Next week, Todd McFarlane is going to wake up in a hotel 1,400 miles away from home. At age 50, he’s going to don a cap and gown, climb onto Eastern Washington University’s stage during its 2013 commencement ceremonies, and speak. He’s probably not going to make an outline or write anything down before addressing several hundred Eastern graduates. He also hasn’t written a speech for his lecture at the Red Lion scheduled for the day before.
“I’m just going to go up there and say ‘Hey, I’m Todd. At 16, I started taking an interest in… sports and in drawing. Let me walk you through 15 to 50. It’s far from being a straight line,’” McFarlane says.
Thirty years ago he graduated from Eastern, as the class of 2013 will do next week. Today, McFarlane owns one of the highest grossing independent comics of all time. He’s the driving force behind America’s fifth-largest action figure production company. He helped direct a TV miniseries and had a hand in the creation of his own movie — all a tribute to Spawn, his own original character dreamed up in high school.
Two decades after Spawn was first printed in comic-book form, McFarlane is coming back to speak about his successes and his journey. It’s nothing formal, but he plans to share the transformation from teenage athlete to business entrepreneur. At 15, he doodled into the late afternoon, walked hand-in-hand with his childhood crush, and dreamed of professional baseball. At 50, he’s still with his middle school sweetheart, but he’s in a different sort of major leagues. For McFarlane, business and baseball go hand in hand.
“Being an athlete added a lot. As an athlete, there’s a lot of time when it’s just you and the pitcher,” McFarlane says. “When I played sports, it was tunnel vision — ‘Today, I’m going to be the best guy on the field.’ But every day I stepped on the field, the delusional sort of self-arrogance that we entrepreneurs have never thought I was going to fail at sports… I never accepted it until they said I wasn’t going to play professional ball.”
The same arrogance, ego, and rashness that drove him to push for the big leagues powers McFarlane’s entrepreneurial experiments, failures and successes. So what did he do when his baseball career came to a screeching halt after playing at EWU? McFarlane’s wiring as an entrepreneur made him focused — and a little bit delusional, he says. The baseball rejection meant nothing after leaping into the ocean of his second passion, cartooning. That’s where McFarlane’s journey took a hard right, because starting at point A and winning at point B isn’t a straightforward journey.
A 15-year-old Todd would never look at 50-year-old Todd and guess that this was a part of the plan. There was no plan when McFarlane started out after college. But he slowed down, paid attention, and hit the balls that life pitched to him.
“It’s OK if you don’t reach your goals by 25, 30, 35. It’s a good, long life, and I don’t even know if I want [college kids] to get everything they want by 26, because then they’re going to be on the back side of the bell curve. It’s OK to take it easy and give yourself more time to see opportunities.”
It’s fine to go back to the drawing board and it’s OK to be rejected, he says. Take criticism and reassess where you’re going and where you think your priorities lie.
“Sometimes when the critics say you’ll never make it, they’re actually right. But us stubborn — and to some extent immature — entrepreneurial kinds, go ‘Oh yeah! I’ll show you!’ Sometimes we’re not that good at what we do. But I took all my rejections as being something to make me hunch over the board and grind it harder, so some day I can go and say ‘I think you’re wrong.’ ”
For McFarlane, it’s not about the control, the caution, and the calculation. It’s about getting up on stage without note cards, turning to a crowd of several hundred people, and winging a speech about what it’s like to jump into the world feet-first after getting that college degree.
“It could be something really good or really bad,” he says. “I won’t know until I’m done with the last word.”
Road Trip to Creative Autonomy: An Evening with Todd McFarlane • Fri, June 14 at 7 pm • Red Lion Hotel at the Park • $15, free for EWU students