In the Mind of McFarlane - Part 2

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In the first part of Broken Frontier’s interview with Todd McFarlane, the creator talked about his current involvement with the Spawn comic book, as well as the directions he hopes the new creative team will take it in. In Part 2, McFarlane talks about the creative process, the state of the industry and whether or not Spawn is an icon…

Broken Frontier – Can you explain the difference between how you deal with creative pressure today as opposed to back when you first started out?

Todd McFarlane – In the beginning, it was essentially just me sitting in a room. The pressure was just getting the pages done, making sure you get them to the post office on time. Eventually, doing the pencilling and inking, the deadlines became a little more tenuous, and all of a sudden, I thought I’d do a little bit of writing. Even doing writing, pencilling and inking, it was still essentially just me.

Move forward now 10 years, 15 years in the future and I own various companies and I have a couple hundred people that I employ in all those companies and do a lot of other stuff for me so that it’s not all on me. When you were just hunched over a board just drawing, it was just you. It’s sort of a little bit of a misnomer…some people go “you know, Todd…he’s not doing as much creating as he once did.” It’s not really true, it’s just that the comic book stuff I did as an artist – you drew it, it got printed. Now the creating that I do, whether it’s with animation or some of the writing, or some of the background ideas I do, production pieces with the toys or movies or whatever…nobody really gets to see it, you know? I don’t hunch over a board 12, 15 hours a day like I did, but I don’t “not create.” I create every single day. It’s just that people don’t get to see it.

BF – McFarlane Toys. You’ve got a number of successful, but very diverse, lines of licensed toys. What do you look for when pursuing a license?

TM – I have a core audience I think we can tap into, but you mentioned it with diversity. I want to make sure I don’t completely just be that one beast, if you will. So I think we can do some of the cool stuff like the monster stuff that we do, the fairy tales, the crazy odd stuff, some of the cool Spawn stuff that we do…Alien/Predator, Matrix…sort of feeds into that core audience. Even some silly stuff like The Simpsons. Now, we’ve also done some stuff like with Corpse Bride, the music stuff, the album covers, some of the sports stuff, the military. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the same person who bought some of the cool monster stuff that we did. Sometimes you just go, “yeah, we should put out good product that is sort of popular” and not necessarily worry about it being something that I’ve created or something that I would personally collect myself. I never collected any military figures when I was a kid, other than those little army men, but I know there’s a need for it and if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Let’s take all of the skills we’ve learned doing all of those other lines and put it into the military line for example, for a new group of people that are going to get exposed to our product.

BF – After 20 years in the business, how does it feel to be seeing a career retrospective such as the one at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art? 

TM – You know, it’s interesting. Maybe if I were retired, I’d go “yeah”, but to do it in the middle of my career…to me then it should be “A Retrospective Part 1.” On some level, I hope I’ve got another 20 years in me. This is just the first part of the race. I’m hoping that the second half actually will have got cooler stuff than some of the stuff I’ve done in the last 20 years. Like I say, if I was 85 and done creating on a full-time basis, I’d go “there it is…there’s all the goods.” Everyone could sort of figure out what they liked and what they didn’t like. It’s odd, we did a documentary. I’m going, “documentary? What are you talking about? I’m just getting started here.” We’re just going to have to do another one…the second half of the career. So you can go, “here. This is what he did from ages 25 to 35.” What about 35 to 55? 

BF – At least this is giving you practice for the next one…

TM – [chuckle]…Yeah, there you go.

BF - After Spawn, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, what do you consider to be the fourth defining moment of your career so far?

TM – [pauses]…You know…probably the advent, beginning of the toy company. Coming in there and taking a little bit of the same mindset I had when I jumped on the Hulk and then later with Spider-Man. Taking stuff that had been in front of the public and asking, “why can’t you do this?” “Why is nobody doing that?” Tweaking it. I thought there was a lot of toys out in the marketplace that could have done with some cooler artistic stuff on it. It was just another place to scratch that creative itch and say, “why can’t we do this and this and this?” Now again, you fast-forward, what? The company’s being going about a dozen years…I think that standard of a lot of the toys on the marketplace are markedly higher. I think that the existence of my company 12 years ago had something to do with that. I was just going, “guys! Why are we doing these simplistic, two colour, stoic little toys when there’s so much more you can do with clay and paint and packaging?” I didn’t get it. I’ve been able to go in there and do stuff that people then try to emulate a little bit. That’s always sort of rewarding. 

BF - Going back to comics…what’s your take on the comic book industry today? In your mind, what’s working and what’s not working?

TM – I think superhero comic books are always going to have a place. For me, one of things that started getting me to push away a little bit was trying to always trick the reader into something. I’m not a big public company, so I don’t know…well, actually, I do know what drives Marvel and DC, but…look, I’m up to issue #153 of Spawn. Could I have started Spawn over again? Yeah. Could I have gotten an extra couple sales on it? Yeah. I guess I just love that old school way of being able to go to a price guide and look up a title and just have it from issue #1 to 500. Know that I have that collection. Now, all of a sudden, it’s “do I have the 3 #1’s of Fantastic Four?” One goes from #1 to 427, and then they restart it. I mean, I understand it intellectually…I could get in a debate and actually argue it from the other side too. I understand that. As a guy who was a hardcore collector, the hardest thing to do is to get an addict…[chuckles] which I was…to quit. All of a sudden you go, “I can’t keep up with this.” You’re putting out too many X-Men books, too many issue #1’s, you’re trying to do foil-embossed this and that…once you stop, once you go that fist day without a cigarette, all of a sudden it makes that second day that much easier.

We were taking advantage of the marketplace and the consumers by trying to say each one of these books is going to be worth something and that you could send your kid to college on it. Pretty soon we just crapped on our consumers a little bit, which is too bad. And that’s why the marketplace is at where it’s at. People are going to say that everything is cyclical and that it will all bounce back. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it for one minute. It may be better than it was a couple of years ago, but it will never get back to the early 90s.

All you have to do is look at a couple of other industries that had their heyday and did the same thing that comics did. That just beat us to it. They never rebounded…trading cards is an easy example to look at. That one went crazy, had a bunch of speculators…everybody was wringing their hands thinking of money. The manufacturers over-produced and over did it, and they insulted the consumer and the consumer moved on. And the consumer hasn’t come back! Not to anywhere near the levels it was. For cards, it’s been even longer…it’s been almost 20 years. For comic books, it’s only been about 13, 14…and, it’s not going to be a 50 year cycle. We just spoiled ourselves a little bit. And that’s too bad, ‘cause we had a pretty good thing going there. But, I don’t control anybody else’s work, I just control my own, so…

BF - If Spawn hadn’t turned out to be the success that it was, what would you have done instead?

TM – [pauses]…I probably would have just done what some of the other Image guys did, which is create more and more characters until one of them stuck. I was fortunate enough, just like Erik Larson, to come out of the gate with a character and that people paid attention to him. 12 years later, they’re still paying attention to him. I didn’t have to get too smart and create 50 characters. I was able to go “here’s a dozen characters and I can just stick with them and just keep branding those characters over and over and over.” And people said, “yeah, cool!” You can tell by the books that I put out, that I didn’t feel the need to have a hundred characters. I was always the guy that went, “if I can create the next Mickey Mouse, I don’t care if never create Donald Duck.” I created “Mickey Mouse”…that’s good enough. That’ll keep me busy for a long, long time. Early on Jim Lee, Rob [Liefeld] and Marc Silvestri were creating what felt like hundreds of characters. I guess I just wasn’t as creative as they were. I’ve got my guy Spawny…I’m just going to see if I can keep him coming out instead of trying to diversify too quickly. He was working…but…I would have taken another step on another character, if I had to probably…

BF – You mentioned an iconic character like Mickey Mouse there…with all of the things you’ve accomplished with Spawn over the past 14 years or so, do you think the character has achieved an iconic status?

TM – On a small, small, small scale is what I’m talking about. Here’s the equivalent…to create a character…you’re not going to create Star Wars and Mickey Mouse and Batman again…it’s become very, very hard now. But can you create a character that has enough relevance that not only will they last decades while you’re still creating it, but ultimately that will it end up going beyond your own lifetime? Have people still caring about it? To me, you’ve actually created a pretty good character at that point. If they sit there and say 50 years after Todd’s dead, ask, “When’s Spawn stuff coming out?” in any kind of form or medium, then that’s my Mickey Mouse. Not in terms of saying Spawn is Mickey Mouse in popularity. But Mickey Mouse is still alive and well and [Walt] Disney isn’t. Walt Disney has long since passed away, but his character, his creative child is still living. To me, that was what I was looking for. If I can only have one or two creative children that outlive me, I don’t need 50 of them. I’ll be content with one or two of them. 

BF – To wrap things up here…looking forward, what’s coming out from Todd McFarlane that you’re most excited about?

TM – Each one of them has a whole different set of rules, so when they come out and work, they work for a different reason. The comic books keep getting better. We’ve got a couple of other mini-series coming out that are looking pretty good from the early preliminary pages on them. When you put out a comic book that you go “yeah!” and the writing’s good and the art is good, then meeting the criteria of what it was you were looking for when you were collecting and hope that other do to. When you’re doing toys, sometimes it’s that you put out a real cool looking dragon that you made up completely in-house, and other times it’s that you’ve captured that baseball player as realistic as possible. The thrill factor for me comes in different stuff.

But we’re going to be directing a music video coming up [interviewer’s note – it was announced days later that the video would be for the band Disturbed]…I hope to be behind the camera for…maybe directing the Spawn movie by the end of the year and the Spawn: Animation should be hitting the shelves by the end of the year too. So, we’ve got lots of stuff going on. I’m always busy doing something. Maybe even some of the stuff as we go in with the Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko wrote this book called Torso that we were fortunate enough to get David Fincher [director] and [Ehren] Kruger [scriptwriter] attached to. Hopefully we can get that moving in the right direction by the end of the year. Maybe go into production with that next year. Even though it’s not something I created or directed, you still have a hand in pushing that boulder up hill. You get a thrill in bringing any kind of art to the public’s eyesight…whether you did it 100% yourself or whether you’re one of 50 people carrying the load.

BF – Well, I appreciate you humouring me with that question…it must be tough trying to pick a favourite among all of “your kids.” 

TM – [laughs] Yeah, well as I said, all of the kids have their moments, right?

BF – Right. Todd, I really appreciate you offering up your time to talk with us today. It has been a pleasure. Thank you.

TM – And I appreciate you giving me the time.

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