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In the Mind of McFarlane ? Part 1

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This past weekend was a big one for Todd McFarlane. In addition to appearances at the New York Comic-Con and the launch of the “Todd McFarlane: A Retrospective” exhibit at the  Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, there were a number of new projects announced by the McFarlane family of companies. Just prior to the news of a McFarlane/DC Comics collaboration (a new Spawn/Batman special by Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo, as well as a statue co-produced by DC Direct and McFarlane Toys that will somehow tie into the comic story), Broken Frontier had the opportunity to speak to McFarlane about his career – past, present and future…

Broken Frontier – First question – one I’m sure everyone always asks you because they’re all interested in the answer - any concrete plans for writing or drawing a new comic any time soon?

Todd McFarlane – You know, I’ve got a couple of pokers in the fire, but for the foreseeable future, nothing on a regular basis. I’ll come in there and do the odd cover, you know, do the odd inking and write the odd story and maybe dabble a little bit with the interiors but I don’t have any plans right now to sit down and do 10 or 12 issues in a row or anything like that.

BF – Most of the focus on you is in relation to the McFarlane family of companies. What sort of involvement do you still have with running Image?

TM – Not a tremendous amount. Not as much as the early days obviously when we were sort of still cutting our teeth and getting the company going. We fast-forward now, what? 13 years? The systems been built, so on the day-to-day basis, it’s Erik Larsen and Eric Stevenson that are the guiding lights over there. I sort of come in and get involved when we’re making some sort of big company decision. But it’s not on a day-to-day basis.

BF – In your mind, what are the differences between when you were doing work-for-hire at Marvel and now similarly employing creators on your own properties?

TM – When I was doing it, there was a reputation of what felt like trying to repeat stories that had already been told a lot… using the same characters, bringing up the same circumstances. It was one of the reasons that led me to want to write my own stuff. When I took over Spider-Man, the first story I wrote included this character called the Lizard and he didn’t say one word for the whole first story arc, which was sort of counter to the previous dozen or twenty appearances of him. I thought it worked pretty well the first couple of times Stan Lee did it but, you know, we were just repeating the same story over and over and over and over – just updating it a little bit more. 

One of the things I decided to adhere to with the people working on my books is… [pauses] … the first thing I try to get through to them (they don’t believe it at first) is that I’ll keep kicking and pushing on them to think like they own the character. Assume you own the company. Do whatever the hell you think. I’m looking for someone not to write what I’ve done, not to repeat what I’ve done, ‘cause if I just wanted someone to do a Todd McFarlane story, I’ll just do it myself. I’m looking for someone to come in and actually create something new that I’m just blown away by… going “I wish I had thought of that.” I always tell them whoever can make me look the stupidest is going to be the guy I like the best. That means they just went “God, he didn’t know what he was doing.  This is what Spawn, or whatever character, should be doing.” Let them have a go at it.

The problem is, even with that guideline you get a lot of the writers that fall back on the easy path. No. I don’t want to read that. I don’t want something that I could write. I want to read something that I don’t think I’m skilled enough to do or am not smart enough to put together. 

BF – What sort of involvement do you maintain on the direction of the comic? Just give them a general outline and turn them loose?

TM – It depends on who’s doing it. If I’m writing it and Greg [Capullo]’s drawing it, then obviously I’m guiding where Greg’s going. As it works right now, we just put the new team together with David Hine and Phillip Tan. We got on the phone a lot of times, both individually with the artist and with the writer, and then together with conference calls. Later we met at San Diego Con and are in constant contact with email and trying to come up with a direction that we want this book to go to - in broad strokes. What are some of the details David might want to put in? What are some of the details that I’ve always had in my head but have never been able to get out on paper or if I tried, I obviously did a bad job because nobody was paying enough attention to what I was doing. So I go, “David, you’re a smart guy. Here’s all of my notes. Add to that whatever you want and we’ll go into a direction.”

As each issue is put together, I look at all the artwork – Phillip Tan is a talented kid, but he’s still young – there’s storytelling elements he can still improve on. Just like I could when I was younger. With David it’s just a matter of trying to make sure he’s got all the characters in the ballpark of where they’ve been and we’re moving in a sort of direction. In between all of that, you’ve got Brian Haberlin on the day-to-day stuff, making sure it’s all being done and that the books get out on a regular basis.

BF – What was it about David and Phillip that made you think, to borrow your phrase, these were the smart guys that might make you look stupid?

TM – This is sort of a weird one. I was looking for somebody who wasn’t necessarily a good superhero writer. I was looking for somebody who might be able to bring that odd angle to it. I think this is one of the reasons why guys like Alan Moore, Gaiman and the British guys were successful in doing stuff. Because they weren’t raised on American comic superhero stuff. When they came to it, they were able to bring a different angle.  By the time you said “Hey, Alan Moore. Can you write a superhero book,” he was looking at it a bit skewed. To me the skew was actually way more interesting than the hundred comic books of say, Superman, by others that had been raised on just pure American comic books.

For David, it was that I don’t want the favourite superhero writer. I want someone that can write a gritty whole story. Someone who might write a helluva vampire story or a detective or romance story or even a great war story. Something that wasn’t “comic books” in the true American way. I try to push him in that way and still have that conversation with him. I think that given he’s worked for Marvel, he’s got a sort of “here’s how you sell comic books” idea. It’s a balance. You don’t want to go too “sophisticated” if you will, and alienate your core audience. There’s still guys in tights and capes and villains running around. You still have all that, but how can you put all that together in a believable world? This is why I think Alan Moore’s Watchmen works so well. You’ve got a bunch of guys in costumes, but if those were real people here’s the problems they would have if they were superheroes. 

For Phillip, we’re coming off a run of 50 issues of Angel Medina – who did a terrific job. I was looking to get a little darker, a little grittier. And here’s this young kid that can come in and do a little bit of detail, a little bit of shadowing. Maybe the shadow stuff isn’t quite there the first few issues, but I was just looking at some pages today and he’s now starting to find the groove, the mood.

BF – Getting a comfort zone then?

TM – Yeah. Again, with both of them. Unfortunately, the downside… with me, writing Spider-Man #1 years ago, I was in a spot where there was going to be a ton of eyeballs on you looking at what is perhaps going to be your worst story. Both these guys are probably going to find their writing and artistic legs by issue #157, 158, 159. Hopefully by #175, you’re looking back at #150 for a laugh. But #150 is a milestone issue, and sales are going to be double what #149 were. So you know, it’s sort of an awkward position. You might get your biggest audience on what presumably might be your worst effort in the next couple of years.

BF – Speaking of Spawn #150, you have the Man of Miracles appearing. How does this relate to the ongoing Miracleman situation?

TM – [pause] He’s tied to it…

In part 2 of Broken Frontier’s interview with Todd McFarlane, McFarlane discusses the creative process, the state of the industry and whether or not Spawn is an icon…

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