So I found myself calling up an Arizonan rib restaurant, the owner of whom told me they had a Tony on staff but not a Todd, there was no Todd McFarlane there. I had been given the wrong number but soon enough I had the right one and I was talking to Todd McFarlane, President of Image Comics creator and publisher of Spawn. While we talked, he signed Kickstarter rewards. The man is non stop.
McFarlane holds a special place in my heart. He's the reason I got back into reading comics when I was an older teenager, with his Amazing Spider-Man, found in a random British newsagent, when on holiday. A few years later, I found a cartoon of mine published in the back pages of Spawn #10 (cruelly being unreprinted by Dave Sim). And now, almost thirty years later, I am phoning him up to chat Spawn, comics, the pandemic and what comes next. Spawn has been doing remarkably well in recent months – after sales had dropped into the low five figures for much of the noughties and teens, recently he has seen orders rocket to low six figures instead, and not stopping. It feels like a good time to talk about the future, more than the past, but maybe the lessons to be learnt.
The interview will be running on Bleeding Cool, three posts spread across the day. I'll edit each post to include links to the other articles as and when they run. But for now…
Part One: 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 tThat'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.
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 may pride his ability to do whatever he wants – but he does care about his reputation. We'll talk about what he's going to do about that in 2021 as well.