Conskipper may be brand new, but our journalists have been covering the world of pop culture conventions for years. The following interview was originally conducted by John Evans as a freelancer on January 6th, 2020.
If you grew up living and breathing the world of horror and comic books, there’s a good chance Paul Burke had something to do with something you loved. Whether it be his work as president of Stabur Press/Calibur Comics, his co-founded video production company with Stan Lee, or his former role as co-CEO of TMP International, Inc. in launching McFarlane Toys, Burke has worked with the top talent of the industry to help them make their creative dreams a successful reality in especially cutthroat marketplaces. His latest endeavor is Asylum Publications, an imprint dedicated to genre interests of art and photography. Burke recently wrote and published The Early Days of McFarlane Toys, a book which chronicles his experiences with the company as it grew into a juggernaut toy company in the mid to late 90s (You could read our review of the book by clicking this link). Burke took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about Asylum Publications and his experiences in working with Todd McFarlane and Stan Lee.
What inspired your production/creative partner Josh Werner and you to create Asylum Publications? What makes Asylum different from other publishers?
Paul Burke: Gary Reed and I created DeadWorld Zombie Soda (Caprice Brands) and we had worldwide zombie cosplayers promoting the beverages. I documented some of the events in the DeadWorld Zombie Soda book to send to them to say thank you. Then a group of the old McFarlane Toy executives mentioned I should do a book on the beginning of McFarlane Toys to tell that story. I plan on eventually doing books on the other experiences and businesses (Blue Dot Design – Ford Motor Company – Tier 1 company) I have created over the years. It was fun again so I approached and teamed with Josh Werner, the Creative Head of Source Point Press to publish more books. We’re throwing in a few new books in popular culture to try to understand the new marketing techniques needed to succeed. Asylum is the highest quality I can make while still keeping the cover prices reasonable.
One new Asylum title that has generated interest in horror and comics fans is a book you wrote about your experiences as Co-Founder and Co-CEO of TMP International, Inc., entitled The Early Days of McFarlane Toys. What was your experience like reliving your memories from those days as you compiled your photos and anecdotes for the book?
Burke: In creating The Early Days of McFarlane Toys, people started sending photographs that they didn’t think they had, but they kept finding more each week. We originally thought it would be a simple 24 page book but it grew as people sent the photos and we spoke about the various events and experiences we had in basically learning a high growth business from the ground up and all crazy events that took place. It was hard work, yet we managed to have some fun.
Why do you think fans connected so strongly with McFarlane Toys when the company entered the marketplace?
Burke: Todd wanted to make the best toys possible… not a simple 4″ figure, but large, highly detailed figures. As the company grew, Todd and the design team learned how to make them better with each line. The uniqueness and quality of the toys created a collector base for them.
What is your favorite action figure or line by McFarlane Toys? Why is it your favorite?
Burke: Malebolgia… Todd wanted to create a great toy, and that toy being so detailed and twelve inches tall was unheard of in the toy business.
One of the ways McFarlane Toys revolutionized the industry was through exciting variants, chase figures, contests, and promotions. Which of these do you think were most successful or are most memorable to you today? How come?
Burke: This is actually a hard question.Everything we did or made was successful. However, as far as promotion… the showroom in New York was literally created from scratch every year. The design team and builders gutted the space and built a series of showrooms based on each toy line that you followed room to room. From custom-made movie sets and cabinetry to life size figures (including live celebrities) it became a “must see” by everyone in the industry and press.
Between elaborate repaints and chase variants to “outside-the-box” Collector’s Club offerings like the translucent green Necroplasm Spawn, McFarlane Toys was always redefining what could be a popular and viable action figure. Can you recall any radical ideas for action figures that were being kicked around the offices of TMP International, Inc. that ultimately didn’t get made for whatever reason? Which of those ideas would you have liked to have seen produced?
Burke: I really didn’t have much to do creatively. Todd and the design team would always be kicking new radical ideas around and they would tell me what the new toy lines would be for the next year. However, I will give you this crazy story: The company was growing so fast in 1996 that we hired a very experienced, older Chief Financial Officer away from Magna International- a six billion a year automotive company- to head up the financial team. We immediately flew him and the executive and design teams to Vancouver to meet with Todd for a planning session. We had a six hour meeting that primarily consisted of “how can we make a toy fart really good?” On the flight back, all I heard was “What did I get myself into!?” from the new CFO! He fit into the company perfectly and helped guide us and taught all the other finance people well. Some moved on to be CFO’s of other major companies.
You began working more closely with Todd McFarlane after originally collaborating with him on an episode for the Stan Lee Presents the Comic Book Greats VHS line that you co-produced with Stan Lee. Having personally worked with such successful comic pioneers as McFarlane and Lee, what are some shared qualities you observed in both figures that you think contributed to their legendary statuses in the industry?
Burke: I was very fortunate to partner with both Todd and Stan. Stan had visions to bring his ideas to life and I was the lucky guy he chose to do a few projects with. Not only did I get access to Marvel, but Stan also introduced me to some of the biggest names in Hollywood to do more projects and books. Stan and his wife Joan were like West Coast parents to me and even though I moved on to other industries, Stan and I talked on the phone every month and visited as much as time allowed for 30+ years.
Todd is a great friend that obviously put a lot of trust into me to get McFarlane Toys up and running. Todd’s visions of toys and toy line features made marketing easy. We both learned something new about the business every day. We discussed the pros and cons of projects frequently and yet we kept business to a 9 to 5 basis. Todd’s commitment and belief that we could revolutionize the action figure industry was key to motivating every one of the team members to bring the best toys we could make to market at a reasonable price. He’s one of the few people who could pull it off.
You worked with Stan Lee on the Comic Book Greats series long before he became the cameo king of Hollywood in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and instantly recognizable even to non-comic book readers. What are your favorite memories from shooting the Comic Book Greats series, and what did you notice about Lee’s screen presence that showed he could be a film star on top of all of his other achievements?
Burke: You could not find a better partner than Stan Lee. His personality and easy going nature was perfect for the screen. We used to shoot three 22.5 minute shows a day, one day each month. We would do a lot of pre-production to accommodate set changes, themes, etc. and Stan would always be prepared and then throw away the script and just free form the conversations and questions for the guests. He knew them personally, but he really followed everyone’s careers and knew more about them than they knew about themselves.
What’s next for Asylum Publications? What projects are you currently working on that horror and comics fans can look forward to?
Burke: Besides working on a few personal business books, I’m working on continuing the Masters of the Dark Art series for horror and fantasy artists. I will also be bringing a collection of 91 year old master painter Jack Faragasso’s work to the market. We are also working on quite a few new monster, photography and zombie books. Almost anything is possible. I’m mainly trying to figure out social media and internet marketing for direct sales where I can ensure the quality.