Todd McFarlane has never been a comics creator to mince his words, and when it comes to the artist and writer's return to his signature Image Comics series "Spawn" with this week's issue #185, McFarlane laid all his cards on the table for CBR News.
"The reality is that 'Spawn' used to be a #1 book for a long time. It was a top ten book for a very long time. It is neither right now," McFarlane explained in a conference call with artist Whilce Portacio, who joins the character's creator as well as co-writer Brian Holguin as part the new monthly creative team. And McFarlane -- who also rejoins the art team as inker after a few years absence -- admitted that blame for the sales drop in the "Spawn" series since its '90s heyday falls on his own inability to creatively jumpstart the adventures of reanimated soldier and family man Al Simmons.
"The end result is still that it doesn't matter if we think what we're doing is right. The result is that it's not quite working the way it used to," McFarlane said. "You can either get married to your ideas, and say, 'It doesn't matter,' or you can say, 'Maybe the problem is us.' What can we do to try and get it to be if not a top ten book, than how can we get it - and I honestly don't know where it's sitting right now, but if it's sitting at #65, what can we do to push that boulder back up the hill and get it there?"
Step one for the new creative team's revitalization of "Spawn" came by putting all three partners in one room and hashing out what worked and didn't for their vision of the character and his story. "We had a two-day conference in Phoenix, and Todd had us say, 'Let's take these characters that we know we're going to use in the book and give them each a box to say, 'this is their story,'" recalled Portacio. "So we all agreed in big, broad strokes where these characters are going to go in their boxes. The whole idea was, 'Now that we all agree where these guys are going to go - maybe ten, 20, 30 issues from now - we all have an idea of where everything is going to go, and now we can just concentrate on the details.'"
And talk of 30 issues into Spawn's future is more than spit-balling. McFarlane and Portacio are dedicated to a long, thought-out run on the book with issue #185 serving as a brand new launching point to expand the scope of the Spawn universe. "I wrote some very big things that are part of the tapestry that I've always had in my head," McFarlane explained of teases hinted in the issue. "I know that we've talked a lot about big concepts, and as long as you know about the big concepts and where you're headed, how you get there, to me, is the exciting part - not completely mapping it out but going, 'Okay. That person has to get from here to there in 25 issues. How do we get him there?' I don't know, but that's going to be the fun part."
The path Spawn is set to walk promises to be one of massive change for the book, although McFarlane noted that the new reader-friendly starting point would not be a total reboot with no connection to the recently completed run by David Hine and Brian Haberlin.
"I got on the phone with David and Brian and said, 'Tell me where you are at the end of #185. I just want to know so we can do this,'" McFarlane recalled. "They knew that at the ending he was going to be in hell. So if you look at the book, then the first page is going to be a continuation of #184 then in two pages - fwipp! - he's back on earth. Why? Because he's Spawn, and it's a comic book.
"I've gone and where needed rewritten stuff so that transition actually works. David was looking at the end of his storyline, and I actually turned it on its head so that the end of David's run, if you will, is the spark to the beginning of what's going to happen in our world. For some people, 184 issues are a deterrent to them. I've resisted going back to a new 'Spawn' #1. That's just me being an old school kind of guy, and I've resisted doing 'Spawn Ultimate,' if you will, so for me it's going to be an easy starting point if you're a reader who hasn't read the book in a while."
For his part, Portacio felt more than satisfied to be tapping into the creative shifts in the book both because of his interest in the material but also because "Spawn" represented his first opportunity to truly dedicate himself to monthly work in a long while. "I have a little bit of a difference personally that I throw in there because in the year 2000 I had a little bit of a physical setback," the artist explained of the scheduling difficulties his diagnosis of diabetes created for work on Wildstorm books, like his own "Wetworks."
"What's great about working on 'Spawn' is that I've finally got a handle on my diabetes again," the artist continued. "I'm not sure if you actually can cure it, but you can get a handle on it -- meaning that when this happens to you, this is what you do or how you compensate. I've gotten to the point where - knock on wood - this isn't much of a problem. What I mean by that is that I'm now at a point where I can look at the glass as half full, and I'm not looking at everything as if it's kind of new in drawing again. Now that I'm physically capable of doing the grind again, it's kind of fun to get into the grind."
"Whilce has been tremendously flexible in terms of putting up with me. He's right - we toss things back and forth," added McFarlane. "And I'm glad he got his diabetes under control, because for a while there every time I said, 'Come on, Whilce! You can do it better!' he'd go, 'I was at a sugar low' and now he can't use that anymore. That excuse goes out the door, so he usually goes to the dog and the homework at that point."
The creative collaboration between McFarlane, Portacio and Holguin stretches across the entire process of putting "Spawn" together, from breaking the stories to drawing the pages and dialoguing the final product. "The way Todd's comic book company runs is a lot like how the old X-office used to run, meaning you can get together because you want to get together - the creative team and the editors - and spend time creating," Portacio attested. "I really like that because that's why I got into the industry. I fell for the hype that Stan Lee put out there in the '60s and '70s that there was this big Marvel bullpen that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and big John [Romita] and all the other artists got together and jammed on a project. That's what I've always wanted.
"Todd and I are like that. We're on the phone every other day for hours on end just going over things. He's got this massive, massive database in his head of little tiny details on Spawn that haven't been done yet. And it's my chance as a creator to take all that stuff in and play with it."
"I think Whilce put it best that we jam on these issues," McFarlane agreed. "The way that most comic books are put together, especially at the big two, is a little bit of a conveyor belt system. The writer writes. They've got default scripts now which I never had to do when I was in the business, but that passes to the penciler and then the inker, and everybody kind of glues it together, and it's 'the comic book.' We're not giving ourselves that luxury where we're getting it right the first time every time.
"The other day, after talking to Brian Holguin, we had an issue where I didn't think that the script pages were doing what they were supposed to. I thought they were awkward. And we were trying to get through it. And as I was laying in bed, I thought, 'They were reading awkward because there wasn't another character in those pages, so the characters had to lament to themselves,' and we all know what that sounds like. It's just standard comic book diatribe. So I pulled up those pages and thought, 'Is there any way I can sneak another character into those pages without having to redraw them?' As somebody who used to do those pages, I hated to redraw. I'm always trying to find the path of least resistance. But there was a couple of panels where it was very easy to slip someone in, and I said, 'Good, now this character is having a conversation, and they're not having a monologue with themselves.' And Whilce said, 'Sure, cool. Send me over the sketch, and I'll get it to you in 20 minutes.' Boom."
That sense of collaboration has, however, meant that some of the ever changing details of what will happen in "Spawn" #185 and beyond have been kept under tight wraps, including what this version of Spawn will actually look like. "As the issues are going, we're revealing to ourselves new things about how the character is getting to where we want him to get to, and visually and in other ways, he'll start morphing. But throughout he'll look like Spawn," Portacio said. "With a little help from Todd, I realized that Spawn basically boils down to this interesting wedge-shaped head and those narrow, angular eyes. And just as long as you have those things, you can get most of the way."
McFarlane stated that fans expecting to know how the visuals of the book will appear in their final form will be in for a curve ball, as he intentionally pushed Portacio out of his normal comfort zone. "I said to Whilce, 'Take a leap of faith with me. I don't want you to draw this book the way you've drawn any other book.' That's neither a good or bad thing I just said. It's just that fans will expect a certain look from Whilce, and some may be disappointed. I'm ready to handle that.
"I don't want the fans to see Whilce's best and only Spawn drawing in the first issue. If you guys like what Whilce has done in issue #185, then we're good because I think we're only going to get better. There's a couple of 'Wow!' moments in there that if nothing else will make you want to come back for #186."
Portacio agreed the book would be in radically different shape moving forward, but he saw that as more of a hook for new readers than as a deterrent. "I'm hoping that when people see the changes in the first issue, when they get over their initial shock, they'll realize that now we're going to let them see everything. There's a huge amount of this universe that hasn't been seen yet, and that hasn't been seen because there's a certain perspective that that book had to follow because of the base rules set for the first 184 issues. Now Todd, in an ingenious way, has reset to viewpoint not so you see it all differently, but you will see a lot of stuff that you just glimpsed at. You'll be able to see all of the Spawn universe from, for example, the angel's point of view or the Spawn's point of view or the demon's point of view. They'll become deeper characters because the viewpoint will allow us to see it not just from Al's point of view.
"I'm going to keep all the things you know. I'm just going to make sure that if and when we bring back all the things you've gotten comfortable with, I don't want to repeat the storyline," McFarlane added. "You're still going to see The Clown and heaven and angels and demons - we talked a little bit the other day about The Freak and Redeemer and the rogues gallery. You're still going to see them. They're still going to be there. It's just that I'm hoping that when they come in, every character - Spawn and the bad guys - are going to be in a slightly different place as characters where they have to react differently."
Portacio teased that waves of new characters to the comic world would work their way in to "Spawn" at his request. "There were a lot of the toy designs where I went, 'Wow! Those are great designs that totally fit the Spawn universe. Todd, are you going to let me play with these guys in the Spawn universe and come up with new stories and make them larger than life?' And he said, 'Sure. No problem.'"
Speaking of playing with a large cast of characters in one universe, what of the Image Comics founders' jam miniseries "Image United?" Both McFarlane and Portacio said the ball wasn't quite in their court yet. "Rob [Liefeld] started it with some layouts from Erik [Larsen], and so they've got the first volley if you will. I've seen some of those pages," McFarlane said. "I think there should be a pretty decent curiosity factor at what we're attempting. If it's just an interesting stunt or if it has some validity, it is moving along, and [writer] Robert Kirkman is kind of a task master, which is one of the reasons we brought him on board to Image because he stays focused and won't let any of us slack. We've got to get it out."
"Spawn" #185 by Todd McFarlane & Brian Holguin and Whilce Portacio is on sale now from Image Comics.