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Tuesday, July 25, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ERIK LACITIS

Death Row Marv in Puyallup? It's a family thing

Seattle Times staff columnist

Past the car lots in Puyallup, in a low-rent mall where neighboring businesses include a laundry, teriyaki joint and a bargain store, at 729 River Road, I find the place mentioned in The New York Times.

It is The Spider's Web, the store selling the most McFarlane Toys. It's a firm that you may never have heard of, unless you're a 21-year-old male or a 26-year-old female, McFarlane's target customers.

A new action figure called "Death Row Marv" is what got the attention of The New York Times. He is 1,000 percent muscle, tough and ugly, a good-guy-bad-guy-kind-of-psycho-anti-hero-guy. He's strapped to a toy electric chair because Marv got real mad and killed somebody. He is a character from the dark side, in which typical dialogue goes like this, "I grab myself one last lungful of night air. Then I trade it in for a smoky soup spiced with sweat and vomit and booze and blood. I know the flavor well."

This is what the $21.95 action figure does, as explained on the box: "Straight from the pages of Frank Miller's hard-hitting comic Sin City comes Death Row Marv! Watch Marv convulse as the switch is thrown, then hear him say, `That the best you can do, you pansies?' and see his eyes glow red as he fries."

An ad for Death Row Marv suggests, "Pretend it's your boss."

Well, you can understand how such an action figure would catch the attention of editorialists putting out "Week In Review." You want something that shows exactly what our modern culture is about? Here is a toy company that says, "Hit the switch and let the fun begin."

I hit the plastic switch. The platform on which the electric chair sits begins to rumble and vibrate. "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Marv growls before saying the punchline.

Kim Kolomyjec, 38, runs The Spider's Web.

I ask how his store came to be such a huge McFarlane seller. It was Todd McFarlane who created the comic-book hero, Spawn, of which 133 million copies have been sold worldwide. Spawn then evolved into a movie and an animated HBO version on cable. Spawn has returned to Earth as the reluctant servant of Satan, but all he wants to do is see his family again. Just another mixed-up guy.

After the success of Spawn, McFarlane went into the action-figure business. This year, he will generate $50 million in sales.

But about why a store in Puyallup sells so many McFarlane action figures.

"Oh, Todd is my brother-in-law," Kolomyjec explains. As a matter of fact, Todd McFarlane is co-owner of the comic-book store. It's a story of two high-school buddies sticking together.

McFarlane and Kolomyjec grew up in Calgary, Alberta. They knew each through baseball, and, early on, McFarlane was infatuated with Kolomyjec's sister, Wanda. The two high-school buddies even attended Eastern Washington University together. Their dreams of a pro baseball career ended with injuries.

Kolomyjec went on to eventually work at a bank. McFarlane kept pursuing his passion for drawing comic books, even after 700 rejections from publishers. In 1990, he hit pay dirt by producing the best-selling Spider Man issue ever, with sales of 2.5 million copies.

By then, Kolomyjec was tired of the banking business. McFarlane sold his brother-in-law his collection of 30,000 comic books - at $1 each - and The Spider's Web was born. These days, most of the store's business is mail order.

I'm in the store as Kolomyjec explains all this. Then he says that maybe I should talk to McFarlane directly, and phones his brother-in-law in Phoenix.

I tell the millionaire comic-book entrepreneur how I came to read about Death Row Marv, of which some 65,000 have been produced and pretty much sold out.

That's not huge numbers, but McFarlane can always order more from the factory in China. He tells me he does no test marketing. He simply has believed that a 21-year-old male would buy figures depicting Death Row Marv or the Kiss rock group. He believes that 26-year-old female will buy figures depicting Austin Powers or the Beatles in "Yellow Submarine." And they have.

"I'm a husband and I have three kids, but I try not to lose the sense of youth," McFarlane says. "I may not stand in line for that rock concert, but I remember what it was like. I don't begrudge the youth of America trying to be young."

So that's the story behind Death Row Marv, and why a store in Puyallup sells so many of the McFarlane toys. It doesn't hurt that on the Internet, there is a direct link between the manufacturer and the store.

As for what Death Row Marv says about our culture, McFarlane asks you to try to think like that 21-year-old male.

At least that 21-year-old hasn't reached total maturity, which McFarlane doesn't find particularly thrilling.

"It's when you understand the words `death and taxes' far too clearly," he says.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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