TCJ ARCHIVE

“…That’s the Spice of Life, Bud”: The Todd McFarlane Interview

From The Comics Journal #152 (August 1992)

Spawn #1 (May 1992) by Todd McFarlane © 1992 Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc.

Todd FcFarlane is a contented millionaire. Following a mega-popular run on Marvel’s Spider-Man, which was craftily marketed with a multi-cover scheme that created overnight “collectors’ items”and sold millions of comic books, McFarlane broke with the majors and, with such mainstream superstars as Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and Eric Larsen, created the Image Comics line. Todd doesn’t claim to be a genius, or even much of a reader, but he knows that he’s a success and that he produces work that the public likes. Criticism scarcely fazes him: when called “morally idiotic,” he chuckles and compliments his accuser’s wit. What makes him tick? Read on and perhaps you’ll find out …

— Gary Groth

CAPTURED IMAGE

GARY GROTH: Let’s start with the beginning of Image. It’s my impression that you were the ringleader — the guy who got the group together. Is that true?

TODD MCFARLANE: I think what you’ll find is, each guy’s got a different take on it. If you’re asking me, my interpretation is that Rob Liefeld and I were always talking about doing something on our own anyway. Rob had this idea for Youngblood, and I hadn’t really thought about what I was gonna do. I had quit doing Spider-Man because I had a new baby daughter. Then Rob announced his Youngblood … It caught everybody by surprise, it also caught me by surprise. “Robbie, why didn’t you tell me?” If I would have known this, I would have come up with my character and we could’ve done a crossover and whatever else.” It was like, “OK, cool. You’re gonna do it.”

We’d also been talking to Eric Larsen — he was going to do it anyways. Then it was like, “Well, since we got three of us, fuck, why don’t we push the envelope a little bit more and go for some of the other guys?” Why leave it too easy for a couple of the other guys to just be there … let’s create a vacuum, at this point.

Shaft, from Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. © 2008 Rob Liefeld Inc.

GROTH: A vacuum?

MCFARLANE: It was just a matter of nudging people. Part of the nudging came from Rob. A lot of the nudging came from me. I was probably more of a pitcher than the rest of them, for a longer period of time. I think I had more time to convince people, just because I wasn’t working, technically, so … Yeah, maybe some people looked at me as one of the guys that put it together, but it’s not like this thing wouldn’t have existed without me, really. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t want to go that far.

GROTH: So you’re the one who called everybody else. Is that right?

MCFARLANE: Well, I was always working on Jim Lee.

GROTH: How well did you know all these guys?

MCFARLANE: I was even working on Scott Williams, the Italian fat guy. Every time somebody came to my house I worked on them.

GROTH: What do you mean, “worked on them?”

MCFARLANE: Dale Keown, fuck, I was working on him … Javier Saltares came up there. Whoever came and stayed with me for a weekend. When I was living on Vancouver Island I’d find out who was going to the next Vancouver show and I’d phone them up and say “You wanna come stay with me for a couple days? You know, I’ll give you my car and whatever, you can have transportation, I’ll pick you up from the ferry” and stuff … and then as soon as they got in the house I’d work them over.

GROTH: How did you “work them over?”

MCFARLANE: Well, mostly it was artists, so I just told them, for the most part, just ditch your writer, you know? Grab control of the reins … There’s a few teams that have worked over the years, but I find that the more people you have to answer to in life and any kind of decision-making, the less people that are in line, the less problems you have. Some of the guys were working with great writers, but I was just in this mode of “Everybody’s gonna become a writer/artist. You know, you’re just playing into the hands of the writers because they’re coming up with the ideas and you’re kind of getting into this and they’re stifling this.”

I mean, fuck that.

GROTH: Did it ever occur to you that a lot of these artists might not know how to write?

MCFARLANE: [Long pause.] You know, uh, that really didn’t occur to me because that never occurred to me, you know what I’m saying? I mean, fuck, I didn’t let some little thing like not being able to write stop me, so I didn’t really see where that should actually be that much of a problem. I just wanted to test to see how much balls people had. Some people had a fear, like “Yeah, you’re right, I can’t write.” Well, OK, that’s fine, then plot the thing and give it to a writer. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t use a writer on my stuff: I think that’s almost an insult to a writer for me to want to plot it and then just give it to them to put words to it. Even though they do a hell of a lot better job than I would … I’m not going to get Alan Moore to just script my book. I’d have to go through the ranks, so I’d end up getting a guy who maybe was my 57th choice that said, “Yeah, OK, cool, Todd, I’ll do it.” And I knew, because I’m just a fuck, that in three months I would have been frustrated with him and I would’ve gone, “What kind of dialogue is that? I could do something just like that.” I couldn’t see where I was going to get a very good scripter, and that’s all I wanted, was the scripts.

GROTH: Right. You aren’t the one who wrote that letter to the Buyer’s Guide? About writers?*

MCFARLANE: No. I don’t get any of this stuff. Actually, you guys give me stuff, I’m on your comp list or I must’ve done a cover or something. But other than your books, really, unless I get it for free I don’t really pay attention to it. I never see the CBG.

The argument in CBG doesn’t hold any water, if you want my opinion, and of course I’ve got most of the answers to every single problem out there … that it doesn’t work that the artist or the writer should get an equal amount of royalties or, in some cases, the letters said they should get more. You see, my attitude is this; I think that the writers should get 99 percent of the royalty, and the artists, should only get 1 percent.

* [NOTE: Groth’s comment refers to an unsigned letter that appeared in the Comic Buyer’s Guide lambasting comic writers as useless and unnecessary. The letter drew irate responses from many comics professionals.]

I agree totally, 100 percent with those writers that say that. But you know what that means? Tomorrow, every fucking artist becomes a writer, because they want that 99 percent. So, in a dumb way, the more the artist and the writers fight for the royalty, the more writer/artists you’re going to see. I hate to say it. If they say that the writer should get 70 percent, you’re going to see a hell of a lot more guys turning into writer/artists, just because they’re going, “Fuck ’em. I’m cutting those guys out of the loop, I need to pay the bills, I got a family to raise too.” So if writers were a little bit smarter they’d actually do the opposite. They’d say “Let’s give more to the artists, so if they are comfortable just being artists and not infringing upon our territory.” That actually would be the smarter way to go about it instead of saying, “we deserve just as much as those guys, blah blah blah …” I think right now, I forget how the breakdown is, but it’s kinda weird at both companies. I totally disagree because they can write three or four books or whatever.

GROTH: You’re painting a portrait of writers and artists being warring factions. Is that the case in mainstream comics?

MCFARLANE: I don’t think so. I think you’ll find that in a lot of my thinking I’m probably the biggest oddball in comic books, next to you. My whole attitude, when I was doing comic books, was kind of foreign to a lot of guys. See, they wanted to co-plot together …

GROTH : Yeah?

MCFARLANE: See, I’m working with Gary Groth, OK? So, Gary’s sitting there going “Todd, I want your ideas. Let’s co-plot, let’s get to become pals.” My attitude was “No no no no. Here’s how we deal with this relationship. You don’t tell me how to draw, I don’t tell you how to fucking write, and we get along just perfect.” Because the first time you accept any advice or criticism or whatever I have about your writing, I have to reciprocate and say that you can now change my artwork and, unfortunately, I’m not big enough of a man to have some fucking writer change my artwork. So I’d go, “No. I don’t tell you how to write, and I’ll be Goddamned if you tell me to redraw a panel.” And it worked. It worked for two years with Roy Thomas and two years with Peter David and a couple years with David Michelinie. I mean, we didn’t war over it. I just kinda stayed on this side of the fence and never treaded into their territory, and they never came into my territory, and we got along. There’s better ways of doing it. I just don’t like to give up control of what I’m doing.

GROTH: So you couldn’t see yourself in a genuine collaboration where there’s give and take on both sides.

MCFARLANE: No. Not me personally. Unless it was Frank Miller. Partnerships don’t work in business and I don’t really see where they can work for any length of time in comic books either. When they do happen, Gary, they’re some of the best comic books that have happened over the years. You know, the Lee/Kirby stuff and even Eisner with some of his artists and writers. It’s not like it doesn’t happen. Even current stuff … The kids are really infatuated with Byrne and Claremont’s X-Men, so it can happen. It’s just that I weighed the odds and the odds of it happening are minimal, so why even try to get in bed with somebody when it’s not going to be worth my time?

GROTH: What was the impetus for you to talk all these guys into leaving Marvel and starting your own imprint?

MCFARLANE: Ninety percent of why I quit was I had a baby daughter. That might be something that still mystifies a lot of people. I was flying high on Spider-Man, I was making good money, I was famous … I had everything. Why would I walk away from that? For one reason: I had a wife that was very supportive, I had a daughter and I’d never been a father before … that was 90 percent of it. I saw that I had done well enough that I could actually take some time off because I wasn’t stuck in a 9-5 job. I don’t begrudge a 9-5 guy who doesn’t stay home with his family, but I had a chance to stay home with my family. The other 10 percent, though … just fucking was becoming a festering cancer within me, and the system … Anybody that knew me knew that I was bitching about the same things since five weeks into being a comic-book artist. I saw the flaws in the system and the only difference was that five years ago nobody would listen to me. Five years later I got a little bit of pull, and I got a little bit of might and so I can start to say things and people actually start to pay attention to them. The little status quo corporate America idiotic stupidity, more than anything else, was driving me fucking nuts. My mind was going on me. I quit once, Amazing Spider-Man when my mind went, and my mind had gone a second time, and I just went, “No, I’m not going to go crazy, I’d rather quit and throw everything that I have out the window, and walk away from it and just become a dad” than to fucking continue doing what was literally appalling, me.

GROTH: Now, what was it that made your mind go?

MCFARLANE: Just the stupid fucking stupid stuff.

GROTH: Can you give me an example?

MCFARLANE: On one panel on a book, everybody had a heart attack, so I asked them to send the book back and I wasn’t going to let them print the last issue. It wasn’t even that panel …That panel was representative of everything that I’ve had to put up with for five years. The bullshit is, that if you want to do a G.I. Joe comic book with war heroes, god forbid they’d actually advertise that stuff on a base.

GROTH: I’m sorry, advertise it where?

MCFARLANE: In an Army base or one of the military bases. If you did an aerodynamic or aviation book, God forbid they’d actually put that into the Air Force.If you did a rock ‘n’ roll comic book, God forbid they’d advertise that in Rolling Stone. If they did a kiddie magazine, whew! You wouldn’t want to make a commercial of that. Kids are supposed to telepathically know that there’s a kiddie comic book out there and stop playing Nintendo and rush to their comic shop.

Spawn #6 (November 1992) written and drawn by Todd McFarlane © 2005 Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc.

Like the mere existence of these comic books is good enough for them to sell. The promotional people are locked into a frame of mind … They don’t give a shit about more than issue #1. They hyped the shit out of Spider-Man #1 and I thank them. I’ll always thank them for that, but they dropped that thing like a cold potato for the second one and onward. Now, the book still was a top seller for the next year and a half, but it was no thanks to them, sorry to say. They didn’t give a shit about it. If we look at other things in life, no other company runs things the way comic book companies do. See, if Michael Jackson is hot, then they just don’t go “Oh he’s hot, we don’t have to promote him.” They fucking promote Michael Jackson! He’s got a video out, he’s got a movie, he’s got clothes, he’s got a hat, he’s got a T-shirt … Michael Michael Michael, to the point that they get people to get bored of him twice as fast as they normally would have. But, I’m just saying, they push the shit. Home Alone was a good example that Rob Liefeld told me. When the movie came out it was a sleeper, so when the video finally came out and they knew they had a sleeper hit, you couldn’t walk into a toy store or a Sears without a Home Alone video display. They didn’t say, “We only spent $2,000,000 making this movie, and we made $40,000,000. We’re happy. Let’s go on and promote the next piece of shit that we got.” They said, “We got a fucking good product, let’s fucking let people know that it’s there.”

Comi- book guys don’t do that, it’s just … totally mind-boggling, to say the least. That’s just promotion. That’s not even getting into editorial, and I don’t think you’ve got enough tape for that. It’s just those little things that wear you down until after four or five years, you’re a nub. You just go, “No more, I can’t take this.” Some people can, and I admire them, but I personally just couldn’t take the bullshit.

GROTH: Could you give me an example of an editorial interference that you objected to?

MCFARLANE: From the very beginning I was on Spider-Man there was a fight. “God, Todd, why are you making the eyes so big? Todd, why are you making those spaghetti webbings? Todd, why are you making so many webbings under his armpits? Todd, why are you curling his wife’s hair? Todd, why are you doing this …” It was like I was fucking with the status quo. Any company, I don’t care if I’m working for IBM, if you don’t do it their way, they instantly take it in their head that you think their way is wrong. It wasn’t that their way is wrong — and I’ll never make them understand it — it’s just that there’s more than one way of doing something. As a matter of fact, there’s 100 ways of doing most things. But, because they make most of the decisions, because you say “No, I’m not going to follow that path,” because they made that path, they think that you’re saying that their path is fucked. I’m just saying “Nah, it’s been walked before.” I like to go through the bush, I like more of a challenge going through the bush instead of a nice clear path. So they thought that I didn’t want to draw like John Romita because I hated John Romita. Quite the opposite. I was not stupid enough to try and emulate John Romita because that’d be like me becoming a painter and trying to draw like Michelangelo or paint like Rockwell. I was not going to go down in history as a good-John-Romita imitator. I said, “Nope, Todd, if you’re going to keep your career going, you got to live and die on your own merits.” That’s always been my attitude on all the books I’ve done. Why do I want to be almost as good as this guy or better yet I could be better than John Romita? That would be the best that could happen to me, but I would always be compared to John Romita. So I go, “Naaah, I don’t want to be compared to John, nor Steve Ditko, nor Ross Andru or any of these guys,” who I thought did beautiful jobs. “I’ve got to come up with something different from them, because I don’t want to be an imitator of them.” They took that as me being a fucking rebel: “How dare you screw with our icons?” Thank the gods that the sales went up because that’s the only thing that saved my ass on that whole fight.

Now if you look at the Spider-Man books, they’ve all got a McFarlane look to them, which is good for my career because it’s free advertising for me. They’ve all got the big eyes and the curly hair and the spaghetti webbing and lots of black in the tights. What happened was, I said “I’m not going to follow the status quo.” I continued, and now the status quo is some of the stuff that I laid down. It’s come back to haunt me. Besides, it’s flattering. It’s also somewhat frustrating that I’ve killed the monster and reconstructed another one. The next kid that comes in there is now going to be told, just like I was told to draw like John Romita, “Draw Spider-Man like McFarlane.” He’s got one of two choices: he either does it, and he does a pretty damn good Todd McFarlane type Spider-Man, or he goes “Fuck them, I’m not going to draw like Todd McFarlane, I got this cooler idea.” He’s got another fight and I’m going, “Why does that kid have to fight? How do you know that the next kid won’t be able to come up with something that’s 10 times better than I did?” Or 10 times better than Romita, or 10 times better than Ditko. You’re never going to see it if you keep putting them into a little shell and putting them off into a corner someplace. I wouldn’t do it, but then I don’t run the big companies so that’s not my call.

GROTH: So basically you were too much of a maverick for the system, heh?

MCFARLANE: A fuck? Yeah. I was very talented, I was a trailblazer and I was a fuckface and an asshole. To me they’re all the same thing, I wear all those names with a badge of honor. It’s a lot better than being afraid, or being content. To me, the guys who change the world are not the guys who follow, they’re the guys who lead, because if everybody keeps doing the same thing there is no change in the world. The only way that there’s change is if some guy goes “Ahh, fuck it, there’s another way to do this” and really puts his heart and soul into it, has to prove to himself that there’s actually more than one way of doing it. Then people go, “Oh, yeah yeah,” and then all of a sudden that becomes the way. It just starts all over again. The cycles keep going and going and going.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

GROTH: Do you think you and the rest of the people at Image are going to be doing better work now than you did at Marvel? It seems to me that the only way you can support the proposition that change is for the better is if the work itself is better. If the work isn’t better, then why is changing the system better?

MCFARLANE: See, now I’d disagree with that. If I’ve got my sanity back, and I’m still doing the same work but I’m 10 times happier, and I’m a better father and I’m a better husband and I’m a better friend to the neighbors, who cares if it looks the same? It wasn’t that I had this miraculous calling that “This is the way you do superheroes,” it’s just that I just can’t take fucking orders very well. I’ve accepted that, so I just go, “Ah, instead of me being the thorn in their ass, and vice versa, the best thing to do is for me to just abandon it and do superheroes the way that I want to do superheroes.” Not that I got any great vision, but personally I’ll be happy. If I’m personally happy it should show up in my work. I’m not saying that that’s always necessary, but it should show up in the work. And, I’ll be a better husband and a better person, and that, ultimately, is 10 times more important than all the comic book stuff. That’s what was getting to me. They were sapping away my sanity. It was like, “Nah, I can’t do this.” I was accepting and doing things that I wasn’t willing to accept, and I just go, “Naah.” I mean, you’re right in some respects. If we don’t change something … but I just don’t think that because I want to do superhero comic books I should be shackled to Marvel and DC. Why can’t I do the exact same comic books with another company, which just happens to be Image? I like doing superhero comic books. Just because Marvel and DC does comic books, I shouldn’t be stuck at those two companies. I’ve heard that, and I think that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s like telling Honda they should have never invented a better car because Ford already made one 100 years ago. Fuck Ford if they can’t come up with a good car. Honda made a better car. All that proves is Ford better get their shit together and build a better car because they’re going to have troubles, and they’re having troubles right now. Just because it exited and they were there, I don’t think that just because I wanted to break away that, necessarily, I have to have anything new and innovative. I hope I put a couple of things in there that maybe wouldn’t have existed in a Marvel comic book, but I don’t think there’s revelations.

GROTH: So what you’re saying is, Honda didn’t have to build a better car —

MCFARLANE: In some respects. In some respects what I’m saying, the guys working for Ford say, “Aw, fuck you, I can build just as good a car and I’ll be the one to give orders” and so he goes out there, and he goes, “I can build the same piece of shit you’re building” and lo and behold, he comes up with the same car or maybe a better car or maybe he hires some people that work out better. That might happen to us. Every company doesn’t build a better car than Ford. Some build worse, some build better, I don’t know where we’re going to land. I don’t know if we’re going to build the next Jaguar or we’re going to build the next little Hyundai. It’s too early in the ballgame to tell right now. I’m just saying, there’s the possibility for both things to happen, that we can come out with something that’s weaker but, stupid as it sounds, be happy doing it or do something that might be a little bit better.

Here’s where I get my satisfaction right now; we sold 1,000,000 copies-plus of Spawn. I work over my garage, literally. So, that would’ve been the day that anybody could sell 1,000,000 copies of a comic book that’s not mainstream. Rob’s book, with his re-order, sold 1,000,000-plus. I sold 1,000,000-plus. A couple of the other guys at Image, probably all of them sell 1,000,000-plus. That’s good, cool, whatever. Yes, guys are buying multiples, whatever, let’s not get into that right now. They came out with the new Batman, backed by Warner Brothers, and they sold 800,000. In some ways I’m bigger than Batman right now, during the Batman hype. All I’m saying is seven of us little shits sitting over our garage doing comic books right now, can sell 1,000,000 copies.

Spawn #4 (September 1992) written and drawn by Todd McFarlane © Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc.

I don’t got no lawyers. I don’t got no PR people. I don’t got no licensing people. I ain’t got shit! I hate to say it but I just proved that half those jobs at Marvel and DC are worthless. They could get rid of all of those guys and it’s not really going to affect the sales of their comic books, if you’re doing a comic book that taps into the heart of what the kids want right now. You don’t need a battery of people to produce big sales. What you need is a comic book that’s either good, glitzy, or happens to be tapping into whatever’s hot that week.

GROTH: But you also needed to have worked at Marvel for several years, and worked on a popular character before you could sell 1,000,000 copies of your own comic.

MCFARLANE: Yup. Yup. Oh yeah yeah. They’re a training ground now. As a matter of fact, guys that I see that want to work in comics, I send samples of their stuff to Marvel for them. People say that’s kind of weird. No way. Marvel and DC, those are good places to be. You get exposure. You get to work on stuff, you get a steady paycheck. My attitude when I was working for them was, they were whoring me out, but you know what? I always knew that I was whoring them out because every time they out a Spider-Man drawing out there that had my name on it they’re doing me a favor. Because I knew eventually I wouldn’t be there. I’d just go, “Cool. You guys want to keep promoting the book? Beautiful, because you’re just going to make it that much easier for me to walk away some day.”

I’m not saying for people to stay away from those companies. All’s I’m saying is, once they’re there, they’re going to see that there’s options at a certain point in their life. I’m glad Dark Horse is succeeding, I’m glad that Tundra is succeeding, I’m glad that Image is doing good now and 50 other ones … Some haven’t done so well and some have, some have fallen to the wayside, Pacific and First. I’m just glad that another option has been given, so that you can succeed without having to live with the king. You can be a pauper but still have a smile on your face. There’s nothing wrong with that.

GROTH: But, your success is largely the making of Marvel. I mean, if you hadn’t worked at Marvel you wouldn’t be as successful as you are.

MCFARLANE: That’s the problem. You see, I disagree with that.

GROTH: You do?

MCFARLANE: U- huh.

GROTH: You think you would have sold 1,000,000 copies of Spawn if you hadn’t drawn Spider-Man for Marvel?

MCFARLANE: I’m again being the shit that I am. I owe Marvel one thing, and you know what that is?

GROTH: No.

MCFARLANE: They own the copyright to Spider-Man. That’s all I owe them. That’s all that I, pretty much, will acknowledge for them. I thank them for giving me a wide forum, I thank them for allowing me to hone my abilities, and I thank them for owning the copyright to Spider-Man. But if you think for one minute that Todd McFarlane would be a nothing right now without Marvel comic books … Gary, then you don’t know me very well, because, you know why? There’s a character out there called Batman that I would’ve grabbed, or I would have done something. Would I have been as big as today? Nah, but that was never my goal in life.

GROTH: But Todd, my point is you needed a pre-owned corporate character to become as successful as you are.

MCFARLANE: To be as successful as I am, right?

GROTH: Right.

MCFARLANE: But you’re assuming now that that was my goal, to be as successful as I was.

GROTH: No no, I’m not assuming that at all. I’m just saying that you wouldn’t be as successful as you are today, whether you wanted to or not, without Marvel or DC.

MCFARLANE: Right. OK, yeah, that makes sense.

GROTH: So your success is based upon Marvel. Although you’ve liberated yourself from Marvel, you couldn’t have become as successful as you are without them.

MCFARLANE: I guess it depends on what success is. See, you and I have two different definitions of what success is. You’re taking where I’m at right now, physically and mentally and that I’ve sold 1,000,000-plus copies of Spawn. Would I have ever sold 1,000,000-plus copies of Spawn? Nope.

GROTH: How do you measure success?

MCFARLANE: It ain’t in the number of copies I sell, I guarantee you. Got nothing to do with comic books. I’ve had enough people do enough interviews of me, and ask me how much money … Let me tell you what Todd McFarlane’s all about; I got a wife that I love dearly, I’ve always loved, that I’ve been together with for 14 years. I’m a rich man in that I’ve got a very understanding, caring, beautiful wife. I got good friends and family. You know what? They could take all the fame from me, they could take all the fortune from me. Just let me do comic books and sell 5,000 copies, just so I could eke out a living … and I would still do comic books, because I like comic books so much. The rest of it is a Western civilization success: if you sell a lot of copies, oh, then it’s OK for us to allow our kids to do comic books. If you make a lot of money, that’s OK for us to allow our kids to do it. That’s why it’s OK for doctors and lawyers to let their kids be doctors and lawyers. That’s why I was “wrong” to stop doing Spider-Man at the top of my career, twice, and willing to walk away. Because what people see as a success and as a big shot and as a fan favorite, that was never my goal in this business ever. I consider it a blessing more than anything else. I’ve had more than my five minutes of fame. Anything now is just bonus time. They could take it away from me in 10 seconds and I wouldn’t care one iota, to tell the truth.

GROTH: In an interview with you in Wizard you suggested you engineered your success a little more than you’re doing now. Referring to your “artistic” strategy, you said, “Some of the stuff I was doing on Infinity, some of the page design stuff — I try to do as much design work as I can, but I can’t make it too wacky or that 10-to-15 crowd gets a little antsy about the whole look of the book. The kids only want to work so hard to figure out the comic book, but once you get older, it’s kind of neat to have to delve into different layers. I have to make a marriage of both of them, so I can get a big audience base.”

MCFARLANE: Right.

GROTH; So were you interested in getting a big audience base? Isn’t that why you married the two styles you were talking about?

MCFARLANE: I’m a guy who likes challenges. As soon as they say “That can’t be done; you can’t sell 1,000,000 copies” — ah, just watch this. It’s not because I wanted to sell 1,000,000 copies that I made $1,000,000. It’s just because they said “It can’t be done.” Me being the little adolescent mentality that I’ve always had, it was like “Watch me. Or at least I’m going to die trying. Watch me.”

The toughest thing in comic books, I think, and you’re a publisher, you know this … is that there’s different groups of people. There might be 10,000 of each one of them, but there’s 10 different age groups that look at 10 different books. Now, if you can actually tap into all of them, there’s a potential to actually get 100,000 people to read your book.

To me, that became my goal, in that I just wanted to see if it was possible to cross the barriers. So it was like, “OK, if I do something that’s a little bit designy, then that will get the attention of the older audiences. But I still have to make the storytelling clear and somewhat simple enough that it wouldn’t confuse the 12-year-old, but I could still put a couple of underlying things so that the 20-and-older group would pick it up that the 8-year-old wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t affect the story.” You have to try and give just enough to everybody so that everybody went home satisfied. Does that mean maybe that if I was just aimed at one group I would have been able to do a better package? Yeah, probably. I would have been able to concentrate more, but I just wanted to see whether I could do it, just from a career point.

“Designy” panels in Spawn #5 (October 1992) written and drawn by Todd McFarlane © Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc.

I hate to say, but this business is weird in that they give you the next bone depending upon how well you did: “What have you done for me lately?” I had to prove my merit by saying “OK! Your business, as Marvel or DC, is to sell comic books, and you hire me to sell comic books, and I do that job very well. Whether you like my style whether you like the way I do it, whether you think that I’m good or not is irrelevant. I’m sorry to say, that’s irrelevant. Just accept the fact that I sell comic books. After you accept that, now we can delve into whether you think I’m actually good at what I do, but you got to get past the first hurdle, which is just accept it. Don’t like me personally, don’t like my style, don’t like the way I write, don’t like the way I lay out a book, just accept that I sell the comic books and don’t even try to understand it.”

You can talk to me now about trying to improve those areas, but they couldn’t even get past that first hurdle. “This is the way we’ve done comic books for 25 years, what’re you trying to do?” It’s like, “Jesus, who gives a fuck how I do it? Who cares if I give you 22 blank pages and I sell 500,000 copies. If that’s what the public wants … perfect! Let’s give it to them! It seems to work. They seem to like it. Who cares that 20 years ago they used to actually have dialogue on their pictures? The kids don’t like that any more, obviously. They want books that have 22 blank pages. Who are we to argue with them?

GROTH: Uh-huh.

MCFARLANE: Who are we to educate them right now? Give them what they want, I don’t got time to make world peace. I do that on my own time.

GROTH: Huh. [Long pause.] Let me ask you this: do you have any artistic standards of your own, or are your standards based entirely on what the public wants to buy?

*Buddy Saunders Sidebar

MCFARLANE: [Long pause.] I’d say, almost, right now, at this point, maybe a little bit of both. Although now with Image, actually I’d say … I just self-indulge myself, literally. And thank the Lord, even though I’m an atheist, that there’s enough people out there that are coming along for the ride. As long as there’s about 20 or 30,000 of them, I’ll keep indulging myself because I’m just a weenie like that. There’s a lot of guys who’re doing black and whites or doing independents that I think are literally doing the exact same thing that I’m doing. I just happen to be doing it in a more commercial form. So I sit there and I go “Aw cool, I like guys with capes” so, Spawn’s got a cape.

Spawn #2 (July 1992) written and drawn by Todd McFarlane © Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc.

No questions asked, I don’t got no editor that I got to clear that through. “Ah, I want to do this, I want to do this, I want … ” — it’s done! I mean, it’s done in seconds, and you want to know what? Does it all make sense? Nah. Ultimately it doesn’t have to make sense, really, because I’m having a kick. I’m just going, “Todd, this is cool. You want to draw a cartoon character? Ahh, let’s bring in a cartoon character. You want to draw a monster? Ahh, let’s bring in a monster. You want us to draw tall guys? Ahh, let’s draw tall guys. You want to do it at night time? Daytime?” It doesn’t matter what I do, I get up and I go, “Ahh, what’s going to entertain Todd McFarlane?” And, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you are, there’s a lot of people that get entertained by the same things that I do. They like funny little characters. They like guys with big capes flowing in the wind. They like monsters. So, I guess I’m, like I said, somewhat of an adolescent still. And there’s a lot of adolescent readers out there that go “Aw, that’s cool, Todd.” What I thought was cool, as a comic book reader, I put in my pages, and if those kids think it’s cool and if they turn into comic book artists and writers, they’re going to still put monsters and fights because that’s what they liked. I wish I had a major epic that I could put down on paper that would change the world, but I haven’t come up with that one yet. Right now, I just do kind of cool comic books. I don’t hang my head in shame; I’m proud that I do something that I like and that I’m somewhat successful at it. “Successful” being, in this capitalist society, that other people buy it.

GROTH: So you actually take pride in your work?

MCFARLANE: Yeah, sure I do. If I don’t then I’m going to become a dinosaur. I try to keep up with everything. I try to update myself. My style isn’t the same as it was five years ago, even two years ago. If you look at the first issue of Spawn that’s out, it’s not the way that I used to draw Amazing Spider-Man. It’s maybe not a quantum leap from there, but at least it’s not me just going “Ah, I’ve done it, this is how good I am, this is what I do, I don’t ever have to try anything different.” I try to change, whether the changes are for the good or for bad — again, that’s not my decision, because I’m not the one buying the book.

GROTH: Right. How did you feel about being complicit with Marvel’s pandering to the fraudulent collector’s market with Spider-Man — did that bother you?

MCFARLANE: Gary, I don’t have any control over the multiple cover idea. If you’re asking if that was my idea, the answer’s no. If they came up with an idea, it was maybe going to sell twice as many copies because of the idea … whatever! I mean, I’m going, “I don’t care. You can sell twice as many copies of my book? Whatever.”

GROTH: Do you think you should care? Because clearly what happens with all these “collectable” comics, such as your Spider-Man is that Marvel promotes them as collectable, retailers promote them as collectable, on down the food chain until they’re sold to gullible kids or avaricious speculators. They’re then hoarded by retailers, and then the market is manipulated by dealers and retailers who stock these things and only allow a limited supply that is just less than the demand. So, in other words, there is … your Spider-Man sold 5,000,000?

MCFARLANE: 3,000,000.

GROTH: There’s no way in the world that that comic, with a print run of 3,000,000, could be worth anything if the market weren’t manipulated.

MCFARLANE: Yeah … you know, you’re right. Everybody is either to blame or to be patted on the back for that, I guess it depends on your view of it. I couldn’t do nothing at that point. That I fight one way or the other, no that was a decision that I didn’t even have, that I didn’t say nothing about because I knew that my voice, at that point, was irrelevant, in the way that the system was set up. Do I think that’s a good idea of doing it? Well, take a look at the first issue of the Spawn, you see how many variations there are on that book. One comic book, you get it, that’s it. I’m not really a big fan of multiple covers, if that’s what you’re asking, because I think it’s cheating the public. I think that you’re selling them the same product twice. I can kind of live with the cover, even though I don’t have it on mine, but if somebody gives you a day-glo yellow cover … technically, if you just buy one copy of it, you’re still getting only the one cover. So, it’s really no different than the previous issue, it’s just the mentality of the people that are biting the hype and buying it, that are buying multiples of it, even those who just got day-glo, what’s the point of it?

GROTH: Aren’t you pandering to that mentality by [A] working at Marvel in the first place and [B] drawing Spider-Man?

MCFARLANE: Am I . . . ?

GROTH: In other words, it seems to me you have a decision to make, and that is, to draw a comic that is read or to draw a comic that is hoarded, and you know very well going into it that Marvel has exploited the speculator’s market more than any other publisher, and that by working on Spider-Man for Marvel you will be complicit in that exploitation.

MCFARLANE: OK, here’s my attitude when I took over Spider-Man. The sales were pretty solid. Spider-Man, I mean, it’s the status quo. My only thing that I wanted to do was, it’s selling 250,000 copies; my only goal was, not really so much to raise the level of the sales, was that Spider-Man is such an ongoing title that a lot of people have been collecting it for years. They’re going to buy it no matter who draws it, my mom could draw it and still sell 250,000 copies. So, the only goal that I had was, “I hope they read it before they shove it in their plastic bags. That’s all I can hope for.” The sales aren’t going to reflect any of that, but at least if they read it and they start talking about it, then all of a sudden Spider-Man is back on their lips again. Actually, it probably was almost a year before it actually reflected, in sales, what they had been talking about. “There’s this new kid on the book and he’s got this weird style, blah blah blah, he’s got a little bit of Ditko in it, blah blah blah,” but it wasn’t really reflected in the sales. If anything, “the sales went down initially because it was a new kid coming on there or something like that…so it was more that all those guys were just buying it because it was just to keep their collection going, were now stopping, flipping through it or reading it, and then shove it in their plastic bag. You’re up against certain obstacles at that point, but that doesn’t mean that because that market exists that I shouldn’t be entitled to do Spider-Man. That question is almost the opposite, that because the pubic is a certain way, that I should not be able to do something. I didn’t come on Spider-Man and do the status quo, quite the opposite. I went in there and said “Ahh, let’s fuck with it.” I was hoping to fuck with it so that it would actually be something that people would respond to, for good or for bad. Again, let them make the decision … but at least I got a reaction out of it. They’d be talking about Spider-Man now, and that was the central idea essentially that I was looking for in Spider-Man. And to some extent, I did what I set out to do. I got people going “Ah, Spider-Man … I’m going to collect it anyway.” They’re still collecting it, Spider-Man hasn’t been cancelled since I left. Far from it, the sales are as solid as ever. Whether that had anything to do with whatever I did, who knows? It’s just, maybe, a cycle it’s going through.

(Continued)

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29 Responses to “…That’s the Spice of Life, Bud”: The Todd McFarlane Interview

  1. Stuart says:

    hahaha feel the hate

  2. mad_arab says:

    Amazing…

  3. Iestyn says:

    I think that they both come off well. It’s like commerce versus art.

  4. ant says:

    This is fucking priceless

  5. TimR says:

    Groth sort of misses the forest for the trees, I’d say. I mean I enjoy him as a foil to Todd in this interview, but I mostly come down on Todd’s side of their various debates. Groth is overly earnest, and doesn’t seem to credit the messiness of the world. Todd’s intuitive, emotional take on things seems much better suited to the issues and terrain than Groth’s analytical, semi-humorless approach. Also his lack of appreciation for any merits Todd may have as an artist and human doesn’t stand up to the history. I was a kid reading comics in the 80s, and there really was a stuffy, lukewarm quality to the “product” that Todd played a major role in shaking up. He’s not Kirby, Ditko, et al but he brought some magic (sappy as it may sound) to the books, and gave us (the pulp audience of that time) our own unique moment in the history of the medium. His off model tweaks to Spider-man etc. thrilled and inspired many of us. I copied his drawings in awe of their detail (yes now I see it’s mostly silly noodling, but nevertheless.) It’s not entirely true to say that he would not exist without the corporate properties — they supported him, but he carried them on and propped them up as well.

    • Nate says:

      One thing that gets lost in a lot of the talk about the “Image Revolution” is that the aesthetic was largely lifted from Michael Golden (right down to Spider-Man’s webs) and Art Adams (whose early work owed a lot to Golden). Golden and Adams weren’t doing regular series so guys like T-Mac and Liefeld filled the void with tiny little lines and shaky grasp on fundamentals.

      • TimR says:

        Fooey on this too. They moved the ball forward, mixed influences just like Golden/Art Adams did before them. Early work is often heavily indebted to certain influences, eventually it becomes its own thing more often than not. Like it or don’t, Mcfarlane is not a complete/exact clone of anyone. Nor Liefeld, with his uniquely provocative work that inspires more passionate hatred than anyone ever.

      • TimR says:

        (not to be overly blunt I hope)

    • joselitus_maximus says:

      The above is an INTERVIEW not a debate.
      Groth is not trying to “win” any discussion, he is just finding ways to make McFarlane talk.

      • TimR says:

        What are you saying, I can’t criticize Groth’s opinions he expresses because they’re all just calculated to provoke or prompt the interviewee? Are you saying Groth doesn’t really hold the views he expresses here? They don’t seem like devil’s advocate positions, from what I know of Groth. Also, Mcfarlane himself interviews Groth a bit, asking him his views on things and Groth answers — so I can’t disagree with what Groth says then? Fooey on that.

  6. patrick ford says:

    ” I was a kid reading comics…”

    More people need to keep this in mind. It explains a lot.

    • TimR says:

      Indeed. :-)
      I also think, while kids don’t have “good taste”, they have an advantage in being open to *anything at all*. They don’t have preconceived ideas about what is or isn’t good. This is both asset and liability of course, but it opens you up to discover things that adults would completely overlook. I discovered Barks, Ditko, Herge, and many others, mixed in among the swill, because I was open to *any* comic book I came across. I didn’t have to wait for some official source to tell me these artists were good, I found them on my own. And I found merits in Todd McFarlane as well (and still do.) The art comics stuff starts to verge on that whole gallery world thing, where you no longer know if you actually enjoy the thing or not any more — it becomes mind games, with yourself and the critics and the artist. I’m intrigued by the stuff, but it doesn’t thrill me the way old-fashioned pulp comics used to (and sometimes still do, on rare occasion.)

      btw, ——–PAT FORD,——— if you’re reading this… I’m glad to find you here… I was thinking today you might be someone who would know this: Where can I learn about the techniques the old photo-real newspaper strip artists were using? Stuff like: were they using those “artograph” type devices to translate photos of industrial objects into ink drawings? I think I recall you don’t rate Neal Adams very highly compared to those strip artists, but I was looking at some of his 70s work and wondering how he did some of it. Does Dave Sim cover that sort of thing in his recent magazine (anyone)?

      • mateor says:

        If you are interested in photo-realism and especially inking techniques, you should be ecstatic about glamourpuss. A master cartoonist has released 25 issues if his attempts to understand and replicate that style.

        It is the best comic criticism you’ll read, maybe ever.

      • TimR says:

        Well I just wasn’t sure. I’m not completely taken with Sim’s drawing, really. Also wasn’t sure if Glamourpuss really addresses specific technical “tricks”, or is just criticism and aesthetics. (Still planning to read more early Cerebus — I think I would like it if I ever get around to reading it. I read one Marx Bros. issue of his a long time ago that I really liked.)

    • Don Druid says:

      I don’t think I’d like Kirby nearly as much if I hadn’t been introduced to his work when I was a kid.

      • I like Kirby now a lot more than when I was a teen (yep, Image generation) and definitively I like Kirby a lot more than I do like McFarlane nowadays. Yes, it´s important to keep in mind that as a kid one started reading comics, but I think it´s even more important to cultivate curiosity beyond that kid awe; guess it´s what separate fans from readers.

      • patrick ford says:

        My appreciation of anything is based on how I feel about it right now. There are loads of things I used to enjoy that I have little or no interest in anymore.
        As a kid I used to enjoy TV shows like THE WILD WILD WEST and THE PRISONER. I tried watching an episode the THE WILD WILD WEST a couple of years ago, lost interest and didn’t make it through a quarter of an episode. With THE PRISONER I got a box set from the library and watched the whole series over the course of two weeks. Who knows why some things endure and others fade away.

  7. Don Druid says:

    I never gave McFarlane much thought, when I was young or now, but Spider-Man’s webs were something else, weren’t they?

  8. patrick ford says:

    Tim, It isn’t a matter of taste. I think kids often have good taste. What it is I think kids and teenagers have in general greater enthusiasm/passion than they will have when they get older. This can stem from an innocent sense of wonder, or adolescent hormones. Kids can retain a strong nostalgic affection for artifacts from their childhood, and teens often have a “no doubt in my mind” certainty that they have found true love, or that Frank Frazetta is “better than Rembrandt.” So what you get is what Wally Wood called the “I like your old stuff better,” syndrome. That’s where a old guy finds the current work of a creator doesn’t arouse him in the same way that creators work did when they first discovered it as a teenager.
    There was a fantastic web site by Professor Armando Mendez called THE RULES OF ATTRACTION. Only the bones of it remain. Someone ought to publish it’s contents as a book, or offer to host the web page as it existed in it’s full form. http://web.archive.org/web/20070720184845/http://profmendez.tripod.com/

    • TimR says:

      Well, I was writing quickly, probably the question of good and bad taste can be debated endlessly. I think Kant wrote a whole book on aesthetics IIRC. Again speaking loosely — I might not be the only one to notice that we seem to have impeccable taste as very young kids, then around 9 or 10 that goes out the window and we often become enamored of trash (or let us say things that don’t wear as well with time.) This is true of kids’ drawings as well—initially we’re all Picassos, then when we gain some slim critical awareness, for a long period (for those who persist in drawing) the drawings are horribly awkward, and not necessarily in a charming way.

      • Allen Smith says:

        Here’s my definition of taste: good, whatever I like. Bad, whatever anyone else likes that doesn’t agree with what I like. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

  9. patrick ford says:

    My golden rule is anyone who likes Led Zeppelin has no taste.

  10. Chris Jones says:

    McFarlane’s good-natured rejoinders to Groth’s condescension sort of make me come down on his side during the interview. I wasn’t really “around” (read:born) for a lot of these conflicts but the tone of the interview makes me imagine if like, Piero Scaruffi did an interview with Wacka Flocka.

  11. patrick ford says:

    There are some people who have argued Groth and TCJ, by not devoting enough attention to mainstream pantyhose material were not living up to TCJ’s motto: “The Magazine of News and Criticism”
    I’ve always felt far to much time and effort were spent on that stuff. Just because a magazine covers the NBA doesn’t mean they are shirking their duty by not spending any time covering the WNBA, which is basically what IMAGE COMICS was.

  12. Man, parts of this interview had me in tears, I was laughing so hard. Don’t know what was funnier, Mcfarlance admitting he can’t/won’t read, or the fact that he was taking advise from Rob Liefeld of all people. Comedic gold. Too bad I was 17 or 18 back then, because if I was a little older, I wouldn’t have bothered picking up all that early Image crap. Savage Dragon is cool though LOL

  13. spencer says:

    Wow. This interview was hilarious! Was T-Mac on cocaine or was he just “high” on his own sense of self-importance? This whole interview was really a joke, how could such a “successful artist” be such an illiterate ignoramus?

    Todd’s responses were full of incoherence and contradictions; he was really quite a windbag! But after finishing the interview, I began to wonder if Todd was maybe putting on an act; trying to get a rise out of Groth. But honestly, I don’t think he is capable of such a feat of comedic genius because if this was an act, there would have been some sort of clue or hint.

    I look forward to watching this new documentary on Images Comics (the Image revolution, I think?) because I want to know if T-Mac has changed much over the years since this piece. I tell myself to keep in mind, however, that McFarlane soon abandoned art after this interview to focus on managing his business and making hideous toy’s.

  14. spencer says:

    hmmm, I guess this answers my question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRByXW59Bg0

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