Exclusive: Todd McFarlane on His Upcoming WALKING DEAD Building Toy Sets
By Joseph McCabe on July 7, 2014
Todd McFarlane has been an entertainment maverick since his days illustrating Batman and Spider-Man comic books. But the Spawn creator and Image co-founder and president has found a distinctly different career as a toymaker, creating sports and genre action figures renowned for their realism and detail. Now McFarlane’s bringing that same level of detail to construction toys with his Walking Dead Building Block collectible sets, which should bring an unprecedented level of eye-popping verisimilitude to brick building when they make their exclusive debut this fall at Toys ‘R’ Us stores and Toys ‘R’ Us online. Yup, you heard it here first. Now read what McFarlane himself just told us about this exciting new toy line.
Nerdist: Do you see this project as one in which you’re combining the action figure toys you’re known for with construction toys?
Todd McFarlane: Yeah, for me the opportunity is the same opportunity that was there twenty years ago when I began in the action figure aisles. Do the big boys have it covered? Yes. Do they know how to do it like clockwork? Yes. But there’s still one burning question that I have every time I walk down the aisle – why can’t it look cooler? Why can’t it just look cooler? So I built a twenty-year reputation with our company in answering that question. And the answer is it can. It’s just plastic. It will go into any shape you want. It’s just like jello molds. So jello molds can be really cool too. The jello doesn’t care what shape it goes into. I know how to do it.
Back then, twenty years ago, I was sort of new to the toy industry. I was learning on the fly. Although there will be the same learning curve, I don’t believe it will be nearly as steep, because I understand the cheap plastic goods business. So I go, “It can look cooler!” Why they choose not to do it… God bless them, because it leaves opportunities now for a guy like me to come in and say, “There’s another way to skin this cat.” If the goal is to make it look more realistic, I will accomplish that goal better than anybody in that aisle when my product hits. Will they still sell way more than me? Yes, they will. Will they have more product opportunities? Yeah. But will they have stuff that’s more realistic looking and cooler? Nope.
N: How did The Walking Dead come to be the first subject you decided to apply this new approach to construction toys?
TM: Well, Walking Dead just on its surface came from a comic book. I wear a bunch of different hats. I’m also the president of Image comics, and Image has been publishing The Walking Dead since its inception over ten years ago. So I’ve been around this property for a long time. Robert Kirkman who co-created it is now a partner at Image because of the hard work he’s put in. And most people know the brand because of the TV show that’s on cable and shattering all these viewership records. So this is a big brand. If I’m gonna walk into another toy aisle – because for twenty years I’ve been in the same aisle – then I need to go there with some help. As good as I think our company is, we need a brand that’s recognizable. So we’re walking in with the strongest brand on cable TV.
Now I go, “What are we trying to accomplish in that aisle?” Number one, we’ve got to build environments. This show is perfect for having backdrops that are relevant. You can’t necessarily say that about a lot of shows, movies and comic books — that what’s behind the people is as well known as the characters themselves. So when you say to people who are Walking Dead fans, “Woodbury,” or “The Governor’s room,” or “the prison yard,” or “downtown Atlanta,” people go, “Oh, I know what that backdrop is!” All that is valuable, given that we’re gonna start building environments. It’s what building blocks do.
Then the second piece is that we have to put some figures around it. So you go, “Okay, here’s a show that is now littered with dozens and dozens of human figures, and literally thousands of zombie characters.” I think we’ll have fans that will choose to ignore my building sets and say, “I don’t care about your building sets, but I’m gonna buy your figures.” Besides the building sets, we’ll come out with, for example, a five-pack of figures and what they call a blind bag program, where you buy something and open it up and one of the figures comes out but you don’t know in advance who’s in there. I’m pretty sure we’ll let the audience know which bags have zombies and which bags have humans so if you want to build more of one than the other then the other I’m not gonna frustrate you.
But the great thing about that program, that’s better than what we’re doing in the action figure aisle, and why you could arguably go, “No, I don’t want to buy building block stock,” is that I can literally do fifty, seventy-five of the human characters. I could never do that in the action figure aisle. Because in that aisle I only have a limited amount of space and I have to pick the top characters. So I could never do the thirty-fifth most popular human character in The Walking Dead. And I can now do that.
The cool thing is – and now I’m just gonna geek out on you – from a geek perspective I can go, “Wow, these things are only a couple of inches tall and if I can find two feet of shelf space there may come a day where if I buy these little packs and these five-packs I can have all the relevant cast members of the first five, six, seven, eight seasons – and a horde of zombies around them. And just put them up like the choir at school, stack them like in those school photos we all used to take, and go, “There it is. Whoever your favorite guy or gal is I guarantee I got them sitting right here.” And you only need two. If I gave you the top 100 characters and zombies in six inches you might need an addition to your house. And now you can get all this stuff in a short period of time.
We’ll do well on the builds because I’m gonna show them builds that, when finished, look like nothing in the marketplace, and there’s a whole action figure – albeit small – collectible figure line. And better than that, what I’m hoping for – and you’ll see this on our packaging – on the front you’ll see the prison tower and the fence which we’ve seen a hundred times on the TV show, and you’re gonna get Glenn and a couple of zombies on it and it’s gonna look cool as hell. But if you turn the box over there’s gonna be a photo of what it looks like if you buy a hundred zombies and you stack them up into the fence like they are on the show, and some of them are maybe even breaching it, and now all of the sudden a couple of humans are having to breach the hole. So you can keep it as passive as you want, which is the initial build, but if you buy these little add-on characters you can make it look really, really cool. I’m hoping that we have way more people that reach to that part of it.
N: Can you discuss your roll-out plans and the first wave? We’ve heard we’ll see Daryl’s bike and the Governor’s room.
TM: Yeah. I’ll start at the low price points and go up… We’ll have the blind bag program, that’ll be a few dollars. Then if the stores are having a lot of success selling figures we’ll have a five pack. You’ll get one or two humans and the rest will be zombies. But one of the humans will be one of the prominent characters. There will be an assortment of those, so you can say, “I want the Rick and the zombies,” or “I want Daryl and the zombies.” If you’re trying to build a horde of zombies you’re not gonna have to collect the same humans over and over again. That would be the next tier up . That’d be around the fifteen-dollar mark. Just under twenty is Daryl on his bike, driving down the Atlanta freeway, and there’s a zombie there. That’s around $19.99. Then you jump up to the twenty dollar range and you get the Governor sitting in his odd room staring at his aquarium with all the floating heads. The aquariums light up, so you can turn off all the lights in your room and have them light up, and you get Penny, his daughter. Then the big initial deluxe build that first comes out will be the prison tower with the gate.
The thing that’s frustrating is I have yet to be able to take a photo of some of this stuff that does it justice. Especially the tower and the gate. The tower and the gate, when you look at it with your own eyeballs, is really cool. It turned out even better than I thought it would. You would think, “How interesting could a gate be?” But it’s cool. With the barbed wire and the ratchet and the grass and the fences bashed in like people have been throwing baseballs against them, and the signs on it, there’s a substance to it; and the tower’s pretty big. That would be the big deluxe build. If you want to get more of the prison, shortly after that first wave we’re gonna start to come in with little component ten or twelve dollar buys with a figure and a piece of backdrop. In a lot of cases, the backdrop won’t just be isolated to that build. It will actually connect to one of the existing builds. So if you buy a handful of these things you can start to expand your build, if you so choose. That’s where we’re at with the initial roll-out, and we’re already working on a second wave, of some of the key builds that people will find interesting.
What’s interesting is everything I’ve just told you I’ve explained to the buyers. I came in with drawings, even the prototype. They looked at it and said, “Wow, that’s cool. I don’t quite understand the build.” The moment I pulled some of the planks off and they could see that underneath it it looked just like everybody else’s in their aisle, that all my pieces are compatible with all the other companies’, that you can swap my pieces with theirs, it’s an odd thing. When you tell people what it is, even when they look at it they don’t get it. Because in a weird way, because I’ve covered the majority, if not all, of the nipples on the tops of these blocks, people don’t understand it as being construction, because there’s no nipples. It’s a weird concept. But the moment I pull off the veneers, the skin if you will, everyone I’ve showed it to goes, “That’s cool. So you’re just putting the sexy at the end of it?” “Yes!”
But they need to come to it on their own. Which may make it slightly difficult at the beginning because I’m only gonna have this cool shot on the cover. Hopefully most people will go, “Well, there must be some building component here because it’s in the building aisle.” When I say, “By the way, this Governor’s room is 297 pieces,” I’m hoping people will go, “What? It looks like twelve.” To put it in perspective, the chair he sits on, which is an inch and half tall, which normally would be one piece if I was doing action figures, is fourteen pieces. But people have to take it apart to prove it to themselves because they don’t trust me. Then as soon as they see the first nipple, they go, “Oh, you do have to build it!” The makeup on our stuff is just a little prettier than what the other guys do.
The thing the other guys do that drives me crazy is that the closer I get to their build the less believable it is to me. Because it starts to bitmap. I do the same thing on my computer – if I start zooming in on any photo it starts to become square, right? That’s what theirs do. I took my kids to Legoland, and it’s fantastic from twenty-five feet. I’ve been up close and I go, “It’s a bunch of bricks.” I’ve always said, “I don’t get why it can’t look cool from up close.” Our will be the opposite. The closer you get to ours, the cooler it’s gonna be.
I’ve been at this a long time and I usually just build things for myself. Thank God I’m average in my tastes. Because there’s a lot of people that want the same thing that I’ve always wanted. “Wouldn’t it be cool if the action figures and the sports figures had a little more detail on them? Wouldn’t it be cool if these construction builds actually look like what they’re trying to replicate?” I can’t be the only guy that’s asked these questions.
N: Might you eventually look at other brands or licenses with which to apply your technique and technology?
TM: Yes, we’re on the lookout. We’ve had some initial conversations with a couple of brands. But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and grab five or six licenses and find out the first one or two didn’t work. So we’ll probably grab one or two more and cross our fingers in the hopes that The Walking Dead leads the way. Just so you know, the construction aisle is a growing business in the toy aisles. You talk to the toy buyers and you say construction and their eyes light up. The buyers for other aisles wish they aisle was growing like that. And if you actually ask them about action figures there’s not nearly as much enthusiasm. The growth isn’t there. And because of some of the stuff based on mature stuff lately like Call of Duty and Halo, it’s given an opportunity to me. As much as our reputation precedes us and as strong as The Walking Dead is, if those two brands had come out and fallen straight on their then the retailers would have said, “Mature blocks don’t work.” I’m only as good as my competitors last sale; that’s been true for twenty years. But that stuff’s been working. So not only is there mature growth in that aisle, but there’s also been growth in mature branded stuff. So the opportunity is ripe for the picking. So if I’m gonna get in, now’s the time to get in.
N: Thanks for your time, sir!
TM: My pleasure!
Here are the official details on Series One direct from McFarlane Toys:
The Building Sets: MSRP $9.99-64.99 – Daryl Dixon with Chopper, The Governor’s Room, and Prison Tower with Gate. Expand your brick building apocalypse with additional figure and accessory packs.
Blind Bag Figures: MSRP $2.99 – Daryl Dixon, Michonne, The Governor, Carl Grimes, Riot Gear Walker, Michonne’s Pet Walker, and Herd Walkers.
Which Walking Dead backdrop would you like to build first? Will you be collecting all the characters in the blind packs? Let us know in the comments below!