What does it take to have a comic book reach the 200th issue?
Drive, dedication and a lot of reader support.
Although over a dozen comic titles have broken the 200th issue milestone at Marvel and DC, when you look into independent comics not supported by megalithic corporations the number dwindles. In the mid-90s, Dave Sim’s Cerebus was the first to break through 200 issues and now Todd McFarlane’s Spawn joins this lofty group.
Todd McFarlane came into independent comics and Spawn in 1992 after almost a decade in the Big Two, carving out a niche for himself as one of the most dynamic and thought-provoking artists of his era. The former comic shop employee turned industry superstar was well-known for his boisterous personality, and that fire helped him and six other Marvel artists start their own company: Image.
In the intervening years, both Spawn and its creator have risen in profile. There’s been movies, animated series, toys, and McFarlane has even directed several music videos and bought some epic baseball memorabilia. But in recent issues, McFarlane has taken a renewed interest in the book, participating in the creation at all levels, from writing, drawing, inking and even coloring. But on the occasion of Spawn’s #200 issue, Todd is coming back in force.
For Spawn #200, Todd McFarlane returns to the drawing board and illustrates this near-triple-sized special issue, and he’s enlisted some friends to make it happen. Legendary artist Michael Golden is here, as well as Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Ashley wood, David Finch, Greg Capullo and Robert Kirkman… the latter of which is not only writing, but is making his penciling debut.
When we talked to Todd back in the summer for Spawn Week, he was just getting started on what this special issue would be. And now with him putting the final touches on the book for its January ship date, we return to the famed cartoonist to get to the heart of Spawn #200.
Newsarama: When we last spoke I was blown away by how enthused you were about actively doing Spawn– its like you were bit by the comic book bug once again. How has getting back into the day-to-day of Spawn and culminating with this issue, #200, changed you?
Todd McFarlane: It’s a couple of things. There’s a big fun factor in terms of getting to get back in the pilot’s chair for Spawn by writing, penciling and inking. And then being able to do finishes and inking over guys that I’ve known but haven’t had much chance to work with before like Michael Golden and Jim Lee has been fun. Although Jim and I were partners at Image for years, we were each doing our own books and never had time to work together. With Marc Silvestri, it’s the same thing. All of these guys I’ve hung out with, but we were both so busy that we didn’t have the chance to have fun with each other like this until Spawn #200.
I’d talked about collaborating with some of them for years, but it wasn’t until I had the special 200th issue that it became easy to convince everybody. Anytime you’re working on these special numbered issues you’re more prone to have someone jump on-board; if it’s Spawn #200, Batman #400, Amazing Spider-Man #600, whatever.Take David Finch for example. I never worked with him before, but I love his work. He gets sort of kooky with his pencils so the thought of inking him for a long run on a comic makes my hand hurt, but doing it for this special instance is fun.
Nrama: Spawn #200 has expanded from the originally solicited 27 pages to now be up around the 52 page range. People love that, but its causes some delays with the book’s release – now aimed for January 2011. Can you talk about that?
McFarlane: I understand the book is behind schedule and we’re trying to make that up. I wanted to make Spawn #200 extra special, and the book grew to be almost three times the size of a regular comic book. Three times the size means it takes three times as long to finish it, but the big upside to it all is to be able to deliver a book I’m extra proud of, one that’s almost three times the size it was originally solicited, but keep the price at $3.99. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.
Spawn #200 is going to lead into a new era with our new writer and artist joining the book in #201. We’ve got six issues in the can, and that’s the first time I’ve been ahead on Spawn in my life. Back when I was doing the book myself I had my own schedule that couldn’t budge, but with Will Carlton and Szymon Kudranski on they’ve been able to get a head start while I wrapped up the book through #200.So #200 comes out in January 2011, and then we’re going to speed up the shipping with #201 following in two weeks, then #202 soon after. For the next two or three months we’re going to ship a new issue of Spawn every two or three weeks to get to a point where we’ve rebuilt retailers and readers confidence in our book. Szymon is so fast, that even by doing the faster shipping schedule he’ll still be ahead. I have a lot of confidence in him moving forward; every time we give him a deadline he hits it.
Nrama: From 27 to 53 pages with no bump in the $3.99 price. I’m sure readers wouldn’t fault you for asking for an extra dollar, so why’d you stand your ground?
McFarlane: We have this thing with Diamond called “Final Order Cutoff”, and I can’t go back and raise the price without re-soliciting the book. So we turned that into a positive, as its not retailers or readers’ fault that I decided to add all the pages. Store owners made their budget.
So turning that into a positive, we began looking at these extra pages with no extra price as one more reason Spawn #200 will be a great jumping-on point for readers. When they’re in-store trying to figure out what to buy and they see a bunch of 22-page comics for $2.99 and then a special issue of Spawn for only a dollar more and almost twice as many pages, I think they’ll give us a chance. Once they get inside Spawn, they’ll see how big a deal it is. In the letters page we’re going to outline our new shipping schedule.
Nrama: Your invigoration has spread to twitter, where you’ve broken a number of surprising scoops about #200. First off – Robert Kirkman’s not only in the book – he’s drawing four pages. How’d you convince Mr. Walking Dead to get to the drawing board?
McFarlane: It’s sort of funny because if we go back a couple years, this all started when he and I were developing what would become Haunt. He flew out to the office and we began going over ideas. At points when we were throwing out ideas, Kirkman would sometimes relate his ideas by grabbing a piece of paper and sketching out his ideas visually.
You know, I’ve worked with a lot of writers and I’ve often seen thumbnails from writers that don’t amount to much, but with Robert’s sketches I could absolutely interpret what he’s getting at. After seeing that, I began bugging him to do some covers for Haunt with me. “Hey, you should lay out a couple covers, Robert.” He did some early concept drawings that we didn’t use in the final books, but we could have.
Fast forward a bit and he agreed to write the origin of Omega Spawn for Spawn #200, and then he said “Remember that offer you made for me to draw some Haunt covers? How about you let me draw my story for Spawn #200?” And I said sure.
From time to time, I’ve shown him some of the stuff I’m inking and he seems to get a real charge out of it. S0 we agreed he’d draw his story for Spawn #200 and I’d ink it and make it look good. Arguably the best Omega Spawn head in Spawn #200 is Robert’s drawing of him in the prologue. I’ve even shown it to people, both with inks on and off. I might have added some teeth, shading and detail, but the structure is all his. I haven’t altered anything dramatically. It’s still him underneath the inks and colors.
Nrama: When you say the page count to Spawn #200 grew, I’m imagining some sort of monster growing in size – a gorgeous Todd McFarlane-illustrated growing monster. How’d it happen?
McFarlane: When we were writing the solicitations for #200, I knew the schedule was going to be pretty tight so what I did was say we’d add 7 or 8 new pages and raise the cost a buck from the normal $2.99 price. That was the intent, but when I actually sat down and started plotting it out it came out a little larger. I realized 27 pages wouldn’t do it.
After I plotted it I thought it might come in around 32-35 pages, and I knew I had broken the page count we advertised. Michael Golden was helping me layout some of the pages, and I told him to cut loose, and with that, he would sometimes take something I had planned as one page and do it as two. Once you do that five or six times it pushes that page count up around 42 pages. At the same time he was expanding on my page breakdowns, there was a couple times when I was looking at his pages that I thought he put too many panels on a page so I ended up cutting and pasting some panels to smooth it out and give the storyline a bigger feel to it all. To accommodate all this, the pages bumped up to 45, then 46 and then to 47.
Robert’s original prologue was going to be two pages, but when we started talking about it we expanded it to four pages. There’s another couple of pages. When I added it all up with the letter’s page and the credits page, it broke 50 easy.
Nrama: Jen Cassidy gave me a sneak peek under the hood of Spawn #200 and I see some real stars joining you. We mentioned Kirkman, but there’s also Greg Capullo, David Finch, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Ashley Wood and Jim Lee. This feels like a real jam issue – what’s it like coordinating and calling in all these friends?
McFarlane: To be clear, I didn’t want it to feel like a jam book. I’m hoping the book will look pretty consistence. Unlike something like Image United where everyone’s bringing their own style to the book and it’s a selling the book, with Spawn #200 I’m doing the bulk of it in one-way or another. I was never a fan of book with jarring turns of art style page to page.
The other guys are mostly doing cover artwork, so its not like I’m having 10 artists do pages inside the book. The vast majority of it is me, with second going to Michael Golden and Robert’s prologue.
Nrama: Stepping back to the big picture, I believe Spawn is only the 2nd independent comic book in the United States to reach 200 issues. I know you’re a real comics fan, and have been working in the industry since the early 80s. What does this milestone mean to you?
McFarlane: Technically, its eighteen years in the making. You don’t get to this point quickly – there are no shortcuts for 200 issues. Reaching this point means there’s been a longevity to the book and the process, and if you have longevity it also means that you’ve had readers see some appeal in the product. The only way you can get to 18 years is if people buy it.
The problem in all of that is that taking any idea and finding consumers that will hang around for eighteen years is a tough prospect. It’s tough to do with TV, novels and movies, but comics seem to be a bastion of getting to the high numbers with some titles going to 500, 600, 700 issues and more. When I was a kid, I always thought it was cool to hit those benchmark and thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be cool to have a book of my own to reach 400 or 500 issues?”
I was real disappointed years ago when Marvel decided to renumber their titles. To mean, high issues numbers are a sign of success. To see titles get this far, especially when its an independent book like Spawn makes it doubly important just to show others that you can get there. There’s a lot of poo-pooing from people saying that there’s things you can only do at Marvel or DC. A lot of those arguments are correct, but this one isn’t. When you look at guys like me and Jim Lee who took their ideas and built it up into big companies, you can do a lot outside of the Big Two. And this year when you see what Robert Kirkman has done with The Walking Dead and his other titles, you see there are still opportunities out there. Our job as creators is to continue to show that you don’t need the Big Two, and you don’t need to by shy about it; don’t take the party line. While independent comics is a hard road, there’s a lot more reward in it.