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Todd McFarlane to Studios: Hey, Take a Look at Image Comics

Comics creators weigh in on medium's leap to the screen during PBS panel

Spawn” creator and Image Comics president Todd McFarlane had a not-so-subtle message for studios and filmmakers on Wednesday: If you’re seeking comic-book-based source material to turn into movies, hey, take a look at us.

With Warner Bros. controlling DC Comics and Disney now owning Marvel and Lucasfilm, McFarlane noted during a panel promoting “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle,” a three-part documentary that PBS will air later this year, “there’s a big vacuum for all the other studios” that an independent entity like Image might help fill.

McFarlane and six other comic creators formed Image in the early 1990s — bolting from Marvel — specifically to provide artists and writers greater control and a larger share of profits from their work. He was joined on the PBS panel during the TV Critics Assn. press tour by Len Wein, whose credits include creating Wolverine, the popular “X-Men” character; and Gerry Conway, whose creations include the Punisher and writing the famous comic-book arc where Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, dies. (“Readers went ballistic,” Conway recalled, noting that he had to avoid fan conventions for years because of the intense blowback to that story.)

Both Wein and Conway acknowledged that they hadn’t fully shared in the benefits of the popularity of comics in movies and TV, with Wein saying that DC had tried to rectify that under former editor Paul Levitz. The character of Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman in the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “bought my new house,” he said, while by contrast he had made relatively little off some of his other popular characters.

Conway stated that the current generation of Hollywood decision-makers “grew up reading comics,” which has improved the lot of comics writers when dealing with studios. Still, McFarlane griped that there are still headaches, pointing out in the context of origin stories, “They always want you to explain everything, to the point where it’s stifling at times.”

In a sense, the panel itself highlighted some of the challenges superheroes have faced in their leap to the screen. Some of the questions exhibited scant knowledge of the art form, while others were highly specific and trafficked in easy-to-lampoon minutia — indicative of Wein’s observations that comic-book fans come to movie depictions of beloved heroes with fixed, bordering-on-rigid ideas of what they expect, without allowing for the nuance of shifting to another medium.

“You have to be flexible, and a lot of fans lack that capacity,” he said.

Although McFarlane’s Spawn was turned into a 1997 movie and an animated series, Image’s greatest success beyond the printed page is likely “The Walking Dead,” the Robert Kirkman comic turned into a hugely successful AMC series.

Asked about any trepidation about all the titles becoming movies, the trio uniformly expressed excitement about the trend — speaking as much as fanboys, they stressed, as comic-book pros.

“Most of us are pretty proud of our creative children,” McFarlane said, while Wein added, “The geeks have inherited the Earth. We’ve won.”

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