Todd McFarlane is one of the true forces in modern comics. A rockstar artist and writer who left Marvel 20 years ago to take his pencil and create a new icon in Spawn and co-create a new company in Image Comics, McFarlane is now taking time to reflect on his career, the industry altering decision to help form Image, and the evolution of his signature style in The Art of Todd McFarlane: The Devil is in the Details.
I had the opportunity to speak with McFarlane a few weeks ago about the inception of Image, his new book, his thoughts on reboots, what Marvel and DC have become, the business side of toys, and Spawn. The result is an in-depth look inside the mind of one of comicdom’s most influential and opinionated individuals. Enjoy.
I imagine putting together a biography kind of conjured up some questions on where you’ve been and where you still want to go. What was the hardest part about building the book?
Todd McFarlane: Um, trying to see if we could strike a balance with what it was we were trying to do… I mean it’s not necessarily an art book per se and it’s not an autobiography and it’s not a tutorial book right? It’s sort of all three of those mushed together and we’re always sort of going “You know, how much of each do we put in here so that we’re not necessarily sending a mixed message to whoever is going to personally buy the product?”
Because to me, cause you know at the very beginning, I bought art books and these kind of tutorial books and autobiographies and each one of them was like too much of the same thing. Even art books, as much as there are a lot of pretty pictures at some point you go “Ok, what can I do with it?” So the thought here was to just say we’ll put the art and then I’ll say here’s where I was in my career and why I was doing it or short of that, here’s what I was thinking in my brain when I was actually composing the artwork that you’re looking at.
Now you’re providing an uncommon level of insight into a lot of your early work with the book. What value is there for you in providing so many layers of context for work that has done fine standing on its own for so many years?
McFarlane: Well I’m hoping — in the big picture — that the value to anybody that’s sort of aspiring to break in is that they can see the growth of the artist in the book. We wanted to put sort of warts and all in there; both the good, the bad and the ugly and part of it was to get people to go “Wow.” There might be people out there that just think that Todd Mcfarlane was always good and I just wanted to walk them through the process that that wasn’t true. It took a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of hard work for me to actually figure out my style and how I got there and a lot of years trying to break in and I lot of years honing it.
Once I did break in to actually then get down the “Mcfarlane style” if you will, because if you flip through the book — to me — it should convey a work in progress of my style for a number of years, which if you’re a young kid… don’t look at the back of the book, cause that’s the Todd that’s been around for years. Look at the front of the book and go “Are you that good?” cause that’s how good I was when I broke in.”
Did the need to write as well as draw come from a desire for more control or did you just have some cool stories you wanted to tell?
McFarlane: Initially, it was way simpler than that. I had some cool imagery that I wanted to show and if I wasn’t the guy that was getting to pick who the bad guys were and what the story was then I was never going to get to use some of that imagery.
In its simplest form, the writers — for the most part – usually put [in] the heroes or the villains or the stuff that they like cause I was always drawing their favorite characters and their favorite villains and then I’m going “Hold on a sec, I’ve got some I like.” So I go “I guess the only way I’m going to get there in the long run is to start doing the stories for myself.”
Now we’re at 20 plus years for Image Comics, why was the time right for the birth of Image in 1992 and what mistakes do you think you made in the beginning that make you wince now?
McFarlane: Well obviously the simplest, easiest, biggest mistake was that we weren’t business guys, we were artists that were now thrown full force into the business pool and we had to either sink or swim. And obviously we made a lot of errors along the way. It was all a learning process and then given that each one of us owned our own studio then we each sort of learned the language of business differently. Some of us were a little more fluent and understood it a little bit more and others didn’t quite succeed at the same level.
And what allowed us to even get there was just the nature of the business at that point was flourishing and so the time to sit there and try things was not necessarily when things are not going good, but to actually try and jump in when things are going great so you’ll have a lot more people who’ll continue to support the business as a whole.
So they were going “Hey, we like Jim Lee, we like McFarlane, but they’re over there now drawing.” And it’s like “Ok, I guess I’m not going to get their X-Men and their Spider-Man, but we still like their art style so we’re still at willing to at least give them our initial curious look as to what they’ll be doing here in the future with this sort of new entity called Image Comics.”
Did you ever anticipate that Image would grow to be what it has now after two decades?
McFarlane: No, I knew that we wanted to have it exist, I mean I did. I assumed it was going to exist forever right, so what’s sort of most rewarding for me right now is the mere fact of the existence of it is not hinged upon what it is that any of the original founders did. If you remember in the early years of Image, a lot of it was circled around what we were doing with the original founders and now we’ve built a model where that’s not necessarily so. You’ve got a lot of books that are at the top of the charts for our company that aren’t controlled by the original founders.
Robert Kirkman, although he’s a founder now, wasn’t one of the original ones, but he went in there and was able to sorta shake things up and show us that everyone has good ideas so why don’t we just let them all ferment and let it find its level. And we’ve been going and we’re actually having some of the best years sales-wise and financially in years and years and years at Image.
Is there any established character that you have a want to go back and draw or write for again? Is there any project out there that is so enticing that you would forfeit being your own boss for a shot at it?
McFarlane: I’ve said it before to people — I enjoyed my time with Marvel and DC and had a lot of good memories and a lot of good friends. I categorize it personally in the way that I categorize high school; I went there, I enjoyed it I had a good time, did what I had to do. It was cool; got lots of good memories do I plan on going back to high school? No, that was yesterday, my life’s forward.
Marvel and DC, it’s cool, I had a good time with it, but it’s something I did in my past.
You and your dad worked on creating a Spawn comic when you were sixteen. We’re in the age now where people are a lot more able to make their own comics, they’ll have a challenge in getting them seen, but in terms of getting the work out there times are better. Because of that and other circumstances do you think that working for the big houses — DC and Marvel — do you think that that is still a “dream job”?
McFarlane: I would say it depends on the individual. I really, kind of, there are only two kinds of individuals. There’s the guy who breaks into comic books and gets work at Marvel and DC and establishes himself and moves and say’s “Good, now that I have a name and a reputation I can do my own thing”. Right, that’s basically my career.
And the other one is guys who were doing their independent comic books, hoping they can get some modicum of success in their careers, so that maybe they can take that success and eventually someday draw Batman or Captain America because that’s what they grew up on and they thought that was cool. So, again, you could put a guy like Brian Bendis in that one, he sort of went independent to the corporate level and I went corporate to the independent.
And neither one of those is any better or any worse because we were both satisfying our own personal wants and needs.
This is perhaps an unfair question, but do you think that people who want to go draw or work for Marvel and DC, is that more about what they grew up with, more about what they [those companies] have been or what they can be?
McFarlane: I think on some level, I think it’s some of that obviously. I mean again, if you’re a Captain America buff when you’re a kid for twenty years and someone goes “hey, you can draw Captain America”, that’s kind of cool. I also think that because of the nature of the comic book industry, I think it’s also a safe harbor.
We were doing independent comic books at the time when there were a lot of sales and you could take chances and not feel like it was going to be a detriment on any level.
And I think that there’s a bit of a scare factor because I talk to a lot of people and go “hey, why don’t you bring your idea and do some cool stuff with Image?” and they go “well what if it doesn’t work?” There’s still that mentality right, what if it doesn’t work and it’s like “well you can go back to doing what you’re doing”, I mean it’s an easy answer for me.
I always answer it the other way: “well yeah, but what if it does work?”
My job is not to go around to creative people and beg them to do something they’re not willing to do, you know? So you get people that come down the pipeline, guys like Robert Kirkman, and he’s willing to go “yeah, I’ll take a shot at it and see how it works.” And he’s there.
So again, if you want to draw Captain America your whole life God bless ya, God bless ya, that’s you individually. But if it’s out of fear because it might not work then ask Robert Kirman how it didn’t work. I mean, ay yi yi, you can never win the lotto if you never buy a ticket, but again, those are more personality quirks than anything else. Some people are built to take risks and some people aren’t.
Now, do you ever wonder what would have become of Spawn if you had brought him to full life with Marvel? In terms of control or lack thereof; do you think the character would have had the same impact?
McFarlane: Probably not. You know, because I was able to quickly establish that he could do things that the mainstream characters couldn’t and one of them, in its simplest form was that he could kill somebody, that’s not what the typical good guy would be doing. I always said in his simplest form Spawn was sort of the Batman without corporate America.
I think Batman would kill Joker in ten seconds if he wasn’t owned by Warner Brothers.
You talk about this in the book, at one point you had to surrender penciling duties to Greg Capullo on Spawn and he obviously did a great job with it, but was that one of the hardest points for you? To stop doing something you would have complete and full control and effect on.
McFarlane: Uh, not really because I knew at that point that my time crunch was getting in the way of everything and I thought that I was being unfair, if you will, to the consumer at that point. I should be delivering to the consumer the best that I possibly could and at that point because I’m trying to do so many things, I was sort of cutting corners and went “nah, nah, nah, I can’t do this, it’s not fair.”
So I thought, being silly, that’s I’d get somebody like Greg to come in and I’d just ink over them and cut one of the jobs out, but I quickly found out that I was just as slow inking Greg as I was penciling and Inking myself so I didn’t really gain a lot in the end process other than I had a lot of fun inking over people, especially Greg.
The changes to Spider-Man’s appearance that you made when you worked on Amazing Spider-Man, obviously that wouldn’t be a small decision in this era of corporate ownership and billion dollar movie franchises. Do you think that could be stifling to artists and writers?
McFarlane: Yeah, it’s interesting because it’s a different time I don’t know how it would work today, but I never asked, I just made the changes. It was only afterward that they said “Hey whoa kimosabe, that’s our icon you’re messing with.”
It’s better to beg for forgiveness then to ask for permission right?
McFarlane: Yeah, to some degree right. I remember I had one meeting where Tom DeFalco was saying “Stop making the damn web long and the eyes so buggy.” It was also in the same meeting where he gave me the name “Spaghetti webbing” which is what I started calling it thereafter because of his frustration in telling me to “stop drawing those damn spaghetti webbings”.
So at least I had a name at that point that I could go “Ah, cool.” And so what I did was, and I have clear recollection, I shook my head and I said “Yes sir.” and I walked out and I made them twice as big the next day cause I knew it would be about another three months before he’d take a look to make sure I cleaned up. Sort of like how a kid cleans up his room, mom tells you to clean up your room you say “ok”, even if you’re not going to clean it up say “ok” because any other answer is just going to get you into a debate.
So just go “ok mom” and boom, the conversation is over and then either you’re going to do it or you’re not, but at least at that moment you’ve saved yourself the conversation and the collision. So that’s what I always say; always say “yes” to the boss.
So I go “ok, fine” and then what ended up happening was that was the next time they went “ Whoa, hold up a sec, I thought he was supposed to make them smaller? Why that lying sack…” and they’d call me back in, but each time they’d call me in the sales kept going up a little bit and eventually they had to relent.
And they’re going “Ah, so now we’re at the point where he keeps defying us, but the sales keep going up with his defiance so….” and it was like “well, what do you want to do with that?” I mean my job is to sell comic books and I’m selling comic books.
I keep asking this questing and I keep not agreeing with the answer. I asked Neil Adams and I asked Stan Lee at New York Comic Con and with all due respect to them, I just didn’t agree with what they said. Do you think that the constant reboots and renumbering [of books] has a negative impact on past books? My concern is that these new readers are not going to feel an urge to explore the vast history of the character when that history has already been reset. Do you agree with that, that it’s a concern?
McFarlane: Yeah, I hate them. What are you talking about? I’m on issue two 225; I could have restarted Spawn ten different times, which maybe some of the other companies would, I hate it.
It makes you lose that sense of history cause I was saying to somebody; I go “If somebody put a gun to my head and said your child will die Todd if you cannot… you’ve got one week to try and collect all issues of the Fantastic Four from its inception to today in chronological order” I don’t even know how to do it. I wouldn’t even know how to do it. But if you give me Action Comics and it’s up to issue number 685 I’d know how to do it, I start at #1 and keep collecting every one until sequentially I get to #685.
I mean it’s easy and me as a kid, I thought the books that had the big numbers, Action Comics and Fantastic Four and Detective Comics, the books that had the big numbers on them, I thought it was cool. It said to me that these are successful franchises and they’ve been around so long. How do I know? Look how big that number is. So I think its way, way more of an effort to get to issue 300 then it is to get to issue 1-30 ten different times and the history will show on top of it.
I don’t care what they say, the history will show that it’s short term because if it was long term we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now. How did we go from selling a million copies a month to five hundred thousand to three hundred thousand to we can’t even get a hundred thousand? Because we were doing that thing you guys think is so good.
“Oh, let’s just reboot it, let’s just reboot it, let’s just reboot it.” Ok. So you get one, two, maybe three months of initial shock sales and then everybody goes back to normal and in most cases it goes lower than what it was. So, alright, you got a short-term fix on a long-term problem which is how do we keep readers? And one of the ways to offend them is to keep restarting these books, jack up the price and just when they get comfortable shut it down and reboot it and come out with another one and try to jack them again.
I mean you can’t get people horny at will right? They have to want to be making love to you and your product, so I don’t like it and as you can see in my career, I don’t do it.
You know, when I first got into comics the book that appealed to me first was Detective Comics, and it was a book that my Dad had read. I just feel like the titles now and all that connective tissue are being watered down and severed by these things.
McFarlane: Right, I agree. I agree. Like I said, all I can do is control, sadly… I just get to control is one book so… and I just have to live with the consequences of what everyone else does in the industry.
Regarding Spawn, where did the Obama/Romney alternate ending idea come from and are there any classic cover re-imaginings that you haven’t gotten a shot at yet, ones that you really want to do?
McFarlane: There’s a couple and I’ll get around to those covers and then the Obama/Romney was just, you know, we have the election coming up. I was doing some politic stuff and government stuff which is always sort of a piece of the Spawn mythos anyway and I go “Hey, here’s an easy way to jump into current events a little bit.” I mean it was supposed to come out two days after the election, but we found a glitch in the book and so we have to delay it.
And it bugs me cause I’m like “Aw, that would have been cool.” because it would have literally been right after when the books out and I mean nobody had an idea which one it was. Instead it’s going to come out a little bit later and everybody’s gonna go “Why are you doing it now? We know who the president is?”
Jumping to toys, the cost of plastic has hit the toy industry hard. How does McFarlane combat that without pricing toys out of the hands of collectors? And is the trend toward smaller scales, is that a frightening thing for a brand that stands out with its high level of detail?
McFarlane: We’ve been able to hold prices, cause we’re a small company so in its simplest form our overhead is a fraction of what the big guys are. That’s an advantage to us and then some of the stuff we’ve gone down to a smaller scale, but that was almost dictated to us that the retailers just said “Hey, this is what everyone else is doing, this is what sells, we want you to sort of do it. If you don’t sort of fall into the pattern we’re not going to order it, right?”
And again, those are always frustrating because I thought we do a good job with the big stuff, but you go “Ok, if that’s what it takes for you to put in an order then rock and roll, we’ll do it” But it’s not my first choice obviously, the sports stuff is still 6, 7 inch size and it’s in some of the new licenses we’ve gone down a little bit. Not to the scale of like Star Wars or any of that, but I think we did it on Prince of Persia or something like that, but even the Walking Dead and Halo are still a step up from the scale that tends to be popular right now.
The Art of Todd McFarlane: The Devil’s in the Details HC is available from Image Comics, your local comic shop, Amazon, and wherever fine books are sold. I spent a good amount of time with the book and I can’t say enough good things about it. If you are a McFarlane fan or a comic fan, then this trip inside the mind and the creative process of one the medium’s biggest names and forces is certainly worth the price of admission.