being an assassin, Simmons - horribly burned and, well, dead - goes to hell, where he cuts a deal with the devil: he can return to the world of the living to see his beloved wife, Wanda (played by Theresa Randle and named after McFarlane's own spouse), but in exchange he agrees to lead the demonic hordes to destroy mankind. Trouble is, once Spawn - a superhuman fighting machine with a face full of scar tissue and a bodysuit of impregnable "necroplasm" - is back on earth, he begins to second-guess his satanic bargain. While Clown (John Leguizamo), a fat, flatulent demon who makes John Wayne Gacy look like a choirboy, prods Spawn to exercise his thirst for vengeance, a mysterious figure named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) urges him to fight the forces of evil.

With an overwrought script and loose direction, the movie's high moral seriousness is clumsily realized. But Spawn is redeemed in part by Williams's fantastic special effects - the hero's billowing cape, for instance, is a hauntingly beautiful creation in itself. In all, the movie should satisfy fans of the comic - and maybe draw in new ones.

By any measure, Spawn is already a phenomenon. And it has propelled McFarlane from obscurity to mastery of the North American comic-book universe. Not bad for a kid who had started relatively late - he was 17 and attending William Aberhart High School in Calgary when he began experimenting with the genre - and whose first passion was not comics at all, but baseball. In fact, McFarlane played ball while a graphic arts student at Eastern Washington University, but the big break into the majors eluded him. As his baseball dreams soured, he turned to his true talent.

By the late 1980s, McFarlane had established himself as the most respected comic-book artist in the business. Working out of his then-home in New Westminster, B.C., he revitalized some of the best-known titles for the the Big Two American comic-book companies, Marvel and DC. With Marvel's Spider Man in 1990, McFarlane's revamped web-slinger - more spidery and more psychologically tortured than his milquetoast previous incarnations - became the best-selling comic-book issue of all time.

And then, in early 1992, McFarlane abruptly quit Marvel. "It was just the constant grind," he recalls. Along with five fellow Marvel apostates, he founded Image Comics that year. His first title for the new company was Spawn - a concept he had come up with in high school. "Of all the characters I created, Spawn was the guy," says McFarlane. "On some levels, his existence is pried from mine. He's got a bit of a bad attitude, and I'd say the same for me."

The first issue of Spawn sold more than 1.7 million copies in North America, and since then, it has maintained its No. 1 position through 64 issues. In an industry notorious for using its artists' talents and paying few returns, McFarlane owns his creation - lock, stock and toy chest. His McFarlane Toys has sold more than 10 million live-action figures around the world since the company's creation in 1994. And then there are the CD-ROM and video Spawn games, not to mention the animated series on American cable TV. No wonder McFarlane refers to his business, which he oversees from an above-garage office at his home, as "the Spawn Empire." And no wonder that, at last count, he was worth an estimated $100 million.

When McFarlane set his sights on Hollywood way back in 1993, he approached Williams and Dippé, then the stars of George Lucas's giant visual-effects house, Industrial Light & Magic. "Todd's a Canadian boy and a big hockey fan," recalls Williams, "so we hit it off right away." The best-known alumnus of the Sheridan College animation program in Oakville, Ont., Williams raised the bar for visual effects during his time at ILM, which he joined in 1988. It was Williams who convinced Steven Spielberg that Jurassic Park's Academy Award-winning dinosaur effects could be digitally rendered, rather than created with the old stop-motion technology the director had originally planned. And the real star of the 1994 hit The Mask was Williams's artistry, which gave the superhero played by Jim Carrey his eye-boggling fluidity.

For the animator, McFarlane's timing could not have been better. Williams was beginning to feel underappreciated for his work. "I built the T-Rex on my own time, when I was told it was impossible by the same [guys]" - actually, Williams uses a more colorful (and unprintable) word to describe his bosses on the film - "who ended up collecting the Oscar." And he was increasingly frustrated with what he saw as Hollywood's abuse of special effects (he calls last year's hit Twister "tornado porn"). "We created a monster with Jurassic Park," says Williams, who sums up the sequel, Lost World, as "a piece of s--t. It looked like a Macy's parade - terrible animation." Williams insists that he wants to make movies in which the effects support the story, not the other way around. Last year, he left ILM - amicably, he says - to work on Spawn as visual effects supervisor and second unit director. "I was just sick of putting the characters I built into movies I hated," says Williams. "Spawn was my ticket out."

As for McFarlane, Spawn the movie is just the beginning - "one small piece in a big puzzle." He gives the impression that he won't be satisfied until his comics are in every teenager's hands, his action figures in every kid's room, his video games on every computer and his movies in every theatre. McFarlane - who likens himself to Walt Disney, in his paternal relationship to his characters, and to Michael Jordan, in his talent - is bent on empire-building. "This is war, and if you go to war, then it's kill or be killed," he says. "Maybe that's where I come in: I got no fear of dying. I will die for my causes, and I got a lot of them." Those are brave, even bombastic, words. But then again, like Williams, McFarlane has never been afraid to tug on Superman's cape.

Maclean's August 11, 1997