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Legendary Artist Todd McFarlane Talks Baseball and Toys

The 2015 New York Comic Con (NYCC) opens today, and for four days the center of the comic book and entertainment world will be Manhattan. The event not only allows fans to get the latest info on upcoming books, movies, and TV shows. It also gives them a chance to meet their artistic heroes. And for most people, Todd McFarlane is very high on that list.

He began his career in the mid-1980s before becoming a superstar drawing Spider-Man in the late ‘80s and early 1990s. But in 1992, he joined a group of other comic artists to form the independent company Image. There, McFarlane published the book Spawn, which has been running non-stop for more than 20 years and was turned into a movie and cartoon series.

McFarlane also created toys based on Spawn characters, which allowed the artist to branch out from comics. He designed lines of action figures based on monsters, movie characters, and athletes. His baseball, football, hockey, and basketball toys are the most realistic sports toys ever created. The success of McFarlane Toys, along with his reputation as a comic artist, has made McFarlane one of the biggest names in pop culture and a fixture on the comic convention circuit.

But comics and toys aren’t his whole life. He’s also a huge sports fan (especially baseball and hockey — he once owned a stake in the Edmonton Oilers) and a committed youth baseball coach. Team Spawn, which is based in Arizona, is made up of 13-year-olds and funded entirely by McFarlane. The team is the real deal. It has been ranked the number-one 13-year-old team in the country and has won numerous national tournaments.

We caught up with McFarlane at last year’s NYCC and again at Toy Fair in February to talk baseball and toys. The following Q&A is a condensed version of those two conversations. 

How long have you had Team Spawn?

We just finished our third year. And all three years we were nationally ranked. That first year we were ranked number one in the nation. But good kids. Good kids, work hard.

Do any of the kids know you as Todd the artist?

They come up to my office and they know, I think sort of intellectually, “Oh, he does this stuff…” I mean, I fund the entire club team so nobody pays anything. I have a bunch of kids who otherwise couldn't afford it. Talented kids, but they don't come from great social or economic backgrounds. So, they know what I do and they think it's cool. But they're more concerned about me teaching them baseball. "Coach, OK, you can draw. Teach me how to bunt better."

MLB teams start scouting young. Do you ever see scouts around your team's games?

It's interesting. My daughter played club volleyball and the scouts would come to the club volleyball tournaments because they knew that's where the better players were. They would come — and I'm using scouts in terms of college recruiters, which is what I tell my kids. We're not talking about major leagues here. We're talking about using your skill to get an education. That's what I keep telling them. The chances of any of you kids ever making it is so remote, but here's what's way more likely: You're skill as a ballplayer might be able to get you an education, and that will help you for the rest of your life.

Do you ever have to convince them that the education part is important? Or do they get it right away?

They don't. And here's why I say that. It's not that they don't understand it intellectually, but some of them... I've got a team in which I intentionally went after kids that didn't come from the strongest economic backgrounds to just give opportunities. Traditional club teams, parents pay money to be on it. I fund this team. So I just want good, hard-working kids and good parents. So, in some of those instances, I think they grow up in a family where nobody's ever gone to college. Even if you wanted to go to college, there's no money to go to college. So what I have to get passed is just going, you can still get there. Even if nobody in your family did it and even if your family might not have the economics, I understand, then there are other ways to get there, and in this case either good grades in high school and/or having a skill in a sport. So if you have a skill in a sport that you can make that go into a scholarship. If you're even an average athlete but you have good grades in high school, they give athletic academic sports scholarships. It might not be NCAA, but at least you're at college. So what I have to get them past is of them wanting to even go to college and wanting to go to college for the right reason. Not because I'm going to play ball, but because it will change my life. You can be the first in your family to go to college and you'll set a standard then for people in your family thereafter.

There are all these scholarships for, like, football and not a ton for baseball. And when a kid gets to high school, they have to choose to focus on a sport, and which one are they going to focus on if they need a scholarship? But it sound like you're getting them to think about baseball as this way to get to college.

Let's look at it broader than that. There are actually a lot of scholarships available each year that go unused. There are academic sports scholarships for badminton, for girl's golf, for all these sports that we roll our eyes at. and I’m not saying I want you, boys and girls, to become a pro at it. I am saying that if you have a decent skill at school and you don't think your mom or dad are going to be able to afford to send you to college, go play something like badminton and you will be surprised at how easy it will be to get a scholarship because people aren't going in those directions. So you'll have to go play some badminton. You're probably going to start to enjoy it and actually get really good at it. But it will be the pathway to get there. Even if you're not really that great at any sport, you can still use sports as a wedge to get into school.

You played baseball in college, right?

I played Pac-10 baseball for three years. I know the game, I have a keen eye for talent.

Did you continue playing once you were done with college?

I've got my 15-year-old team this weekend. Next weekend is the 40-and-over tournament that I'm in, playing for a California team. So, yeah, I still play. Frustrated athletes will play for a long time.

Is it a good outlet for you, if you get frustrated with work, to go play ball or hockey?

It's a tremendous outlet because I just get to stop and hang around the youth. I gotta tell you, after hanging around adults all day and all they talk about is market share and taxes, kids don't talk in those terms. We haven't taught those words to them. So to me, it's like a breath of fresh air. They're good for my soul. But when I go out there and play, the reverse of it is when people go, "Wow, you seem to be very focused on your business and you have all this," and I go, "That's all from sports training." When I'm at the plate, I don't care if there's 5,000 people in the stands booing. I don't even care if the guy has got three eyes, who's pitching. I only have to do one job: That ball, that white thing in his hand? I've got tunnel vision. He throws it, my job is to hit it, and that's all. And so I can get focused on tasks now, business-wise, that's just because of my training doing sports.

On the left is a Derek Jeter figure made by Starting Lineup; on the right is a McFarlane Toys Jeter figure

Making these toys of baseball and football players, does playing sports...

Matter? Yes. Here's all you have to know that that answer's completely 100 percent true. Look at the Starting Lineup toys and then ask whether the executives or the guys who were the project managers played at a high level of sports. And if they say yes, they're lying to you! Because there's no way that an athlete would've sanctioned the poses that those guys put out for years and years and years and years. So I am as hardcore an athlete and a collector and a geek as possible. I bought baseball cards since I was 10 years old. And I refused to buy those toys because I'd go, “It doesn't look like my Sports Illustrated or my posters. It doesn't look like my baseball cards or the articles or nothing!” And I'd go, “When's somebody going to actually make them look like they're supposed to look?”

Here's the one thing non-athletic people don't understand: torque. Even some of my best sculptors when we started doing baseball, they were great at doing Conan and they were great at doing Spawn and they were great at doing monsters and whatever. When it came to baseball, football, basketball, hockey, they kind of got it right. But even when they were looking at reference [materials] they couldn't extrapolate what was happening on the backside of the body. If you do a shot of a guy pitching from the front, you can't really see where his elbow's at. And they didn't understand how far back the elbow actually stretches back on a major league pitcher and where that is in relationship to his body. So a lot of the sports figures, I actually posed it. I can't be the guy who gets scanned because I don't have that body, but I do [the pose] and then I get them to do 360 shots of me. And what they always miss is that... They do a pose, right? <mimics a football throwing motion from a standing still position> You can't do it. So the way I do my poses, is I actually <runs up like he's about to throw, makes the motion, then stops mid-motion> and then I freeze it so that the muscles are tight, the torque is where it's supposed to be. I go, you can't just [pose it]. It's not sincere. So, act it.

How does new technology change the process? Is it better now?

I wouldn't say it's better. I would maybe use the word “easier” because photography and understanding how the body moves, it doesn't matter how much technology I give you. It's like, now I draw on a computer. And people go, “Oh, Todd, you're cheating.” I could sit my mom down at that computer and give her that same pen and say "Draw a horse, mom," and just because the technology's there she can't draw a horse any better. You still have to know this skill of what you're doing. So where the easy part comes in is that if they don't get the torque right and I need them to now twist them, we're doing a lot of sculpting in the computer where before we had to sort of break the clay and rework the clay. In the computer, you can just move wireframes and you can get there sort of easier with sort of half the work or something like that.

Was there ever one sculpt or player that was just really challenging or took a long time to crack to get right?

There have been dozens and dozens of that. I wouldn't say it was one player from head to toe. I would say there are pieces — and it goes beyond sports, because we do more than sports — there are just pieces of somebody that if you don't get it right it seems to disrupt the whole figure. So if you don't get the likeness of somebody, to me that's really sort of the big one. If the likeness is wrong, I don't care if the rest of it's right, it just doesn't seem like it's the person. But then if you get the likeness right but the body seems like it's 20 pounds heavier or 20 pounds lighter, it doesn't seem like them. And sometimes you go, “No no no, we got all that, but the wrinkles aren't very good, it doesn't seem like real clothes.” So all of it, to some extent, can give me fits, artistically.

We're neurotic artists, and our drive is trying to get the elusive perfection. Every batter that walks to the plate thinks he's getting a base hit. In reality, it's not true. But if he doesn't think he's going to get a base hit every time up, he's in the wrong sport. So we think we're going to get it perfect every time, but sometimes we ground out and strikeout and hit into double plays and other times we hit the home runs.

Photos: Anna Pena (McFarlane), McFarlane Toys (baseball team, toys)

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