Last week, CBR News spoke with Image Comics co-founder Todd McFarlane about his upcoming retrospective hardcover, “The Art of Todd McFarlane.” We revisited the earliest days of the now-superstar’s two and a half decade career in comics, from his time working under Roy Thomas on DC Comics’ “Infinity Inc.” to his beginnings at Marvel through his final project at the House of Ideas, the record-selling “Spider-Man” series he wrote and drew by himself.
Today, we continue our conversation with the comic book giant, as McFarlane takes us back to the earliest days of Image, shedding light on how the company came into existence, how he convinced Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee to join himself, Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen in creating what has become a haven for creators to tell the stories the big two can’t or won’t publish, his experience inking the work of Jack Kirby and what it will take for him to return to the world of writing and drawing a monthly title once again.
Was having more control on “Spider-Man” a catalyst for forming Image Comics and releasing “Spawn?”
It was a catalyst to keep honing my artistic abilities, because you can do a lot of shorthand when you’re writing for yourself. You come up with the stories and visualize them while you’re creating. It would be interesting to see Mike Mignola, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin — guys who had done a lot of writing for themselves as well as art, and see how they go through their process. For me, it actually came fairly quick and fast because I’d come up with a cool scene, a storyline and I could visualize it, pace it all out and I was scribbling the layouts at the same time. It went pretty quick.
It had to as a byproduct, because I was doing a monthly book. I had to write, pencil and ink it and you don’t get any more time. There are some things people got wrong with Todd the writer and Todd the artist. I think they think you get more time, but you still have to put a book out every 30 days. They’ll say it’s fine if you want to pencil and ink, but you have to do both those jobs in 30 days, and if you want to write it, they still need it done in 30 days. You don’t get extra time because you’re doing three peoples’ jobs at that point.
Were you getting bored or fed up with working on other peoples’ characters or were there other motivating factors for starting Image?
It didn’t really have anything to do with wanting to do my own character. From time to time they’d make me redraw stuff, [citing] the Comics Code, though nobody seemed to know how the Comics Code worked, which I thought was incredulous given that they were the editors. They’d tell, “Just to be safe, redraw it.” The reason it would frustrate a guy like me, one, is probably because I was immature and, two, I was writing, penciling and inking, so every time I had to correct something, I had to correct it three times. Or, you have these weird conversations where they say they don’t think DeFalco’s going to approve it. Well, why don’t we just go ask him, and if he says no, we’ll deal with it? Why redraw a page when we haven’t even asked if it’s going to get rejected? It was odd stuff.
As I’ve said before, there wasn’t one incident that was the one where I said, “That’s it, I’m done.” I was just slowly getting aggravated, and it was probably because of my immaturity. Finally, they just made one correction, and I was done. I was having my first child and I was looking for an excuse to spend some time with my wife and kid.
The impetus of wanting to do my own character and having conversations with Erik Larsen and Rob [Liefled], who were going to go and do their own characters, was just that I could then put on paper what I wanted and wouldn’t have to get anyone else’s approval. You can say that’s either complete and utter artistic freedom or, if you’re on the other side of the fence, you can say it’s immature that you’ve got to have your way. Call it what you want, it’s just who I was and how I was wired and I would rather do a book that people didn’t buy nearly as much of, because [at that time], if you did your own book, they weren’t going to buy it at the level of Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. But at least I’d get up and whatever I’d think of, I could do it and I wouldn’t have to get any clearance.
I had a story in “Spider-Man” about a pedophile. I caught a lot of grief about that one and had conversations like, “Todd, the book’s so popular, you can’t do this stuff.” When Spider-Man wasn’t doing very well and I came on “Amazing Spider-Man” with David Micheline, they asked us to help boost sales and we did. Then I went and started “Spider-Man” and set sales records.
You have to entertain yourself. If it’s not a labor of love, those pages become very hard to draw. If you can come up with any story and put your favorite characters in it, if you do all that, the pages come off your hand very quickly. The sales were going up, and then all of a sudden at some point they started jumping on and going, “You’re now too successful, you can’t do that. You’ve got to tamper it down. You can’t do this, you’ve got to fix this, redraw this.” So, the guy that’s in first place, you’re now telling him he’s got to slow down because he’s getting too far ahead of the rest of the field? Like I said, eventually I was sick of having those conversations and went off to do it on my own.
You mentioned that you were talking to Erik and Rob around that time. Is that when the idea of teaming up under Image came about?
Rob was going to go do his own gig and had had some serious conversations with Erik. They were already on that path. They weren’t as serious as, “Let’s quit Marvel and do it.” I think they were going to straddle the fence and do both. I knew those guys and was pals with Rob and suggested, “Why don’t we do it together? Why do three books at three different companies? Why don’t we band together? There’s strength in numbers.” Because Rob knew [Jim] Valentino, he came on board.
We had the formation of the four of us, and then went to New York to tell the editors we would be leaving. The night before we were going to tell everybody, Marc Silvestri happened to be in the same hotel as us. He was just in the lobby and I said, “Hey, Marc, you got a minute?” It was that innocent and I was a pretty good salesman. I gave him the pitch and said, “Unfortunately, we’re going to tell them tomorrow. We’re going to need an answer in the morning.” To my recollection, it was pretty late and I put an artistic gun to his head. Luckily for us, he phoned up in the morning and said, “I’m in.”
I thought it was cool because then we were at five. Then, all of a sudden, Jim Lee was also in town and I said, “Jim, here’s what we’re doing, and I’ve got to tell you, bud.” At this point, as I’ve said many times, Rob and I were the rebellious kids in the family. As much as we had grown disenchanted with the corporation, they’d grown disenchanted with us. But Jim Lee was the golden child, he was the guy. He was the perfect guy, the boy scout. I knew if we could get Jim Lee, it would send a giant ripple because not only would we have all these other guys, you get the crazy guys like Rob and I and you get the more intellectual, mature guys because the system’s a little bit broken for a lot of us.
Jim jumped on board, he knew Whilce and bam — Jim came up to the meeting the next day with Terry Stuart and Tom DeFalco. My wife and four month old were there, and Rob only came for half of it — he either came late or left early. With Jim being there, I think the message was sent a lot louder, especially to Marvel. He’d never worked at DC, but they thought, “Wow, we could lose all kinds of people here.” Which is basically the message. We’re not here to ask for anything, we don’t want you to give us anything, we’re not here to negotiate. We’re just here to tell you we’re going, and here’s a few of the reasons why. If it was us and we were running your company, we might do something about it because you might have another seven guys in your office next week, and another seven after that. I don’t know why you’d want to bleed all your artists and writers.
The good thing about Image was that each one of us would be able to do whatever we wanted to, good, bad or indifferent. Whether the choices were smart or not, they were still ours to make.
When you started thinking about creator-owned books, was Spawn, this character you created when you were 16, the first one that popped up in your mind?
Oh, yeah. Our first meeting was at Marc Silvestri’s house out in Malibu, and part of that first meeting was to talk to each other and pitch each other our books. If we needed any help fleshing this stuff out, we had our fellow creative peers around us and we could help each other. I brought up Spawn and said I’d been sitting on him since I was 16-years-old. The story is essentially the same, though it was a sci-fi story [originally] and I’m going to bring it into modern life and make it a present day story. I kept the costume, the logo, a guy who had been skinned alive — which was awesome when I was 16 — a guy chasing the love of his life, that was all from when I was 16.
Had you revisited Spawn throughout your career while you were working at DC or Marvel?
No. The moment came when we left in ’91 and I knew I’d have to start thinking of something. I had a bunch of characters I created when I was a kid, but my favorite one was Spawn. I dusted ol’ Spawny off and tried it again.
Did any other characters you created as a kid make it into “Spawn?”
A couple of them. Tremor was a guy I created when I was a kid. A couple other characters, resemble some of them.
You celebrated the 20th anniversary of Image this year, and all of the founding fathers reunited at the inaugural Image Expo convention. What was that like?
One of the things that put a smile on my face was standing in that room with all those people and all these things going on and I had this moment where I went, “Wow, you could take Todd and Rob and Valentino and Marc Silvestri out of this room and take all notifications and all artwork — anything we’d done — out of this room, throw it away, and this room is still going to be buzzing.” It was a proud poppa moment where the company is way bigger than us.
As a matter of fact, if we all stopped drawing, the company would be quite fine, thank you, because of the talents of all the other people who have jumped on the wagon. We helped start something. It doesn’t mean we have to hold or carry the weight all the time, or even finish it. We just happened to be the guys who started something, It was cool to see all these other people holding some of the weight themselves, with a smile on their faces. It’s like when you send your kids to college and you feel good. I don’t have to play the game all the time; let the kids have some fun.
One of the sections at the end of the book discusses the time you inked Jack Kirby on some “Satan’s Six” pages for Topps Comics. I’m sure that was another career highlight.
He’s like the Pope, the President. I had him on such a high pedestal. When I inked one of his pages and I was erasing it, anxiety started coming and I was aware that I was erasing his pencils. Even at this point, I’d won some awards and set sales records, but I said, “Who am I? I’m just a punk.” I didn’t feel myself worthy enough to do it. I thought that was it, I’d never do it again — and then they rang me up and said that Jack liked it so much and wanted to know if I’d do another one. I said sure, as long as I could do it on an overlay so I didn’t wreck his pencils. They said, “What do we care, Todd? Just get it done.”
I think I may have said this in the book, but one of the highlights of my career was all of a sudden getting a phone call from Jack Kirby saying, “Son, you really did a great job. I was very proud of you and thought you did a nice job.” I asked if it was okay if I did my modern inking on Kirby’s style. I thought it would be an interesting look, and they were completely open to it. Literally, it wasn’t more than an hour after I got off the phone with him and the doorbell rang. It was the FedEx guy, and I opened up the package and it said, “Loved your stuff, best of luck, Jack ‘King’ Kirby.” I pulled it out, and it was the Velum overlay and the original page. He sent them both back. One of the treasures of my life is having a page of original, penciled Jack Kirby artwork. He actually even threw in another page, one that Barry Windsor Smith inked over him from some Captain America bicentennial book. He threw some extra stuff in there, too. As much as you think you’re a polished professional, you still go, “Oh my gosh,” and become a little 8-year-old fan.
Some people think you don’t draw as much these days, but you still do corrections and help out on books, plus all your behind-the-scenes design work. Did pulling together the material for this book give you an itch to return to comics in a more obvious-to-the-audience fashion, either with an monthly comic or graphic novel?
No. My days are pretty full. I do a lot of baseball coaching, and that takes up a lot of time. I’ve got three kids, a beautiful wife, I run my corporations. Just last month, I took two trips to try and nail down licensing for toys. They want you to come in and show all your ideas, so you’re working on presentations and doing sketches. There’s always artwork, but its the sort of benign stuff that people aren’t used to seeing.
The big question that people seem to ask is if I’ll ever come back and do a monthly book. Probably, but the reality is that it will probably be once I’ve already done everything I want to do with my other businesses and careers, and then I just want to go back and do it because it’s in my DNA and I don’t care if it sells 2,000 copies. I’ll just be doing it for myself at that point. Early on, you’re trying to build your career and want to get some notoriety, but the next time I do it, it will be because I just enjoy drawing and telling stories. That’s what I want to do. I just want to be a storyteller.
“The Art of Todd McFarlane” arrives in stores on November 21. “Spawn: Origins Collection Deluxe Edition Three” hits November 14 and “Spawn” and “Haunt” come out from Todd McFarlane’s corner of the Image banner every month.