As Image Comics marks its 20th anniversary this year, it comes at a time when creative freedom in the comic industry is a hot-button topic.
Earlier this week, we started a conversation with Image founder Todd McFarlane about how far the industry has come in the 20 years since he and six other artists forged a path to creative freedom by launched Image Comics in 1992.
Many comic fans remember the event clearly, when McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino struck out on their own while advocating self-ownership of characters and concepts. They started Image Comics, a publishing house that soon began offering other creators the chance to publish books while still owning the properties 100 percent themselves.
Not long after Image's founding, McFarlane's series Spawn became somewhat of a phenomenon, inspiring a feature movie and later TV cartoon. He eventually began pursuing other business opportunities, including his action figure company, McFarlane Toys.
But he still works on Spawn, and has promised fans that there will be a movie someday soon, and that this time, he'll write the script and control the film's production.
In part 2 of our interview with McFarlane, we talk more about what happened 20 years ago, how it relates to creative issues today, and what happened to that Spawn script he promised.
Newsarama: Todd, let's go back to the early days of Image. You know, you talked about how difficult it would be to get together a union because of all the egos involved in the comics industry. And you know, a lot of people thought the founding of Image was built on egos, and I know it led to some conflict in your early days, didn't it?
Todd McFarlane: I'm not going to pretend and say we all don't have egos. Anybody that wants to be a freelancer and go out and try to survive in that type of industry — just like an actor or musician — you have to have some self-confidence. If you're a wallflower, you're in the wrong business.
So yes, the egos were there. But us leaving Marvel wasn't about that. We didn't think we were, like, deserving of owning Spider-Man or X-Men or something. We never had conversations like that.
Here's what happened. Rob [Liefeld] and Jim Lee and I sat with [Tom] DeFalco and Terry Stewart, when we made the announcement we were leaving. We didn't go there asking for anything. Terry Stewart has given a different story about what happened in that meeting, and it's just not true. He said he came in there asking for something, but that's just not true.
My wife was standing there with a four-month-old baby. She was in that meeting too. If anybody, she wouldn't lie, even to save me. And she'll tell you what really happened. She sat there and heard the whole thing.
We walked in and we asked for nothing. We just came in as a courtesy meeting, to say, "We are leaving." We said, "There's nothing that we're trying to negotiate. We don't want anything. We're just saying that we're leaving.
"Oh, by the way, here are some of the reasons why we're leaving. If it was me, I would do something about those reasons, because you might find next week that you're going to get another seven guys that are going to do the exact same thing."
And they figured it out, which is why they started bettering some of the conditions for the people who stayed at Marvel.
And then we walked across the street to DC to tell them the exact same thing.And they got the wrong impression because they thought we were there to get a job — because historically, if you quit Marvel, you go to DC; you quit DC, you go to Marvel, right? It was just a Ping-Pong ball.
So all of the sudden, we walked in there, I got Jim Lee with me, and he's never been into the DC offices. Their eyes got big. And they're like, "Oh My God!" And at least Todd had done some work for them, and Erik. But Jim was the golden boy at that point. Rob and I were sort of the pistols, and Jim Lee was the golden boy. He walked over there, and we sat down, and I think they thought we were going to say, "Hey, we just quit Marvel, so we're coming to work for you." And they were all excited.
But we just said, "Hey, we walked out of Marvel, and we're just here to say, we're not working for you either."
Again, we told them, here are the reasons why. Same conversation. "If it was me, I'd pay attention to the creative industry a little bit more, because this might become a regular occurrence. But you guys protect your business any way you see fit."
Nrama: So you gave both publishers a list of reasons?
Nrama: Have those been addressed? Do you think?
McFarlane: I don't know if every little reason has been addressed, but overall? I think the answer, for the most part, is a resounding yes. Because the biggest reason was just a creative one.
And in a weird way, looking back on it now, they probably could have saved all this by just sort of humoring us a little bit, you know? This is where the ego and neuroses of artists comes in. At its core, all we really wanted was to just be acknowledged and involved in some of the decisions that were being made about the characters and stories we were drawing.
And see, things were different at that point in time. The way that it worked back then is that all the editors would get together, and they would have their editor’s summit or meeting or whatever, and they would discuss the direction of the books for the next year. And at no time did they ever bring a creative person with them.
Now, when they have their big summits, and they have their big get-togethers, do they have creative people? Absolutely. In some cases, the Grant Morrisons and the Brian Bendises of the world are driving what's happening with these characters, instead of just sitting in the corner being humored.
Nrama: Yeah, and recently, a lot of artists are being given co-plotting responsibilities, and some are even full-out writing these books.
McFarlane: Yep. And you know, it just struck us as odd that they would go, "Hey, let's go and figure out what the direction of Spider-Man is. Oh, by the way, we've got this kid who's doing Spider-Man and setting sales records and is winning a bunch of awards, but let's never actively pick his brain and ask him for his input."
And you know, at worst, they could have let us come into their big decision-making meeting for an hour or so, let us give our opinion, then they could just politely sit there and nod their head, and when we left, they could have rolled their eyes and laughed behind our back and we'd never be the wiser. We probably would have been happy.
It was the exclusion of making those decisions about our future, and never involving us. You're making decisions about the direction you want to go creatively without any creators. It was bizarre.
And then when we went across the street to DC, I remember sitting with one of their executives, and they were saying, "Well, we're in the process of creating a new contract that will be better for the conditions and the working and some of the royalties of the creators. And we're going to do this because we're being proactive."
And I have a clear recollection, I have to tell you. I looked at them, and I said, "Let me just ask you a simple question. This piece of paper that you now have in front of me that's supposed to make all our lives better, that's supposed to make my life better and everybody else's life better. The creative community's life better. Let me just ask you one question: When you put this together, did you at any time ask a single creator about what he thought would make his life better?" And when I got the pregnant pause, I knew what the answer was.
So they just reinforced, when we went across the street, the same sort of mindset Marvel had at that point, which was, you know, we own this stuff and it's our book. And you know what? They were right! They own it all!I understand all that. I know they were the owners, and I'm not saying they maybe shouldn't have done anything different. It's 20 years later, and I understand it now even better than I did then, believe me.
I'm just saying that, given that you're dealing with a bunch of neurotic creators, somewhere along the line, you have to figure out a little bit how to work with them. It's like athletes that are super-competitive and egos too. You have to figure out how to keep them in the game plan, in the team.
Nrama: Yeah, but Todd, even the seven of you had egos that clashed. Was it tough to deal with all those egos after you left, while you were trying to start a business?
McFarlane: Yeah, sure. Sure. But that was the great thing about Image. Because it was this pass-through house, each one of us, as individuals, was allowed to run the business the way we saw fit.
Nrama: Were you at all surprised about the reaction from the industry when this happened?
McFarlane: There were sort of two reactions. There was one, there was a fan reaction, and it was huge. Bigger than any of us anticipated. And then there was sort of our peers' reaction, which was way less impressive. And I think part of it was, there was a bit of a jealousy factor in there. Once you get past all the rhetoric. I don't think there was anybody criticizing us that wouldn't have wanted to change places with us. I mean, if you had a chance to sell your own book and sell hundreds of thousands and own the lion's share of it, you wouldn't do that? I never understood it. But a lot of it too, not coincidently, came from some of the writers too. Because, again, a lot of us who were the original founders were all "artists" at that point. So I think there was this attitude that we didn't really know what we were doing but we were getting the spotlight. I mean, it was sort of like a trained classical musician going, how come KISS makes so much money? They're just guys in make-up who just bang out songs that are not overly impressive. So at some point, you don't argue with it and you just say, well, the consumer likes what KISS is doing. Why argue with it?
Nrama: Did you really just compare yourself to KISS?
McFarlane: Yeah, to some degree. Look, is KISS the best music band out there? No. Is anybody going to put them in the Top 10? No. Have they survived and been successful for 40 years in this sea of sharks? Absolutely. I tip my hat to that. I tip my hat to that. So you can criticize all you want. How many of those other people lasted 40 years in an industry that wants to destroy you every day? So I take my hat off to people who survive.
Nrama: How much of what happened in 1992 to the seven of you drives the way that you guys approach your business now?
McFarlane: I think it's an individual answer. The interesting book that could be written someday is taking the seven of us and saying, here's day one of Image, and then following them on the path and the trajectory of their lives for 20 years, and seeing how all seven of them went in seven different directions.
The only common denominator was that we had this backdrop called Image. But everybody went in a different direction. Jim with Wildstorm, Marc with Top Cow, and Erik and myself — we all went in directions that were personal.
But it speaks to what we said when we set up Image. "Just do what you want to do. Do what you want to do."
Nrama: And everybody got to do what they wanted to do.
McFarlane: Right. Good, bad or indifferent. Key point. Good, bad or indifferent. Just because one guy's doing something that good, that's working, doesn't mean that the guy next to him wants to do it, even if it's going well.I mean, Dave Sim never had to make a toy of Cerebus if he didn't want to. He had the personal freedom not to.
That's the victory to me of all of this. That's what creative freedom and creator rights and Image and all of this is about. It's not whether you make the right decision or the wrong decision or whatever. It's just that you are able to be the guy who made the decision. That's the piece of it, right there.
Nrama: When you look at comic books in comic stores now — and I'm sure you know what the landscape looks like, although I'm sure you're busy with what you're doing at Image — when you look at it, is there anything comparable to how you shook up the industry in 1992 that you would like to happen? Or that you would love to see shaken up in the industry right now?
McFarlane: No, not really. The only thing is that we seem to have gone sort of back a little bit to the mindset that the only thing that can succeed and the only thing that is successful is Marvel and DC.
I wish there was a little more support for the independent books, because then I think there's be more people willing to put their toe out into it.
Because remember, when we came out, a lot of our books were in the top 20 in the charts, so there was encouragement for people trying it. Now, because those books don't get a lot of support, per se, then there's not as much encouragement there. Arguably, you could say they're inferior books. That's up for debate. But I wish people wouldn't say, "Oh, I have to go do an independent book until I can get back onto Batman or Spider-Man."
With us, we were working in the other direction. We were thinking, we'll put our time in on Batman and Superman and Spider-Man until we can get out and do our own book.
But hey, if that brings personal happiness and satisfaction to that creator, then bless 'em. It's not for me to say that this is the path you must run as a creative person. They can do the opposite.
I'm just saying that, as Todd McFarlane, wired the way that I was, I had to do it differently from the way a lot of people are approaching it now.
Nrama: Well, Robert Kirkman did what you did. The same path.
McFarlane: Right. The example is still there, if somebody wants to make a concentrated effort. It's just that, sadly, there are few and far between that want to make a concentrated effort, which means you can't be writing the book for DC and Marvel and yourself and expect all those to be equal, because they're going to, oh, you're doing Broccoliman independently, but you're also doing Flash and X-Men. Oh, I only have a couple bucks in my pocket; times are tough, so I'm going to take the strong brand names. I'll take X-Men and Flash, and then maybe if I have some money, I'll come see what you're doing on Broccoliman.
But if you don't write Flash and you don't write X-Men, and all you do is Broccoliman and a couple other books for yourself, they have to buy those books if they like your writing. This is the piece that the writers never understood. And because artists can only do a page a day, whatever book we decided to do, it meant by default that we couldn't do any other books for anybody else because we could only do one book.So again, they didn't know anything about Spawn. They only knew one thing. We like Todd's artwork. Well, if you like my artwork, you've got to go to this book that you know nothing about called Spawn.
Robert Kirkman did the same thing. The reason he's the first writer to be a partner at Image is not because we're artist-centric. It's because he was the first writer to dedicate himself to Image. No other writer ever wanted to do that and say, I'm pulling all my work from your competitors, and I'm going to do three books for you, and I hope someday it will mean something to you.
And when Robert did that and pulled it, and because sort of exclusive to us, without us saying or making him do that — he just did it on his own — we started having conversations going, God, you know what? We should make Robert a partner, because he's actually showing the path of how writers can get to be partners.
Nrama: What do you think digital offers to creators in terms of creator’s rights and creative freedom in the comic book industry?
McFarlane: I think what we'll see as years go by is that, for people who can't get their product distributed, or don't have the funds to print it up, you can now figure out, if you can convince somebody who has a comic book app, you can get your comic book out there digitally. You know? Justin Beiber was discovered on Youtube. So is there a digital comic book equivalent to that? I don't know. But I think it could happen.
Technology also changes the playing field because most everybody in the industry 20 years ago was in North America. Now, through the advent of digital, you can have people living anywhere. The guy that's been doing the artwork on Spawn for the last year is a kid I found off Twitter who lives in Poland. That would never have happened before the digital age.
Nrama: What do you hope happens for Image Comics in the next 20 years?
McFarlane: The simplest answer is that we still exist! Obviously, there are forces that are always pushing against smaller corporations — well, we're not a corporation, but more of a commune. But smaller businesses are trying to survive against the big guys, and in our case, that means Marvel and DC.
But you know, 20 years ago, people said we wouldn't last six months. But we're sitting here having this conversation.
So in the future, why wouldn't we be as nimble and be as flexible to be able to survive another 20 years?
We had to evolve over the years. We're not the same model that we were when we first started. It was sort of big, bulky, spandex superhero stuff. And now, I think, we do some of the better non-superhero books in the marketplace. And we encourage those types of books to come through the door. So I'm sure we'll continue to evolve in whatever way we need to, to survive in the comic book industry, whether that's in the print medium, digital or some other as-yet-to-be-discovered form. We're smart enough to figure it out.
Nrama: As long as I have you on the phone, what's up with that Spawn movie script you were writing, and the possibilities of a video game?
McFarlane: All the ancillary stuff will come pouring out fairly quickly once I get the big component done, once I announce a movie.
Do I keep nibbling away at it? Yeah. Do I keep getting distracted? Yeah. You know, we just had another conversation where I talked about clearing my schedule for a month and just going away and getting out of the office to finish it up. Because I just keep nibbling it, but I don't get tunnel vision on it like I should have.
People are still interested in it. An Academy Award winning actor came out to the offices and said, Todd, I want to be in it, so get that thing done. He calls me once a week going, let's go! Let's go! So we'll get that thing off the ground.But I just got #216 out, so there's Spawn available. I still have comic books and other things that I do. Another book done. We did 15 issues. Spawn did 15 issues last year, with the exact same writing and art team, and in all honesty, I can't recall the last time that was done not just by us, but by anybody. You know, 15 issues by the same creative team.
But nobody responded to it. Instead, what seems to be the trend is starting things back at #1, which I think is sort of a more short-term business move. We keep coming up with these short pops in the sales to do this stuff, but we're not helping the customer in the long term. I don't know. Maybe I'm becoming a bit of a dinosaur. I like the number 216. And the way to get sales up isn't to put in a new writer and a new artist. It's just to basically renumber. And the sales will go up, just by that one move. Don't change anything else but that one renumbering move. And mentally, the people ordering it and some people buying it go, oh, a jumping on point. I can get in there. So maybe I'll do a #1, then the second issue could be #217.
You know, Cerebus ended at #300, so I have to get to at least #301, just to break the record.
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