By Robert Tutton
Todd McFarlane says he was about six years old when he received the advice that would shape the rest of his life.
Though a born Canadian, he and his family were living in California then, and like a lot of kids, he spent a little too much time plastered to the TV watching cartoons. “This guy would come on and he’d point to me, and he’d say, ‘Only YOU can prevent forest fires,’” McFarlane, now 57, recalls. “Fuck! So you’re saying, Smokey, that this is on me. That my life is my responsibility, and if it doesn’t turn out right, it’s my fault. It’s nobody else’s fault.”
Every career decision that would eventually elevate McFarlane to his current status as a comic icon, toy magnate, budding filmmaker, and general creative renegade, can be traced to that philosophy. He revolutionized the look of Spider-Man with “spaghetti webbing” and anatomically impossible poses. He famously quit his lucrative gig at Marvel at the height of his career because he wanted more control over his work. He—alongside Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio—co-founded Image Comics to seize that creative (and financial) control. He didn’t like the licensing deals offered by the toy industry’s biggest companies, so he launched his own with a previously unprecedented focus on detail. In 1992, under the Image banner, he delivered his most lasting contribution to comicdom and the most lucrative independent comic of all time—Spawn.
But you already knew all of this. Challenging the status quo is kind of McFarlane’s thing, and he’s spent decades doing it. It’s nigh impossible to discuss the man or his work without wading into his penchant for iconoclasm. “If everybody likes you, I’m telling you now, you are not changing the world,” he explains. The world, he says, is full of people itching to tell you that you can’t change it.
From Spawn’s first 1992 issue, that defiance has been there writhing and pulsing beneath McFarlane’s heavily inked panels. “I’ve been fighting my whole life, to some degree,” he explains. “So Spawn is just a reflection of stuff that I do. I’m just writing Todd.” While McFarlane was fighting the power in real life, Spawn was raging against the biggest machines there are: Heaven and Hell. It was all part of his plan to make Spawn the coolest, baddest, head-crackingest hero around. “They got Dr. Doom? I got Satan,” McFarlane says. “Shoot, let’s go as big as you can go. But it was just metaphors for some of the stuff that I and some of my partners were fighting against in our own lives.”
The series initially follows the newly resurrected and super-powered Al Simmons, an elite African American government assassin who strikes a deal with the ruling demon, Malebolgia, to see his wife again. The cost was Simmons’ soul and a leadership role in Hell’s army, but he was brought back five years later, only to be reborn in a caucasian body and see his wife happily remarried to his best friend. Such was Spawn’s creation, blooming from the simplest of notions: “Surely each of us, almost every one of us, has at least one person that if we knew we were going to die that day, we would want to say goodbye to,” McFarlane says. “Surely there’s that one person we all have, I don’t care if it’s a sibling or boyfriend, girlfriend, a neighbor, a mom or dad.”
But while Spawn is a superhero comic, McFarlane was by no means writing a sinless Boy Scout. He sees humanity’s inherent foibles and revels in them. Flawed heroes have always been the most intriguing to him. He poses a question to illustrate how easy it is for comics to omit the minutiae that makes up humanity: “What’s Clark Kent’s favorite music to listen to? Why, after 80 years, do we not know whether he likes football? Bruce Wayne is human, surely he likes to eat. What’s his favorite food? We make them these paint-by-numbers stories, and as I’ve gotten older, I just don’t have the patience for that.”
McFarlane is a self-proclaimed pacifist who created an extraordinarily violent comic book, full of murder, maiming, and dismemberment—often instigated by a gruesomely creative rogue’s gallery of freaks and monsters. He says that Spawn’s solution to the Joker would be to murder him. “If you or I, as flawed humans, were to get hit by a bolt of lightning tomorrow and we’re now strong enough to put an automobile over our head,” he says, “all it makes us is a strong flawed person.”
Spawn’s violent tendencies don’t always work out the way he intends; in the 29th issue, the anti-hero happens upon two boys who are being abused by their father. Spawn uses his infernal magic to tattoo the man head to toe with the repeating phrase “I beat my children.” The act only deepens the man’s viciousness until one of the brothers kills him to protect the other. It’s another of McFarlane’s grasps at realism. “There are repercussions for everything we do, and those repercussions should be magnified a hundredfold if you’re doing it on a superhero level.”
Spawn was ahead of its time in many ways, especially relevant today. The character was a champion of the marginalized, living in trash-filled back allies with homeless men who quickly form his entourage. They protect him as much as he protects them, and they often serve as much-needed moral support to Al, reminding him of his humanity and his power.
Race is also an issue that remained front and center. Al Simmons was a black man, and his first attempt to use his magic to disguise his grotesque appearance results in him becoming a blond-haired caucasian. Coming off Spider-Man, McFarlane found it odd that a hero covered head to toe by his costume would never be questioned as to what was underneath. Knowing there were plenty of handsome white heroes out there, and seeing no good reason to add another to their ranks, he consciously changed course. “I was so cognizant of it that in issue one, I stripped his skin off him,” he says. “I took away the thing that would be a distraction for some people, and said I just want to do a hero. I don’t want to do a black hero, I don’t want to do an Asian hero, or a Caucasian hero; I just want to do a hero.” But Spawn’s grotesque cadaver face didn’t remove all of the racial overtones. In Spawn #30, while trekking through the South, he crosses paths with the KKK trying to run a black family off their land. Ultimately, in a move reminiscent of the old EC comics, he transforms the bigoted ringleader into a black man who gets lynched by his racist compatriots. The cover is nothing short of brutal, depicting the black hero—skinless or not—with his cape in tatters and his hands bound by his own chains, swinging from a noose. “Every one of us is a fucking human being on this planet,” McFarlane adds, emphatically. And Spawn does eventually get his skin back.
Over 25 years have passed since the comic’s debut, and both Spawn and its creator have changed. As they’ve both matured, the series traded in some of the traditional superhero tropes for creepier psychological stories. “I think that the reason that a lot of the other superheroes haven’t changed as much over the years is because it’s not the same creator doing it through all those decades,” McFarlane explains. “I believe that if Stan Lee was still writing Fantastic Four, it would have evolved, too.”
The comic was prescient in other socially conscious ways, as well. In another early issue, Spawn encounters a secretary being sexually harassed, ruthlessly, by her sleazy boss. Reading this scene in light of the #MeToo movement, it’s visceral to a point that superhero comics don’t often achieve. McFarlane and his wife, also his teenage sweetheart, have two daughters, and the creator bristles at the ubiquity of sexual harassment. “Being a gentleman is a 24-hour job. It’s not 22. You don’t get two hours off because you’re with your buddies in Vegas,” he says. “Being non-racist is a 24-hour job. Being a non-bigot is a 24-hour job. So when our president mocks a handicapped person, and somebody wants to say that’s a gentleman, I don’t think so. It’s a 24-hour job—you don’t get 10 seconds off.”
McFarlane is continuing that line of thinking with a new ongoing title set to release this year called Misery. Inspired by his daughter’s encounter with bullying, the titular protagonist is a super-powered teenage girl fed up with abuse. McFarlane says he wanted a hero who would fight more psychologically than physically. “She’s going to make mistakes along the way, because she’s human. She’s flawed and she’s young,” he says. “She’s going to try to figure out what do you do if you’re special. Being the hero, to me, is not a very interesting story. Trying to figure out what it means to be a hero, that is the story.”
In addition to Misery, McFarlane also revealed a slew of other new projects at this year’s Image EXPO. Sam and Twitch: True Detectives will feature Spawn’s gumshoes in a noir boiler, and a new Medieval Spawn and Witchblade collaboration recently saw Brian Holguin and Brian Haberlin return to swords-and-steeds warfare. A sequel to the uber-violent one-shot Spawn Kills Everyone rounds out the upcoming projects, with an adorable version of the demonic general giving birth to a pack of miniaturized hellspawns.
Beyond comics, McFarlane’s latest creative coup will feature the creator both writing and directing the forthcoming Spawn movie—with Jamie Foxx set to star as the titular figure. Armed with indominatably high self-confidence, he’s not the least bit worried about this foray into the medium. He knows he should have concerns, but relates back to his days as a baseball player. “If you fail seven out of 10 times, you’re a .300 hitter, and you’re going to make the all-star team,” he says. “There was never one at-bat in my life that I thought the pitcher was better than me. I know I’m going to fail seven out of 10 times, but there has never been one where I thought that at-bat was gonna be one of those seven.”
The film will follow Detective Twitch as he tries to figure out what exactly is going bump in the night and how it relates to the titular character. McFarlane says it will be a more street-level, lower-budget film that aims for creepy horror in the vein of John Carpenter’s The Thing or Ridley Scott’s Alien, rather than the special effects extravaganza of a superhero movie. “The ones who may enjoy the movie the most are people who know nothing about Spawn, because they’re going to come with no preconditions,” he elaborates.
But in spite of McFarlane’s flare for defiance, he embraces a zen calm. He expects that the end of his career will see him as an old man back at the drafting table drawing his own comics again. But this time, with no more achievements to chase, he’ll be driven sheerly by the love of it. If there’s a tao of Todd, it’s simple: Make cool stuff, push back when pushed, and forget about perfection.
“Here’s what I say every day before I get out of bed: today’s going to be imperfect,” he explains. “Where you’re going to get frustrated or stressed out, is if you get up and you thought today’s going to be perfect. Fuck, that’s going to be a hard day! But if you set the bar at imperfect, sometimes you have days that are close to perfect… shit, those are spectacular days.”