Speeding alongside a runway at 100 kilometres an hour, trying to catch a plane as it taxied down the runway at Cassidy airport, Terence Fitzgerald might have wondered what kind of job he had got himself into.
At his side was legendary Marvel comic book artist Todd McFarlane, who desperately needed to get his nearly-finished pages onto the plane so they could be FedExed to New York.
"So I'm weaving around cars, and he's still drawing the last page in the car," said Fitzgerald with a laugh. "He'd spill, and say 'Screw it, that's a tree.' We come screaming up to Cassidy airport, and the plane is on the runway. I'm like, 'What do I do?' and he's like, 'Drive on the grass!'" They caught the plane, but the adventure was just beginning for McFarlane and Fitzgerald, who not only enjoyed a long friendship but formed one of the great working relationships in comic book history.
From gambling on an independent break-away publishing business in the early 1990s, to overseeing what became the Spawn comic book empire, encompassing a prolific toy company and entertainment business, for a period of time, McFarlane and Fitzgerald were a creative powerhouse that revolutionized the industry.
The two met when McFarlane, then the creative force behind Spiderman, scooped up a house in Duncan in the late '80s, and put out word at local high schools that he was looking for an assistant.
A lonely, creative teen perpetually glued to his headphones, Fitzgerald graduated from high school at the age of 16.
"I'll never forget Grade 12 French with Mrs. Christopherson, she looked like she was
90 years old, sweet as pie. I had doodled and drawn so much on my French 12 book that when I turned it in, she started to cry," said Fitzgerald.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, she's crying because I defaced it,' and she was like, 'This is so beautiful, I'm taking this home.'" He had just dropped out of second-year physics at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) and was wondering what his next step was when he heard about the audition at McFarlane's house.
Fitzgerald showed up along with 10 other teens, and after a 2 a.m. callback the following day his mom was none too pleased about, was informed he got the gig.
After a whirlwind year working as an assisting artist for McFarlane, which included four months of 18-hour days, he returned to school in Nanaimo and completed both a graphic arts and visual arts diploma at Malaspina.
In the midst of graduating and applying for an automotive design school in Pasadena, Calif., he received a call from McFarlane.
"He said, 'I quit Marvel Comics,'" said Fitzgerald. At the time, McFarlane was considered to be one of the top comic book artists in the world, and was growing frustrated by the limits on his creativity.
"So I said, 'Great, that means you'll be at DC, you'll be on Superman and Batman.. .' and he said, 'No, I quit with six other guys, and we're going to start our own company.'" Those six guys were Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino, who combined were responsible for somewhere in the range of 50 per cent of Marvel's sales.
They were leaving, and McFarlane wanted Fitzgerald to go with him.
So with little idea of what was to come, the day after graduation he took a leap of faith and moved to Portland.
The year was 1992, and the new company was Image Comics.
Crunching numbers, they figured if they sold approximately 30 to 35,000 copies of their own comic, they could pocket roughly the same amount McFarlane had made selling 300,000 at Marvel.
Settling into a tiny studio above a garage, they set to work on a character McFarlane had been dreaming of since he was 15, but had carefully guarded from becoming Marvel's property: Spawn.
With the launch of their first issue two months later, Fitzgerald approached the fax machine with trepidation as it scrolled out their first sales numbers.
With his stomach clenched, he grasped the page and stared at it in disbelief.
Their first issue had sold more than 1.7 million copies, making it the best-selling independent comic book of that time.
The comic went on to sell more than 175 million world wide and is still running today. It also came to be viewed as a benchmark that changed the comic book industry itself.
"We used to say, 'We're not printing comics, we're printing money,'" said Fitzgerald with a laugh.
Incredibly, this was only the beginning.
Building on the success of the comic, offers began to come in to do a series of toys, but after several deals fell through, McFarlane and Fitzgerald again decided to strike out on their own. "We said listen, we were stupid enough to take on a $100 million company like Marvel and DC. Let's be even more stupid and take on a billion-dollar company like Mattel and Hasbro. Let's start our own toy company," said Fitzgerald.
In much the same way Spawn's glossy finish, vivid computer generated colours and artwork that bled off the page helped revolutionize comics, McFarlane Toys' high-quality, intricate and well-priced figurines then changed the toy industry.
Soon, Hollywood wanted in on the action with offers to make a film.
In the midst of negotiations with Columbia Pictures, Fitzgerald received word that Michael Jackson was interested in playing the lead role.
"Spawn's a six-foot-four, 280-pound Marine, and Michael Jackson is five-four, 76 pounds, holding a 20-pound bag of sugar," said Fitzgerald with a chuckle. "But who doesn't want to take that meeting with him, right?" He went out to the Sony Pictures lot and entered a giant foyer with a tiny desk at the back framed by a three-metre-by-12-metre photo of Jackson on a gold throne flanked by two panthers.
"So he's saying, 'I really like this Spawn, I really feel for him - his turmoil and his strife, and how he's hiding behind a mask,' and I'm like, 'I get that part,'" said Fitzgerald with a laugh.
"That was one of the hardest calls I had to make, where I had to call his manager back and basically say, 'I understand he's a world superstar, but it's just not right.'" However, after nine months of negotiations with Columbia, the question once again came down to creative control, and both McFarlane and Fitzgerald walked.
The idea was soon revived with help of three renegades from George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic production company: Clint Goldman, Steve "Spazz"Williams and A.Z. Dippe. Best known for creating the special effects for the liquid metal, shapeshifting character in Terminator 2, at the time they were with a top-secret project called Jurassic Park.
It was a match made in creative heaven, and with a partnership in an up-and-coming company called New Line Cinema, McFarlane was guaranteed the creative control he needed.
The film was released in 1997 and grossed nearly $55 million.
It was then that the awards started rolling in. With the creation of an animated HBO series, the Spawn empire scored two Emmy awards in 1998 and 1999.
It was also the year they branched out into entertainment, scoring a Grammy nomination for Pearl Jam's animated "Do the Evolution" music video, a Grammy win in 1999 for Best Video with Korn's "Freak on A Leash," as well as MTV and MuchMusic awards.
Culminating in what he considered one of the greatest achievements of his career, lead singer Eddie Vedder got the idea for the video when he returned home late one night and watched an episode of Spawn's HBO series, said Fitzgerald.
The top-secret video, codenamed Project X by senior Sony executives, was Pearl Jam's first in seven years.
During their first phone call, Vedder said he wanted to do an animated video because music videos made him feel like a performing monkey. There was nothing in his contract that said he had to actually be in the video, he added.
Leaving much of the creativity up to Fitzgerald and McFarlane, the result was a stunning combination of social commentary and dark apocalyptic imagery.
"I came to Todd on Monday morning and I said 'Ed is a big socially aware, causes, charities kind of guy. And I did a bunch of research, and here are the 30 big causes he's involved with,'" said Fitzgerald, and the two started collaborating.
By the end of that day they had their concept.
"The idea was that in five minutes and 36 seconds, we were going to have the history of the planet," he said.
"So, we got on the phone, Todd pitches the idea to Ed, and Ed is speechless. .. and he says, 'You guys nailed it.'" Like a marriage that meets the end of its life span, the dynamic pairing didn't last forever. Needing a new challenge after 10 years together, Fitzgerald withdrew from his presidency of Todd McFarlane Entertainment. He spent several years heading up an L.A. based clothing company that took a heavy hit in the harsh aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash.
That same year, he re-evaluated his life and decided to abandon a grueling work schedule to return to the West Coast with his wife Amy.
Arriving on New Year's Eve, his birthday, they bought a house in the Cowichan Valley, and in 2009 VIU honoured him their Distinguished Alumni Award.
Today, he regularly mentors VIU's graphic design students, something that he said "rejuvenates this part of my heart that has been missing forever."
He also has a number of projects on the go, including an illustrated children's book he expects to be out in the fall of 2014.
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