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Comic Book Day: 20 Years of McFarlane Independence

There is no denying that in 1992 the comic book industry was changed dramatically and permanently. In the name of creator’s rights and ownership, six men left Marvel comics and formed Image. One of those men was Todd McFarlane, best known at that point for his work on Spider-Man titles. 20 years later, McFarlane can look back on the creation he is now better known for, Spawn. We had a chance to talk with Todd about all things Spawn, leaving Marvel, his thoughts on the other Image founders and what it’s like to look back and realize you built an empire. To ensure that you’re as well versed in Todd McFarlane as you can possibly be, we’re also giving away a Todd McFarlane prize pack with autographed books, toys and t-shirts.

Nerdist: You created Spawn in high school. While working at Marvel, did you ever want to see your creation as a big Marvel book or was that something you had just kept in the back of your head for someday?

Todd McFarlane: Yeah, pretty much that’s it. I don’t think I was much different from a lot of aspiring artists. Which was, when you’re teaching yourself how to draw, you’re drawing all the cool characters that you like, but you’re also creating your own characters. So I created dozens and dozens of characters when I was young, but the one that always kept rising to the top was this character called Spawn I did. And I had gotten to the point where I started doing my own comic book. Somewhere, someplace I’ve still got the 30 pages that I roughed out when I was sixteen and I started inking them and it was in half finished form. I was like, “If nobody gives me a job, I’m just going to do my own comic book someday, I’m not going to wait for them to figure it out.” So I actually wrote this whole big story and did the pencils and inks on it and probably got a third of the way through the book. But then I sort of go off to college, start doing what I’m doing, get even more entrenched in wanting to break into comics. At that point you’re just seeing if you can do a book at Marvel and DC that you can take over and you’re not going to get a job by showing them characters they don’t know.

I tell people today that are trying to break in, save your own characters for yourself. The reason is, there’s no reference point. If you show them pages of your character, they don’t really know whether that’s a good version or not. But if you show them a Captain America or Superman page then they can go, “Wow, that’s cool.” Because you have a lot of history that goes back that you can have a lot of comparisons. For me, once I broke into Marvel and DC, I was focused on their characters and there was never anything in my career at that point that led me to want to dig into my teenage portfolio and pull out any of these dozens of characters I had created. Now you fast forward and we end up leaving and start Image Comic Books, you know the first question on all of our minds, the original founders, was alright we gotta do a book and we gotta come up with characters. I think even Erik Larsen found his in the same category as me, that he had created his character in high school too. So we can sort of reach back in time and take the character that was our favorite guy and we just brought him forward and just tweaked them a bit. Mine was just a minor tweak, I think the costume was blue so I made it warm, given that he was coming from hell, and I added some spikes to him and maybe the chains, but the skulls and the mask and the cape and the cowl and the boots, all that stuff was there in the original design when I was a kid.

N: Do you think that original design influenced some of your work on Spider-Man when you were at Marvel?

TM: Not really. What I end up doing, every time you take over a new book, you try and find the 4 or 5 grooves, artistically, you’re going to hone in on that make the book exciting to draw for yourself. At least that’s how it works for me, if I can’t entertain myself while I’m drawing it makes the deadlines laborious. What you hope for is that you can do stuff where you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And you’re enjoying what you’re doing and, oh, by the way, there’s enough people that will go out and buy it and enjoy it too and like the same artistic beats that you do. I’ve been fortunate that the stuff that became my style, besides entertaining me, was also entertaining others.

N: You mentioned the split from Marvel. Do you think some of the original founders were more prepared for life outside of the Big Two than others? It seems like a very dynamic group of personalities.

TM: I actually think it’s the most interesting book someone could actually write about Image. You had seven different personalities to start with, that was including when Whilce was there. We all sort of had, because of those personalities, we all drove our careers in seven different ways. Now that you fast forward and we’re twenty years into this experiment, we’ve branched off. You could go, let’s follow the Jim Lee path, and it goes and meanders in a way that is dramatically different than what Jim Valentino did and, to some extent, what I did. We all started in the same spot – here’s this thing called Image, we’re all standing at checkpoint A, and then we all, over 20 years, spidered outward. Good, bad or indifferent. That’s sort of what makes the read so interesting. You go, “Wow, they were all in the same spot, they were talking to each other, they all had the same opportunities.” Some utilized those opportunities maybe better than others and some squandered them and some were a little more passionate and driven to do it and some were just playboys having a good time and doing it when they needed to and that was a reflection on each one of the personalities of the individuals that were there. For me, I enjoyed my time, and probably the meetings that we had behind closed doors were some of the funnest, most heartfelt, but probably also the most contentious conversations we had. But you know, like a band of brothers, we kept it behind closed doors and tried to not air it out publicly.

N: It’s well documented that you guys had non-interference clauses built into the founding of Image. Did you ever worry about what others were doing?

TM: This is where I think people are confused, and even after two decades are still confused at times, at how Image works. The group of us, we created this thing called Image. And if you think of Image as just a commune, a sort of a pass through, it is going to be the publishing house of ideas. It will own nothing, twenty years later and that’s still true. It was true on day one and it’s true twenty years later, which is something that I’m very proud of. But then those same individuals that helped start Image comic books also took a step away from being partners at Image, which is just a publishing house, and they said, “Well, we created a publishing house, now we need to create books so that that house can publish them. So, besides getting people to go and create books, you could bring a book to us and we might publish it. We, the co-owners of Image, all went into our corners and created our own books.

So, I think there was a confusion that Jim Lee who is creating Wildcats wasn’t the same Jim Lee who was a partner at Image. Because Jim Lee creating Wildcats was an individual creator and then, only after he created the book, would he take it to Image, and then he would have a 1/6 say in how Image was run. That’s the biggest confusion that people couldn’t quite figure out where the individuals started and stopped, because they blurred all of it together. They just assumed Image was Wildcats, was Spawn, was [Savage] Dragon, was all that stuff and was all together when it wasn’t true. I got to make all decisions Spawn-related personally as Todd McFarlane and then only when I gave it to Image would it fall under, “Well, you have to have it done by this date for solicitation, we’re going to suggest that it not cost that much at solicitation, the market says we’re going to want to use this kind of paper…” It became more almost clerical when it got to Image. And I think because all of us were wearing two hats I think it’s always confused people that haven’t been one of those partners as to how this whole machine sort of works.

N: You have proven that you were one of the most entrepreneurial of the original Image founders. Spawn is often cited, in addition to Jim Lee’s Wildcats, as being the anchor of what Image Comics was and was capable of in those early days. Do you think that label is appropriate and accurate? 

TM: I think there is a lot of truth to it. And part of it was, you can apply that definition to Erik Larsen and Dragon also. If you go back and again, 1992, we look at the beginning of it. There was sort of two camps at that point, there was Rob, Jim and Mark went into creating studios and doing multiple books and then there was Valentino, Larsen and myself and we just sort of wanted to do our characters. We were less concerned about doing spin-offs and bringing in hired help; we just wanted to do our books. So, that was really the two camps and what ended up happening in a lot of cases, not in all of them, but a lot of those spin-off books were only alive for either a mini-series or one story arc or they didn’t get past issue 15, and there was no longevity to it. Where I’ve always been of the mindset, and again I’m a bit of a traditionalist, that the coolest books when I read, when I started collecting when I was about 16, I always thought if a book had a big number on it, then there must be some quality attached to it that it survived for all of those issues. That it was up to issue 327, oh wow, wouldn’t that be awesome. Where a book that was up to issue 14, I’d go “Oh, It’s a new book, I’ll sample it.”

But, for me, I didn’t give it as much historical significance. So when I was younger going wow, I’m looking at Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, the number was just crossing 200. Action Comics and Detective [Comics] those are the two big numbers, Fantastic Four and Avengers were just heading to 200, all those guys. Thor. All of a sudden you’re starting to get into these multiple hundreds and I just thought it was cool, it meant to me that they were around for a while.

N: And now we live in a day where every 5 issues it’s #1 again…

TM: It’s frustrating and I don’t do it for a couple reasons. One, I’m just showing my age and that I’m a traditionalist. Two, I always wanted to be able to say if I’m going to collect every issue of Spawn, I want it to be easy. If I’ve got issue one and I’ve collected all the way up to 219, which just came out, then I’ve got them all. I don’t have to worry about the restart or the renumbering or the re-(sigh). You know if someone put a gun to my head and said, “Here, collect every single Fantastic Four from the beginning with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee to today,” I gotta tell ya, I don’t even know how I would do it. I’d actually have to go do my homework to go, “Where does it start and stop? Where are the connecting dots of where all the number ones go? And then they go back to the old numbering. How do I get into a straight line of saying I own every issue of Fantastic Four. Not the spin-offs, not the mini-series, not the annuals, none of that. I’m saying just the core title. And now it may 4 or 5 different logos and numbers to it and to a geek like me it’s a little frustrating.

N: You also get to celebrate with fans, real milestones. When you crossed 200 issues that’s impressive.

TM: I think so. It shows longevity. It starts to go back to what caught my attention, which is if this thing survived for a long time, there must be some value to it. Over time, and I’ve seen it with all my favorite comic books, all comic books ebb and flow in their quality and so now that Spawn‘s been around for this long, the rules apply exactly the same to it too. There’ve been high points and low points and points in between and you go, okay, but that it’s 220 issues old of an independent comic book tells you that it can hang. Because when I first started collecting comic books, my first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, I have a clear recollection of it, was issue 167. I thought that was a giant number and when it got to 200 I was like, “Wowwwwwwwwwwwww.” And now I go wow, I started collecting Amazing Spider-Man at 167. I thought it had been around forever. ‘Cause it pretty much had, ever since the day I was born. Ever since I was born, there had been a Spider-Man on the planet. And I go we’re at like 219, we’re 50 issues past the number of Amazing Spider-Man when I first bought it. That’s a body of work.

I’ve also been proud of the body work, you know staying on books, trying to do the same character for a while. I tell young artists, you’re way better off being on a mediocre character for 40 issues than trying to jump horses every 8 issues to whatever is that hot character or hot book. Because what you do is you build a body of work month in and month out that people can then get their hands on; you’re not a moving target artistically. You’re able to go, “Wow, remember the run that guy did on that?” And, again, it may not be the best in the world but given that these books must come out monthly and given that that’s the sort of commodity business Marvel and DC are in, as much as they’d like to have the best artists on every book, what they need more than anything else is guys who can turn out monthly books. Now there are the odd times in history where the guys turning out the monthly books also draw their asses off and they’re very good and you go, “Wow, that’s the Nirvana.” You go, “UHHHHH, it’s my favorite artist and he’s doing it monthly, that’s awesome.” But if Michelangelo wants to come and start doing comic books, but he’s lazy and doesn’t want to do the deadlines, then you put him on mini-series or you put him on annuals. You give him a couple fill-ins, but he’s never going to do the monthly book.

One thing I liked growing up was just consistency, even if that consistency was not as artistically compelling as some other books that only did it for a certain period of time. I’d rather have a guy who was a step back artistically but did 50 issues of a book than somebody else who was way sexier but only did it half a year.

N: If there was one series that stands out as an example to you, what is it?

TM: When I was younger I had about 30,000 comic books, I collected everything and got doubles of it. I did everything and if they said, “On a desert island, gun to your head, you can only take one batch of books with you?” The title I always say is I’d take Tomb of Dracula. Why? Because that entire run, and it only went 72 issues, other than the first couple issues was almost exclusively Marv Wolfman writer, Gene Colan penciler and Tom Palmer the inker. Even the inker was consistent, that team was just there and it was a bi-monthly book. Technically, if it was monthly it could have gotten up to a hundred and forty. But that’s it, that’s the one, because if I read issue 20, issue 20 read and felt the same as issue 50 and the same as issue 70. I felt like I was watching a TV show that had been on for 5 years and had the same characters in it. That’s cool as hell to me.

N: Not only has Spawn reached 220 issues, it had a consecutive storyline. It never had to “change direction.” Even when we got a new Spawn, it felt natural and in tune with the character you created. How far in advance did you have these overarching themes planned? Was it at the inception or as things progressed did the story take you there?

TM: It’s more of that. What you don’t want to do, you don’t want to think too far ahead and lock yourself into something when another idea might come that you find cool and you want to go there. So to me, you take the natural progression, thinking more like soap operas if you will. You just go here’s the characters, here’s where there at and lets start going and then if an idea strikes you, you can go off and do something really cool with it. And sometimes you don’t even find what that idea is until you sort of start getting into the scripting of it and then you go oh. You know what, I just wrote something that I wasn’t planning on writing even for this issue and it’s a good point to break off and go into another story idea that will play into some of the things that we’ve already laid down and I think we can expand them out. And get them thin.

So for instance, (SPOILER WARNING!!!!) in the next issue of Spawn that comes out there’s a moment where there’s a big fight between Malebolgia, the hybrid Malebolgia, and Spawn. And Malebolgia is talking to Spawn saying, “You’re a fool Downing.” And all of a sudden Spawn says, “Downing’s gone. I sent him away. Downing’s gone, you’re talking to the costume now.” We’ve always sort of intimated that, and I’ve always wanted it. We want this story arc where we want the costume to slowly take over and do this other stuff, and I’m going, “D’oh, there’s an easy way to give him a voice now, I don’t know why it took me two years to figure it out. I knew we wanted to do something with the costume, but who’s going to be the person saying what the costume’s doing right? Because I don’t want it to be the costume sitting there, because we’ve had a couple issues there where it doesn’t have a body and it looks like a snake and it talks and it’s silly to me. And I go well why can’t it literally be Spawn standing there going, “Downing’s gone,” a little bit of Exorcist, you know, the girl is gone. You’re talking to the demon now. A little bit of that, it just looks and feels sort of the same. So now, I can give the costume’s motivation without having to sort of do a lot of captions, which I don’t do in the book. I want it to read more like a TV show or a movie. You know if you don’t see it, and you’re not speaking it, then I’m not telling the story right at that point. I shouldn’t need a bunch of captions and thought balloons just to get the idea across. So I go, “Ah, so now we’ve got that.” Once I sort of hit that accidentally, because I thought it would be a dramatic moment going there is no downing it’s me. And you made me and I don’t give a shit about you dad, a little backtalk. Now I’ve gotten past the hurdle of how do I get what is happening in this story that is being driven somewhat by the costume and readers understand it. So now I have a way for the costume to actually say something. So that it doesn’t have to be a 3rd character going, “Do you know what your costume is doing to you?”

N: You seem to own up to what you perceive as your own mistakes when others wouldn’t have even noticed. What drives you to be so self-analytical?

TM: You’d find the same with Erik Larsen too. We’ve been hanging around the same character and the same world in our brain for twenty years now right? The problem can become, the biggest mistake that I have a tendency to make over the years, is that I know where I’m going with stuff and I know the story and motivation of everybody and I just assume everyone else does too. That they know as much as me. It’s sort of the calculus professor in class right? You don’t quite understand why the kids in class don’t get what you get, because you’ve been teaching it for 12 years. It’s all new to them and every now and then I have to catch myself going, “Todd, you know what…”

Because I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll be going blah blah blah for half an hour, giving them this big dissertation on something with Spawn and then I’ll catch myself, have I actually said that out loud in a clear concise manner to the reader, because to me it’s been there for 12 years. I can even point you to the issues where someone actually said that, it was a throwaway line here and maybe one scene here, something like that. But I didn’t make it a big issue and it wasn’t something that was on the cover. But this has always been true. But have I ever actually just point blank said this is how it works? For instance, since day one the way that the souls work has been the same to me, that when we die it’s an odd/even. You die you go to Hell, the next soul on the planet, I don’t care if it’s a nano-second later, goes to Heaven. Then the next one that dies goes to Hell. Heaven. Hell. Heaven. Hell. Heaven. Hell. Why? Because the theory I’ve always had in my book is, it doesn’t matter what your good works were or who you were praising to. Or who you had bowing beneath you. That’s all hogwash, sort of throwing cold water on our Sunday teachings. What matters is the second you die and you’ve got a 50/50 chance. This whole theory that Hitler could be in Heaven and Mother Teresa could be in Hell. That was always part of the mythos that was there and the reason I created it that way was if we do it the way that we were taught, then that means all the SOBs are down in hell and all the quaint nice polite bingo ladies are up in heaven and someday when Armageddon hits… If I was betting who’d win, I’d tell you who I’d put my money on, the guy with all the SOBs. So we gotta even it out and there’s only one way to even it out, there’s gotta be as many SOBs upstairs as there are downstairs so it has to be more random than that. We’re just going to go 50/50. We’re just going to go odd/even, odd/even, odd/even, odd/even. Oh and by the way, if Heaven then has Genghis Khan and if Hell has Mother Teresa and God thinks that there is a value to having Mother Teresa, he’s going to now have to barter one of his souls to trade for her. And the devil goes, “Oh yeah, well I got two choices, if you want Mother Teresa back so badly, I want Genghis Khan and I want Jack the Ripper, he died on your side too, you got him in the lottery. So I want those two guys.” And then all of a sudden God might go, “Whoa-whoa-whoa, now you’re asking too much. I like Mother Teresa, but I don’t like her that much.” It’s a bizarre concept that I have in my head here and I’m not a religious man, so it’s easy for me to mess around with all these themes. I think Heaven and Hell are the exact same thing, it’s just that one has a better PR job. They both want to control the soul, they both want to dominate their enemy and they both want to be the ruler of all time, space and dimensions; and they both want you to bow a knee to them, I get it. One just does it with a smile on his face and the other does it with a frown.

The whole subtext of Spawn has always been that. Which is why Spawn, whether it’s Al Simmons or Jim Downing, sort of turned their back on both. Saying I don’t want to be controlled by Heaven or Hell. I just want to be my own man. I just want to live my life the way I see fit on Earth and I’ll just take my chances later. I’m more concerned about today than I am about tomorrow and the afterlife. That’s just who that character called Spawn is. Now he can’t quite take that position, because there’s crazy shit that happens afterwards, he can’t be that naïve. But at his core that’s who that character is. I just want to live my life day to day with my own decision and I’ll live with my own mistakes good bad or indifferent and I won’t play the victim.

N: Over the last 20 years of Image, of Spawn. Is there a moment that stands out as being one of those moments that made the whole thing worth it?

TM: Let me give you two and oddly they both happened in recent times. One was the signing I did for issue 200. The reason I pick that one is that I went back to the exact same location, the same store that I did a signing of issue one. This is Golden Apple Comics out in California. The reason I picked that one was that when I did the signing in 1992, somebody took a picture. John Singleton, who’s the writer/director and producer of a couple movies that I like, he came down when Spawn #1 was out and he gave me this award. For some reason, my wife and I still can’t recollect why it happened, but I had my daughter who was only about seven months old. I don’t remember what my wife was doing, she doesn’t remember what she was doing, but she would go, “Todd! You’re doing your big signing for your big issue and you’re taking your daughter with you and she’s going to be sitting in your lap the whole time.” And we were living up in Portland, so it was an odd one.

So there’s this picture, and in this picture it’s John Singleton, myself, the store owner, Bill Liebowitz, and my seven month old daughter. Fast forward now to issue 200, we go to Golden Apple comics, John Singleton says, “Hey Todd, I’m coming back. I’m going to come.” And so we get another picture and it’s John Singleton 20 years older, Todd 20 years older, Bill Liebowitz is no longer with us and then instead of me holding my daughter, my daughter actually came with me. At that point she’s in her second year of college. I was doing interviews with the LA Times or something and I said to them, “This is the photo that I think will be the most relevant to someone who isn’t a comic book person that’s reading this article about Spawn, 20 years of Image comic books.” Here are 3 people in the picture 20 years ago, the same 3 people. But here’s what really matters, take a look at the baby and then the woman, because it’s the same person. And the point was it took me 20 years to be an overnight sensation. So this whole thing of like, “Todd you had it easy and you could’ve done this and whatever.” But it takes years and years and years and years to create the body of work to have some impact historically on our community. I think people think you can just do 5-6 issues and, oh, because you did Spider-Man and whatever you can rest on your laurels the whole way. And it took the time that baby went from being in diapers to being in college, that’s how long I’ve been hunched over that board guiding this character and this franchise. There was no short cut.

And then the other moment was, we just had the Image Convention. And we went to the Image Expo in California up in Oakland here and I was struck by the moment and going wow, if you pull everything in this room with Spawn, Dragon, Shadow Hawk, Top Cow, if you pulled everything that was opening day in 1992 Image. If you sucked all of the founders out of this equation, this room would still be packed with gobs of Image stuff. Gobs and gobs, in fact, you could pull it out and maybe people wouldn’t have even noticed. So, Image has now become so much grander, so much more important than the original founders themselves which for a guy like me, that’s okay. I way outlasted my 15 minutes of fame. I don’t need anymore of it. And I was just sitting there looking at all the booths of all the creators and all the writers and the people coming in going to all these eclectic places with all of these titles that we do now going, “Wow.  We’ve now made ourselves irrelevant.” Which is actually a good thing. And it put a big smile on my face, because Image… Not only did it survive for twenty, it’s going to survive for another twenty if this is where we’re at right now. Cause it means, just like a sports franchise, you can just turn over the roster, but there will always be a Chicago Cubs. The Chicago Cubs will always be around, it might now be the same players, and Image has now made it’s footprint to say, there will always be an image, but the books that are here today, may not be the books. There will be another 50 or another 200 books another day.

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6 comments

  • Aw this is so cool! I got my start drawing superheros by tracing McFarlene’s Spiderman poses and changing them to my own characters. I voraciously devoured everything Spawn (actually there”s a spawn statue right above me at my desk right now…I’ve got a signed #16 in my dresser at home). Love the group pic.

  • Man, I remember reading Wildcats as a kid! I tried to remember recently what the hell it was I used to read and you have just reminded me. Thank you for that.

    Also interesting bit – My dad played baseball with McFarlane at EWU in the early 80’s.

  • Wow! I remember Image and Todd McFarlane of 20 years ago! I used to work in the same building that their studio office was in. At lunch, so many times, I would just go in to their office, sit on the sofa in the front and just watch Todd and Rob shuffle about the office or draw at their boards. I even brought my son a few times, and you were always so nice and patient with him…He’s 21 now, and still a big fan of Spawn! Congratulations on 20 years of prime entertainment and enduring characters. (BTW, Your Spiderman has alwyas been my favorite!)

  • TODD you RULE THE COMIC WORLD Only 1 is above you IMO and that is Stan Lee but other then taht the Legends are YOU and ONLY YOU Love everything you dun comics figs art sports all of it you are the MASTER

  • Haha! Being a Video Game geek at heart, I remember when I was first introduced to Spawn in 1996 with the game of the same name on SNES. Now, 16 years later I’m collecting nearly all the Spawn Comics, Statues, Action Figures, and games! Spawn will always be #1! Todd McFarlane, You rock!

  • Grew up in high school with Todd. We were in the same drafting class, who would of thought your doodles would become a empire. Proud of you Todd. Although I’ve never been a comic person, well except Mad magazine, I played Magic The Gathering since the early 90’s and know alot about those characters. But Todd is right, longevity is the successful way to go with a character. I will share this article with a few of my younger artist friends and hope they take heed of your advice.