Long Read – The Full Todd McFarlane Bleeding Cool Spawn Interview

Earlier this week, Bleeding Cool ran a three-part interview with Image Comics President Todd McFarlane about his comic book Spawn, the comics industry, his place in it, and his plans for more Spawn comic books spinning into 2021 – including a new Spawn superhero team made up of multiple Spawns and others, currently called The Chain Gang. Settle in and settle down, it's a big one.

Long Read - The Full Todd McFarlane Bleeding Cool Spawn Interview
YouTube screencap – Todd McFarlane

Spawn's triumph and disaster.

McFarlane starts with a classic interviewee trick, claiming a kinship with the interviewer, describing both of us as working as hard as we can in this time of trial, and aligning me behind his take, "we understand that you're going to have high points and low points and you try not to get too excited about either one." He's done this before – but that's basically Rudyard Kipling's If, right? "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster // And treat those two impostors just the same;" McFarlane doesn't know the poem, but in many ways, he's lived it. "If you can make one heap of all your winnings // And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss"… that's Image Comics, the publisher he co-founded with other creators in 1992, after a very successful career at Marvel Comics. His Spawn comic sold millions, launched his own toy line, got a movie, an animated series, and recently saw him return to drawing as well as writing the comic for its 300th issue, and enjoying a sales boost coming out of lockdown.

McFarlane tells me "you know so we're having a good run right now but you know I understand that in two years, we could be having a completely different conversation. I go to the sweet spot somewhere in between too much pressure when things are going good and it's not fun when they're not."

And talking about his recent successes, and his career as a whole, he says that getting closer to sixty , he's still only halfway through it. He wants to live to a hundred and outlive all his enemies – but that still means he has forty years left. Which is why he thinks it's weird that people want to write histories, biographies of documentaries about him, because he's "only halfway through the race. Why don't you wait till the end of the race and then do the story right because then you'll have all the facts – you only got half the facts." I pointed out that they'd be dead too at that point. "That's right all the people that cared they'll be dead, but I'm always gonna go and do a documentary and do my memoirs – oh, they're all dead, nobody cares any more, excuse me.'

Forty more years of Todd McFarlane.

What he's going to do to fill those forty years… well we talk about that later. I pointed out what he's doing now seems to be working – while Spawn remained big in licensing and in toys, its comic book sales had slipped to an embarrassingly low level – until the last two years when it has, again, become one of the biggest selling comic books in the direct market right now. How?

"I think it's a combo, we were coming off the heels of issue 300 and 301, where I was able to get people to pay attention again. I've been teasing them about expanding my publishing end of it, trying to give them some quality, all the easy checkmarks and then you have COVID coming along so now the stores are getting a little bit risk-averse with their budget. I've been asking a lot of retailers and all those books, like the 75th book that Marvel or DC puts out, they're like, "we're tired of having extras of those on our shelf, we're gonna shift our money to known quantities. If we're gonna have things left over then let it be Superman and Batman fighting things that people know. And luckily, after 30 years, Spawn falls into that category. He's a known quantity to the retailer. So obviously it was already graduating up anyways.

"And then you get the silliness of what happened with DC walking away right so the retailers are maybe angry for the next three months, five months going f-ck it, I'm gonna reallocate some extra money to Marvel and other companies and other characters. Then I did this thing with the retailers where I just said, 'hey, I'm just going to ship you 20 per cent over and above whatever you order, as a thank you'. And I thought the smart guy, which would have been me, is going 'Man I only order ten for my shop, I only got to order eight. Todd's gonna give me two more, I can cut orders back'. And instead, they did the opposite. 'You're gonna give me free stuff? Oh, I can either a) give that away for free, make a happy customer, b) sell it for cover price, make a few extra dollars or c) because it's a different cover I can price it up, it's my store, I know what I can get away with'. I said when I first started, I give a store four books and they sell them for 40 bucks. 160 bucks is not going to change that store. I'm doing it for six months, okay, 150 bucks times six, that's not bad, now it's up to eight or nine hundred dollars.

"But can I embarrass eight other people to basically do the same thing? And then all of a sudden, that store's then getting an extra five-six-seven-eight hundred bucks from me, and all of a sudden it's next to four or five grand, maybe that does make a difference for some of the smaller guys. They've been with me for years."

The three bucks stops here.

I also asked about the decision to be the only major publisher selling their lead comic book for three dollars, and how this feeds into his reputation."Fifteen-sixteen year old Todd didn't have money. If you have two books, and they're both known quantities and you look at them, you look at the cover and you look at the inside and you say 'hey, you know what, I think they're both a seven out of ten, but one of them is a buck cheaper', it may be the tiebreaker. It may be the reason why you went and grabbed it. So I know that everybody else is on $3.99 but it's still an extra buck to the consumer. I live comfortably so it's not going to change my lifestyle so why would I do it? Just because I can? That doesn't seem like a decent enough reason to do it so. I'd rather keep my volume up by pricing, and brag about where my sales are. You're going to go up anyways, especially in the Diamond charts because DC went away. You needed 70,000 to be in the top 10, maybe you only need 45 000 to be in the top 10. You walk into a room and you're trying to make a deal with somebody about one of your books can you say you're in the top ten they're not going to ask you what that volume is they're just going to go, wow, that's a hell of a data point."

Todd McFarlane is missing a generation.

Todd McFarlane may pride his ability to do whatever he wants – but he does care about his reputation. Todd McFarlane also wanted to talk about what he sees as a comic industry creative gap. "When we were coming up, the Image Boys generation, our targets were only ten years older than us. We  weren't gunning for fifty year old dudes, and now it's almost like it skipped the generation, where's the brat pack that was supposed to take us down?  It's weird that we've had the spotlight and I don't mean me particularly, I'm saying our generation because when you think the great artists, Frank Miller, the Kubert Brothers, John Romita Jr, Greg Capullo, Jim Lee, and if you want to throw Todd in there, fine, but it's like they got they all got one thing in common, they're all old men, where's the 35, the 40 years olds? 25-year-old Todd, if you had said the guy you're gunning for is 55, I would have gone I'm going to put one hand behind my back, my drawing hand, and I'm going to jump on one leg, this would be a Monty Python sketch. Like I got to take down a 55-year-old, come on give me give me something to work towards. For me it was John Byrne and George Perez, they were probably eight years older but they had their ten-year run, we should have only had our ten-year run and then there should have been another. We should be sort of a footnote."

I pointed out that Image flipped the script by creating their own publisher which retarded that natural churn. Todd McFarlane countered saying "here's the thing, the blueprint has been in the public domain, anybody else could do it. I'm not doing anything unique. Robert Kirkman didn't do anything unique. Greg Capullo working for DC is not doing anything unique, but he's bent over the board every day and he's grinding it. Rich, I say this with all honesty, I think that there's more talent because I've seen it. I think there is more talent in comic books than at any time in my career at any time, I think it is staggering the amount of talent, and yet with all of that talent, why haven't the next Jim Lee, Frank Miller, why haven't they risen?" I threw out a few names, Peach Momoko, Mirka Andolfo, Pepe Larraz, Jesus Saiz and more, and Todd said "you're absolutely right because those are the young fresh dogs, I'm trying to figure out what happened to the group in between… I'm not complaining, as a matter of fact it's good for business. I don't understand why I am as relevant as I am after all this time. Sometimes when I have conversations with them, I start to go ah, there it is, it isn't about the skill, that's only one component, it's about the personality, doesn't want to be a hustle. I think Rob Liefeld is a perfect example of somebody who you could argue isn't the greatest talent, but he has milked the most out of it because he just hustles his brand and himself, everything he can to make sure that he's getting the attention that he needs and I think if he could draw, if Rob Liefeld's attitude was combined with Frank Quitely's drawing skills…"

I had to interject, "He'd be even later than he is now." There's a chuckle "It would be magnificent so you don't even have to be great at drawing skills, you got the hustle and when I start meeting these guys they are the most gentle, kind, good people – and that's part of the problem."

How Norman Reedus makes a living.

I pointed out to Todd McFarlane that this missing generation may be down to a shift from artist to writer in public appreciation, with the likes of Robert Kirkman, Brian Bendis, Brian K Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Warren Ellis, Kieron Gillen, John Layman, Donny Cates and – king of them all – Mark Millar, taking on that hustle.

Todd agreed but saw other factors too. "There's also this other component that's you've seen it happening where people can go to conventions now and do sketches and make a hell of a living on weekends and so they're the incentive to do interior artwork on a regular basis isn't there, they can literally make more money doing cover sketches and covers than doing interior artwork."

I was reminded talking to a Hollywood agent who despaired that actors on genre TV shows were turning down acting work in favour of a convention appearance for the same reason. Todd concurred "I used to see Norman Reedus at the show and I'd go, man, why are you showing up to all these shows, you're on the biggest show on tv and he's like, 'I make more money on this weekend than I'll make in the next five episodes of Walking Dead'. The difference is for the comic book artists is that some of them are going straight into the cover and sketch business but they've never really exposed themselves to people who can't get to a convention and when you factor in the number of people that can go to a convention and can't it's the vast majority of the people that are following you will never ever meet you. So they're going to conventions and they're doing good and God bless them, but they're never gonna know your name, you're never gonna be like the Iron Man guy or the Captain America dude. You just got to do ten issues, make your mark someplace and then go and do what you're doing right now, you'll be able to charge more. Just plug away one year of hard labour – which is what monthlies are from an artist's point of view –  and you'll be able to ride it for a long time. Bernie Wrightson's Swamp ThingJohn Byrne's X-MenFrank Miller's DaredevilTodd McFarlane's Spider-Man, make your mark and then you're good, gotta carry you for 20 or 30 years. Thank God they didn't have those opportunities when I was a kid because I might have gone down that road. I could see this temptation, it would have gotten the best of all of us. I'm no saint, I wasn't any better than anybody, that possibility wasn't even there for me in my career. There was no such thing as a cover artist."

When Toddy Met Donny.

Todd McFarlane also advocated the need to do your own thing. "I remember having a conversation with Donny Cates, calling me his god and he's saying 'I'm going to do Venom, I'm going to do 50 issues of Venom and I'm going to Hollywood'. You walk in and you tell me you've written the most issues of Venom ever and you got some other ideas? I walk in, I say I created Venom and I've got some ideas. Who do you think they're paying attention to, right? He's seen it, the studios can't buy Marvel or DC anymore, they have to buy the independent stuff, that's all they got."

"Writers can do five books a month, artists can't. The artist has to literally put his eggs in one basket and hope it works, where the writers can straddle.  They can go, I'm going to do# They can go, I'm going to do Flash or Wonder Woman and I'm going to do Spider-Man and Avengers and then I'll do my creator-owned book and if it doesn't work it's okay – we don't have that luxury. But I would argue the upside is that then you have no choice you to come to my book because that's the only place you're going to get my artwork. I don't believe there's one single person who bought Spawn #1 in 1992 because they gave a f-ck about Spawn, they just wanted to follow the Spider-Man artist, and then at that point, it's like how can we make that character relevant now here we are 300 issues later."

"If everybody's got a limited amount of money in their pocket and you're doing five books and one of them is a creator-owned book and I've only got, you know, eight dollars in my pocket I'm probably going to buy the known quantity. Oh, you're doing Batman I know that book. But if you do creator-owned all the time, then they have no choice but to spend all their money on your creation. You have to cut off that other outlet."

I pointed out that was what the likes of Bryan K Vaughan, Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar had done just that in recent years. It didn't stop his flow, he just jumped tracks. "This is the head-scratcher, There are actually examples that are out there. I can see more people going in that direction." I suggested this seemed to be where the likes of Donnie Cates, Scott Snyder, James Tynion and more were heading.

"Why'd it take you 20 years? It was always there for the taking and that shouldn't have taken you 20 years to try yourself… as I get older I go, okay all the things that are natural to human being like me are not natural to everybody else and I have to concede that right. You're not a disrupter, you're not a fighter, you're a polite person, I get it. I've got children that fall into that category right, they're going to be kind gentle people and they're not going to be a freak like their Dad. That serves people well but it doesn't move the marker and it lets old men still be relevant. God bless you."

New superhero comics for 2021 from Todd McFarlane.

God bless you, Todd McFarlane. Then we got talking about his Spawn plans for 2021. Recently he has been introducing other Spawns to the Spawn comic book, which have been driving sales, including Gunslinger Spawn and Ninja Spawn – and he is going to use them to create a superhero team of Spawns which may or may not be called The Chain Gang. And that will also lead to more that one Spawn comic book going forward into 2021 as well. How many? Well, we talk about that.

"2021 is gonna be the year of Spawn. I've been talking about a shared universe since day one of Image, right? I just think we should have coordinated ourselves way back, but you know everybody has their directions they're going to. The time is right, I've been at this for 20, 30 years, I think I can expand. I think I've been fair-minded to the consumers. Thirty years ago issue one was a buck ninety-five it's now $2.95. I've gone up a dollar in thirty years. While Marvel was a dollar and DC was a dollar and their books are 4.99 they've gone up 400 per cent. I haven't been doing money grabs, I've been playing nice and so I think that Spawn has earned the chance to expand. I think it's it's time to coordinate an expansion and that's sort of what what we're doing for 2021. We're gonna roll out the expansion okay?"

I asked how many books he would you like to be publishing. "More than one. All those plans will be revealed soon in detail uh so I'll have names and times so that the retailers can prepare, instead of just being 'oh here's a mini-series here, oops there's a one-shot there'. The Chain Gang is meant to be like the start of expanding the Spawn characters into new titles. They've already been in the books off and on, some of them a little more prominent in the last couple years. They've all been there, it's just that I haven't expanded beyond my guy right. But if I start thinking about his world as Halo, I've done 300 issues of Master Chief. Maybe it's time to show the world you know some other components of this thing. Let's go have some fun. I keep that floor as high as I can so that I can go to creative people and say, hey, how much is everybody else paying you, I'll beat it, come work for me. Come do some crazy cool work, I've always been an admirer of your stuff and then if I can find a couple of those, even a guy like Frank Quitely, to say 'hey, I'll give you three years, do three issues, you do it at your own tempo but when it comes out it's going to be magnificent' and then I can sell that to the consumer and then the consumer is going to say, there's some quality stuff coming out of that that Spawn camp, so it all just feeds on each other, it's all those components all rolled up and it's working."

Letting the comic shop owners in on the secrets.

And as for why he is talking about this now, "I think it matters, especially at this point, giving retailers as much advanced knowledge of what they're about to buy into and that it's going to be steady. It was one of the reasons with this you know overshipping that I'm doing, I don't want to do it for a month, I want to do it for six months so they can see whether that program works for them and who knows at the end of the six months I may extend it another six, we'll see. But at worst at the end of those six months they're gonna have a lot of knowledge of what the next step is in the evolution of Spawn in his world because they're going to go, oh my god, Todd did that and he did that and then he did this now and now look what's coming, boom boom boom boom boom. And it'll be an organized fashion so when you're allocating your dollars, don't forget me in this corner over here.

I asked if he saw any danger in cannibalising his own sales with multiple Spawn titles, "It's a fair question and it's and it's one of the reasons why I've been hesitant for nearly 30 years to do it but when I look at the landscape and I see that there are multiple Spider-Men and multiple Supermen and multiple Batmen, I don't want to do eight different Spawn books, but can I go from one to two, probably. When I got my Spider-Man book, the one that set all those records way back when that was the fourth one. One of the things that drove them to put a fourth book out was that they wanted to have Spider-Man readily available every week you walked into the store. So that's sort of a little bit where my head's at, I've been making Spawn a monthly thing, is there any way that I can get to a point where with proper planning and with the right creator quality, can I get to a point where every week you walk in there's some new Spawn-esque Spawnverse thing. Is it possible? I don't know well, I'll take it one step at a time. I'll go from one week to two weeks and if that works we'll go to three. If there's a goal, the goal would be, there's never a week where there isn't something new. Can it cannibalize? Sure, just like anything else but all those other big characters have been able to figure it out and have way way way more titles than I'm even thinking of right now."

Spawning an entire world for Todd McFarlane to play in.

As to why this thrust may differ from Hellspawn, Medieval Spawn and Sam & Twitch series attempts in the past, Todd McFarlane talks about "a coordinated message so they understand the why and the where and who's on it and how it ties into the mythology and why this book is important, a better message, marketing and branding. Before it was just oh, sh-it, there's a cool book right, here's a cool book, a little bit later, here's a mini-series, here's the one-shot, like I was just throwing darts every now and then.

I'm thinking more of a coordinated expansion as to why all these things are tied together and who they are and why they all matter. It doesn't mean you have to buy them all but if you're into that sort of thing then you can now get it in this little corner that's outside of the realm of Marvel and DC. At this advanced age, I'm not inclined to just let them have that space without a little bit of a fight

As to the name of The Chain Gang, Todd McFarlane lives and works in Arizona, so I had to ask. "Is the new team anything to do with the fact that Arizona is the only state to still have chain gangs?"

"Um no and I've got a couple of names. It may not even be the name that ends up sticking. I've got a couple that I've been toying with. I'll probably test a couple of them, when you're writing solicitations, you've got to come up with something and then it just it was the first thing off the top of my head. In hindsight, it's not bad, it could make some cool imagery but I've got some others because, as part of expanding, I don't want all the characters to look the same and knockoffs of Spawn. I don't think that would be interesting. If I'm gonna my Avengers and my Justice League they can't all just be Batman knock-offs. Nobody wants to see that that group. That's a working title at best right now."

It was getting into the wee hours of the morning and I had to cry off. Timezone problems. I would have liked to ask him about his role as President of Image, and maybe get him to read Rudyard Kipling's If aloud. Maybe next time. After all, he'll be wanting to talk about those new Spawn comics at some time.  You know, maybe it's time for me to send him another sketch…

And hey, you want to listen along, see what I mis-transcribed? Be my guest…

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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