As Once-Dead Heroes Go, He's Tough to Beat

Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Pointing a long, spindly finger at his right temple, Todd McFarlane stands on the sidelines of Hollywood Center Studios Stage 7. "This is what I've been living with upstairs in my head, yep," he says.

The creator and publisher of "Spawn," one of the nation's hottest comic book, marvels at the live representation of a world he created in 1992 with a few idle minutes and splotches of ink.

Looking around the smoky, damp stage built to resemble the musty back alleys of Manhattan's Bowery district, McFarlane watches his creation move. The fat guy who looks like he swallowed a basketball is the villain Clown, played by John Leguizamo.

Standing a few feet away is a tall, muscular, demonic figure with glowing yellow eyes and a rough complexion that resembles beef jerky. This is our hero, Spawn, an African American soldier returned from the dead, portrayed by Michael Jai White.

"I'm always thinking in three dimensions when I draw these guys," McFarlane, 35, whispers as he stands behind cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's monitor, observing the shots. "But to see them walking around is impressive."

McFarlane had been a prominent illustrator at Marvel Comics but left in 1992 over issues of artistic control and future royalties, forming an umbrella organization, Image Comics Inc., with six other similarly disaffected colleagues.

In addition to being the top comic book and a best-selling action figure, "Spawn" is the subject of a $43-million live-action film from New Line Cinema, a video game and a $6-million HBO animated series that will launch the cable channel's fledgling animation department in late spring. In 1995, according to Forbes magazine, the gothic, violent hero generated revenues of $35 million for his creator's studio and toy manufacturing operation, McFarlane Toys.

"Spawn" is the story of Al Simmons, a covert operative who is killed by his employer, the evil Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen). Yearning to be reunited with his fiancee, Wanda (Theresa Randle), and to seek revenge, Simmons unwittingly makes a deal with the Devil. He doesn't realize that his split-second decision will mean returning to Earth as a horribly disfigured demon who will lead the Army of Darkness in the impending Armageddon.

"I could have sold the rights to 'Spawn' early in the game, with an A-list director and star, and maybe there would be a lot more hype around it, but there would be things I couldn't live with," McFarlane says. "I'd hate to sit next to my parents at the premiere and have them say, 'Wow, that was a great movie, what did you do for it?' and all I can say is, 'I cashed a check.' "

After walking out on a possible deal with Columbia Pictures in 1992 that he felt denied him sufficient control, McFarlane negotiated an arrangement with New Line that grants him executive producer credit as well as veto power over cast, director and writer. He also owns the film's merchandising. "With me in control, you'll never get Spawn toothpaste," he says with a chuckle.

He prefers to negotiate things himself, being represented by neither an agent nor a lawyer: "Spawn was the No. 1 character when [New Line] bought it, and it's still the No. 1 comic and toy. What could they say?"

They could say that comic books frequently flop as movies and point to the recent multimillion-dollar disappointments "Barb Wire," "The Phantom," "Tank Girl" and "Judge Dredd."

But Bill Liebowitz, longtime owner of Golden Apple Comics, a store on Melrose Avenue, thinks Hollywood has simply been picking the wrong comics to exploit.

"Tell me who in the world was supposed to see 'The Phantom?' " he says. "Was it little kids, or adults in their 40s and 50s who were feeling nostalgic? In a summer with 'Independence Day,' one of the biggest special-effects movies ever, they focus a film around an actor wearing purple tights riding a white horse throughout the jungle. Who was supposed to see that?"

New Line officials remain unswayed in their optimism about "Spawn," due out in September.

"Any character that has as established an audience as Spawn has great chances," says New Line Cinema President Michael DeLuca. Himself a comic book collector, DeLuca recently optioned two comic properties from former McFarlane partner Rob Liefeld, "Badrock" and "Avengelyne." "The key to the movie being a success is that it maintains a PG-13 rating but retains its darkness."

Hoping for the best available computer effects, McFarlane hired two veterans of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic who had created images ranging from the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" to Jim Carrey's pliable green face in "The Mask."

They said they welcomed the chance to work on "Spawn" because, like McFarlane, they shared little in the financial rewards and had little artistic control over the effects and characters that made their former company legendary.

"We came up with the innovations and the art, but we weren't allowed to put our real signature on our work," says visual effects supervisor Stephen Williams, who did the new Jabba the Hut footage in Lucas' forthcoming restored version of the "Star Wars" trilogy.

"With 'Spawn,' I can finally stick my digital actors in a play that I do like," he adds. "We have control of the stage, and shape it every step of the way."

Among the innovations planned for "Spawn" are an organic costume that reacts with the character's temper, an elaborate visit to hell and a battle with Violator, a wicked demon.

Mark Dippe's nine years of ILM experience give the first-time director a familiarity with special effects, but he finds the challenge in giving the film a depth beyond the effects.

"I want this to be a dark and mysterious place, a no-man's land between heaven and hell," he says between shots. "Not a place where everyone's a junkie or a murderer, but a place where a few good people are cast away for a number of reasons."

McFarlane thus far has been pleased with the results, letting Dippe and crew work their magic in peace.

"As long as it looks cool, I'm happy. If people thought 'Batman' was dark, Christ, wait till they see this," he says with a grin. " 'Batman' is candy floss as far as I'm concerned."

Michael Jai White's face is gone. Instead, a burnt man kneels near a puddle, quietly brooding. The light brown eyes and high cheekbones that marked his impressive turn as Mike Tyson in a 1995 HBO movie have been erased.

Instead, as Spawn, the 30-year-old Brooklyn native leans over the liquid pool and examines his burnt face as if seeing it with new eyes. Rubbing his cheekbones in slow circles, he winces with pain at the sight of his own ugly mug.

But soon after Dippe yells "cut," it's apparent that White feels uncomfortable in his bodysuit.

He sits on a cloth-backed director's chair and leans his head back as an assistant removes his yellow contact lenses. He's still adjusting to his new condition, learning how to withstand the eye-irritating contact lenses and intense temperatures inside the body suit, which is glued to his skin.

"Every time I hear someone complaining about the heat, and I'm sitting here marinating in my own juices, I feel like choking them," he says about the costume makeup that takes three hours to apply every morning. "I look at this as being an exercise in will. When physical duress enforces focus, your mind only becomes stronger--the true basis of martial arts. To become a master, you must have a strong will and unbreakable concentration."

Raised in a rough section of Bridgeport, Conn., White was the youngest of four and a shy kid who was easily pushed around. After watching the classic 1972 Shaw Brothers kung fu epic "Five Fingers of Death," he believed he found the answers to all of his life problems: learning how to fight.

"I have to admit, when I first got into karate, it wasn't for any spiritual awakening," he says. "I wanted to build an armor that could shield my sensitive nature from all that could harm me."

He grew up to become an internationally recognized champion in the Japanese and Masoyama disciplines, only to find his spiritual muscles in need of a workout.

"I became a deeper martial artist when I realized, 'OK, I've got the brawn, now develop the brain. I've got the heart, develop the soul.' And not to fear anything. That's when I started turning things around."

With "Spawn," White finally gets to become the superhero he always wanted to feel like as a kid. He hopes the film will allow him to reach more kids than he did in his previous career as a teacher of juvenile delinquents and emotionally disturbed children.

"Spawn isn't a character without his flaws, but he works through them to become a better person," White says. "This guy isn't just affecting the 'hood, but the whole planet. 'Spawn' is one of the best vehicles to reach kids I could have asked for."

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