Come In Alone: Issue #51

Fri, December 22nd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

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[Spawn/Spider-Man]Time for me to again become The Grinch Who Told Everyone To Fuck Off And Die.

Artist and Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada has recently publicly challenged Todd McFarlane, artist and owner and operator of Todd McFarlane Productions (TMP) to make a return to drawing comics. Quesada's belief is that McFarlane, with his media profile and his history as one of the "architects" of the early-1990's boom, could help massively re-energise the comics market by a return to illustration. Comics Newsarama ran a poll following this where 49% of over a thousand participants were found to believe that, I quote, McFarlane owed it to the industry to draw some new comics projects.

McFarlane has dismissed the notion, and Quesada's joking addition of $1000 to sweeten the pot. But Joe, the new smiling face of Marvel, doesn't give up so easily. He's now released an open letter to McFarlane in a second attempt to get him to come back to the factory-floor production of comics. Quesada: "We`re in tough times now folks, but we don`t have to live there! I`m sick and tired of all the negativity that`s floating around the industry, the net, at conventions. It`s driving me nuts! I hear fans grumbling and even sadder I hear creators grumbling incessantly. It`s all negative this, negative that! Come on, it`s time to stop now! Stop with the griping and let`s look towards the future, go ahead, take a look, it looks pretty bright to me! I`m just trying to bring a little levity and get fans talking again. I can`t tell you how many message boards I`ve read were people actually think that I should be acting more like a suit! Now that made me laugh!!! Doesn`t anyone remember when it was okay to have fun in the comics industry? … Toddster, this is my last and final offer. I`m going to make it as easy as possible. What I`m offering is that you draw a book and I draw a book. And just because no one thought that it could happen, let`s make it worth everyone`s while. Here`s my Holiday gift for ya, I`m talkin`... SPIDER-MAN/SPAWN!!!"

I hope that not too many of you have orgasmed in your chairs. Get your breath back, grab the tissue box, and I'll continue quoting:

"That`s right, you draw a Spidey/Spawny crossover for TMP and I draw one on the Marvel end. I say we make them 48-page one-shots!… I put in a call to a writer friend of mine to see if he was interested in writing my end of it and he immediately accepted. Not only was he blown away by the whole 'Get Todd penciling again' idea, but the next day he e-mailed me a synopsis of the story cause he couldn`t stop thinking about it. It wasn`t bad for a beginner like KEVIN SMITH!"

Kevin Smith is the indie film director and well-known Quesada cronie who produced the high-selling DAREDEVIL relaunch (with Quesada and inker/dealmaker/top human Jimmy Palmiotti) and is revamping GREEN ARROW for DC next year.

"Oh, there`s more and with the season of giving upon us I`m getting to the most important part of this challenge. I have recently agreed to be on the Board of Directors of the ACTOR Fund. ACTOR is "A Commitment To Our Roots," a non-profit corporation dedicated to helping out old-time comic creators in financial need. Since many Golden Age or Silver Age creators toiled to build today`s groundwork by working only for page rate with no chance of ownership and no pension, this fund has been set up to help some of our elder statesmen in need. I`ll donate $10,000 of my proceeds from Spider-Man/Spawn as well as half of the artwork and Kevin (who looks considerably more like Santa than I do) has agreed to donate cash from the project as well. So what more could you ask for, Toddy Boy? I`m giving you the Wallcrawler to have some fun with and we`re looking to help an amazingly good cause."

Quesada obviously knows he can easily be ignored, because he closes on this marvellously insidious note:

"Now to all the fans who would like to see this happen, send Todd a note, go to www.Spawn.com and be heard. We want Todd to come back to what gave him his start."

In a follow-up conversation with the boys at Comics Newsarama, Quesada said: "Kevin has already sent me a synopsis. If Todd agrees, we can start whenever he says go," he replied. "Why would I make this up? The boss said I could do it...And, I am the boss, right? Plus, we`ve been getting so much press lately, it`s not like we need it. I really want to see the guy help us move the needle the same way Frank [Miller] is doing with his Dark Knight sequel."

So far, no comment from Todd McFarlane.

McFarlane is having a rough time in the public eye of late. The questionable circumstances surrounding the departure of Brian Michael Bendis from TMP - a read between the lines of which leads some to the conclusion that the more popular Bendis got, the less happy TMP got. The initial loss of the frivolous Tony Twist lawsuit, presumably due to McFarlane hiring his legal team from Fraggle Rock (How the fuck else do you lose that case? Hook the jury on crack?). The purchase of a poxy baseball for an obscene amount of money that could have achieved so much more in his name. The Neil Gaiman situation, where at best Gaiman was treated very poorly by a McFarlane misrepresenting himself as a champion of creative rights, and at worst being an allegedly thieving shitbag. I mean, you can't gloss this one over. If Gaiman is right, then the allegation is that McFarlane swindled him out of intellectual property and gave Gaiman the finger when he requested redress. If it's not true, then an appalling level of miscommunication from TMP to Gaiman is indicated. Gaiman seems to suggest that this one could end up in court. McFarlane's public statements do not attempt to come to terms with the allegations and show a general lack of interest.

I don't know Todd McFarlane at all, but I've always had a lot of time for him. I remember when the joke around Marvel was that Todd only knew two hundred words, and that half of them were "fuck." Most of those people are unemployed or vanished now. Todd McFarlane could buy their bodies for medical science. While they're still alive. Fifty times over. McFarlane has proved himself one of the smartest businessmen in the field and a clever and uncompromising creator. Clever? Sure. He was a beginning writer who realised he wasn't all he could be. In fact, he was a pretty fucking appalling writer. So he hired Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller to write sequential issues of SPAWN for him. And the next all-McFarlane issue of SPAWN showed a 400% improvement in McFarlane's writing.

These days, though… hm. Brian Bendis was providing the best writing at TMP, and now he is not there. Brian Holguin is not firing on all cylinders for some reason. Greg Capullo was off his peak for the last year of his TMP work and Angel Medina, while professional and competent, doesn't have the commercial chops and inventiveness of a McFarlane or Capullo and isn't in the same league as an Alex Maleev. Liam McCormack-Sharpe was providing them with Wagnerian fantasy illustration pretty much unique in current comics, but McCormack-Sharpe is no longer there either. Ashley Wood provides atmospheric covers in the style of the late-Eighties Bill Sienkiewicz, but is a problematic, derivative and unfocussed maker of sequential art. And just this week TMP's Larry Marder issued a cease-and-desist order on Diamond Distributors distributing the new issue of news magazine COMICS INTERNATIONAL, which features as its cover a MIRACLEMAN illustration by Wood and McFarlane. Now, not only are the rights to MIRACLEMAN a problem in themselves (and CI is published by Dez Skinn, original publisher of MIRACLEMAN when it was MARVELMAN and possibly in possession of a percentage of the rights himself), but CI believed themselves to have a relationship with TMP, having recently been in friendly telephone conversation with… Larry Marder. At this point, I've not seen a press release from TMP explaining why they had to issue a legal letter to Diamond instead of ringing up Dez and telling Dez they had a problem with CI using that cover, which is certainly the method an actual human would use to remedy the situation. Until we see that press release, we'll not know TMP's (doubtless perfectly right and comprehensible) reason for acting as they did.

SPAWN is at the wrong end of the Top Ten, doing an estimated 65,000 copies. And while that kicks the shit out of anything I'm writing right now, it's not what you expect from a property that lorded it over the sales charts for most of the last decade and birthed a highly successful major motion picture as well as the only successful adult drama animated series on TV in living memory.

All in all, it's not the best place Todd McFarlane has been in over the last few years. And Joe Quesada's challenge has pointed this out somewhat.

[Joe Quesada]
Joe Quesada
Why is Joe Quesada doing this? Well, I don't know Joe Quesada either, so we're going to rely on circumstantial evidence and base speculation again.

Joe Quesada makes the comics press in one way or another at least once a week. He's plainly decided that part of his job is to ensure that he gets a massive amount of press, more press than anyone else - because, to an extent at least, press for him is press for Marvel. And press for Marvel would, one hopes, lead to sales for Marvel, therefore money for Marvel. And we all know how Marvel could use some money. It also means money for Joe, not only because a healthy Marvel can continue to pay its EIC a wage and bonuses, but also because Marvel Knights is Joe (and Jimmy Palmiotti's) Event Comics. I imagine Stan Lee was driven much the same way. That man wanted himself completely identified with Marvel and completely beloved, and did everything short of breaking into peoples' houses and fucking them in the night to do it. To be honest, I'm sure he considered it and was talked out of it by nervous assistants. "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! I'll do it! I shall dramatically decant myself into the beds of my best beloved brethren, the Mighty Marvel Mavens nationwide, and bring them all to outstandingly overwhelming orgasms with the purposefully pulsating penetrations of my -- "

But anyway.

A cynical person - and I'm sure we don't know any of those, do we? - might identify other good reasons for Quesada to do what he's doing. As the new face of Marvel, he needs to project Marvel's image as being bright and fresh and innovative and dynamic and all that. Which isn't easy, with Marvel's cultural baggage. It's kind of like watching your dad trying to prove he can dance. ("We're going to stay up 'til eleven tonight!") But one of the simplest ways to achieve this effect is to cast yourself in contrast to something else. And so there's Todd. Getting a little mired in a corporate middle age, not quite the firebrand of the Nineties anymore. Still a Major Name, but getting metaphorically soft in the middle, being pushed down the charts by the shiny new Marvel books, more distant every year from his original career as a maker of comics. A cynical person might suggest that Todd's acceptance isn't actually required. In fact, the effect is better if he doesn't agree. Because he simply needs to be there to be contrasted against. Marvel: young and shiny and good. Todd: last century's story, hidebound, no longer cool.

Of course, if McFarlane rises to this challenge, then it sees him drawing Spider-Man, owned by Marvel Comics. The character and corporation he left to set up on his own. It would clearly mean Todd going back to daddy. Like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee and Erik Larsen and Whilce Portacio.

Ignore me. I spoil these things by looking too hard at them. Go have fun. There's no agendas here. Everybody in comics does everything for the right reasons. I'm a miserable bastard. I don't even think this project would "move the needle" if it happened, just like I don't think the Millar DARK KNIGHT sequel will have the massive effect on the business that everyone else says it will.

But you know what might possibly make a difference? Todd McFarlane looking to his books and his practises and making his company an unassailably ethical powerhouse of commercial publishing, proving that you don't have to be an corrupt old corporation to make a lot of money and have a massive effect on the culture. Because that's the important thing about Todd - he owns SPAWN. Not a corporation. Not a bunch of suits who call ideas "assets" or "an exploitable creative library". The central concept of Spawn is his idea, free and clear, and he's built remarkable things on that base. So if these allegations about his business practises are true - what will it cost him to fix them? If true, how much of his fortune will it take to turn over what's owed and shake people's hands and say sorry? If not true, how hard can it be to clear it up and restore reputations?

You know what else would make a difference? Energies at Marvel being directed towards making a full trade-paperback backlist a near-term reality instead of a long-term promise, and a redress of the lack of foreign reprint royalties, and a cure of the other situations that still make DC a fairer publisher. These things would make a difference. A little more action and a little less talk.

Which is good advice. Next week's COME IN ALONE will be my last.

Merry Christmas yer arse.

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