By Kandi Carper ’05
You don’t need to be a comic book aficionado or an action-figure collector to admire the work of Todd McFarlane. After hearing his speech at Eastern commencement ceremonies on June 15, thousands of people who weren’t familiar with his work are now his fans.
McFarlane lives in Phoenix and this was his first trip back to Cheney since graduating from EWU in 1984. It’s a pretty safe bet that, back then, he probably never imagined that one day he’d return to campus to offer advice to graduates and receive an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters on a red-turfed football field. Or, that he would pack a Spokane hotel ballroom to share his life story. In the early ‘80s, McFarlane was busy attending classes, playing on the Eastern baseball team, working as a janitor in Showalter Hall and honing his skill as a budding comic book artist.
As a kindergartener growing up in Calgary, Alberta, McFarlane knew he had artistic talent. Teachers always asked him to illustrate math problems on the board. He was also the child whose painting of a farm was a bit unusual – not the typical picture with a blue sky and yellow sun – everything was green. “I didn’t know the word – but it was perspective,” said McFarlane. “I was up in the tree looking down at the barn, so when I’m looking down all I see is the ground, and the ground is green.”
McFarlane continues to view the world with a quirky and intriguing perspective and he was gracious enough to share some words of wisdom and career advice during his return to the Northwest.
“Road Trip to Creative Autonomy,” a special speaking engagement presented by EWU on June 14, gave McFarlane fans a rare up-close and personal experience with him, as well as the chance to acquire a limited-edition Spawn comic book with an EWU Grad special cover. McFarlane stayed until almost midnight as the crowd patiently waited for him to sign their comic books and memorabilia.
Jim Raskell, age 54, and his son Ian, 23, arrived early to get a good seat at the event. They wanted to meet McFarlane together. “Ian wouldn’t be the nerd he is today, if it wasn’t for my love of McFarlane’s work,” said Jim Raskell. “When he was doing art for Marvel Comics he single-handedly saved Spider-man. The (McFarlane) toys are a work of art, like Rembrandt. I had to buy two of each – one for my son to play with and one saved in the original box for my collection. I have all of the KISS action figures.”
McFarlane’s wit and expressive humor didn’t disappoint the crowd as he recounted the highs and lows of his career in the comic book industry.
As a student at Eastern, McFarlane’s days were full of classes, baseball and work. The only time McFarlane had to draw was at midnight. He eventually accumulated enough artwork to submit to comic book publications. “You only need one of those editors to say yes – you don’t need all 100 of them,” said McFarlane. “I just bombarded them. I had 700 samples and 300 rejections. It’s kind of a cool way to get autographs. They said, ‘Todd you suck, stop sending me stuff.’ Eventually I got a call three weeks before I graduated from Eastern.” McFarlane’s work ethic, talent and determination landed him a job at Marvel Comics.
“People say, ‘build it and they will come.’ That’s a lie,” said McFarlane. “Because I have had too many people that have done their artwork and then they did nothing about it. I have a different philosophy – build it and then stand in front of it and make them run you over. Make them pummel you. You can’t be shy. If you want to be in music, or acting, or 10,000 other jobs, you can’t be sensitive.”
McFarlane’s advice wasn’t just about how to succeed in business. He talked about love. There was a cute bat girl on the opponent’s baseball team when McFarlane was in high school. Somehow he convinced his coach, who also happened to be his dad, to trade him to that team. “I said, ‘dad look at me, I’m kind of over-the-hill. It’s my last year – trade me for two 17-year-olds, build for the future.’ So my dad traded me and I went to the Red Devils, the team with the cute bat girl. That 13-year-old girl is my wife (’85 Wanda Kolomyjec, BS biology) and we’ve been together for 35 years. The reason I tell you that, it’s the biggest thing in my life. You just have to go through walls sometimes. You just have to be stubborn, immature and delusional sometimes to get to your goal.”
McFarlane offered the graduating class of 2013 advice on responsibility and self-reliance. He told them that some of the best counsel he ever received in life, besides from his parents, came from a bear in a cool hat telling him, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” Smokey the Bear’s advice made a lasting impression on him. “Here’s what I took from that,” said McFarlane. “It was on me, it was my actions. I wasn’t going to sit there and blame the world. It’s your life, and you get to define it.”
McFarlane told the graduates that he understood their desire to get on with life and a career. He talked about his jobs as a janitor working in Showalter Hall and a six-month stint at a diaper factory. Yes, he admitted, he’s had some crappy jobs over the years, but it’s all just a means to an end. “I know when you’re young this is a tough one,” said McFarlane. “I couldn’t see it when it was right in front of me. Slow down and enjoy this thing called life. It’s pretty good. Grab the joy that’s around you and hold it as tight as you can.”
McFarlane left the graduates with one final test. He asked them to imagine that they just found out they only had three weeks to live. Their life is shattered and there’s no time to get their affairs in order. Ten seconds to pick. Who is the one person you can count on to help after you’re gone? Who will take care of the people you love? “This is who you pick,” said McFarlane. “It’s not the guy with the best job, or the guy with the biggest house, or the guy with the coolest car. You pick the best person you know. If you want to bring honor, if you want to bring prestige to this university, and you want to make these people proud, I ask you to be that person. Now go tackle the world. You’re going to be awesome.”
Who is Todd McFarlane?
In 1992, he co-founded Image Comics and released his own bestselling comic book, Spawn, which became an Emmy Award-winning animated series on HBO and a live-action feature film that grossed $100 million.
McFarlane Toys, an international award-winning company and one of America’s top action figure manufacturers reshaped the sports collectibles market with the introduction of McFarlane’s Sports Picks for the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB action figure lines. The company also produces action figures of some of the world’s top entertainment properties, including AMC’s The Walking Dead TV and Comics, Assassin Creed and HALO video franchises. McFarlane Entertainment continues to develop projects in film, television and video games.
McFarlane has won two Emmys, two MTV Video Music Awards, a Grammy and hundreds of international awards for his work in the arts and action-figure industry. And that painting he did in kindergarten – it also won an award.