Suns News

Artists' Alley

Todd McFarlane gives Robin Lopez a little help on his project.
(Brad G. Faye, Suns Photos)
By Brad G. Faye,
Posted: March 14, 2011

In professional sports, finding an athlete who is also an aspiring artist is no daunting task. Finding an artist willing to give that athlete the opportunity to step into his shoes, however, is a different story.

So when artist/writer Todd McFarlane recently extended an invitation to Robin Lopez to check out his Tempe office, the center – who just so happens to be an aspiring comic book creator – didn’t have to think twice.

A longtime fan of comic books, Lopez jumped at the chance to pick the creative brain of McFarlane, whose credits include illustrating and writing for “Spider-Man”, producing characters such as Spawn, and co-founding Image Comics, which publishes a number of other successful titles, including “The Savage Dragon” and “The Walking Dead.”

“He pretty much defined a decade of comics and has accomplished some amazing things,” Lopez said of McFarlane. “The chance to see some of the tools he uses to work on doing those things was out of this world.”

McFarlane’s vast experience in a profession that Lopez hopes to someday pursue prompted a number of questions from the center, who said the insights provided by McFarlane were tremendously beneficial.

“I was really interested in getting his thoughts on the transition he made from artist to writer and then to what he’s evolved into today in terms of running a corporation,” Lopez explained. “I took a lot away from our conversation and feel a little surer now about what steps I’d like to take to get to where I’d like to go in that industry.”

The crossover between the two was not just a treat for Lopez, but also for McFarlane, an avid sports fan. Currently coaching his son’s Little League team, McFarlane says that had things gone a bit differently, like Lopez, he too could have landed a career in professional sports.

“Ideally, I would have gotten drafted and played baseball,” McFarlane said. “But I was a Canadian and to be drafted as a Canadian, you have to be good.”

Like trying to find an athlete attracted to a career in artwork, it appears equally as common to cross paths with an artist interested in becoming an athlete. The difference in this circumstance, however, is that McFarlane came much closer than most to making that dream a reality. The speedy, left-handed shortstop was not only awarded a baseball scholarship to Eastern Washington University, but was also once recruited by a Seattle Mariners scout to play on a semi-professional summer team in British Columbia.

But while a future in Major League Baseball never came to fruition for McFarlane, his passion for sports can still be seen today. This is perhaps best illustrated in the work he does with the immensely popular McFarlane Toys, more specifically the SportsPicks line, which in 2002 secured the official league licenses of all four major North American sports. As far as which pro athlete renditions McFarlane chooses to construct, according to Sports Project and Brand Manager Mark Weber, it isn’t as simple as ranking a league’s leading statistical contributors.

“We try to have a good mix in our lines of rookies and veterans, big market superstars and small market champions,” Weber explained. “It’s a delicate balance, but Todd’s been picking winning SportsPicks and PlayMakers lineups since 2001 – he knows what he’s doing.”

But whether it be through duplicating the likeness of professional athletes past and present, or the characters created by McFarlane in his other toy lines, as Marketing and Productions Manager Joe Ferstl stated, there is always one constant in the creative process.

“Todd is heavily involved from the beginning concept stages, all the way to the minute packaging details of the final product,” Ferstl said. “It truly is a collaborative effort from start to finish with the entire company, and Todd is right there riding shotgun the entire way. You really couldn’t ask for a better point person to oversee all aspects of our productions.”

While the paths walked by Lopez and McFarlane may have led each to different professions for the time being, the dynamic duo did learn through their afternoon of talking comics, toys and sports, that there is one glaring similarity to how each broke into his respected field – hard work. While it took Lopez a lot of time developing his game in the driveway to become a highly scouted prospect, McFarlane also had to dedicate a significant amount of time to his craft before anybody would give him an opportunity.

“When I started as an artist and was in college trying to get my degree, it seemed like I had to send out 700 packages just to get 300 rejections,” McFarlane recalled. “Two weeks before I graduated, I got my first job, and I think they gave it to me just so I didn’t send them out any more packages.”

As far as how each has sustained the success they’ve achieved, the answer for both Lopez and McFarlane again appears strikingly similar. While everybody understands the importance of communication between the athletes and coaches of a professional sports team, McFarlane believes that in the comic book industry, communication between the artist and writer can sometimes be the difference in whether a creative team wins or loses – something he says he learned in part by having played both roles.

“Now that I do a lot of writing in books that I don’t draw, one of the first things I make sure to ask the artist is if there’s anything that they would hate drawing and anything that they would love drawing,” McFarlane said. “You want to make sure that artists don’t feel that the second they finish illustrating a blank page, you’re just dropping down another and another in front of them to the point it becomes a nightmare. You need to make sure that the artist remains interested in the process and that it doesn’t become drudgery to them.”

The most surreal moment of the entire visit occurred for Lopez when he actually partook in that creative process with McFarlane, being put on the spot and asked to sketch a dolphin using McFarlane’s personal equipment.

“In terms of being nervous, it was comparable to anything I’ve ever felt on a basketball court,” Lopez said with a smile. “Meeting an artist of that stature and having him watch you illustrate something was like taking the court to practice with Michael Jordan.”

With Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston having stopped by to pay a similar visit just a couple of weeks ago, Lopez wasn’t the first professional athlete to hang out with McFarlane at his place of business. If all goes to plan, however, he just may be the first to use the opportunity to someday “spawn” a comic book of his own.