A Deep Dive into the Mind of Todd McFarlane
January 15, 2020 | Ted Adams
January 15, 2020 | Ted Adams
Image has partnered with Humble Bundle to give you an amazing chance to dig into the Spawn universe! In celebration, here's an interview with the man himself—Todd McFarlane—done by the fine folks over at Traveling Stories. Thanks to Ted Adams for the thoughtful questions and to SANTIPEREZ for the rad art!
Board member Ted Adams, and IDW Publishing and Clover Press founder, recently met up with Todd McFarlane. Todd is the artist and creator behind Spawn and President of Image, the 3rd largest comic book company in the United States after Marvel and DC. It’s truly an honor to have these two top comic icons dedicating an hour of their time for us.
We’ve split up the interview into two segments: Todd the Artist — Part 1 and Todd the Entrepreneur — Part 2.
Both segments will have the audio and the transcribed interview. It’s great to hear Todd talk about his legendary career in his own words. This interview goes beyond the typical question and answer sessions you’ll find in most mainstream outlets. It goes beyond “why did you create this character” and delves deep into Todd’s insights on how to create stories, how to build your career as a comic book artist, and offers essential writing tips.
We hope you’ll see — just as we did while working on this — how this is packed with gems!
Would you rather listen to the interview, or read it as you listen? Click here for the full audio!
Ted Adams: Well, I’m Ted Adams and I have the superstar Todd McFarlane here with me. We’re doing this interview on behalf of a San Diego based nonprofit called Traveling Stories. What Traveling Stories does is they empower kids to outsmart poverty by helping them fall in love with reading by the fourth grade. It’s a super cool organization that I’m on the board of, and if you want more information you can go to travelingstories.org. Thank you, Todd. I appreciate you doing this and helping Traveling Stories. You also put them as part of your Spawn Humble Bundle, so we very much appreciate that.
Todd McFarlane: Sure, I like kids, the youth and kids are the Chicken noodle for the soul, right? I’m a little bit immature myself so whenever I get around a bunch of adults I usually try and see if there’s a kid in the room that I could have a conversation with anyway, so…
TA: Well if you’re ever in San Diego with some spare time we’ll take you down to one of the StoryTents and you can see these kids learning how to read. It’s pretty cool. It’s like their motto says, it’s very empowering for these kids. A lot of them come from disadvantaged families so it’s their first chance to get introduced to books and that’s a pretty cool experience.
TM: I also think Ted, to digress slightly, there’s a big message to be said about the importance of art as well. Because, you know, I go and talk to classes, been down to even jails and places where there are underprivileged kids. And you know some of the messages that I give to them is if you’re not going to be a good writer, you know, then learn to draw. Now there’s this whole phenomenon happening in the comic industry, especially at comic conventions where if you can come up with the money to basically get a four-foot table you can put out your sign and say “hey, I’ll draw any character you want.” As long as you can do a decent job drawing a Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or whatever, people will come in and pay you and you need no real sort of secondary advance training for that if you just have the skill sets. When I go and talk in the jails and stuff, I go if you can draw a good Wonder Woman or Flash and they’ll give you 25 bucks they’re not going to ask you if you’ve got a record. They’re just going to say, “hey, can you make her with longer hair?” That said, I know you can. You can. You can empower yourself. With not only the reading and the writing which is basically a lifelong tool but on the artistic side. You can empower yourself by giving yourself a job and not worrying about whether people look down on you or think that you’re less than.
TA: Good point, very cool. So, I did some research for this interview even though I worked for you a long time ago and we know each other. I spent some time listening to some interviews and I went back and re-read a bunch of Spawn and some early Spider-Man.
TA: What became obvious to me was that you’ve done a lot of interviews that are very, sort of, you’ve had a big life and so they try to go to the same point of your big life. There’s going to be no question that they’ll be a lot of books written about you. So, I feel like I can help those future biographers by maybe focusing on just a couple of areas and telling a few stories from those specific areas. So, when they’re writing books about you, they’ll have these anecdotes.
TA: The two things that we’ll focus on are the early days in the publishing business and then your overall entrepreneurship, which obviously, you’re a superstar artist but what you’ve accomplished as an entrepreneur is, I think arguably even more impressive. I want to take you back to the early days of Image Comics. Like I said, I went back and I looked at a bunch of the Wizard magazines from that era, Comics Journal, and all that stuff, which is pretty fun.
TA: But Image in the early days really had a vibe, it was the artists versus the writers. Because you guys were all artists and you were either writing the comics yourself or you were having your friends write the comics for you. Some of you guys, including yourself, took a lot of heat for the fact that you were writing these books.
TA: It occurred to me that at this point now 25 years later that you’ve actually written way more comics than you’ve drawn. I’m curious over those 25 years that you’ve been writing, what you’ve learned and how you look back at your early work.
TM: Well you know, let’s sort of go through the formation of Image Comics. Which is the third largest comic company in the country and has been since its formation. Right behind Marvel and DC Comics that you know, most everybody would have heard of. If you ask what’s the third biggest, it’s been us for over two-plus decades. At some point, I think you must accept that we’re all individuals and we’re all wired differently. So, another person in the exact same situation as myself may have thrived and been twice as successful as I was or may have folded because there were impediments along the way. So, for whatever reason I was just, if you ask my mom and go all the way back, she’ll tell you probably from the time I was 4, I was just this kid that would never sort of abide by the rules. I was a kid that literally colored outside the lines where everybody else was adhering. I was always going “hey, what happens if you do this?” So, you know that attitude ultimately led to one of the reasons why I helped join, create, and co-found Image Comics with my other partners. It was because I was doing some of that at Marvel with Spider-Man and bending the rules.
TM: The one thing that I tell kids at college (my wife teaches at a college and I go and speak), is that really the greatest, thickest and highest wall that I think all of us will ever run into is the wall of the status quo. Which basically means that people are for whatever reason adverse to change, even though it’s really the only constant in life. But we cling to keeping things the same because nobody wants to take a chance. So those of us that are wired, myself included, to take those chances and want to take chances you can either look at it from your perspective or go “OK Todd, you accomplished something, you did some things that were out of the box and they were successful.” Or you can say, “You know I was a rebel; I was uncoachable; I was immature, or I was whatever.” I don’t care what negative word you want to use. There’s a fine line between being tenacious and stubborn and then just not being a nice person.
TM: So, for me Ted, when we started Image Comics, I only wanted to write at the beginning for one reason, not because I had a lot of stories to tell, but because I had a lot of visuals in my head that I wanted to get on paper. And as a byproduct, those were my stories. I knew that there was going to be no other writer able to see what was in my brain or the images that were in my brain that I wanted to get on paper. And so, I go, there’s only one way to get there I must start writing my own stuff. It began at Marvel when I had a book that they gave me that I wrote and drew for Spider-Man. And then here’s the thing with writing, was the early writing very good? In hindsight, no not really. It’s always weird you know that these number one issues sell so well. I could argue that my best-selling issue at Marvel which was Spider-Man number One and my best selling this year since forming Image was Spawn Number One. Both of those are arguably my worst written books.
TA: Well, that’s also where you get the world building right, so that’s what made those books so interesting is you’re building those worlds and dropping all those characters in, and introducing ideas that you’re still working with 25 years later.
TM: Yeah. And so, what ends up happening is that you get dropped into these things and then a lot of eyeballs come. And in both cases, both with the introduction of Spawn and Spider-Man number One, people were coming in and I knew they were coming to look at my artwork first and foremost. With Spawn I knew I could get them in the door to look at my artwork because they’d been looking at the Spider-Man stuff for years. So, the question was, once I knew I could get them for a couple of months it was then incumbent on me to actually lay down enough of mythology that they would go “Oh, and I actually like this character.” who they had no idea who he was. Spawn, they weren’t buying Spawn issue one because they like Spawn. They didn’t even know who he was, they were buying it for the artwork. But at some point, I needed people to be coming back to the book because they go, “Wow, I actually like the character.” And at some point, I knew that I might not be writing and/or drawing it forever. I needed to build a world that was going to be interesting.
TM: Now here’s the thing that’s sort of funny. And if anybody is listening, you don’t have to have all the answers to your story at the beginning. Because we work on deadlines and we work on this sort of timeframe. And if you even talk to people who do TV shows; a classic example would be the people behind the TV show Lost. They didn’t know what was going to happen in that last season. They just started something; they start pushing a boulder down the hill. It starts to roll, and you don’t really worry about the end of any story because you hope that you never have to write it.
TM: I mean I do; I have the last issue of Spawn in my head, I do. I hope I don’t have to write it because the only reason you would write it, is because the world doesn’t want to see your character anymore, so it’s time to put them to bed. But for me, if you were to say, “Todd, in the first three, four, or five months of the introduction of Spawn the comic book in 1992, talk to me about Spawn.” I could probably talk to you for about 20 minutes. If you now say that 20 years later or even 10 years later, or 5 years later from the introduction of that book “Hey, talk to us about Spawn.” I could go on for hours, I mean hours and hours and hours. Why? Because not only do you get comfortable with the characters, but you also start getting comfortable with their motivation. Then you start almost giving personality to them and you know how each one of them should or are going to act in certain situations. You start giving reasons as to why everybody’s doing what they’re doing. The next thing you know, you don’t have to put all of that on the page, you just have to have it in the back of your head so it makes some sort of sense to you when you’re putting it in and constructing your stories.
TM: Now we’re heading into a record-setting 301 issues, the longest running creator-owned book on the planet. Then you go, “Shoot, after 301 issues I only feel like I’ve told half my stories, I’ve got another three hundred in my head!” When it first came out, I would’ve been lucky to even tell you what issue 5 was going to look like. I didn’t even know. What did I learn? I just learned through attrition to create these characters to be a little more realistic in terms of some kind of emotional interaction. And then I think the structure and the writing of the dialogue and the captions, it just must get better. Writing is no different than learning the language. The more you do it, the better you get. It’s impossible for me to think that any person could say, “Hey, I’m going to write a thousand pages.” and by halfway through that story, page 500 wouldn’t be much better constructed, on all levels, than pages 1 through 10.
TA: It’s kind of that idea that Malcolm Gladwell had about the 10,000 hours. He says you must do something for 10,000 hours to get proficient at it, and then that’s when you start to become more of an expert and better at your craft.
TM: Yeah. And the thing is too because you now know that, you’re going to be a writer. Again, I didn’t train myself. I trained myself to visually look at the world. I’m constantly still doing it. I’m always looking when I walk into a room, looking at sort of the architecture, the way the people lay things out, furniture or something because I may have to draw this room someday. I’m constantly taking mental photographs of it. But the equivalent of that now for me for writing is that I like to listen to people talk. And this may seem weird; you know like if you’re at a park or you’re at a party or if you’re at a restaurant I like to eavesdrop if I can, on other conversations. Or if I’m in a group myself with seven or eight people sometimes I’ll go silent for a half an hour because I’m sort of studying the cadence of how people talk and how they say things and how they phrase things.
TM: One of the things that are completely true, and I must catch myself from time to time because it’s too easy to do, is that most people when you’re having just a conversation, I’m talking about just a casual conversation, with one or more people. A lot of times we don’t talk in finished sentences. We jump so much with our thoughts that we have a tendency not to finish, basically we don’t speak with the Queen’s English. To me, there are two skills; there’s one of being able to actually get your point across and get the information across of your story so you can move it forward. And then there’s also putting it in a way that sounds like real people, right? And you see this in TV and movies. I will walk away from TV shows halfway through the first episode because I go, I don’t believe these are human beings. I believe these are actors reciting lines from typed pages. The thing is the information’s right, but I have a bias that I just think there’s a smarter way to basically give that information. You could give all the same information it just shouldn’t sound like bullet points.
TM: For example, “I am the daughter of the Sergeant, and you are my husband and we’ve been married 12 years, how dare you say that.” What are you talking about? I don’t have to remind my wife how many years I’ve been married. She intuitively knows. So now the question is, how do you get that information across? That you’ve been married 12 years is important. How do you get it across? And the answer may be that one of the two of you may not have to say it, you must put it in the caption or somebody else is going to have to come in the room and say it. And say “What? After 20 years of marriage, you guys are not going to get in a fight like this!” Let somebody else say it because the two people that would normally be involved in it, they wouldn’t be the ones that would be giving all that information.
TM: Listen the next time you’re watching a TV show to how many times people say, “you’re my brother, how could you do that!” I can honestly say I’ve never turned to any of my brothers and ever said: “hey, you’re my brother.” We just knew that the moment we took our first breath every morning. There’s some silly writing that goes on. The people that I admire, and which is why I’m a big drama movie guy, I just like to watch things that I think feature real human beings. And so, some of the comic book writers I think capture that and I’m sort of jealous of them in a big way.
TA: Yeah, that natural dialogue also really helps build the characterization and helps people fall in love with those people. I think Brian Vaughan is a good example of somebody who is great at that, Robert Kirkman built a career on it and Brian Bendis, all those folks.
TM: Exactly, those are three people I’d be jealous of. But the one thing that they have, the advantage that they have, is that they’ve created stories in which even though each one of those three writers has this backdrop of the fantastic, they’ve created these stories where they’ve put a lot of normality into those conversations. Because they know every second doesn’t have to be somebody beating up someone or shooting a ray gun. When those moments are gone, whether you look like an alien or you’re a zombie hunter or you’re Superman, there are moments of respite in which you just want to have a normal conversation. I think you can do it in ways that are not heavy-handed.
TM: So, for instance, Superman has been around since the late 1930s. I don’t know and maybe somebody said it someplace, but I don’t know what his favorite music is. I’m not saying somebody has to do an entire issue of that but somewhere it seems like in 70 years, given that he’s trying to act like a normal human being while he’s trying to disguise himself from being Superman, that he would have said at some point what kind of food he likes or what kind of TV shows he likes, or where he likes to go on vacation. Does he like baseball or football? I mean does he even like horses. I mean, these are just generic topics that all of us talk about during the day, “Oh, did you see that show?” or “Did you see that video game or listen to that music, see that movie?” We just talk about the world around us, a lot of it is now on the internet or entertainment-based things. I still think there’s room even for all our characters that have been out there for decades and decades to show a little bit of their humanity. As casual as Bruce Wayne saying “Hey, why don’t you turn that channel over to country, it’s sort of what I grew up on.” Something that gives you an insight into who he is; good, bad or indifferent.
TA: That’s kind of like what Stan Lee did when he created the Marvel Universe, when he was creating it back in the 60s, he was giving them real-world problems and making them real people and having dialogue that was realistic. It’s funny that he was so great at it and yet you don’t really see that as much in today’s modern superhero comics. It’s all big giant crossovers and epic battles.
TM: Well it’s difficult. I can honestly tell you the hardest pages for me to write are the fight scenes. Because if I was filming it, again I’m an artist first so I think about it visually, if I was the director of that story, I wouldn’t have anybody be saying anything at that moment. They would just be having their confrontation. So, when you watch something like the Bourne Identity and he’s in a room and two guys come in and he must fight to escape they’re not talking he’s just going, in his brain he’s going, “I’ve got to get out of this situation, out of this room, they’re onto me.”
TM: There have been many times where I put a balloon on a page and to me, it just seems trite, it seems forced. Sometimes I leave it because I go “Well, you know people will think I’m not writing enough this issue.” But there’s been plenty of times where I just drop it. I’ve told other people who write if you have to rewrite your word balloon three, four or five times. That means that nobody should be saying anything, if you can’t find it after four or five tries, that means its way better if you don’t say it. Because you’re just trying to shove something in that maybe isn’t there. Usually, it’s when the action is at the forefront, when people are sitting with themselves across the table from some other person, whether they’re superhuman or not, those are easy to have. I think those are the most fun to write because those are the real conversations that you can have.
TM: It’s one of the reasons why, maybe I’m just too old, that I don’t go to superhero movies because I still think that the superhero movie follows too much of that 13-year-old mentality. The let’s just go and do the big splashy stuff, visually I think all those movies are amazing, it’s just weird to me that that given that sometimes they’re doing fights that may have a cosmic impact that nobody is really saying that in a big way. They may be affecting millions of people’s lives, why do you get to make the call? Why do you, Thor, get to make the call? How do you even know what you’re doing, why do you get to play God today? What if we’re wrong? I mean there’s too much in a lot of the superheroes and I lump it into the action movies as a whole, it’s been going on forever there. There seems to be a lot of chaos but not a lot of consequence to it. You have a lot of car crashes and buildings blowing up, but nobody ever seems to wonder whether anybody was walking on the streets when those cars were flipping and exploding, and buildings were collapsing. Or you’re shooting a thousand bullets at somebody on a highway. I think it’s spectacular that they can dodge all thousand, although not very realistic, my thought is always where are those bullets going? They’re right there on the L.A. freeway with cars behind them. What happens to all those bullets? How many people might they have killed or injured and what was the consequence of all that?
TM: We tend to want to just get to the fun stuff if you will. The kinetic stuff and we don’t put the humanity into it. I’ve tried, whether right or wrong to keep the human part of the Spawn world and Al Simmons himself, who is Spawn, at the forefront. Then all the fighting is almost a complication to doing that. Like you mentioned to me earlier before we got on the recording, that you’re relaxing now after being the CEO, being the CEO is complicated. What’s way cooler at times is not being the CEO, but being able to hang out with loved ones and spending five days on a vacation, that’s cool.
TA: It has been nice, that’s for sure.
TM: Yeah, so not having the complications should be something that we all strive for. So, for the superheroes, they shouldn’t be looking for conflict, to me. They should hope there is no conflict. If anything, if you are going to be proactive you could say “Hey, who are all the bad guys, what if I just basically lock them all up or get rid of them or take them to another planet?” Then there won’t be these guys and I can go on a long vacation because I’m not going to have a bunch of bad guys to chase. I guess I could argue on some level, the first couple years of any superhero life should be looking for the guys who are looking for them first and then get rid of them. To be able to go “Ahh, good. Now I can relax.” Might make for boring comic books and boring stories but at least there’s a reason and a rationale. Because he’s going “I want to get rid of this, I don’t want my kid to grow up in a world that has all this gnarliness in it.” All right, that’s a motivation for a human that is now endowed with superpowers. OK, you want to protect your family, nothing wrong with that.
TM: Now if we jump and put a period on that one. You asked earlier about the entrepreneur part of it.
TA: Having this conversation kind of makes me think of when I worked for you in the late 90s and you asked me to help you put together a line of comic books. We did a book with Bendis and Rick Veitch did Cy-Gor and Niles was doing some stuff and Beau Smith and all these cool creators, and Ash Wood. Don’t know if you remember but we brought all those people into Phoenix to meet with you. Where you could give them your vision for Spawn which I think was a pretty amazing experience for all of us. But you said something there that really stuck with me which is that there are things in the world that are just intrinsically evil, meaning when you see a spider or you see a snake or a bat there’s just something in human beings or at least most human beings where they see that as something they should stay away from. Whether that’s through evolution or something else it’s just something hardwired in us. That definition of evil, as I said, really has stuck with me. I’m curious if when you’re writing you still see it that way. I know you talked about how this Spawn movie is going to focus on the shadows and on the dark side of life.
TM: Yeah, I think that we’ve been trained to have these defaults of good and bad. And it was part of what I was talking about back then. Part of the mythology of Spawn is, I have this thing where you know Mother Nature trumps both heaven and hell so every now and then she basically gets rid of the population on Earth. I got the idea of what if we’re the third generation? That we’re not the first. It’s been going on for some time. What if we dug down deep into the core and would see that we’re the third layer? That the air was polluted, and the water got poisoned and that everything vanished. Then it all got started all over again because it just became a mess and Mother Nature was not going to clean up the mess. The thing that I’ve said is that we have this inherent view where if you had then heaven and hell, Cain and Abel, God and Satan whatever name you want to give them. And those two characters were too impatient to wait for the humans to evolve, that’s going to take a long time each time. What they would do is they would go after the animals and the creatures that were inhabiting the earth and they would do a draft. Now if I was to say to almost any human being, let’s say that Satan and God did a draft. OK, I’m not going to tell you who drafted who but let me just give you a name and then you tell me whether you think it was a God pick or was a Satan pick. Here we go. OK, bunny rabbit.
TA: A God pick. Right?
TM: So, anybody listening we can go fast. You’re going to make these calculations fast: bunny rabbit, kitten, vulture, rat. Now let’s go to insects: cockroach, ladybug. They’re both insects but I bet you just divided those two. Because we sort of do this cute/nice thing and then we do this evil/ugly thing. Snake. Right. Again, you mention a snake and a wolf or hyena compared to a baby piglet. So, what we have in our brain even though they’re animals and they’re all acting naturally, and the snake didn’t know it was going to be a snake. I’ve said to my own family if the cockroach were only smart enough to basically paint himself with red and black dots. You would let him crawl up on your arm because it would look adorable. So, this whole thing that we train ourselves to say don’t treat people differently. Literally the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Of course, we do that! I mean, we say it, but we do it every single day of our lives with judgment calls on everything. We just have our personalities and we like to sort of compartmentalizing everything.
TM: So, to me then you can build upon that. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I think humans are just flawed, and we think of ourselves as way more than we really are. We’re just another flawed animal. We just happen to have higher thinking, flawed as it is. But now we can use those flaws to tell literally limitless stories. If you’re a writer, then all you must come up with for the story, I think on some level, is just go “What happened to me yesterday?” Now how do I take the context of that and put it into the fantastic? So, if it was that I had a fight with my sibling, then can I do a fight with somebody in the Avengers? Of course, you can. Somebody is going through a divorce; can I do Superheroes are getting divorced? Of course, you can. Somebody is saying that they’re going to, ‘if you don’t pay your bills, then they’re going to evict you’. Can you put that in a story and that maybe as a superhero you can pay your bill, but what about your brother? Because I assume superheroes have brothers and sisters. You can apply all of it to stories and then what do you do? Does the superhero then flex his muscle? I can just go in and push the landlord against the wall and say you know to give my brother some more time to pay for his bill. Or do I use my powers to raise the money or do I just stay on the sidelines and let my brother figure it out? It’s his life. All of those.
TM: Whatever direction you went and I’m not saying any one of those stories is better or worse. People who think they can’t tell stories, are not giving themselves enough credit. Because each one of us lives thousands of stories, you know every year, and all you have to do is just tap into a couple of them. The ones that you tell when you’re at a dinner party or you’re with your friends. Just tell that story in a magnificent fashion. I mean there’s a movie coming out called Tolkien that’s essentially going to tell that story. How did he come up with those stories? I’ll take it as being somewhat truthful. It was based on his life. He took what was happening in his life and he took it to a fantastic level, made it entertaining and added a little bit of Hollywood into it because you have to have all that. Suddenly you have stories that people adore. I think we all have stories to tell.---