IMAGE UNITED Weekly: Todd McFarlane

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We've been talking to the artists behind Image United over the last few weeks, and it's probably not surprising that we've saved Todd McFarlane for last.

One of the more recognizable comic book names outside the industry, McFarlane became a comic book superstar in the '80s as a (and later “the”) Spider-Man artist. In 1992, he launched Image Comics with Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino. The group advocated self-ownership of characters and concepts, and McFarlane's Image series Spawn became somewhat of a phenomenon in the early '90s, inspiring a feature movie and later TV animated series.

Recent years have seen McFarlane less involved in comics and more interested in other pursuits, including his action figure company, McFarlane Toys, as well as the production studio Todd McFarlane Entertainment and video game company 38 Studios. McFarlane had even become well-known to people outside the comics industry for his collection of historically significant baseballs and his stint as co-owner of an NHL team, the Edmonton Oilers.

But that is changing. With his work on recent issues of Spawn and the new Haunt comic he's drawing for writer Robert Kirkman, McFarlane appears to be back in the business that made his career decades ago. And now he's part of the group creating Image United, the jam session that begins this week and brings together six of the seven artists that founded Image Comics 17 years ago, each drawing the Image characters they made famous, sometimes on the same page.

In part one of a discussion with the artist (check back tomorrow for part two), we talked to McFarlane about his work on the comic and finish up our series on the comic Image United Weekly.

Newsarama: Todd, you and I have talked before about how Image United came together. But you're such a busy person and have so many business enterprises and comics already in the works, so what was it about this project that appealed to you?

Todd McFarlane: I think No. 1 was the chance to collaborate with the guys again, and to get to hang around them more, and maybe have a little bit more contact. We're all business partners with Image already, but we have our own individual lives, and it doesn't afford us the camaraderie we enjoy when we're actually working together. When we get together, we actually like each other, a lot. And we always say, "We should do this more often!" So this became a forced way to hang out with each other a little bit.

And then the second one, which was more of a business reason, is that Image has been around now since 1992, and like any business that wants to continue to survive, you have to, every now and then, take a reflective look at what you're doing. And arguably, Image Comics was a little bit on autopilot, in terms of some of the business that was going on there. So we thought between doing something like Image United and bringing Robert Kirkman on as a partner and trying to see if we could create a couple new books and tighten down what it is we're doing and putting out to the marketplace. We needed to do a little pruning of the bushes, if you will, and try to keep up with the current activities that Marvel and DC have been doing.

Nrama: You mentioned the founding of Image Comics 17 years ago, and that event has come to mean a lot of things to people, but how do you remember that time?

McFarlane: It's interesting, because each one of the partners was motivated by slightly different things. My answer is a Todd answer, not necessarily an Image answer.

Back then, my mind in 1991, sort of ahead of the game of some of the other guys -- Rob and Erik and myself were sort of ahead of that curve, and then we recruited a couple of the other guys -- but to me, one of the big things is just showing the creative community that there are options out there.

It's weird because we've almost slid backwards in terms of that creative freedom. When we went, we said, "Hey, you can go to Marvel or DC or Dark Horse or this new company we're starting called Image," and there was Malibu and First Comics and Pacific Comics, and even now there's IDW and others. It was just a matter of saying, it doesn't have to be the big two. You can go out and make a living and enjoy this business and not necessarily always do the big two. And I'm not saying the big two are bad. I'm just saying that there are options. There's more than the Democrats and the Republicans. There are other parties you can join and sort of think outside the box.

For awhile, they saw a group of guys go there and people believed in it. And I think some of the writers even tried to start a group, and some other artist groups got together. People started reacting. But I don't know if they're as aware anymore.

Nrama: Do you think it's a matter of young, new writers wanting to break into DC and Marvel?

McFarlane: Yeah, and I understand that. I mean, if I was advising a young kid, I would say, "Go ahead if you can get in the door of the big two, work for them a little bit, make a name and recognition, then take a deep breath and look at what it is you want to do in life." And that may be that you want to draw Spider-Man for the rest of your life. But it may be that that's not true. And you can now go out and do stuff on your own.

Robert Kirkman is a perfect recent example of that. He walked away. Doesn't do one book for Marvel or DC. And he's leading a hell of a life, both from a fun factor and a financial factor. So that possibility is still there. Unfortunately, as our industry has contracted and business is getting tough on everybody, it's too easy to just go, "Oh, it's a Marvel or DC book. I'll buy those! And then I'll buy the independent books after that." And that's irrespective of the quality of the book. And I don't understand that. I read comments from readers and retailers, and sometimes they think an Image book is only average, so they don't buy it or don't stock it on their shelves. I can understand that. But its quality is about the same as 50 other books that you buy at 10 times the rate because it says Marvel or DC on the front. It's easier to just buy Marvel or DC because the brand name is more entrenched. It's an easier buy for the consumer and the retailer. And they think, why take the high road?

And the unfortunate thing is that this is something you see in creative people too. Once they get at the big two, they just sit. They think they can't go off on their own. Everybody is drinking the Kool-Aid. It's unbelievable.

Even though almost 20 years later, Image Comics still exists. Even though 20 years later, we're all making a living on our own, somehow you guys think that if you try to do even one ounce of what it was we did, that somehow it's going to be an abject failure? Or that you're going to be blacklisted? Somebody's done a hell of a job on them. Somebody's done a hell of a job of convincing the new generation that if you don't do DC and Marvel for the rest of your natural life, you'll fail.

Nrama: Are you frustrated by that? After the groundbreaking move you helped orchestrate, that it hasn't made more of an impact?

McFarlane: Yes. But here's what I found then and what I find today: A starving artist is the most scared person on the planet. It's staggering. Before we started Image Comics, I was trying to push for a union. And I would have guys who were not gainfully employed, not making money, who didn't own anything and were probably in debt financially, and they'd say, "Oh, I can't join a union, because what if I get blacklisted?" It is staggering to me that the guy who had the least is the most afraid. That should be the guy who should be the most reckless. I was doing the book that was the most popular, that was getting a lot of awards and money, and I was willing to jump off the cliff. I mean, I was saying, between the two of us, I should be the guy hesitating, not you.

I ran into that all over the place. The guys who have nothing are afraid they might get blacklisted and continue to get nothing.

Now, as we move forward, I have seen dozens and dozens and dozens of times where a person will stop themselves from having some creative freedom because of 1-3 months of financial income. Sixty to 90 days of cash in their pocket. They will say, "No, I'll continue to go down this path for the next 20 years because of 60-90 days."

As you might imagine, I've got an entrepreneurial spirit. So this is a little big mind-numbing, to encounter this. That someone would keep doing something they don't control and don't enjoy and don't have the freedom, all because they're afraid of being without that money for 60-90 days. It doesn't make sense. I'd beg, borrow or steal that money from as many friends, relatives and random people. There's a way off that place. It just doesn't come without some personal sacrifice. They want to be able to step from one precipice to another and not have to risk anything. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

So they just continue to draw Thor and Flash for the next 16 years of their lives. And we'll continue to find the odd guy that is willing to take that risk to find the kind of life outside that, the Robert Kirkmans. And we just have to be in a position to give them a welcome haven and entice them to come on over. It's even more difficult for writers, because they can write multiple books in a month. So they're reluctant to let go of the day gig.

And that was a big reason for my vote for Robert Kirkman. He was the only writer I've met in the last 20 years who was willing to walk away from the Marvel and DC work at the same time. All the other writers we've had who wanted to become a big shot at Image still wanted to write their other DC or Marvel comics, "just in case it doesn't work out." We were looking for somebody who was a little more devoted than that. Robert Kirkman was willing to do that. I mean, it just makes sense. If you want to hire someone at Ford Motor Company, you're not going to hire someone who moonlights at General Motors. And Honda. We want you to have full attention on Image.

Of course, if you just want to do a book at Image, and at the same time do your Spider-Man or Batman, then that's fine. Bring your book on over. But I'm talking about why we had Robert as a partner. Sadly, he was a once-in-a-decade kind of guy. But, hey, what are you going to do?

Nrama: Obviously the words Image United have more than one meaning. What do they mean to you?

McFarlane: Well, I don't want to get too metaphorical here, but it's the comic book business and our job is to put out entertaining comic books. And if, to get to that goal, we can do something that is a little out of the ordinary. Instead of taking all these guys' separate characters, put them together. And instead of taking all these guys' creative abilities separately, put them together. That's what the "united" part means, obviously.

I mean, there hasn't been a lack of crossovers lately. The piece of the puzzle that's unique here, and we'll see if that's good unique or bad unique, and we'll leave that up to the reader, is that we're drawing our own characters and melding this together. If I was a fan, that would be more of the curiosity than anything else. It's not just that it's all these characters getting pushed together, but can Erik Larsen's Dragon stand next to Ripclaw and it not bug me? How do you blend all that and make it smooth, so it doesn't look like somebody just cutting and pasting stuff together.

Nrama: We know that Al Simmons is the Spawn villain. Whose idea was it to have him be the bad guy? Was that something Robert came up with?

McFarlane: Robert. We were looking for something big, and he approached me on it. Ultimately, if there's one thing we could have done better at Image over the years, it would have been to establish more "A" heroes and villains and sub-characters. So when he was looking for somebody to put into the book as a villain that would have at least some meaning to the readers, he thought Spawn was the one that would work.

Nrama: How would you describe the story?

McFarlane: It's difficult in crossovers because you have to bring something new to the story without really changing anything dramatically per se, because everybody's got to go back to their books. It's sort of the balancing act. But Robert is straddling that very well.

And we're beginning to stitch some of these things together so that we have a more cohesive Image universe. That's part of the great things about this, is it shows that it's all one universe.

Nrama: What characters are you working on? Is it mainly Spawn?

McFarlane: Yeah, I'm doing all the Spawn, and then all the anti-Spawn. So I guess I've got the lead on the bad guy. But from time to time, when I get the pages, I'll sneak in a little inking on one of the other characters, just to have a little fun on my end and save the other guys a couple hours of work. To me, that's where the pleasure part comes in. I like doing a little bit to the background or to the Dragon.

Nrama: I heard you use Cintiq a lot for the inking.

McFarlane: Yeah.

Nrama: So do you have to scan the pages in when you get them? Do you do a lot of the work in the computer?

McFarlane: It depends. There are some pages that are totally mine, like a big dramatic shot of Spawn or something. There's nobody else on the page. If I get that, then I'll lean toward going and doing it on the computer like I've been doing. If it's one of the pages where there's four other characters, and Rob and Erik and Marc have had a crack at it or something, then most of those pages I just pick up the pen and bottle of ink and sort of go at it old school.

So I've just been doing it in a way that makes sense on each page.

Nrama: Have you hit any snafus in the process?

McFarlane: In all honesty, I haven't run into that. I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but I haven't heard about it. What may happen is what I've said to them, is that when we're all done, we shouldn't assume the page of original artwork is then finished. If somebody drew their guy out of perspective a little bit, and it looks like he's six inches taller than he should be next to another guy, or six inches smaller, then I keep telling them to send it to me and I'll put it on the computer and fix it. With the magic of the computer, you can actually isolate that character and make him bigger or smaller without having to redraw that. But I haven't had to do that, so far.

The biggest piece that I've seen artistically – and I keep telling them they can give as many of the pages to me last as they want and part of that is my schedule, because I like the gun at my head and being the last one – is putting all the characters on the page in a way so that the background will match.

I don't mind doing the backgrounds too so that there's a continuity in terms of the line weight, whether it's a car or a building or an explosion or debris, so it all looks consistent.

I know the page looks good when we're done with it when it doesn't look like eight people's hands have touched it. That may seem weird because that's part of the selling, right? Oh, all these guys have touched every one of these pages. But it's my personal bias, if I was buying the book, I wouldn't want eight different unique styles. If John Byrne was doing a couple X-Men and Jim Lee was doing a couple X-Men and Marc Silvestri was doing a couple X-Men, then I'd still want them to all feel like they belong together, instead of feeling like none of it matched. You know?

So I've found that, at times, when we're inking individually, there's a little bit of a problem with that. But when it gets closer to the end of the page, you start filling in gaps and making things more uniform. You know, there might be some extra space between one character's leg and another character's arm, so wouldn't the overlap of that character in the background have his foot showing? So I'll draw a foot in there.

But when you put the background in, when it's all said and done, you say, "Wow, that actually looks like a great comic book page!" It doesn't look like it was a Frankenstein job that was put together. Although, intellectually, it was a Frankenstein page. We've just hidden stitch marks.

Nrama: You mentioned that you liked to have the gun at your head. Are you feeling good about the gun at your head?

McFarlane: Yeah, everybody's aware of it. I wouldn't say we'll be five months ahead of deadline. We'll probably get each book out by the hair on our chinny chin chin, and then go on to the next one. And then, by the time the last one's out, we're look at each other and all take a collective deep breath.

Nrama: We've been told it's Robert that is cracking the whip to make sure this gets done.

McFarlane: Oh yeah. He's a taskmaster. He sends an update, and the little nudges. He's in a bit of an awkward position, as you might imagine, because he's the new kid on the block. [laughs] But he's the one that has to act like the dad. And he likes to do it in a nice, gentle way because he doesn't want to insult any of the guys that were there before him. So he's in a tough spot. He does a good job of it, though. We sort of kid him more than we probably should, because he's just trying to look out for the future of the company. He's just dealing with all these neurotic artists. We'll get it done for him. Not probably in the schedule and rhythm he'd like, but it eventually comes together.

Nrama: You say that a lot of times you're the last guy to get the page. What's the experience like for you to see those finished pages?

McFarlane: For me, when I get some of the pages at the end, I feel that I'm sort of getting a sneak peek even before some of the other guys. Like the pages where I do Spawn and finish the backgrounds, and finish the whole page so nobody else has to touch it, I am just amazed. And then I'll send off a low-res version of it so I can send it off in an email and the other guys can see it. And everybody's like, "Wow, that turned into a real comic page."

Because you don't know exactly what it's going to look like when you draw your character in a corner or whatever, then the page bounces around and you don't get to see it again until the end. And we always try to share the pages with each other, and we'll see the finished page and go, "Wow! Wow! That page turned out a lot cooler than I thought."

I like getting it at the end, because all the rest of the space is mine to play with. Then I can fill it in as I see fit, whether it's speed lines or explosions or smoke. One of the things I can do fairly effortlessly is noodle pages, and it doesn't really take much time.

Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell fans about Image United?

McFarlane: You know, I've never been big on overhype. Even when I do the messaging about my toys and stuff, I'll say something like, "hoping to make the most detailed toys," instead of "the most detailed on the planet!" I've never been fond of those kind of things.

With Image United, we're trying to do something that is a curious experiment, to say the least. And I'm hoping our careers sort of matched with that odd experiment will be enough for people to at least go get that first issue and thumb through it and see if they enjoy it.

Check back tomorrow for more discussion with McFarlane, this time about his plans for animation and movie versions of Spawn. And be sure to come back to Newsarama tomorrow at 7 p.m. EST as all seven creators from Image United participate in an 90-minute online interview/chat. Click Here for more information on the special event!


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IMAGE UNITED Weekly: Erik Larsen

IMAGE UNITED Weekly: Jim Valentino

IMAGE UNITED Weekly: Rob Liefeld

IMAGE UNITED Weekly: Whilce Portacio

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