It’s been a big year for Todd McFarlane.
Not only did the superstar creator celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Image Comics, the publishing company he co-founded in 1992 alongside Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio and Jim Valentino, “Spawn,” the title he created in the early days of Image also turned 20.
These accomplishments are just part of the story of McFarlane’s 27 year career as a professional comics creator, a career honored in November by Todd McFarlane Productions and Image Comics in “The Art of Todd McFarlane: The Devil’s in the Details,” a retrospective stretching as far back as the industry giant’s days as a 16-year-old doodler with big dreams.
In addition to featuring a foreword by Stan Lee, the book also finds McFarlane sharing stories about working with Roy Thomas on “Infinity Inc.,” adding writer to his resume with “Spider-Man” and creating Spawn. The 200 page book includes sketches from McFarlane’s early days as a comic book fan, the roots of Spawn and a wealth of sketches, black and white art and published pieces diplaying the artist’s evolution from aspiring artist to one of the most successful in the business. CBR News talked with McFarlane about his career, taking a walk through his early days as the legendary creator explains how his own artistic development can be an inspiration to aspiring artists.
CBR News: What was your initial concept of “The Art of Todd McFarlane” when the idea was came up?
Todd McFarlane: You don’t usually think you’re going to have too many memoirs, too many documentaries and too many books of your life; you only get one. Maybe if I live another 30-40 years, I’ll get another one. So, if we’re going to do it, let’s be as inclusive as possible. Part of it was trying to show as much art as possible, not only to span the kid’s career if you are so interested, but — I always thought my career should be an inspiration to young kids, because if they look at the early art, it’s kind of ugly. I wanted to show all the warts and show that if you keep getting your foot in the door and keep banging at it and keep doing, just like anything you do, you’ll get better. There’s plenty of guys you and I can name who have come in in the past 15 years and seem like they hit the ground running and were at the peak of their game at 23 and their stuff was awesome. I wasn’t that guy, I was the guy that was average at best and then had to learn and learn. Arguably, I’m still not that good — I’ve just learned tricks of the trade and came up with a Rolodex of visual tricks that allowed me to get past my own personal weakness and have people not notice them!
Do you save a lot of your artwork? There’s so much material here, it seems like you’d have an actual library of art and sketchbooks.
I was never that guy to have sketchbooks. I admire guys at shows who do it, but I can’t do it. Once I became a pro, my whole life became, if I have time to sketch, then I could draw a panel. Given that everything was so deadline oriented, I just had to get it done. The stuff that you’re looking at is stuff that I did as a kid, as a teenager. The only reason I have it is because I was cherishing it, because it was never printed and it was not professional work. It just sort of moved with me in my life as I moved from house to house. At some point, I became aware that this stuff might be cool to hang on to so someday I could do an art book and see the progression.
Do you remember when you first realized that you could actually make a living working in comics and when it became a focus for you?
I was about 16 when I started collecting. I went into a mom and pop grocery store that had a spinner rack, and I bought five books for some reason. I’d never collected up to that point. Intellectually, I knew that people drew them, so I knew they got paid for it. Up to that point, I was just a constant doodler, but I didn’t have any focus on the art. It wasn’t like I started doodling superheroes and then started collecting comic books. I was just a doodler, I had about ten different styles. When I bought those comics and started collecting, I focused my drawing style on super heroic Americana. Okay, let’s see if you can learn that one, Todd. The guys that inspired me were not the good guys — the good guys blew me away and were just awesome to look at. The guys that inspired me were the very mediocre guys. When I looked at bad comic book art, it gave me more hope. “omeday, I can get that good!” The guys that were great, I never had any illusions that I would be that good, but the bad guys, you go, “I can draw that bad!” Those are the guys that got me going, thinking I could get a job.
When you were figuring out how comics work from an artistic side, were you just studying comics or were there books that helped out, too?
I quickly bought “How To Draw The Marvel Way,” but it didn’t really teach you drawing in the truest sense. The only other book I looked at was Burne Hogarth’s “Dynamic Figure Drawing.” He also had one that was “Drawing the Human Head.” He had a couple of books that I looked at as a young kid. Some people criticize his books for whatever reason, but they seemed to work for me. You could argue that my art’s funky because I was looking at a guy whose art was also funky. It seemed to pan out.
For some artists, it’s difficult to look back at their earlier endeavors. Is that the case with you?
It’s like anything. We make toys and the toys we make now are better than the first ones we made. That was as good as I could do at that given moment, that’s all that is. It’s a slice of time. That’s all I had in my repertoire, that’s as skilled as I was.
One of the things that came out of that was that I was at least smart enough to know that I wasn’t overly skilled. Because of that, I then started creating some of the things that became noticeable about my style. Early on in the “Infinity Inc.” days, I was doing all these weird panel border things just to make the pages look interesting. It was really nothing more than me, like a good magician, trying to take your eye off what was really happening, which was that I had very mediocre artwork. I couldn’t put the flash in the people so I put the flash in the page design, layouts and some of the storytelling. That was my early MO.
I got a little more skilled and a little more refined with the linework when I started inking myself, but then some of those early attempts at doing some interesting page layouts — though I walked away from a lot of it because it was overdone in the early days. I would be able to still use just enough of it in stuff like “The [Incredible] Hulk” and “Amazing Spider-Man.” Hopefully I did a decent Spider-Man drawing, but the page layout was also interesting to look at. Then the weaknesses I had in anatomy maybe don’t come to the surface because you go, “Hey, cool Spidey, cool layout,” then you turn the page and they didn’t notice I didn’t have the bicep in the right place.
Another inspiring bit of a revelation in the book is that you not only created Spawn when you were 16, but you actually worked with your dad to create your own comic starring him.
We started coloring it and got it ready for print because I was stubborn enough that if no one wanted to give me a job, by gosh, I’ll make my own comic books.
It’s even more impressive when you think that, at that time, creator-owned comics were not nearly as well known as today.
I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms, I was just thinking that I wanted to draw a comic, and if nobody was going to give me a job, I’d give myself a job. I hadn’t thought it through once I got it done and printed it. I didn’t know what a solicitation was at that point. I was just so hell-bent on doing comic books that my ignorance was enough to get me through the day.
At the beginning of the book, there’s an introduction written by Stan Lee. I know you’ve got a good relationship with him now, but did you know him when you started at Marvel?
No — he wasn’t there at that time. He’d moved out to California and was sort of doing his own gig. I think even by the time I started collecting at 16, he and some other guys, Roy Thomas and I think maybe Marv Wolfman, made that move and he disconnected himself from the day-to-day activities. He’d gone there for entertainment reasons.
I met Stan accidentally when I was maybe 16 or 17. I was down in Florida going to baseball camp. We were flying home the next night and I happened to be staying in a Holiday Inn where they were holding a convention. I was a big comic geek and had been collecting about a year at that time, so I was like, “Oh my gosh!” Mike Zeck was there and Pat Broderick and some others, but Stan was sitting out in the hall. I remember sitting next to him literally the whole day, just peppering him with questions. Whenever he went to the bathroom, I’d move my chair over to Mike Zeck and then ask him questions.
I remember telling Stan a few years ago, “I know you don’t remember because you have lots of adoring fans, but that was a big day for me.” I sat next to Stan Lee for a day, and he was gracious the whole time. As long as I was quiet while he was doing his thing with the fans, when there was a lull in the line, he’d come back to the conversation. Fast forward, I do Spider-Man and make my reputation and then Stan’s doing his thing and we did a couple of those how to draw videos that we did at Saber. I kept in touch with him, and in the past five or six years we’ve actually grown quite close to each other. We were actually just at a convention probably two or three weeks ago. He likes me to come and do panels with him. We get along. I enjoy the heck out of that guy.
What was it like working with Roy Thomas on “Infinity Inc.?” What did you learn from him during that time?
Roy, to me, was always like a teacher in school, a guy you looked up to and admired. He was always very professional, unlike me who ended up getting wound up and let my emotions get ahead of me. He was just matter-of-fact, “Here’s what we’ve got to do, these are the books we’ve got, Todd. What would you like?” He always had work. He was the guy who helped save me from falling into obscurity, because my first job was doing “Coyote” [for Marvel’s Epic imprint in 1985], but they cancelled that book real quickly. Roy was the one who gave me the next job and essentially kept giving me jobs and would probably still be employing me to this day because he was always doing so much work. He knew I wasn’t that good, I’m sure he’d admit that, but what he saw was a young, hungry guy who was able to keep deadlines. In this business of ours, that’s a big deal.
Soon enough, you moved back to Marvel and began working on “Incredible Hulk,” then “Amazing Spider-Man.” Was there a big difference between the way Marvel and DC were run at the time?
It was interesting. When I did “Infinity,” they just let me do whatever I wanted to do. Roy was just happy to have someone come in and do the book and get the pages in on time. Once I went over to Marvel, they were in this weird era where I thought some of the creative juices had left them. When I got there, they were aware of my art style. [“Incredible Hulk” writer] Peter David dubbed it “the big dice style” because he had seen one of my pages on “Infinity Inc.” and I had put giant dice on it. I guess it made an impact on him in the wrong fashion and he said, “You can come over, but you can’t do that giant dice stuff.”
My first job when I came back to Marvel was “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters.” Bob Harras was my editor, and he was the one who eventually gave me “Hulk,” and he was the same way. He was like, “Just make it a grid, Todd. We don’t do that crazy stuff that DC does.” DC wasn’t doing that on a lot of their books, I just happened to be one of the weird guys. I went, “Yeah, that’s fine. No big deal.” I always thought it was interesting because telling me to do a grid page is a little bit like putting dress shoes on Usain Bolt in a race. You want me to slow down a bit? You don’t want me to bring much creativity to the page? Okay, I don’t care.
If you look at my early Marvel work, it was fairly pedestrian in terms of the page layouts, but then eventually I started pushing my luck, trying to sneak something in here and there. I knew I was never going to get back to where I was on “Infinity,” and a lot of that was hiding my deficiencies, but I started busting guys out of panels and doing overlapping panels. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
There was a point when Bob Harras said, “You can’t keep doing this,” and I said, “Why?” “Because [then Editor in Chief] Jim Shooter doesn’t want you to do this stuff.”
The editors were sort of living in fear of Jim Shooter. I remember having a meeting with Jim Shooter and Bob Harras was there and he had said, “Whatever you do, don’t ask him about any of the art stuff.” So, of course, being who I was, I asked him about the art stuff. He had the reaction I knew he was going to have. He said, “Huh? What are you talking about?” I knew that the editors at that point had taken one or two sentences that he might have uttered and turned it into this whole big set of rules that were squishing the creative juices of their entire line in terms of some of the cool, funky stuff. He said, “No, no, no, Todd. I’m not saying you can’t do overlaps and having people bursting out of panels and craggy borders. I’m saying you can’t do bad overlap panels, bad bursting out of panels and bad craggy borders.” Ding, ding, ding — that’s exactly what I thought! And he sat there and drew bad examples of it, I said I got it and that was it. After that, you can see a marked difference in the way I lay out the pages because I could put a little fun back into the layouts.
By that point I’d been drawing for a while, and I understood as much as I could that you need to do good storytelling, good drawing and then put the fun on it, but don’t make the fun so distracting that you notice it, which is what I was doing wrong on “Infinity Inc.” It was way too noticeable. On “Hulk” and “Spider-Man,” the whole became better than the parts and it added to my style.
Did that all lead directly into you launching “Spider-Man” as artist and writer?
Yeah. The biggest reasons for wanting to write were very simple. Number one, I didn’t want to draw a book that had 12 characters in it. If a writer decided they wanted Spider-Man versus the Avengers, I had to draw them all. I’d had my fill on “Infinity Inc.” Some guys are really good team artists. George Perez, John Byrne, Silvestri, Jim Lee. I’m not. Everybody should know their weakness and limitations, and I knew I was an average artist so I had to set myself apart a little bit. I also knew as I got better that I wasn’t a good multi-character guy. I was good at taking one guy, sinking my teeth into him and giving that character a style and hoping the audience would react to him. It’s what I did on “The Hulk,” “Spider-Man” and when I moved on to “Spawn.”
Number two, I was a comic book fan at that stage, and you go, “How come I’ve got to always draw the writer’s favorite characters? How come I never get to draw my favorite characters?” The way to draw your favorite characters is to draw your own book. So, I went to find an editor who would give me a shot at writing. This is the piece that some people don’t understand; Todd McFarlane the artist was in high demand and pretty decent at that point, but I knew I’d be able to hook Todd McFarlane the complete novice writer because I was going to package the two of them together.
I didn’t at any time say, “Hey, Jim Shooter, if you don’t let me write [“Amazing Spider-Man”], I quit.” I liked David Micheline too much, so I quit. At that point, I was willing to take any book they gave me as long as it came with the caveat that I got to draw it. I didn’t care if they gave me the worst selling book at that point. I got another lucky break; they only had three Spider-Man books and Tom DeFalco said, “We’ve been wanting to put a fourth book out. Why don’t you stick around? We like what you do and we’ll let you write it.” I thought it was a silly move, letting me write a Spider-Man book given that I’d never written before, but I wasn’t going to argue with him.
I got criticism in those early ones, and they’re right — it wasn’t very good, because it was my first writing. It was about as good as my first drawing and inking was. It all takes time to learn the trade. It didn’t make any logical sense that it would take me years to draw and ink, but all of a sudden I’d be a master at writing right out of the gate. People couldn’t separate that there was award-winning artist Todd and complete novice writer Todd. Because I was the same guy, they just assumed my writing would be at the same standards as my artwork, and that just wasn’t true.
Check back with CBR soon for the second half of our extensive interview as we enter the Image Comics phase of McFarlane’s career, from his reasons for being a part of the Marvel exodus to how he got Jim Lee to jump aboard the Image express and the long, never-ending development of his signature creation, Spawn.
“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.