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As nerds conquer pop culture, Todd McFarlane expands his toy empire

There was a time when Toronto's Fan Expo was a convention populated solely by comic-book-collecting geeks and social outcasts. But, as pop culture has increasingly become a hybrid mish-mash of genres, technologies, brands and media, the days of social exclusion are now just a memory. Todd McFarlane thinks thats a good thing.

"We're past the point of being a nerd because everyone's a nerd now," says the Calgary-born comic book artist and toy magnate. "You see all walks of life at conventions now. Everybody comes and there's no embarrassment to it."

At the show to promote a new line of toys based on the Assassin's Creed and Rabbids video game franchises, McFarlane may as well be the poster boy for this convergence. He only devoted his energy to his other talent – drawing – after an ankle injury cut short his first dream of being a major league baseball player.

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That was probably a good thing, since it eventually led to a job at Marvel Comics, where he rose to superstardom status in the late 1980s by reinvigorating Spider-Man with a highly detailed and exaggerative art style.

He vividly remembers the social divisions back in high school because he had one foot in both the nerd and jock camps. He was mocked for his love of comics, but it never sat well with him because his peers would spend their weekends watching Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond movies. That struck him as just as nerdy.

"I've got this melodramatic, super-fantastic stuff that I read on paper and you go see it in films and somehow there's a disconnect to it?" he says, speaking figuratively to his high school tormenters. "As I've always said, you were always a geek. You just considered yourself an elitist geek and you looked down on us peasant geeks."

Tim Burton's Batman movie in 1989 changed all that, he adds, because it started to bridge the two worlds. Now, with the biggest films of the year typically a steady cavalcade of super hero and comic book fare, the divisive pop culture lines have been completely erased.

Fan Expo, running in Toronto since 1994, has indeed become a cultural phenomenon, drawing close to 100,000 attendees over the weekend. This year's show added sports for the first time, further blending the worlds. Hall-of-fame athletes such as Bobby Orr and Roberto Alomar signed autographs for attendees dressed up as Star Trek and Doctor Who characters.

The line blurring is good for McFarlane on both a personal and financial level, since it vindicates some of the shame of his earlier years and it also expands his toy market considerably.

His path to independent success began after splitting from Marvel in 1992 with a number of other artists to form the creator-owned Image Comics. His character Spawn became a huge-selling comic line and movie and the basis for his private owned toy company, McFarlane Toys, which has since grown into one of the most important concerns in the industry.

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His toys, like his artwork, are highly detailed and aimed at older children and collectors. While not as big as Hasbro or Mattel, the company is influential because of its older market and McFarlane's penchant for seeking out new markets.

In the company's early days, he admits to making toys of "stuff that I thought was cool," which included rock stars such as KISS and Alice Cooper and especially athletes. That included sports, a field that was largely untouched by existing toy makers and which has since become a big part of his business.

The expansion continues with new lines based on Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Rabbids video game franchises, which McFarlane decided to add after seeing their respective successes. Assassin's Creed, a franchise created and developed in Montreal, was particularly attractive because of the mainstream push the French company is giving it. Aside from novels and comic books, there's also a movie starring Michael Fassbender in the works.

Rabbids, meanwhile, is one of the only kid-friendly properties that has ever caught McFarlane's eye – Shrek being the other – which is something he hopes will grow his business.

It's a full circle of sorts. Just as pop culture has converged and expanded, so too have McFarlane's interests and sensibilities.

"My job is to go, 'What are kids and the audience gravitating to?' At the beginning of my company, I used to go to the stuff I personally liked. Now that doesn't necessarily have to hold true," he says. "As an artist I [might not] get it, but as a CEO I completely get it."

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More


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