"All I got to do is, what, make Spawn popular? Done!": Todd McFarlane looks back (and forward) at a life in comics
The creator of Spawn holds court on 30 years of his signature creation, his legacy, and being a successful schmuck.
Todd McFarlane has reason to celebrate in 2022. Not only is his flagship creation Spawn celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but the character is riding a wave of popularity, with four massively successful series — Spawn, King Spawn, Gunslinger Spawn, and The Scorched — currently ongoing at Image Comics, the company he co-founded that’s also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Things are only going to get wilder over the next few months, with McFarlane preparing for an appearance at New York Comic Con to talk about progress on the Spawn movie, as well as the upcoming Batman/Spawn, a one-shot crossover with DC’s iconic hero he’s writing for artist Greg Capullo to be released this December. Ahead of all of this, Popverse caught up with the creator, only to find him considering the big picture, his legacy, and what KISS has to do with Spawn.
It’s not the Todd McFarlane interview you’re expecting. But it is the Todd McFarlane interview you need.
Popverse: At this point, Spawn is older than Spider-Man was when you started working on that character. Spawn is also more popular than he's been for years, if not decades. How does that feel?
Todd McFarlane: It's an interesting question because, when you're on one side of the magic trick, you get a different response than when you're the magician yourself. I have a clear recollection of when I bought my first Amazing Spider Man — it was issue #167, and I thought Spider Man and been around forever. Off top my head, that would have been maybe 1976, something like that...? So, Spider Man, to me he'd been around forever, but again, intellectually, we know that's not true, right? He comes around 1962, or around that time, and so he really only been on the map for 14 years.
On that level, to say that the Spawn comic book is almost twice those 167 issues — I'm like, man, there are people who think about Spawn a little bit the way I used to think about some of the superheroes that I thought had been around forever. Fingers crossed. I mean, we've had the TV and the movies and whatever else — maybe I haven't had four movies of it and some of the stuff they've done with Marvel recently, but I mean, I guess we've done okay. I don't consider it to be on the same level with the Supermans and the Batmans outside of comic books, but in our comic book industry, then Spawn’s a definite peer, right? To me, he's a Triple A character.
It's always interesting, because when you're in the middle of the of the race, people want you to analyze the race. To me, it's just like, you got half the race still in front of you and half of it behind you. Let's talk about it when the race is over, right? But we can't, because I'll be dead.
You see it as an ongoing thing. That was what I got from your recent appearance at Comic-Con International: San Diego, that you definitely saw this as a project that's alive, that is continuing to grow, and is continuing to expand.
Yeah, yeah. From day one, that was the goal. I mean, again, did I know that I still be doing it, and that he would be as relevant as he is? No. All you do is come up with your business theories, and see whether any of it comes to pass two years later, three years later, whatever. I mean, that’s what all basically CEOs do, and their upper management. They just educated guesses, and you hope you get way more right than wrong. If not, you become Pan Am Airlines, and it was a hell of a run, but you don't exist anymore.
I mean, if I live another 30 years, and I hope I can, we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of Spawn and Image, then theoretically to my comment, we're only halfway there. If I could hold off long enough, I'll get to issue 666. We just came up with issue #333, and I had them put a little plug underneath it that says 'Halfway to the Mark of the Beast.'
I just thought I would start Spawn and that at some point, if I did my job right, I could get hit by a bus and people would still want to see the character, and the character would live beyond my life. So I really had a couple goals: What could I accomplish that was a big reach, and then the other one was, you know, there was going to be an Image Comics till the day I died. Because I was going to put the image I [logo] on my book, every single issue, so even if there was only one book coming out from Image, it was going to be survive. I was determined to do that. I mean, luckily, that's not true. Image is a thriving operation, but even if it did fall apart in the first six months, I was going to just be stubborn and go, “I’m never taking the I off.” Just just out of spite and pride.
One of the things that I've also been fascinating about you is you've always had an eye beyond the comic book. I mean, there was a Spawn movie relatively early on in the character's life. There was an animated series really early on as well. You’ve had the toyline for almost as long as you’ve had the comic. It feels like you're very aware of the fact that this is a business and not just, you know, you just get to do the comic and that’s all that you need to do.
Let me see if I can define it. I live in the world that I do, right? Name's Todd, only rhymes with God. I didn't create it. So what I have to do was react to what is in the world, and what's important to people, and what matters, and how you can continue to keep momentum. I don't really care, in all honesty, how I keep the momentum of Spawn going — that's less important than keeping him going. If tomorrow, the world decided to move their interest and their money and their attention to saying that they want all their pop culture on the side of blimps, my goal would then be to go, “How do we figure out getting Spawn on the side of a blimp?” Not because I care about blimps, not because I'm passionate about blimps, but because that's where people are.
Going back to your question, the prospect of doing video games and TV and toys and movies are not at first blush being done because, oh my gosh, I want to make a bunch of money and I'm a businessman. I don't want to do that. It's actually the reverse: I thought those were pillars that, if I could do that, there would be enough eyeballs in enough places, in enough corners of the globe, that would be exposed to this word Spawn, that the word would then have meaning. If the word has meaning, then you can keep doing it and if you keep doing it, then the byproduct of that, if you have a little bit of success, is a little bit of money. If you have a lot of success, it's a lot of money. Money is the byproduct of success.
The success part, I think that people misinterpret at least in my life, is that I don't want the success because of the fame and the fortune it brings. I want the success because it allows me to keep the momentum. If you go in to talk to people about helping you exploit your ideas and keep momentum, they say, "Well, what are you guys doing and what was the last couple things you did?" If they're all failures, nobody's going to give you those other opportunities.
I mean, look, we're about to make an announcement on the movie, just to let people know that we're working on it. That's just going to take Spawn again up one more notch in the comic book world, because it's going to legitimize it. It's like, "Oh my gosh, I guess that movie really is going to become a thing." Then, on top of that, you got the Batman/Spawn. That's sort of there, whatever. All that just keeps building, and then the closer we get to the release of a movie, whenever that may be, then the people buying comic books, and the retailers and consumers are going to be more aware of that word. Then, to me, the natural progression is then the comic book sales will go up too.
I mean, it happens when the movies come out with the superheroes. It happened with Umbrella Academy. It happens with the Walking Dead. I mean, anything that gets put on TV or video games or movies in a meaningful way, just drags everything up the hill with it a little bit. Cool. If I can find people that want to potentially spend their tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on my brand — which I still own, and I control all the rights to the comic book — and they want to help sort of elevate that all the way up the hill? Good on them. All I got to do is, what, make Spawn popular? Done. Done!
You were talking about the rise in comic book sales, Spawn is doing incredibly well and all the spinoffs as well, King Spawn, Gunslinger Spawn, The Scorched, are all performing really well. Do you think it was the 300th issue that brought people back to the book?
Probably the short answer is yes. I think a couple things happened. #300 was a definite springboard, but the springboard was able to work because there was 300 issues underneath it. The theory of 300 that I've said before, was it would've been way too easy to just walk in there and say, "Hey, I've got a Spawn #300. We're going to do a double-size issue and it's going to be super cool. We're going to have some covers." Everybody can do that. Everybody's been doing that! I needed to do more. I felt I needed to just add a little bit more gravy to the potatoes.
I'd always been talking about how #301 was really the big deal for me personally, because that means I set the record for creator owned comic books. I remember even having a conversation with Eric Stephenson, the editor-in-chief at Image saying, "You think I should just make issue 300 the regular size book and make #301 the double sizer? Because to me, that's the one, emotionally.” Now, he was very smart in saying, "No, Todd. That's the stupidest thing I ever heard." He said, "What you're doing is you're applying what's important to you on other people and they're trained a different way, right?" Anniversary books are anniversary books. What ended up happening in hindsight was, we ended up with this triple-size issue and then #301 was a double size issue. I still got it to sit there.
When I made the announcement, the announcement was, I will bring some people back: Greg Capullo coming back and drawing [Spawn] for the first time in over a decade was a big one. I remember talking to J. Scott Campbell and saying, "Hey, I don't need you to just do a cover because you do lots of covers. That's not the news. The news is you got to do the insides." That's news. I was able to sort of blackmail some top talent to just go, "Now you’re working on the insides.”
When I started putting this whole thing together, I did a couple of issues where it was like a Reader's Digest. I think it was like #296, #297. It was essentially doing an overview of the first 296 issues, because I knew 300 was coming. I knew people would at least just buy that book because it was going to be an event, but I was sitting there saying, "Well, why not plan for that and give them a way in and not just accept they're going to come to the party for 300 and then leave." That's not good.
It's not good for me, because then your sales are [spiking, then falling back down again] and then you just keep going. It's not good for the retail industry. It doesn't really help our industry as a whole. I concocted a plan, just sort of made it up the last minute, where it was like, "I'll give you the way in." The customer says, “l don't really know if I know what's going on"? Bam. Hand them those two issues. They're caught up.
Then, #298, #299 are prelude, you've got your prelude to #300. Then you've got the big boy, # 300 coming out with all the rock and roll and that's low hanging fruit. Then, because #300 ends on a cliffhanger, you're going to have to buy #301 the very next month. and 301 is a record seller. Now, we're talking about 296, 297, 298, 299, 300, 301. Retailers, when I was pitching it to them in Vegas, [I said] “I know you guys are scratching your noses talking about #300. I'm not talking to you about #300. I'm talking about a six-month plan that all of us can get behind with a straight face.”
By the way, I knew – I didn't say it at that point, but I knew that the two covers that Jerome Opena penciled and I inked on #s 300, 301. Those were the ones that in the back of my mind were going to be the teaser images – the ones with the multiple characters…
…from the spinoff books, yeah, I remember.
Yeah. Those covers were going to be like, “This was going to be a look into the future.” The easy answer is you read #s 300, 301 and you go, "I don't understand those covers. Where do those people appear?" The answer was, well, just wait.
#300 was also going to give me a creative launching point to take what I had been threatening for so long, which is expanding the universe and actually give me a big moment to tell a story that people then, in hindsight, will go, "Where'd that expansion come from?” "Remember from that event in #s 300 and 301?" "What? I bought those two books." They may not even know that that's the origin, right? You may not have been paying attention, but it was all intentional, so that if you go back and you go, "Oh my gosh, it happened."
Fast forward, the pandemic comes. We make the announcement with all the books just as the pandemic's hitting and people are at home and they're looking for things to do when all four of those books – Spawn Universe, King Spawn, Gunslinger Spawn, Scorched, all four of them – crushed. They all crushed. That was the last year.
We were in our 29th year and I get this spike for 300 and then, bam! I get another spike last year. Then, we just kept all the momentum going this year: We're going to be doing the Spawn/Batman, boom, boom! Then, the movie's going to come out. It's going to keep going.
How long can I keep it going? I don't know, but the goal is to create. Everything's got a bell curve. We’ve been around for a long time and within the span of 30 years, you're going to have high points and low points. You just have to accept those to be true of anything that lasts 30 years.
You and I could talk equally as long about the low points during those years, but if you can keep the bandwidth between low and high in a fairly good range – for business, you really don't want a big tall [bandwidth] because, although I understand success when you go up like a rocket ship is exhilarating, the fall is a crash.
It's crushing. Yeah.
I don't think people quite understand. All we have to do is come up with any big rock band or any sort of movie thing, or video game or whatever hot stock was out there, or toy product was out there and go, “But how long did it last?” I'm sure they made a bunch of money, but they haven't made any money in the last 10 years because it crashed. I would rather make a dollar a day over 360 days, and at the end of the year say, "Hey, I made $360," than to have two big hits and make $180 twice and make the $360 that way. I mean, it's still the same amount of money and again – just personal perspective – but getting the big home run and then collapsing and then getting the big home run… your success is going to be remembered as a fleeting fact, if they even remember you. If you can have longevity for a long, long, long time, then, even if you're not really that good, people will still remember you.
We can argue all day long whether Kiss is a great musical band compared to the greats of the world, okay? What we cannot deny is that they survived for four or five decades and that's heroic. That's their biggest accomplishment to a guy like me. Whether they're as good as band A or B, whatever you think is the top hall of fame band or whatever, I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to say, in shark infested waters, they survived decade after decade after decade after decade. Given that I'm now swimming in those shark infested waters, I know how difficult it can be – not only to navigate around the obstacles, but to stay relevant, to stay relevant, not just to survive, which is like, that's just –
– A thing in itself.
Just survival is to be admired! And you're still relevant? Man, that's tough to do. For me, if I've got something I'm really proud of, it's that Spawn #300 was the second best selling comic book that year. The only thing that beat it was Detective #1000. I'm like, "Shit, that's a good book to lose to."
Last year, the number one book was King Spawn #1. I didn't even have to take a back seat. That's almost 30 years after the start of the race and I can walk into a room going, "Guess what the best selling comic book was last year? Was it Marvel? Was it a DC book? It was one of mine? Cool.”
Now, again, don't know if I'll be able to replicate that ever again. Who knows? I mean, I'm constantly trying to come up with tricks. Batman/Spawn is one of them. That should be the number one selling book this year, and Spawn got his name attached to it. Better start planning for next year, Todd. In baseball vernacular, it's called a home run, but you don't assume you're going to hit a home run every day. You assume you're going to strike out the odd time and you're going to get a bunch of singles in between.
I mean, now and then, you hit a double. Every now and then you take a swing and it goes out of the park and you get another home run, but those are in between. We've had a couple of home runs the last few years and now the question is, can we build on it? That's what we're doing right now.
Do you feel you've accomplished what you were talking about at the start? Do you feel you've accomplished Spawn as something that exists, that can survive you?
Yeah. Yeah, it will. I mean, it's been around long enough. I probably crossed that threshold way back when, but for sure, I mean at 300 issues, it now becomes one of the institutions of comic books.
I mean, it's been consistently published for 30 years.
You have to start looking at it from an intellectual point of view: anybody that's 30 years younger has never lived in the world in which that comic book didn't exist. You've got a whole generation all the way up to the age of 30. Then, let's assume that even when the book first came out of you were five or younger, you probably weren't aware of it. Anybody's 35 and under, to them, the whole world, the world's always had a Spawn in it. Why wouldn't it [exist] going forward? Just, to me, why wouldn't it keep going?
Now, there's no Steve Ditko or Stan Lee and Spider-Man is still going. We lost Walt Disney long ago, but his Mickey Mouse and his Goofy and Pluto were still bouncing around as vibrant as ever. This is just of a smaller version, a smaller example of what is possible.
Robert Kirkman, my partner at Image, obviously, he's done that. He's planted that flag with the Walking Dead, right? I mean, people will be talking about Walking Dead long after Robert and I are gone. Good for Robert, right? These are the proud moments of why Image is important to show a couple things. One is, show that it's possible: Here's example A, here's example B, and then we've got C, D, E and F and G. Forget Todd and Robert! There's plenty of other examples of people who came way after us that went through the route of doing it.
Then, the second piece – not only is it possible, but then there's a variety of possibilities. If you want to do your book for 30 years and be a mad man like Todd, well, there's your example. If you want to do it a lot less, because Robert Kirkman was good at about #200, but there's others that have done it for 20 issues and had success and walked away from it. That's the creative process and their prerogative and all we are, each one of us is an example.
That's what I'll be. I'll just be an example to be looked at to say, "Hey, here's a guy that did something. Here's what ended up being some of the results out of that," but it's not the only sort of path or option to look at. There's plenty of other people, right?
Hopefully, people will just look at the 20 good examples. I happen to be one of 20 and they say, "Oh my gosh." They pick their path or they take a little bit of Robert and a little bit of Brian K. Vaughan or a little bit of Mark Millar or whatever, and a little bit of Todd and they come together and they come up with their own recipe.
I don't want to ask what your endgame is, but that's kind of what I'm wondering about that. I feel as if you're talking about intentionally doing something, even going back to the formation of Image, that is inspirational. Part of me thinks that when you're talking about wanting Spawn to outlive you, you're talking about leaving a legacy for your family who will inherit this character. Image Comics is the same thing.
There's only two paths really, right? As I hit 60, I realized, you're on the back nine of the golf course now. I've been recently, for last three months up in Canada, caring along with my sister and my wife for my elderly father and his wife going through some hardships. It makes you a little reflective of, how does this all go down. Because I'm ambitious, and I could keep doing this forever, but I have to pause and say, is that fair to my wife who stood by my side for – we've been together for over 40 years. Is it fair to ask her to just watch me go to the grave doing it? There's only two sort of possibilities, because I know I'm an extremist. It's only going to be one extreme or the other.
Either I just do that and I just go, and then I just hand it over to my family or employees or whatever and let them figure it out, cross my fingers and hope that it all works… Or at some point, I cash in the chips. I would want to do that early enough in the game, not because I want to buy a fancy car or a house – because I already got those – but because, could I make a big enough score that I would have enough money to make impacts in people's lives?
Some people come up to me and they go, "Hey, I've read your book. It got me through some tough times," and you've impacted them artistically and storywise, but the question is, can you then take your success, convert it to cash and take the cash and make an impact in other ways? Let's take a big example now: Bill Gates.
Bill Gates did all that sophisticated stuff that most people don't even understand with Microsoft and whatever else, and worked hard and did whatever. Then, at some point, he just went, "I'm good," and took his billions of dollars and asked, "Hey, can I cure malaria in Africa?" Not bad. If you have to put in 20, 30 years of being in the corporate teat, if you will, so you can get your payoff so that you can go cure malaria or put fresh water in places that God should have done in the first place, then you go, "Not bad."
I know I've been having those sort of conversations too. Be philanthropic instead of being creative and you take all your creative juices and convert it into ways where you can just be philanthropic. I don't know.
Is that the kind of thing that you are thinking about more now? Because again, you set a record. One of the things you said at San Diego was no one's going to beat your record anytime because you're still making Spawn. It's not like you've stopped, right?
No. No. I know I pointed out a kid and somebody said, "Todd, you were kind of picking on a kid." I hope I wasn't. I was actually trying to be silly about making a point that, at some point every day that goes by on Spawn, it becomes a little bit more of a ridiculous sort of goal to want to repeat it. I mean, because, at some point, it might just not be repeatable, right?
Like I said, you have to start at a young age and a lot of things have to go your way. This is why you don't run into a lot of people who are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, because a couple big things get in the way. Number one, health. If one of the two of them has some kind of medical issue and dies, well, can't get to 50 if one of them's dead. Then, the other one is, you got to like each other along the way. You're both healthy, but you hate each other? You got to divorce.
I think Spawn is going to sort of be the equivalent of one of those long, long marriages. It's doable. lf you want try and replicate it, you have to devote your life to it. Like I was saying to the young kid, come on, you're young, you're vibrant. Even I wouldn't have planned this. If you had said to me at 20, "Hey, Todd, pick something and don't move from it from 20 to the age of 50, 60, 70, 80," I would have been like, "What are you talking about? I'm 20! I'm not even having those conversations.”
With my personality and my tenacity and my competitiveness and background in sports and stuff, I just have now over time, gotten to this place now that when I do sort of stop and think about it a little bit, I just go, "Yeah, I guess. You're doing something different and a little bit unique, not necessarily better, but unique." I only meant to keep my characters going. Now I’m hopefully somewhat inspirational to people who can just go, "Come on, man. Todd's just a shmuck and look at him.”
Why can't every schmuck do it, right? There's lots of us out there. I'm a schmuck. Go. Go, go, go, go, go.
You’ve already teased that, in New York, you're going to be talking about the Spawn movie, but what else is in your future?
Well, we keep developing TV shows and stuff like that. I've got about five of them in the pipeline.
Hollywood is an unknown. When I lay out my plans, I don't bank on Hollywood because I can't. It's that simple. What I try and do is say, “Let's do all the other things as good as we can and from time to time, if Hollywood wants to raise their head and help in this momentum, cool.” Would Spawn #300 have sold and been a little more popular if the movie had come out that year? Probably. Would the new Spawn Universe did sort of exploded on the scene last year have been a little more popular if the movie had come out last year? Probably, but it didn't.
It's somewhere in the future. When it comes, we'll figure out how to take advantage of it on the comic book front, which I think will be as simple as it just will mean there are more people in the world that will know what Spawn is, because people who go to movies, that's a thousand times multiplier than those that collect comic books. I mean, you and I know it: maybe an issue of Aquaman sells 30,000 copies, I don't know, but if 30,000 people went and even if they took a date, you got 60,000 people or whatever, and they each spent $10 on a movie ticket, that's 600 grand, right? Aquaman made a billion dollars.
Back out the comic book geeks, then. It was a billion minus 600,000. The rest of it was not comic book collecting fans. The question is, can you then start getting people to be more aware of Aquaman, the character and the brand, because of that movie and all the sort of ancillary stuff that pours out of that? The answer is, of course. Do you see more Aquaman toys and T-shirts and things, of course. Spawn isn't going to be any different.
It comes out, and it'll have its time in the sun. If it's a success, then, it'll hang out in the sun a little bit longer. Then, it'll move to the side, because some other sort of shiny objects will come, and other characters will come from other people and other companies.So, can I build off that? Can we do a Spawn 2? Can we start expanding the universe? I don't know. Those are big possibilities that may be staring us in the face.
What do we do with that? I don't know. The future will tell. That's why I'm saying. We're halfway through this race. As impressive as sometimes people think it is, I just go, “You guys, some of the biggest possibilities are still in front of us.”
What’s that you say? You want to know more about Batman/Spawn? Say no more; here’s all the skinny, straight from this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con announcement.