MEETING TODD MCFARLANE - by Edward "Joshua" Wenick, Staff Writer
At The 2002 Online World Faire

One of the highlights of many people's trip to the 2002 Online World Faire in Austin, Texas this year was the opportunity to meet and learn a little bit more about a person famous for his comics. That person being Todd McFarlane, of course. The man behind the scenes of the upcoming Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge expansion coming out for UO in mid-February 2002. I doubt there are too many of you out there who have never heard of Todd before, but for those few who haven't, I would point you to some additional information on his own website, Probably his most famous work, as you may have guessed, is the comic book hero, Spawn. To give you an idea of who Spawn is, I quote directly from Todd's site:

Spawn follows the after-life of Al Simmons, once the U.S. Government's best operative, who was betrayed and murdered by his own men -- only to end up in Hell. There he made a bargain with the Devil: in exchange for the privilege of returning to Earth to see his beloved wife, Simmons must become a HellSpawn, bound to lead Hell's Army in the upcoming Armageddon. Unfortunately, the flawed contract returns Simmons to Earth five years after his death, and he discovers that his wife has married his best friend. Simmons, now known simply as "Spawn," finds himself stuck in a Purgatory of paradox. Although obligated to do work for the Devil, his still-human soul compels him to become a better man than he was and to make the Earth a better place than it is.
Using that simple premise, Todd turned his hero into a franchise, selling well over 130 million copies of the comic book since its original debut in May 1992. It is also published in 16 different languages and reaches more than 120 countries around the world. Not to mention the HBO series based on the comic that ran for several years. To say that Todd is famous within the comic book industry, and even outside of it, would be a major understatement.

So where does Ultima Online come into play in all of this, you ask? Well, one other area that Todd expanded into back in 1994 was the toy industry. Since that time he has grown McFarlane Toys into the 5th largest manufacturer in the business. Originally established to help promote action figure toys based on his Spawn comics, he has now expanded his lines into several other categories, including toys for famous movies (Shrek), for music (especially KISS), for sports (most notably NFL football, NHL hockey, and the upcoming NBA basketball figures), and even for video games (Metal Gear Solid 2). With this kind of background, he was the obvious choice for Electronic Arts back in 1999-2000 when they decided a line of action figures was needed for their now-defunct Ultima Online 2, a world where the Past, Present, and Future of Britannia were to meet and create a new gaming experience from the original Ultima Online. Unfortunately, as many now know, this game was cancelled by Electronic Arts back in March 2001. But not before Todd had already been commissioned to create 6 figures [See Gallery Below] for the game. Seeing the great job that he did on those pieces though, EA still proceeded with their plans to work with Todd by incorporating it into an expansion of the original UO, the deal which Lord Blackthorn's Revenge is centered around. As you may have already heard, Todd's work did not just stop with the 6 figures. It actually expanded to the point where his company designed over 30 unique creatures for our gameworld, many of which are now being seen even prior to UO:LBR's release. Creatures such as the Juka Warrior and the Blackthorn Juggernaut are good examples of what we'll all be seeing over the next few months.

As luck would have it, a few of the Stratics News Team were given the opportunity to meet Todd in person and talk to him one-on-one. Included on the team were myself (Joshua Rowan), Ce'Nedra Willow, Sparrowhawk, and Prescient Dragon. To be perfectly honest, we were all a little too giddy with being starstruck to get any kind of word-for-word interview out of him. But there are a few items we discussed that I would like to summarize:

  • We asked Todd if it had been his life-long dream to be a comic book writer. To our surprise (or at least to mine), he answered that his real dream as a kid had been to become a major league baseball player. He loves sports. Lives and breathes it, from the sounds of it. And in fact, his attendance at Eastern Washington State University was supported by a PAC-10 baseball scholarship. In the end, he still got his degree in Art, but sports has always remained an important part of his life. This is most evident by his partnerships with many professional sports franchises to create exclusive lines of action figures. He also mentioned to us that he had helped design the third jersey for the Edmonton Oilers (NHL). And of course there are the Mark McGwire baseballs that he bought for over a million dollars back in 1998.
  • And speaking of the McGwire baseballs, we just had to ask him what he ever did with them. It was great to find out that he actually tours them around the country. He first began taking them to all the major league stadiums, then branched out into visits to many of the minor league stadiums, from Triple A on down. And in the end he said that he felt the money invested was well worth it because of the happiness that he brought to so many baseball fans, kids and adults alike. He pointed out that the minor league showings were especially nice because his visits became pretty big events for these smaller markets.
  • So why did he get involved in Ultima Online, we wanted to know. His answer was simple - "Fantasy Worlds are where it all is" [sports aside, of course]. A directive that he puts forth to his company when looking for new opportunities. When the idea of working with Electronic Arts on that very thing was presented to him, he couldn't pass it up. And while not directly involved the exact design of all 30+ creatures that his company is doing for EA/UO, it is from his imagination and conceptual philosophy that his people draw from. We got the impression that Todd doesn't actively play Ultima Online for inspiration, but that he was definitely fully knowledgeable about the game.
  • Finally, as humble and friendly as he was with us, we really wanted to find out how he felt about all the fame he's received over the years. Again, another quote from him - "You don't really notice the here and now of the effects of the excitement toward your projects". He expanded on that by saying that half the time he is amazed that he gets to do some of the things he's done. He pointed out his opportunities to meet several rock stars as being especially cool and sureal. But in the end he just felt like a regular joe, exactly like the rest of us.
Concluding our short but exciting interview with Todd, he took the time to have his picture taken with us and also pulled out a pre-production example of the upcoming Juggernaut toy [See Below] so that we could see it close up. All I can say is that if you like action figures, then you need to buy this thing when it comes out next month, as they are very cool.

Heading back down to the main Faire, we were then treated to an excellent seminar with Todd McFarlane as the main speaker. Over the 1+ hour discussion he talked about the origins of his comic book career (like working on Spider Man) and how it came to be that Spawn was created in the early '90s. He went over concept art for some of the UO creatures [See Below]. And he even took many questions from the fans. Later in the evening, once the dinner was over, he then sat down and started signing autographs. I wasn't surprised to see a long line form right away. But what I WAS surprised about was the fact that Todd took the time to speak to every single fan in that line individually. I've never seen a celebrity do that with such honest sincerity. Especially since it meant him staying until nearly midnight to make sure everyone got to talk to him.

Meeting Todd McFarlane was a true honor for me. And for the rest of the Stratics News Team. I thank him for the extra time he spent with us. For the extra effort he put into making the 2002 World Faire an event to remember. And most importantly for the hard work that he and his company have put into making Ultima Online's upcoming expansion one of the best yet.

Relevant Links:

OSI's Online Worlds FanFest 2002 Photos and Notes

Todd's Trip To The Online FanFest


Thanks to Rand "Sparrowhawk" Kiessig and Amy "Cynthe" Sage for taking the majority of these pictures.

Todd Meets with the Stratics News Team and discusses baseball, UO, and life in general.

Example of the Spawn comic. This art comes from Issue 1, June 1992.

Todd takes a picture with Sparrowhawk from Stratics.

Todd talks with the World Faire attendees.

Joshua Rowan getting an autograph from Todd during the after-event party.

Todd meets up for a photo op with Curse from the Grim Faeries, the band that created much of the music for Ultima Online 2.

Concept Art and Modeling shown by Todd while describing the process of creating the Ultima Online action figures.

More concept art of Todd's UO action figures.

The action figures for Ultima Online, designed by Todd McFarlane.