Todd McFarlane, Image Comics co-founder and creator of Spawn, talks about the early days of the independent comic book giant, why his art resonates with fans, and the legacy of Image Comics.
Q: When did your love of comics first begin?
A: I’d say around when I was 16. I was a late bloomer. Historically, most people collected comic books when they were young and then they sort of grow into it. For some unknown reason, one day I walked into a little small grocery store and bought a handful of them off the spinner rack. That was my first intentional comic book buy, and then I took them home and devoured them and just became obsessed from that moment on. … And then I started working in comic shops. I became a freak fairly quickly.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to pursue comics as a career?
A: I’d say probably within six months of collecting those comic books. I began teaching myself how to do these big, dramatic, muscle-bound superheroes and big, ghastly villains and overly-endowed ladies that were curvy in all the right places. I just started teaching myself, and… my mom and dad saw that I was just hunched over my drawing pad all the time, so they bought me a drafting table. In hindsight, it was actually a big move. But your parents, instead of saying, “Hey, go get a real job. Don’t become an artist,” like some parents are wont to do, they encouraged me by going, “Hey, Todd, instead of hunched over on your pad, here, do it properly.” That desk, not only did it serve me in trying to become an aspiring artist, but I used it, as an artist, all the way through all my Marvel years and everything else. It was the same desk that I drew everything on. Finally, it broke and fell apart, and I had to walk away from it, but it was sort my security blanket that said that being an artist is okay. It’s not something to be looked down at.
Q: Your first major success was with Spider-Man. What was it about your approach that you think resonated with the fans?
A: Being an artist, being a writer, I don’t think people quite understand how lonely that occupation is. For the most part, most of us are locked in a room with only our thoughts for 10 to 12 hours a day. … And so I was only in the room with one person, and that was me, and so I’ve got to entertain me because otherwise your work becomes drudgery. So I looked at Spider-Man and said, “What can I do to just have fun with this?” … When I read the word Spider-Man, I thought that the word Man had way more emphasis, if that makes any sense. I thought that the way for me to have fun to draw it would be to make the Spider part of it to be way more important than the Man part of it. … And, again, at no time did I give one second of thought that I was messing with an icon. I was entertaining myself, and then the lucky part is that the readers responded to those changes and they went for the same ride that I was [on], and I go, “If they like it, that means I get to keep doing this.” It’s just that over time, eventually, the corporation didn’t appreciate it as much as I or the readers did.
Q: In the episode, you mentioned the stories about how Jack Kirby was treated weighing on you during your later days at Marvel. How much did that factor into your decision to leave the company?
A: There was never a day, from the first day I stepped into that industry to the day we started Image, that I forgot those stories that I read when I was 16, 17 and 18. I wasn’t overly cynical of it. I wasn’t nasty about it. It was just history that had been written. It was there. So, I went in with those eyes wide open, making sure that I used the backdrop of that history with whatever decisions were coming. … I was going to leave Marvel comic books because I was having my first child anyway. They had worn me out. So, it was a good catalyst to just go, “I need some time off, I’m going to be a dad… I don’t know what that’s going to require, how much energy or time, and I now have enough sort of street cred and a few dollars in the bank, I can afford to take time off and be a dad for awhile and see what that’s about.” It just happens that, at that exact same time, the conversations with Erik [Larsen] and Rob [Liefeld] came up that eventually led to this thing that now you and I know as Image comic books. It just sort of happened serendipitously, but there wasn’t a day, like I said, where I forgot reading those Jack Kirby-type articles.
Q: Did you know right away what new characters you wanted to explore once you were on your own?
A: We all at some point have created characters when nobody was looking. … For me, Spawn was always there, literally. …. I had created him in high school and was even planning on doing my own comic book. I never was tempted ever to pull Spawn out of my portfolio and give him to either Marvel or DC. I know that some of my other partners, when they were at Marvel and DC, did that. Some of the characters they created when they were younger, they pulled them out and gave it to them. I didn’t do that. That was intentional. Did I help create new characters when I worked at both those companies? Of course I did. But did I add anything that was over and beyond what it was that was in the story and said, “Hey, I’ve got these 10 ideas”? No, I always had them sitting off to the side. When we started Image, when they said, “OK, we’ve got to come out with a new idea,” I knew in 10 seconds who mine was going to be: Spawn. … It was easy for me, where I think a couple of the other guys may have had to come up with new ideas. This guy had been sort of swimming, both physically and emotionally, in my world literally almost from the onset of me collecting comic books.
Q: The original co-founders of Image is quite a group of talent. What was the thing that tied you all together?
A: I think, in the simplest form, I think it was just wanting to do art the way we personally saw fit. It’s fairly simple. I’m an artist. I’m a creator. I’m going take my blank piece of paper and… do what I want to do. Good, bad or indifferent. Again, I think there’s a misconception at times that people think, because you did something, you thought that it was better than what other people were doing. I don’t think any of us would say that. I think we’d just say, “I’m Todd. I just want to draw stuff that’s appealing to Todd.”
Q: Were you surprised when Image found success?
A: People have asked me the question, were you afraid when you left to start Image? Absolutely not. I’m not saying it because I’m cocky and I think that I’m just awesome. I knew the reality of the world, that all of us, myself included, we were sitting at the top of the charts as some of the most popular, award-winning artists, so why would that change? Why would that change if I went to DC or any place else? My art’s not going to change. The character may change, but the art’s not going to change. The skill set is not going to change. Just because you traded Michael Jordan from the Chicago Bulls to the Washington Wizards, he still knew how to sink baskets. It’s just he had a different uniform on. So, I knew it would work to a certain level.
Q: How, if at all, did that early success prepare you to handle the harder times that eventually came?
A: I’d say that we may have gotten a little addicted to how fun the fun was and not done what we should have done, which is just hunch over the boards and get the books out as much as we should have. But because [we] had been there since the beginning — Jim [Valentino] and Marc [Silvestri] and myself — I think that it made us more resolute… because we got close to almost cracking this away a little bit. And when you start looking over cliffs, it sobers you up very quickly, and time does that too, and maturity. I think all of that sort of led to… we now know that we can’t make those same mistakes a second time because we know what the cost is. … We had to learn the business part of that equation and none of us were ready for it at the beginning, so it was a learned behavior.
Q: In the episode, you acknowledge that the early books looked great but the writing wasn’t as strong. Do you think you can be truly successful without both aspects?
A: Yup. We live in a world where your mom will try and tell you don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a f—ing lie. Of course we do. We do it every single day. … Comic books are at the forefront of that. You walk into a comic book store and you look at all these comic books and, if you’ve never seen that comic book, you go, “That looks interesting,” and it’s the cover. And then maybe you may take it and go and buy it, or you may go, “No, no, no, no, I’m going to flip through the book,” and what you do, you flip through the book to make sure the inside of the book is as high-quality as the cover… and then you take it to the register. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Oh, great cover. That’s awesome. I flipped through the book [and] read a couple balloons and didn’t think they were up to my standards, so I put the book back.” I’ve never heard it. I’ve seen the opposite. I don’t care how good that book reads, if it looks like s— visually. So, I’m just here to say that if you think Michelangelo could do your artwork and you let my mom or my dog write it, that book will way, way, way outsell a book that is written by Shakespeare in which you let my mom or my dog draw it.
Q: How would you describe the legacy of Image Comics?
A: I think the one thing that we became was an alternative, an option. … If Marvel and DC will not give you a job because they don’t think you’re good enough, we’re still an option. So we’re not biased that you had to have been a star at Marvel or DC. We’ll just take good content, good stories. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, that we’re hanging around and as strong as we are 25 years later, but, more importantly, that the opportunity that we afforded ourselves is still afforded to others.
We were the pioneers. Doesn’t mean that we were the best pioneer, but we were the original pioneer. That’s it. That’s enough. I think that’s enough for each of us now, as we get a little bit older, to go, “Cool.” Once you feel satisfaction in that, then you go, “Yeah, kids, go run faster than me. Go be stronger. Go be more popular. Go make more money. Go be 10 times what any of us ever were,” and there will be no jealousy that goes with it. That’s what this experiment was about, to just let the creative mind and let that cream just rise to the top, depending upon the creators and their personalities and their work ethics and some dumb luck. That’s the Molotov cocktail that may be an explosion for the next character. And when is the next one going to come? I don’t know. Could be next week and it could be three years from now, but I’m looking forward to it when it does come.