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‘Spawn’ artists locked in epic showdown

Royalties from series at stake

Author Neil Gaiman (left) has claimed that he is owed royalties from three characters he created for the comic book series. Todd McFarlane says he had another artist create characters and they weren’t based on any of Gaiman’s work. Author Neil Gaiman (left) has claimed that he is owed royalties from three characters he created for the comic book series. Todd McFarlane says he had another artist create characters and they weren’t based on any of Gaiman’s work. (Craig Lassig/ Associated Press)
By Scott Bauer
Associated Press / June 15, 2010

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MADISON, Wis. — An epic battle between comic book titans will be continued as a judge struggles to decide whether artist Todd McFarlane owes author Neil Gaiman for three characters in the classic “Spawn’’ series about a murdered CIA agent who becomes a demon.

US District Judge Barbara Crabb heard from Gaiman, McFarlane, and comic book author Brian Holguin yesterday but did not rule on Gaiman’s claim that he is owed royalties from three characters — the demon Dark Ages Spawn and two scantily clad female angels. The judge gave both sides until June 25 to submit additional arguments.

Gaiman testified yesterday that he believes Dark Ages Spawn was essentially a copy of Medieval Spawn, a character he created in the ninth issue of the “Spawn’’ series in 1993. He also said the angels known as Domina and Tiffany were copies of the red-haired Angela, a character who also debuted in Spawn No. 9.

A jury found in 2002 that Gaiman was due money for being a co-copyright holder for Medieval Spawn and Angela as well as a character named Cogliostro, a one-time Spawn ally.

Over the past eight years Gaiman and McFarlane have tried, unsuccessfully, to determine how much money Gaiman should get based on those three characters. Adding three more to the mix would mean even more money for Gaiman, although his lawyer Allen Arntsen said after the hearing he couldn’t estimate how much was at stake.

Gaiman’s lawyers have said Gaiman plans to donate any money that comes out of the case to charity.

McFarlane created “Spawn’’ in 1992 for a start-up comic book company, Image Comics. Although it isn’t as popular as Batman or Spider-Man, the series has been fairly successful with action figures, an Emmy-winning HBO series, and a 1997 movie that grossed $87 million worldwide.

Images of the characters in dispute, including the angels in thong bikinis, were projected in Crabb’s courtroom throughout the daylong hearing. Gaiman described what he said were unmistakable similarities between the characters at issue and the ones he created 17 years ago.

“It looks like the same kind of thing,’’ he said when shown an image of a comic book titled Dark Ages Spawn No. 1. “It’s a knight in armory kind of Spawn.’’

McFarlane said the characters have some similarities because all the Spawn characters share certain features, such as green eyes and a distinctive shield.

But Dark Ages Spawn speaks differently and has a different back story, McFarlane said. He testified his only direction to Holguin, who created the character, was to “come up with something cool’’ and that he didn’t tell him to copy Gaiman’s creation.

Holguin said he and another artist came up with Dark Ages Spawn on their own in 1998 and any similarities to what Gaiman had done five years earlier were not intentional.

“We were trying to sell comic books,’’ Holguin said. “We could have done Italian Renaissance Spawn, but I’m not sure it would have sold as well.’’

Gaiman said in the Spawn universe, there is only one Spawn that comes to earth every 400 years, so Dark Ages Spawn has to be the same as the character he created because they both lived during Medieval times.

McFarlane said there are no hard and fast rules about what can happen in the pages of a Spawn comic.

“You break those rules to meet the wants and needs of the fans and the marketing,’’ said McFarlane, who also owns a toy company that made Spawn figures. Some of the figures, including one that came with a comic book crediting creation of a “Dark Ages Medieval Spawn’’ to both Gaiman and McFarlane, were entered as evidence.

Gaiman, who lives in northwestern Wisconsin, worked on the “Sandman’’ comic book series. His novels include “American Gods,’’ “Coraline,’’ and “The Graveyard Book,’’ which won the John Newberry Medal.

McFarlane illustrated a number of big-time superheroes, including Batman and Spider-Man, before cofounding Image Comics. He also manufactures action figures and made headlines in 1999 when he paid $3 million for the baseball Mark McGwire hit for his then-record 70th home run in a season.