McFarlane Celebrates Twenty Years of "Spawn"

With "Spawn" hitting its impressive 20 year anniversary in July with issue #220 -- written by creator Todd McFarlane (under his own name, after having charted the character's path for the past nineteen issues under the nom de plume of Will Carlton) and drawn by Szymon Kudranski, who has been on the book since #200 -- the Image Comics title will continue to follow the exploits of Earth's newest Spawn, a mysterious healer named Jim Downing. While McFarlane didn't want to upset the flow of the story he's been telling for the past year, he did want to celebrate the milestone and will thus reveal some important details about Downing's past while laying the groundwork for his immediate future. CBR News spoke with McFarlane about the Carlton ruse, the future of both the "Spawn" and "Haunt" film projects and what it's like to be celebrating his character's double-decade anniversary.

"If I stopped and thought about it right now and wanted to go another 20 years, that seems like a big task," McFarlane told CBR. "But then I go, 'You've already done 20 -- why can't you do 20 more?' It just seems like we hit #200 and I just handed in the script for #220. We've tacked on 10% of the 200 already. Now I guess we will get to #300."

Before getting too far ahead of himself, McFarlane decided to focus on celebrating the 20th Anniversary issue without detracting from the ongoing story, though the issue will see a number of variant cover, drawn by McFarlane and homaging the first issues of his fellow Image co-founders titles including Erik Larsen's "Savage Dragon" and Rob Liefeld's "Youngblood." For readers who do want a more collector and fan-oriented reading experience, he is producing a limited-to-2500-copies "Spawn 20th Anniversary Collector's Special" issue that not only prints #220 in black and white, but also offers a look at McFarlane's inked, uncolored pages from "Spawn" #1.

However, as fun as those may be, none of it measures up to what McFarlane says is truly important. Namely, the series' ongoing storyline. "What we didn't want to do too much is either slow or accelerate the stories we were telling just to hit a beat for the issue," he said. "We've got a strong story. It makes sense and tips the hat for the 20 years that Spawn has been there."

It's apparent that even as he's set to celebrate 20 years of "Spawn," what really has McFarlane excited is the tale he's been crafting over the past year. One major change lapsed readers jumping back on the title for the anniversary will notice is that Al Simmons is no longer the dead man behind the mask of the creature known as Spawn. Instead, newcomer Jim Downing has been having his own caped adventures. "There's two components that are going to collide pretty fast and furious," McFarlane said. "One is, who is Jim Downing? We want to get some satisfactory answers in that one. Two is, what happened to his soul when he was in the coma. People have been pulling the curtain back on both of them. The latest issue just came out with him defeating the hybrid Freak and Malebolgia, who said some stuff that will play out in #220 and a couple issues later."

McFarlane is quick to point out that aspects of Downing's past have been hinted at throughout the character's existence, but understands that readers might not remember every detail. Hence the return of editor's notes in the title's upcoming issues. "I don't expect readers who have busy lives and, oh by the way, buy multiple comic books to remember every line that's been written in the book like I do."

While some fans might long for the days when original Spawn Al Simmons starred in the book, McFarlane said he appreciates the opportunity that this new one offers from a storytelling perspective.

"Some of the fans don't like change, but for me that's the exciting thing," McFarlane said. "It means now I can bring back all your favorite characters, but because this is a new guy with a new mindset, who actually doesn't know any of the prior history and will act completely different from the other guy, the outcome, the circumstance and the flow of the story will be different than if this was the same guy."

Essentially, McFarlane is approaching his current "Spawn" run the same way he did when he tackled "Spider-Man" in the 90s. For example, when writing a known enemy like The Lizard, he took the story in a different direction by removing the classic Spidey villain's ability to talk (with a reptilian lisp) and transforming him into something more beastly. "It's not that I didn't like those older stories, but they had already been told," he said. "It was the same thing here. How can I bring the Clown back, but have it be different? Well, if he's talking to someone different, he's going to act different, too."

Shifting the topic from storytelling to storyteller, McFarlane fessed up about the Will Carlton pen name he's been using for the last nineteen issues, saying he was just having some fun while attempting to make a larger point.

"Let's pull the curtain back," McFarlane explained. "I've been writing the book since issue #185. On issue #201 a guy named Will Carlton came on, but how come we've never seen Will Carlton? I have these odd conversations with people where they go, 'You need to get a writer on the book, Todd.' I like to do goofy things, so I changed my name and wrote under a pseudonym. I've gotten letters from retailers and fans saying, 'Thank god you got rid of Todd! This Will Carlton, that's a real writer! Todd was finally smart enough to get a real writer.' Sometimes I just like to do stuff because it amuses me."

The playful creator said that while some people were in favor of the book's supposed new writer, others complained about his decision to hire with a no-name talent with no previous credits. Others even said they liked McFarlane's writing better than Carlton's, proving the old saying that you can't please all the people all of the time.

"I changed it back, because retailers said sales are going down," McFarlane said. "One of the reasons why -- though I don't give much weight to any one of their excuses -- was because it was an unknown writer. So, I said, 'You want me back? There, I'm back.' It's a flick of a pseudonym name and we're back, no big deal. You're not going to see any dramatic changes in the reading of it and how it flows."

As for the other half of the title's current creative team, McFarlane has nothing but praise for artist Szymon Kudranski, and is particularly proud of the fact that they put out a whopping 15 issues in 2011.

"The reason I bring that up is that the coolest reads -- especially now that you can buy trade paperbacks -- are the ones where you buy it and there's 15 or 20 issues and it's all the same look and feel," McFarlane said. "This weird thing happens when I find a writer/artist team that I think is terrific, you get into a groove with them and then the guy gets sick for an issue or whatever and they bring on another guy. Even though I know it's the same writer, it doesn't feel like it because it doesn't look the same. I get a different voice in my head and I'm reading the book differently because it doesn't have the same artistic chops I was in the groove [with].

"I can't wait till we get 40, 50 issues of Szymon's art for reprints because, even in black and white, his stuff is spectacular," McFarlane continued. "I don't think people understand how complex his black and white is. It's not black and white like I do, which is ink on paper. He does all these textures and grays and uses Zip-a-Tone. When we release it digitally, I think people are going to be blown away by the nuance in the black and white."

Indeed, digital comics are the next frontier McFarlane is planning to conquer. The writer/artist is all in favor of the format as a delivery system to get the digital comics to more people, but also wants to utilize its capabilities to give added value to the material he releases to the fans.

"With digital, there is the potential to do some stuff that we, as readers, are not accustomed to seeing," McFarlane said. "You can push a button, and it will do this or this. You can actually add sound effects and voiceover. The potential is there, but it's just a tool. Some people will find interesting ways to use the technology and other people will either ignore it or come up with boring versions.

"We're working on something right now," McFarlane continued ."I'm not going to release 'Spawn' until I can do something that actually acknowledges that it's digital, that the experience will be at least slightly different. You should be able to add 5 or 10% sexy to it that will add 10 or 20% value to it even though you've only done a little bit. Since we don't do a massive amount of books, once we create some of the things and start moving forward, I can do that for all my books. I'd like to come out and go, 'For the first time ever, here's the new stuff. Look at the cool shit that's in it and, oh, by the way, here's the library.' It's not 12 issues -- it's over 200 issues, it's a massive library. And that's not even including the spinoff books that have been done over the years. With those included, it's easily over 300 issues. We just saw some of the first samples of what we're talking about and it's pretty promising. I like some of the tricks and I like what we can do, but what's the cost?"

Beyond reproducing past issues in an enhanced digital format, McFarlane is looking towards the future and the benefits in creating new material directly on the computer rather than scanning in pen and paper drawings. "Not only are people going to be able to read it digitally, but we're now able to compose and do our artwork digitally," McFarlane said. "If you can do your artwork digitally, you can now start creating it in a way in which it will play to the digital technology."

As for artists who want to continue using pen and paper so they can sell original artwork at conventions, a boost for many artists' income, McFarlane sees where they're coming from. "I completely understand that, I used to do the exact same thing when I wasn't making good money," he said. One possible way to help make up for that cost, he suggests, is to make nice prints of certain pages and sell a small number of them to help make up some of that lost potential income.

Diving into the long-running debate on digital comic pricing, McFarlane said the savings seen in not having to pay for printing, storage and transportation should be passed on to the consumer. He also feels the value of properly-priced digital comics would only truly be seen after they went day and date. "Put them both out in stores and digitally and let the consumer decide which one they want," he said in response to the theory that cheaper digital comics would cannibalize print sales. In fact, McFarlane has a theory that Disney's purchase of Marvel may be a key factor in moving the industry forward int hat directions sooner than later.

"To put on my CEO hat," McFarlane said, "if I'm Disney, I'm looking at [Marvel] and going, 'You're saying comic books used to sell 300,000 to 400,000 a month and they've been downtrending to where 100,000 is a big number? We've lost 75% of our consumers,' for whatever reason -- that's a whole other debate. The raw data that my mom can see is that we've lost 75 % of our business and the reason we're not going to try these experiments is because we want to be beholden to the people who hold the keys to that model that has lost 75%? Why would we adhere to the business policies of the good people who have lost us 75% of our customers? That's not fair for everybody, because there have been great comic book retailers and there have been bad ones, and the bad ones are no longer in business. At some point, there may be a tipping point in the way that comic books are delivered to people and we'll see."

According to the numbers he's seen, the worry about print sales cannibalization by digital seems to have been overrated. Additionally, he says, the buying habits of the younger audience need to be looked at. "They don't really care if they own the DVD collection or if they own the comic book itself," McFarlane explained. "It's sort of blasphemy to guys like you and I, but they're going, 'I just want to get entertained and I'm done.' They don't look at it like an investment. We would look at our collection like an investment, that we could re-sell it. They just look at it as disposable entertainment, no different than paying $20 a month to have cable TV."

McFarlane explained that the real goal of comic companies moving forward should be getting the product into the most hands possible, not supporting a dwindling sales base while sales continue to erode. "If there's 25% more new consumers who don't care about [the collecting side] who will give us a buck for a download? Cool."

Shifting gears to his current Hollywood prospects, McFarlane spoke briefly about the long-gestating "Spawn" film. "I just keep tinkering with the script, doing a page here and there," McFarlane said. "It's all predicated on them going, 'Where's that damn script?' which they phone about almost weekly, now."

At this year's New York Comic-Con, McFarlane also discussed the possibility of a "Haunt" TV series or movie. "We went to Hollywood and talked to some people. [Robert] Kirkman and I have taken a couple of meetings with some very interested parties, so we're supposed to make a decision this week on one of the possibilities that people presented us. I've got my agent bugging me saying, 'Come on, you've got to pick one.'"

For now, however, McFarlane plans to continue with the comic and the storylines that he's been working on since #185, including some recent revelations that came from a battle with the Freak/Malebolgia hybrid, including a brand new pair of wings the title character sprouted. "That's not how it should work," McFarlane said. "We've seen Spawn with wings before -- we call them the Wings of Redemption -- but what's coming up is that look will become more permanent. Thinking of it like the Hulk, depending on the storyline and the personal emotions, those wings will be either white or covered in black."

Another of the series' plotlines will deal with the fact that Downing is the only person to have spent time in Heaven, Hell and on Earth in the Spawn mythos. "Al Simmons would never like that," McFarlane said. "You only get one or two, not three. We're going to head into that and see what it means to be somebody who has been touched by the light and the shadows at the exact same time."

Finally, Spawn's costume will also take on a different look and role in the series, as it seems to take on a mind of its own, interacting with characters of its own volition, making it difficult to tell exactly who readers are seeing on the page. "It will add another layer of complexity and paranoia for people who understand and, at the same time, while Jim looks for answers, he'll go sort of blank and go, 'What the hell happened?' Who's in charge?'"

Celebrate "Spawn's" 20th Anniversary when #220 hits stores on June 6.

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