Todd McFarlane: Back to the (Comic) Books

Todd McFarlane, one of the most recognizable comic book names outside the industry, hasn't been doing a lot of comic books lately.

But that looks like it's changing fast.

With the announcement at this year's San Diego Comic-Con that McFarlane will be part of Image United, the innovative "jam session" event featuring art from six of the founders of Image Comics, the artist made another move toward the comics world he'd left behind. Earlier this year, McFarlane had already announced he's returning to Spawn, the comic title that helped launch Image Comics in 1992. And comic fans have been anticipating the upcoming release of Haunt, the series McFarlane is co-creating with writer (and new Image partner) Robert Kirkman.

McFarlane became a comic book superstar in the '80s as a (and later “the”) Spider-Man artist and later founded Image Comics with a group of creators advocating self-ownership of characters and concepts. His hit Image series Spawn became somewhat of a phenomenon in the early '90s, inspiring a feature movie and later TV cartoon.

But 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.

The artist's return to comics seemed to have been touched off when Kirkman, who writes two of Image's most successful ongoing series, Invincible and The Walking Dead, publicly challenged McFarlane in 2006 to create another comic. The writer stood up during an Image Comics presentation at San Diego Comic-Con, said he was a fan of McFarlane's work, and asked him point blank why he didn't do comics anymore.

"I wasn't really there to say, 'Todd, what the hell's your problem? Why aren't you drawing a comic book anymore?'" Kirkman told Newsarama in 2006. "He's obviously out there working and drawing things that people don't see [for McFarlane Toys and elsewhere]. So I was saying, "Why don't you put some of that effort into producing another series? If you don't necessarily draw, at least you'll have a hand in it -- maybe doing covers or something like that.' ... There just needs to be another Todd McFarlane creation out there. So that's what I was trying to get him to do."

That challenge seems to have paid off in droves for McFarlane fans. And while the artist's role on Spawn and Haunt had only promised his creative input and covers, Image United will mark McFarlane's return to interior work. The six issues of the Image United mini-series will be drawn by six of the artists who founded Image Comics 16 years ago -- Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, McFarlane, Wilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino. Each artist will draw the characters he created, meaning pages will have multiple artists working on them as the series covers the whole Image Universe but focuses in on Cyberforce, Witchblade, Youngblood, Whilce Portacio's new character Fortress, Savage Dragon, Spawn, and ShadowHawk.

"Each artist is going to do the layouts for one issue," explained Kirkman, who is writing the series. "Those guys will get the script for the issue and they'll be the one breaking it down into pages. Then once the story's laid out, they're going to be mailed all over the country, and everybody's going to be drawing their characters onto the pages."

Of course, all of these projects have yet to hit comic shops, and some fans are skeptical that McFarlane, after years of being away, can pull all these projects together. Newsarama talked to McFarlane about how committed he is to his role on Image United, the status of his work on Haunt and Spawn, and what he thinks about Image adding Kirkman to its list of partners.

Newsarama: Let's start with Image United, Todd. Usually, one artist draws one comic, but you'll be sharing pages with other people. We've already heard from the other artists that this was Erik Larsen's idea. What did you think of it when you first heard about it?

Todd McFarlane: It sounded like a Erik Larsen idea! Erik, much to his credit, has always got his head in the comic book world and is always thinking the stuff. So whenever we have chats or we get together, he's the one who always has 10 crazy ideas, of which we discount nine of them. But one of them usually, we go, wow, that's sort of interesting and intriguing.

NRAMA: Why did this one stick out as interesting and intriguing?

TM: In all honesty, besides the creative part of it, and we can talk about that in a moment, we're a company that, like anybody else, lives in a world of competitors, and we can't continue to rest on our laurels. And with the shifting of our business model over the years and some of the partners coming and going, and the dynamics of the community and the way they're locking up creative people, it becomes tougher and tougher to make your mark -- for everybody, including the big guys. So we're always having those conversations about how we stay relevant, and what that means and what we have to do to remind people that we're still putting out good comic books. So I think this is part of us not falling asleep at the switch from time to time.

NRAMA: So you're saying that the industry is changing, and this is your effort to say 'Image is still here and still viable?'

TM: Yeah. Going back to the '90s, we came out of the gate, and the vast majority of what we were doing as a company was a superhero blend of comic books by some of the big superhero artists. You could define that. And then that changed, and we melded into doing the more independent books -- you know, the black and whites and stuff like that -- and a wide range of genres. I think we have a nice, eclectic mix of books coming out of Image. I'm proud of that. But although you get critical acclaim, you don't necessarily get the sales that you want. And I think, if we actually pay attention and really focus, we can do great superhero books too. We've just, because of the personalities and various distractions and a thing called life, have all sort of meandered into different paths. But if we all focus, can we turn out good superhero books? The answer's yes.

This is just another way of saying, hey -- they do superhero books; we do superhero books. They do, from time to time, big event books; we can do the same thing.

NRAMA: OK, you mentioned the "creative part of it." What interested you about it creatively?

TM: I think the piece that people will like or hate the most -- we'll find out -- is the idea that each of the artists controls their baby throughout the adventure. Instead of what would traditionally be done, with each of the six artists handling one of the six issues, as you know, there's a twist on that formula. It should work out to be about the same for everybody. It's just that as long as our characters appear in that issue, we'll all be touching every issue, but on a limited basis. So again, what should happen, and we'll see if we pull off the theory to the reality, is that the whole should be better than the parts. And people will go, "Wow!"

If you like the [Savage] Dragon, the Dragon's going to look like the Dragon. And if you like Spawn, he's going to look like Spawn. And it's not going to be people drawing reasonable facsimiles of it. And if you go back years and years and years ago, we did a thing where the Image partners actually swapped books for a month. Like Jim Lee went and did an issue of Dragon, and Erik did an issue of WildCATS, I believe, or something like that. Erik, being Erik, couldn't take somebody else drawing the Dragon. He literally was twitching. So he vowed that he was going to go back to that issue someday and completely redraw it, which he did. [laughs] So that if you were an Erik fan and you were collecting Issues #1-100, there would be this blemish that would be this thing called Jim Lee. [laughs] I could think of worse blemishes. I thought Jim Lee's take on it was interesting myself, but I think this idea stems from that same twitch. I think Erik was thinking, like, how do I get Dragon in the next big crossover without letting go of my baby? The answer was, if I don't let go of my baby, neither does anybody else. I think maybe it was a little self-serving, but it ended up being a really cool idea.

NRAMA: It's certainly an experiment.

TM: That's it. You used the right word. It's going to be a creative experiment, and we'll see how it comes out.

NRAMA: There's going to be an additional challenge when you guys lay out the pages, though, isn't there? Keeping the different characters in mind when you lay it out?

TM: Yep. Even just trying to get all those heroic egos on the same page is going to be tough. We all draw them as the dominant heroes. I draw Spawn very big and majestic, and that's not going to leave a lot of room on the page for everybody else. [laughs] I mean, I'm going to have to get eight other guys on there?

NRAMA: You have to share!

TM: Yeah! [laughs] And that's a skill in and of itself. When I first broke into comic books, I did a team book -- Infinity Inc. I did an average job at best on it. I have yet to do a team book since because it broke me! [laughs] I couldn't figure it out. I couldn't get my heart into it. I kept going, wow, just a bunch of heads. By the time you do eight guys, and you give them each a page and a couple heads, the issue's over. And I just wanted to just draw one guy over and over and over to get better at drawing that one character in different ways. I felt like I was just average at 10 guys instead of getting good at one guy. So when I left that team book, I made a personal vow that I would never do a team book again. So I'm always impressed by guys who want to do Avengers and X-Men, because I ... uuugh. Not me.

With [Image United], I'll still be concentrating on that one guy. But somewhere along the line, I'll pitch in on the storytelling and the layout and stuff like that. So I'll have to imagine, you know, "If you were the Todd of today and you were doing the Avengers, surely you can lay it out better than you did when you first broke into the industry, sort of flopping on the deck."

NRAMA: I have to ask, Todd... because you know the reaction from the comics community is going to be, is this really going to happen? This is a pretty grand scheme, and you guys are so busy -- especially you with your action figures company and all your other projects -- is this something that you are really committed to doing?

TM: In all honesty, my guess is that Erik is way more committed than I am. [laughs] But what's going to happen is that it's going to get into my competitive nature. And I think this is going to work because it doesn't seem like as much work up front. If somebody had to do two or three issues by themselves, that would be daunting. But while this may end up being the same amount of work, it doesn't seem like it. It's spread over a longer period of time, which is different. I couldn't have the time to do 22 pages in a month, but if it's 22 pages spread out over six months, that doesn't seem nearly -- again, for a guy in my position -- as tough an assignment.

NRAMA: You'll also have people egging you on. Six other people. I get the feeling from the other guys that they're really gung ho for this, Todd.

TM: Yeah. I've been the barnacle -- the anchor -- holding everyone back on other ones. So I'll have to do my best that they don't get to go, "It's Todd's fault."

NRAMA: You said you're proud of the comics that Image is producing now, but you want to remind people you can do superheroes with Image United. Is there a concern that you need this type of thing because your comics cover so many different genres?

TM: Well, we can have both. I like the vast array of ideas that are out there. I've said it for years. People on the outside, when they talk about comic books, have a knee-jerk reaction and a stereotype. It's either Archie Comics or its Superman comics -- end of conversation. And I've told them every day of my life, you should go in a comics shop and actually spend an hour or two. And if you can't walk out with a book in your hand, you didn't try hard enough. And by the way, your grandma can walk out with something, and your five-year-old son can walk out with something. I think comic books, especially in the last 15 years, have been delivering that in spades. People just aren't paying attention enough -- there's everything from romance stories to sci-fi to your blockbuster superhero stuff. And Image Comics is a place where you can do any of that stuff. I'm in negotiations with one of the big studios for two characters called Sam and Twitch who are detectives. It's a detective story -- they're not superheroes. I like that. That's what Image Comics is about.

Of course, what Erik is saying with Image United is, why can't we have a little bit of both -- the smaller gems and the books that hit the charts? It's a fair commentary, so we'll see if we can make that happen.

NRAMA: The writer on Image United is Robert Kirkman, and he's also co-creating the Haunt series you're doing. We haven't spoken to you since Robert was named an Image partner. What do you think of his ascension to that position?

TM: Robert and I have been doing a lot of talking ever since his challenge to me in San Diego awhile back. He was already doing great books for us, but I didn't have a relationship with him on any level. He reminds me a lot of Erik Larsen, in terms of his complete and utter love for comic books. To me, more than anything else, that was his best selling point. You've got somebody here whose only focus would be how do we make Image better, how do we make comic books better, how do we make the comic book industry better, and not get distracted by some of the things that Marc or myself might, just because of our business practices. And Erik's always been pushing that, but like anything else, it always goes easier if you have help. So now we'll have Robert bringing in these ideas with the same, if not more, enthusiasm Erik brings. I think that's only a boost to Image Comics as a whole.

I know in our early conversations, I'd sort of gone, what if we added another partner? And I was curious to hear everybody else's thoughts about who it would be. Who would be worthy (although that may seem like a smarmy word) of that post, given that we've never done it before. And I was pleasantly surprised that, without me saying Robert's name out loud, they said it for me. It made it that much easier for me to recommend. We were pretty unified that if we would open the door, who the next person should be.

NRAMA: It's tough not to notice that he's your first writer in that position.

TM: Yeah, there's a little bit of a stigma that Image is an artist's place. And from my perspective -- and I'm not speaking on behalf of Image, because I'm only one of four, now five, votes -- but from my perspective, the reason we haven't inducted a writer into the annals of Image Comic Books is because I have yet to run across -- and I may be forgetting someone, so I don't want to slight anyone -- but I don't think I've run across the writer who's willing to completely commit himself.

The artist, by default, can usually only do one book. So it's easy to go, "I'm not working for one of the big guys. I'm going to go work for Dark Horse or Image or a smaller company because I can only do one book." And once you take on another assignment. That's it. That's all you can do. The writers, because of the nature of that exercise and that skill, [they] can do two, three, four, five books in a month. They've always been able to sort of have their cake and eat it too. They'd commit to Image, but they wouldn't let go of their DC or Marvel book. That wasn't the kind of commitment I was looking for. We were looking for a guy like Robert who says, you know what? If you guys are even contemplating this, I let go of everything. That's the right answer. At least for me, that's always been the right answer. I want somebody who's a partner, not somebody whose daytime, part-time, night-time job is working for a competitor. And that philosophy is slightly different from my buddies, because I wish that theory had been applicable to all my partners who have done work for my competitors, which I've never advocated -- in fact, quite the opposite.

NRAMA: But Todd, the comic book industry has evolved somewhat into more of a writer's market as opposed to the artist-driven market it once was when your group of superstar artists founded Image back then. Does that play into it at all?

TM: No, I think there were still superstar writers back then. There were the Frank Millers and Neil Gaimans. But none of those guys were willing to walk away from the other opportunities out there with our competitors. Writers have a lot more options, so they want to keep those options open. I was always waiting and looking for someone to say, I'm going to jump in with two feet, not one foot in one camp and the other foot somewhere else. And Robert was willing to make that commitment.

That's what it takes to be a partner in any company. Not too many guys are a partner at a law firm and also work for a competing law firm on the side. And again, that's not necessarily an Image philosophy; that's a Todd philosophy. And you'll notice that, since 1992, since we took up this thing called Image, I haven't drawn one page for Marvel or DC. We've gone around this a thousand times, and the others don't see it the way I do. It's part of the freedom package, and it is what it is. But I've just chosen not to go there. I do toys, but I'm not doing comics on the side for a competitor. I never forget I'm the president of Image. When I do comic book pages, it goes through Image Comics. Period. End of conversation. Finito. Anyway, because of that, Robert seems like he's the guy who's going to be committed enough to be the right person as a partner at Image.

NRAMA: Robert's also your partner on Haunt. He told Newsarama quite a bit about the series in Chicago, so we know it's about a ghost that gives his brother superpowers when they join together. Can you tell us the status of Haunt?

TM: We're nailing down the final pieces. We've got plots, we've had a couple kicks at the artwork, we've got somebody willing to do the artwork that we both like, and I've got a couple covers already, so there's lots of pieces that are just sitting there. We just need to line up all those ducks and say, OK, is Robert where he wants to be and am I where I want to be, and what else are we missing that will enable us to pull the trigger and say, it's coming.

NRAMA: Can you catch us up on Spawn? Is everything lined up for While Portacio's interiors to start on issue #185 and your new ideas to take effect?

TM: Yeah. Oh yeah. It's coming out cool. Whilce is very flexible. He's being very kind in letting me push him in directions he's never been nudged into. I'm sort of saying, Whilce, everybody has been kind of bowing to you, but I'm your peer now. I'm going to push you back if I think something's not doing quite what I want. Oh, and by the way, it's a thing called Spawn, so I have a little insight into it. [laughs] And he's been very kind about saying, Todd, let's do this as a tandem.

I want to reset this book, both visually and with the story. I want to make it different than the 185 issues preceding it. That's the goal. I can't do it by just going, just draw prettier pictures for me, Whilce. That won't work. Not in this marketplace. That's been done a thousand different times on a thousand different books. It literally has to look and feel and pace differently than I've done before. Otherwise, it's not going to work.

NRAMA: Isn't that a challenge for you, though? Trying to really change-up what you've done with the character over the years? Has it been tough?

TM: Not really. I mean, I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. People who have been around for 185 issues aren't going to say, "What the f___ is this?" For me, it's more of, the people who have gotten a little disenchanted over the 184 issues, what was I doing wrong? What did I do? The easiest answer is I took my eye off the ball. And shame on me. I don't have any excuses other than me. So I'm going, you know what? If you want a book that is what you think it could be, there's only one way to get that. You're going to have to get engaged, and now I'm engaged.

We've got a story shock. And that's OK, because I want to tell people that we're going in a different direction. They get it within the first five pages. They get it. And visually, I don't want them to just go, "Oh, it's better than the last few issues," or "Oh, it kind of looks like Todd." I don't want that. I want this run to be its own moment in time. And either that's better than what you've read in the past or it's worse -- the consumer can decide that. But at least it's not replicating exactly what I'd seen in the past. And that's the big goal. Give me one, maybe two issues. That's all I'm asking.

I'm actually enjoying my time on it because comic books is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other stuff that I do in my day. And now I've got people around me who can help me do the things I want to accomplish. Before, it was just me in a room going, go -- write pencil ink your book. It's all you, Todd. But not anymore. And I like collaborating. And working on all this stuff is really cool. It's kind of fun to get back in the saddle, and -- at this point in my career -- have the people around me who can take some of the things I have in my head and help me carry it across the goal line.

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