Who doesn’t love books about lawsuits?!?
Or maybe it’s just me?
Well, if you’re an American comic-book fan, specifically a fan of superhero comic books, then you know who Todd McFarlane is. The man rocketed to fame in the late 80’s when he was hired by Marvel Comics to draw The Hulk and then Spider-Man. It was his work on the later that became so popular that a few years later Marvel gave him his own new Spider-Man series that he could draw and write, despite having no previous writing experience. Nevertheless, his first issue of that new title sold over 2 and a half million copies, cementing McFarlane’s status as a “superstar artist” whose name alone could help sell comics.
Then in the early 90’s McFarlane left Marvel, along with 6 of his fellow superstar artists, and formed Image Comics, where they and others could publish their own comics that they would own themselves and have complete creative control over. Todd’s initial contribution to this comics was his creation SPAWN.
Launched in May 1992, the first issue of Spawn sold almost 2 million copies, remaining a record for an independent comic-book, and is still going today, soon to reach it’s 300th issue, which will tie it for the longest running independent comic-book series ever. So kudos to him.
Todd has also launched a successful action figure toy company, which produces Spawn toys and many others, and has adapted Spawn into a successful animated series, video games, and a live-action movie, with a second film supposedly in development. All of this is even more impressive than it already sounds when you consider the various obstacles that have popped up in Todd’s path along the way, and that is what this book, by Daniel Best, goes into detail about.
As Best breaks it down, Todd’s legal troubles are the result of three creative decisions he made after the creation of Spawn. First, early on he introduced a character in the Spawn series named Antonio Twistelli, who was most frequently identified and referred to as Tony Twist.
Twist is a mob boss operating in New York, who frequently comes at odds with Spawn. This character also appeared in the Spawn animated series. The problem is that McFarlane named the character after a real-life person, Antonio Twist, a professional hockey player who was going by the name of Tony Twist.
The real Mr. Twist would eventually sue McFarlane for defamation. The case dragged on for a decade, going from one trial that went in Twist’s favor, awarding him $15 million in damages from McFarlane, but then got overturned on appeal, which lead to another trial that also went in Twist’s favor and this one survived two appeals by McFarlane, eventually ending in McFarlane and Twist settling the case for a purported $5 million.
I’ll say that from an outside observer’s perspective, this case always seemed odd to me. As even with McFarlane’s admitted use of the nickname, the fictional character had nothing else in common with the real-life man, it’s not like he was a murderous hockey player, and unless you were a serious hockey fan I bet most readers of Spawn would have never even heard of the real Tony Twist (I sure didn’t) and therefore never even would have made a connection between him until it was directly pointed out, which is what the lawsuit did. But the writer of this book goes into step by step details of this case, from beginning to end, explaining exactly what Todd did wrong in how he handled this case.
As explained in the book, this was part of a “gimmick” that McFarlane ran for promotion. A frequent criticism of most of the early Image books was that they were all mostly just flashy art with little substance as, like McFarlane, most of the creators were artists with little or no writing experience before this. So McFarlane decided he would pay 4 of the biggest writers in the industry to each write a single issue of Spawn. The other writers were Alan Moore (Spawn #8) Dave Sim (Spawn #10) and Frank Miller (Spawn #11). The book goes into detail about how McFarlane approached each writer, and how he gave them each complete creative control to write whatever they want (literally telling Gaiman that if he wanted to write 22 pages of Spawn reading the newspaper, he would draw that), and would pay them $100,000 dollars for it.
But while Moore, Sim, and Millar each wrote single stories that simply utilized characters that Todd previously introduced in the series (while Sim added his creator-owned character, Cerebus) and that ultimately could be ignored if Todd didn’t want to refer to them again afterward, Gaiman took to heart Todd’s acknowledgment that he didn’t have a lot of background or even future plans worked out for the character of Spawn at that point, and decided to fill in some of the blanks, adding to Spawn’s mythology, complete with new characters. As depicted on the above cover, Gaiman introduced Angela, who was an elite angel in Heaven’s army of angels, whose job is hunting and killing new Spawn. Flashing back to the medieval times, we see Angela hunting and killing the Spawn of that era, of which we learn a new Spawn is created once every 400 years. And in the modern era he introduced another character, a man named Cogliostro, who just appeared to be some old bum, but was revealed to be a former Spawn himself.
The problem is that all of this was done without any formal contracts. So, outside of the initial $100,000 payment, things like future royalties for that issue and use of the characters Gaiman created was not discussed. Gaiman later wrote a 3-issue Angela miniseries, which he pitched to McFarlane after Gaiman’s son read Spawn #9 and said he wanted to learn more about her, in which he further expanded upon that character’s background. And this is where McFarlane’s other major troubles began, and where I always thought he made a crucial error.
The fact that Gaiman took it upon himself to expand Spawn’s background and introduced some new characters showed how interested he was in the title. If McFarlane had treated him right it’s highly likely Gaiman would have contributed more to the title, whether in miniseries or possibly the direct series. There could be an extended multi-year run of Spawn written by Neil Gaiman by now, for all we know. But McFarlane appears to have inexplicably gotten greedy. As documented in the book, at first he would just randomly send Gaiman a big check every now and then, basically characterizing it as a “thank you gift.” But Gaiman, seeing not only how the issue and miniseries’ he wrote were being reprinted, but also how McFarlane started making action figures of his characters, including the earlier version of Spawn that would officially be named and marketed as “Medevil Spawn” and they were appearing in other media, started to push for a formal agreement that included financial and creative rights.
Todd resisted, and after much back and forth, Gaiman eventually filed his own lawsuit, which would also stretch several years. During this time, most of the rulings would be found in Gaiman’s favor, with Gaiman being granted partial ownership of Angela and Medevil Spawn. This includes when McFarlane would later introduce a new angel in the Spawn comics named Tiffany.
This character was ruled to be a “derivative” version of Gaiman’s Angela, and when McFarlane published a spin-off comic-book series about a Spawn in “the Dark Ages”-
This was ruled to be derivative version of Gaiman’s Medevil Spawn. And McFarlane was forced to cease using those characters until the suit was resolved.
This last bit always confused me, as “Medevil Spawn” seemed obviously just a derivative of Spawn in the first place, so I was unsure how Gaiman could claim ownership of the character. This would be like Mark Millar and Steve McNiven claiming that they “created” and therefore own the character of Old Man Logan, as a separate character from Marvel’s Wolverine.
Anyway, as the suit dragged on in court, McFarlane made what Best considers his 3rd major mistake, in that he bought the assets of the bankrupt Eclipse Comics, which he thought gave him ownership of the character of Miracleman, which he then tried to use as leverage to possible trade to Gaiman in exchange for full rights to his characters.
But ownership of that character turned out to be way more complicated than McFarlane expected (and is the subject of a whole other book itself).
In addition to these Twist and Gaiman lawsuits, the book details other controversies that McFarlane found himself engaged in over the years, includes fights with former Image partner Rob Liefeld, and even threatened legal action against his old friend, the real-life Al Simmons, whose name McFarlane consensually used for Spawn’s secret identity. The book also explained how these various fights affect McFarlane’s reputation among fandom, especially in regards to how it seemed to contradict the Image Comics credo of champing “creator’s rights.” At times it may have felt as if Todd McFarlane was indeed fighting the whole dang world. And the book details just how close McFarlane actually came to losing everything he worked for.
Yet, eventually, the lawsuits were settled, and McFarlane emerged with his empire intact. While it may sometimes get a little bogged down in legal jargon that can be confusing to the layman, this book is a fascinating insight into the comic-book industry and the Americal legal system.