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Toys of Terror #14.5: Q&A with Todd McFarlane!

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Welcome to TOYS OF TERROR, Fango’s weekly feature exhibiting the coolest horror accessories across the web. Whether you’re a collector, connoisseur or simply making your love of horror a family affair, these petrifying playthings are likely to impress even the most heartless horror fan. So if you’re searching for a ghoulish gift, look no further…

This week, Toys of Terror is switching up the formula to bring collectors a cool FANGORIA exclusive: a one-on-one chat with McFarlane Toys mastermind Todd McFarlane! But this is far from just a routine check-up with one of the most influential horror toy developers working today, as McFarlane has revealed his plan to change the face of building toys as we know it with his realistic, customizable WALKING DEAD building set!

Learn more about the set, as well as the future of his long-gestating SPAWN film, in our Q&A below!

FANGORIA: So where exactly does the history between McFarlane Toys and THE WALKING DEAD begin?

TODD MCFARLANE: Well, I’ve been doing toys for 20 years now; way longer than I thought, probably. But our connection to THE WALKING DEAD goes all the way back to its origins, which was the very first issue of the comic book. THE WALKING DEAD was released by an independent comic company, which was the third largest one in the country, called Image Comics. By coincidence, I happened to be the president of Image Comics!

So we’ve been publishing THE WALKING DEAD for 10 years and I’ve been there at the ground level of the property. When it came out, it was a moderate success at best and just slowly started growing and getting stronger. I thought, “That’s not how it’s supposed to work! You’re supposed to atrophy your sales!” But it was the opposite, since it was just getting bigger. Eventually, we made Robert Kirkman a partner over at Image Comics for all of his hard work and dedication.

After a few years of trying to push THE WALKING DEAD into Hollywood, AMC eventually decided to take a bite of it and said, “Okay, zombie stuff, I don’t know what’s so unique about it but let’s go ahead and do it.” Now it’s turned into this global phenomenon and since Robert was my partner at Image, it was an easy front door for me to get into.

FANG: Were there any discussions about doing WALKING DEAD figures before the show premiered?

MCFARLANE: I have always thought there’d be space here for both the comic book and the TV show. I have the toy rights for both, so I can go in to mix and match them. Being that the TV show is as popular as it is, most people are asking for the TV show because that’s what they know. Some people don’t even know THE WALKING DEAD came from a comic book, but there’s a place for both of them. So we’ve been putting both lines out. With one I work with AMC and the other I work with Robert Kirkman directly.

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FANG: As a brand so defined by a unique style of collectibles, do you find replicating THE WALKING DEAD to be creatively restrictive at all?

MCFARLANE: The simple answer is “no,” and there’s no frustration with that aspect. I know where the starts and stops are with [the property] as opposed to something I’ve created wholly and can do whatever I want with on my end. So when I’m chasing a license, I’m not doing so to change it and try to make it better. Rather, I’m chasing it because I think it’s a pretty cool property to start with, so my job at that point is not to add any “McFarlane” stuff to it, per se. My job is to just get it right.

So if I’m going to do ALIEN or PREDATOR or Freddy Krueger, then damn it, it better look like those guys! It better resonate and feel like it’s those characters, and I don’t just mean whether or not the colors are right. The body language has to be right and the minutia within the detail has to be there. So for THE WALKING DEAD, I just need to make it as accurate as possible so that fans of the show are going, “Oh yeah! That’s the thing that I like.” It doesn’t need Todd’s interpretation; it just needs Todd to do it the way it’s supposed to be done.

All you do is look at photographs and images to replicate them, right? I mean, there’s no secret here. If anyone wants to know the McFarlane secret, just get a camera, take some photos, develop it, look at it and make the figure look like the photo. That’s it! People keep giving me and my company too much credit!

I tell people whenever they give me awards the same thing as whenever I get asked, “Oh, Todd, how do you make the figures look so real?” Especially with sports, like when people ask, “How did you get Albert Pujols or Peyton Manning look just like themselves?” Besides using new high technology such as “the camera,” which most people can get if they do the right research? The question isn’t, “How does that look like Peyton Manning?” The question is, “How do they NOT make it look like Peyton Manning?” That’s the bigger mystery to me.

My competitors have been in this for forty years and have had access to cameras before I did, and they still chose to not make it in the form that it already is?! As an artist, I’ll never understand it , and I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it accurately. It’s plastic! It’s like Jell-O. It’ll mold into any form you want. It doesn’t have any intelligence. Why wouldn’t they choose to put the clay into a shape proportionate to what they were trying to make? I don’t know! Go ask them!

On the other hand, God bless them for not doing that because they’ve kept the bar so artistically low that I’m jumping over a hurdle that feels like it’s six inches off the ground and I’m being called an Olympian. They’re always saying, “Todd, you’re an artistic genius! How do you do it?” And I’ll always accept the accolades and all of the rewards they want to give me, but I think it’s silly considering the history of how toymaking is done.

I walked down the action figure aisle 20 years ago and asked a simple question: “Why can’t this stuff just look cooler?” And that was it; everything was born out of that frustrating question. The answer is that it can be. So after 20 years, I’m walking into a new aisle. You can call it the construction aisle, the building aisle, or whatever you want to call it, but I’m asking the same question: “Why can’t this stuff look cooler or more realistic?” It can, it’s doable and if they want to leave this door open for me a second time, I’m gonna go right through it again. I wish I could say I’m smarter than people and I wish I could say I’m a genius, but I can’t say any of it.

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FANG: Considering that none of the major companies have construction toys specifically targeted for adult audience, do you think these WALKING DEAD building toys will reach an untapped market?

MCFARLANE: I would say that is not necessarily true. I think the reason why we have the opportunity to put out THE WALKING DEAD as a construction toy is because there have been a couple of “mature” brand names that have come into the marketplace. HALO is one, and CALL OF DUTY is the other; they’re both in the construction aisle and are doing tremendously well.

So I’m not naive; I know that when I walk in with THE WALKING DEAD, which is a mature construction property, I’m only going to be as good as the last mature construction property. So there doesn’t seem like there’s any resistance to mature building toys, so why not?

But here’s the difference, and it’s what’s driving me crazy: I get that HALO and CALL OF DUTY are based on mature brands but to my eye, as an older and artistic professional, it doesn’t look mature. It’s a little mature, and I’ll applaud them for raising the bar somewhat. But there’s still too little for my eye and my sensibilities to say that it’s sophisticated and mature stuff. To me, it’s like a half-step , and somebody needs to do it all the way and show them how it’s done. So here I go again because it’s hard for me to imagine a hardcore CALL OF DUTY fan sitting there, going, “I can’t wait for the new construction toy! It’s gonna be brutal!”

THE WALKING DEAD construction toy is going to look real. So for it to look real, it can’t have feet twice as big as its head so it can pop into the top of a brick, or what I call “the nipples.” As an artist, I refuse to do it, so I had to come up with another way to solve the problem. It may be inelegant or visually appealing to people, but I’ll leave that to the consumers and they can vote with their dollars. But what I can say is that it’ll look cooler, it’ll absolutely look more realistic and it will be more detailed, guaranteed. Those statements I can say with a straight face and I won’t back down from that.

The secret to my career, just for anyone reading this article, is that I’ve invented nothing original. That’s rule number one. What I’ve done is that I’ve looked at things that exist and on a simpler level, I make them sexier. You could say that’s what Steve Jobs did; he took the phone you used to call Grandma and take little pictures with and he made it sexier. It does the same thing: you can call Grandma still, there’s still photos and music there, but it feels cooler.

When you’re 25, 35, 45 or older, you still have your geek sensibilities. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong if you’re using building toys and you’re 25 years old, so here’s a way to get around that social stigma. The figures just have to look right. It’s not whether it’s the right logo attached to it, it’s whether there’s the right product under the logo.

Sometimes, I feel like the little boy in the Emperor’s clothes because I don’t feel that I’m doing anything fantastic. I’m just making these figures look the way they’re supposed to look. If my competitors were doing it, I wouldn’t have to do this and my life would be less complicated. But I refuse to accept that a 10 inch-by-10 inch plank that is molded out of green plastic and has a bunch of nipples on it is considered to be grass. You can make all the nipples you want and call it grass because you molded it green, but it’s a chunk of plastic and that’s all it will be to me. But there is a way to put pieces on top of it that actually look like grass!

I’m telling you, in three years from now, I’ll be selling an entire selection of props to people who have a million blocks of the other products from those companies. These are the people who will want the best windows, doors, cannons and motorcycles on the marketplace for building toys, and the reason those companies don’t do it is because it risks their business model. But to be fair, if I had a multi-billion dollar business model, I probably wouldn’t budge off of it either. But that business model keeps their heads down and opens up opportunities for kooks like me, because I don’t need to make a billion dollars. I’ll settle for a small fraction of that number and be happy as a lark.

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FANG: Do you think the interactivity between the building sets might make these toys more appealing to fans of THE WALKING DEAD instead of the bigger, completed figures?

MCFARLANE: Honestly, the building is a factor, but there’s also an appeal in the customizable part of it. When you buy a figure, that’s it; you get the figure and have to live with what I built. With these toys, if you don’t like what I gave you, you can move the parts around and put the blocks on different trays. So you can have a lot more fun with the blocks than you can with the action figures.

Also, we’ll be able to make more figures for this because they’re so small, and so there’ll be people out there looking to collect the whole cast of everyone who has been on the show for the past five years. I’d never be able to do that at the six inch scale. So give me a few shelves to fill up and I’ll give you 100 humans and 200 zombies that you can collect. So I figure there will be people who will buy this set and be happy with it, as well as those who will buy this set as well as the add-ons we will offer for it. This is especially true for the hordes of zombies and the sets, like the Prison Tower and the Fence, which both look unbelievable.

So any support on any of those levels, I’ll be grateful since people are giving us their hard-earned cash. I imagine that in five years, 50% of my business will come from the construction aisle. In ten years, I think all of my business will be coming from there. I’m deadly serious in saying that this is where the future of McFarlane Toys is going to be. I’ve told everyone who works for me that, and I believe it the same just as I did 20 years ago when I said the same thing about action figures.

FANG: As a fan of the character, I have to ask: what’s the future of SPAWN? Are we going to see more of him outside of the comic books? Is your SPAWN film still in the cards?

MCFARLANE: Well, Issue #245 of the comic came out and just went to the printers last week. We’re on our way to Issue #260, which is our big anniversary issue and is where our current storyline will end. But there’s probably going to be change on the creative end because I’m writing it right now and we’d be able to bring on some more skilled writers. What that allows me to do is then to focus on the SPAWN movie script, which I keep threatening as if I’m on some kind of weird treadmill.

Regarding the SPAWN script, I’m not good with doing a page here or a page there. I need a block of time to sit there and do stuff, but I haven’t had that block of time. Any time I have that block of time it’s like, “Oh wait, I have to coach my kid’s baseball team,” or, “let’s develop construction toys.” I keep coming up with things to fill that gap, but I’ll be able to devote the time I’m taking away from writing the comic to focus on the script, which should come out to about 20 pages a month.

That’s the whole enchilada and as soon as I do that, all the other pieces will come tumbling fast. There are actors, producers, financiers and distributors who are all waiting on the script. I’m just not willing to let anyone else write the movie. I’m writing, producing and directing the next SPAWN movie and that’s the deal.

From there, other things will come it, too, because we’ll be discussing whether to bring the SPAWN toys back or the SPAWN animated series. Like other brands, everything that comes from SPAWN will be cyclical. I absolutely don’t think SPAWN has run his course. For me, the only thing that’s off the table is doing a big budget version of SPAWN, because I don’t have any enthusiasm for that.

If there’s a big budget, it’ll have to be PG-13 and I don’t want SPAWN to be PG-13; I want the movie to be R-rated. I want it to be a scary movie, but not as much horror as much as a supernatural thriller. I want it to creep the hell out of people. I’m not concerned about supervillains or any of that stuff; in fact, I’m not all that concerned about the special effects. I am concerned with scaring the shit out of people and I want to make a movie for people who don’t need the knowledge of what SPAWN was in the comic book.

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THE WALKING DEAD Construction Figures will be available this fall from McFarlane Toys exclusively at Toys “R” Us and Toysrus.com. THE WALKING DEAD hits the airwaves this October on AMC.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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