Monday, May 8, 2023

Todd McFarlane's Marvel Comics Work, 1988-91


From the sources I've seen on the subject, there appear to be mixed opinions among readers, and among those in the comics industry, on the work which Canadian artist/writer Todd McFarlane produced in his time at Marvel Comics during a nearly four-year period. Having been a reader throughout those years, I remember my interest waning not long after his new Spider-Man series was launched in the fall of 1990, a book he would produce as both artist and nascent writer. (Though it bears mentioning that the early 1990s presented me with a number of books which had me questioning the quality and direction of Marvel's offerings.) In the beginning, however, when McFarlane joined writer Peter David on Incredible Hulk, I found his approach to be fresh and bold, a unique style for the Hulk that was just as surprising and interesting as that of artist Jeff Purves in the character's subsequent Joe Fixit phase.

McFarlane's time on the title ended after just seven issues, though by that time he had been brought on board Amazing Spider-Man during the run of writer David Michelinie, a gifted scripter and storyteller.  (Michelinie would also later compliment McFarlane as a talented storyteller he was pleased to be partnered with.)  Like many before him, Michelinie gave Peter Parker his share of ups and downs--a certain Christmas Eve being one of the latter instances, surely.

Reportedly feeling dissatisfied at the lack of control over his work and wishing to have more of a say in the direction of stories, McFarlane was appeased with his own Spider-Man title where he would have creative control--coming into the project as a profitable talent for Marvel and taking a turn toward a future for himself that was his to chart. Yet it was a run that would last just a little over a year, which saw McFarlane eventually develop more dissatisfaction in regard to his differences with editors on story and character direction as well as artistic choices for heroic characters that would have done the Marauders proud. By this time, his variant covers were also contributing to the growth of the speculator market which preceded the near-collapse of the industry--while there was also a curious recycling of previous cover styles to coincide with costume changes.

Whether you consider McFarlane's writing at this point in time to be compelling and entertaining is a valid debate to have, with McFarlane himself weighing in on the fact that he was just beginning to dip his toes into the field. In his later work for Spawn, published by Image Comics, he eventually (i.e., after an early rough patch) came into his own in that regard; but though riding a wave of popularity at the time of Marvel's release of a new Spider-Man book, and showing promise in his first issue, it became apparent over the course of the run that the strength of his artwork wasn't supported by equally robust storytelling for a character we were growing increasingly unfamiliar with.

Following his exit from the book, McFarlane would go on to join Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee, and Jim Valentino to found Image Comics, a company not without its own problems but which would turn out to be a stepping stone for McFarlane to even greater exposure and profitability, steadily establishing a media empire for himself which exists as a testament to his persistence and drive as well as his obvious affection for comics. You might find informative a 2000 documentary on the man produced by Kenton Vaughan, with appearances by McFarlane as well as industry peers; in addition, there's a column by David Wallace which covers most if not all of McFarlane's growth in the comics field. The opinion that McFarlane's best overall Marvel work can be found in his partnership with Michelinie in ASM is one that I agree with--but I found myself pleased to see how he built on his beginnings to excel in his chosen field, and remarkably so.


Big Murr said...

Back in the day, I was one of the dewey-eyed suckers that was entirely beguiled by McFarlane's artwork when I first saw it. Over time, my interest and appreciation kept dropping. Seeing these pages now make me really embarrassed that I ever saw any merit in his style.

I recall (I don't know why) a Spider-Man letter column. A fan wrote in:
"Mr. McFarlane. As an artist, you definitely ARE. As a writer, you definitely ARE NOT."
His reply agreed with the fan, citing his beginner status. (By all anecdotal accounts, perhaps the last example of McFarlane ever being humble in this world.)

charliedogg said...

McFarlane's style drew me back to Amazing Spider-Man but it was Michelinie's writing which kept me there. However, I was interested enough in McFarlane's development to commit to his Spider-Man title for a year - as it happened, he only lasted 13 issues anyway so I was able to fulfil that commitment. I stuck with Spawn for 13 issues too but dropped it after several guest-writers' work was more enjoyable than McFarlane as the regular writer. As for the covers, it's one thing when someone draws a cover as a homage to your own work, it's something else (and rather self-indulgent) when you endlessly homage your own work. But McFarlane is definitely one of the creators I think of when I recall the 1990s comics industry.

Comicsfan said...

The word "industry" readily comes to mind for me when it comes to that decade, charliedogg. There's a wealth of Marvel '90s work that I've only touched on in this blog but practically cries out for exploration; yet I think what's been holding me back is the feeling that I wouldn't so much be examining an artist's style and creativity, but instead the ways many were directed to lay out a story and present the character(s) during that period. I recall seeing work by Herb Trimpe on one '90s book, for example, that had me doing a double-take on the credits to make sure I hadn't misread the artist's name.

Colin Jones said...

The Spidey Christmas cover is dated APR so doesn't that mean it was published in January?

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I couldn't say when the comic actually came off the press, but as I mentioned to you previously I go by the date listed in the issue's Indicia on those occasions I cite it in a posting. In this instance, that issue's date is listed as April, 1989.

Colin Jones said...

CF, I didn't mean any criticism - I merely noticed that the Christmas cover was dated April which is four months ahead of the actual month that the comic was published (which I assume was December because Spidey is wearing a Santa hat in the corner box). I'd thought that US Marvel comics had cover dates THREE months ahead so a Christmas-themed story and cover would have a March date.

Anonymous said...

From Neil Gaiman's deposition in his legal case against the Toddmeister, when asked how he first became familiar with McFarlane's work - "I remember someone in the DC offices showing me Spider-Man #1, which Todd drew and people thought was very funny because the writing demonstrated that the person writing it had never written anything before".

It says a lot about Marvel at the time that they'd be so careless with their flagship character. But fair play to McFarlane for making the most of his opportunities. It makes a nice change to see a comic book artist doing well for himself like that.
Even if their work is terrible (;


Comicsfan said...

Colin, no offense taken whatsoever, guy! :)

Sean, I was unaware of the Gaiman/McFarlane dispute, but caught up on the overall story courtesy of Eriq Gardner's piece in The Hollywood Reporter. Thanks!

CanonXF said...

I think to this day, he is the only person who promised "never to return to Marvel and never contribute anything Marvel related" and he kept his word after... I don't know, 30+ years? Insane! (might be wrong here tho)

What do you guys think about this "approach" of his, in the long-run was it "worth it" or shouldn't have to happen like that?

ZIRGAR said...

I never cared for McFarlane’s work, especially his artwork. I can’t forgive him for turning Spider-Man’s webbing into that awful curlicue spaghetti rubbish. Just dreadful.