Todd McFarlane - Looking Back & To The Future

As reported this past June, writer-artist Todd McFarlane decided to step down from his monthly duties on the "Spawn" comic book as of issue #150. As a matter of fact, the book's entire creative team would change from that issue forward. Spawn's new lineup would consist of editor-in-chief Brian Haberlin (Haberlin Studios), writer David Hine ("Strange Embrace," "District X"), and artist Philip Tan ("Uncanny X-Men," "Iron Man"). Now that this landmark issue has hit the stands, CBR News contacted McFarlane to discuss the reasons behind the change, his feelings about his run on the book, and his plans for the future.

In the comic universe, it's rare for any new book to last a substantial amount of time. Aside from Marvel and DC's flagship comics ("Action Comics," "Detective Comics," "Amazing Spider-Man"), most books in the industry don't have long runs - at least, not without a renumbering of the series (i.e. starting it over with a new #1 issue). "Spawn," however, has been around for thirteen years. As is often said, hindsight is 20/20. Therefore, we asked McFarlane if his book is where he'd hoped it would be in terms of story, character, and sales after 150 issues, and if he wished he'd done anything differently.

"In terms of where the character is, I'd say I am fairly satisfied," McFarlane told CBR News. "One of the toughest things to do in comics is to have a long-running storyline with the same character in it. All the really big comic characters of the past have had their ups and downs (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, etc.). When a new story idea comes along or new supporting casts are grown, this can have a terrific result in sales for almost any book.

"Obviously, we are hoping that we can put a charge into the Spawn comic and create one of those moments in the history of this book where folks jump on and get excited. Sales-wise, I can't say I have gone out of my way to try and make sure I milk every last sale from this title. I was always more interested in having a book with long-term success that didn't rely on gimmicks to help prop sales.

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"I also wanted to create a simple way to understand how long the book has been around. So, if you look in the 'Overstreet Guide,' you will see the 'Spawn' listing is fairly simple. We did some variations on the cover for issue #100 and will be doing so again for issue #150, but otherwise all the issues have had a single cover and the numbering of the book has continued instead of restarting it with a number one, just to 'juice' sales. Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it when a comic book got up into the 300 or 400 range of numbering. From a collector's point of view, I lost some of my enthusiasm when some big titles relaunched themselves with a number one. Given my resistance to playing the same game as others, I do believe that, in part, it has hurt the sales, but not enough to where I would do it differently.

"The biggest thing I would change is the pacing of the book. Though it is very difficult to maintain a top selling book for an extended period of time (the X-Men being one of the few exceptions over the past 60 years, and it could be argued that some of that success is due to the fact there are multiple characters to play with unlike a Batman book), there is also the skill of driving the character fast enough so as to not bore the audience. I probably could have moved some of the big story ideas along faster."

Many times when a creator leaves a book, it is not necessarily their decision. They receive a phone call from their editor and learn that it's time to move on. But in McFarlane's case, it's literally his book and his character - heck, it's his company. So how does one decide it's time to "step back" when they don't have to? According to McFarlane, he knew how to read the signs when they appeared.

"Initially, it came early on in the run of the book, but only on the penciling side. At the time I was writing, penciling and inking the book, as well as being the editor and helping to get Image and my company started. With all that on my plate, as well as becoming a father for the first time, I could feel that I was cutting corners on the pencil side of my duties. So I was very, very fortunate to have found a young artist by the name of Greg Capullo who could step on board for nearly eighty issues - an astounding feat in today's marketplace.

"Over time, I began giving up some of the inking, and then finally the writing as Brian Holguin came on board. Let me also say that I have been lucky to have found creative people willing to stay on my comic for long runs. As I mentioned earlier, I remember with great fondness the books I read when I was younger, and they were the ones that only had a handful of writers or artist over a long period of time. Between Capullo, Holguin, Danny Miki, Angel Medina and myself, that accounts for nearly all of what has come out to date - not to mention Tom Orzechowski who has been lettering the book since its first issue, and Steve Oliff and Brian Haberlin on the coloring. Literally, those eight people have done the bulk of the first 150 issues."

In deciding who would replace the current team, McFarlane worked from the top down, meaning he began with a search for a new editor-in-chief. Fortunately, he didn't have to travel far as the person he selected was someone already working on the book - colorist Brian Haberlin.

Regarding the process for selecting an editor-in-chief, McFarlane said, "The first thing we did was go find someone that would be involved with the book on a daily basis. Because of the direction some of my endeavors have led me, I wasn't able to steer the ship as much as I would have liked. And the good people in my office have other responsibilities that don't afford them the chance to be on the book full time, so a true editor-in-chief was indeed needed."

The decision to bring a new artist and writer aboard came next. Working with Haberlin, McFarlane explained they came to a realization: "We needed to put together a different look on the book. Angel was leaving, and I thought it would be a good time for me to see what another writer would do on the book (not that I was displeased with Holguin, I just felt the time had come - in fact, Holguin is still working with me on other things). So the biggest factor I was looking for was to find a couple of people that weren't classic superhero comic guys. I wanted someone willing to try different things on the book that could bring new ideas to the forefront, as well as dress up some of the existing history. And since Spawn isn't really your typical superhero, I didn't want the latest hot writer for one of the big two (Marvel and DC)."

After assembling this new team, Spawn's creator indicated that many long talks about the book and its characters took place. "We then began to map out the direction that I had always had in my mind, but wasn't quite skilled enough to pull off. So with that, we put together a rough outline that would be for the next fifty issues, leading up to a big ending in issue 200. Now, that doesn't mean we are doing a long fifty issue story arc, it only means that we know where we are headed at all times and won't lose our direction like I might have done when I was writing the book late in my tenure. David is getting comfortable and has been bouncing dozens of terrific ideas in our direction. Hopefully, you will see both him and Philip Tan get a head of steam once they both get a handful of issues under their belts."

With "Spawn" heading off in a new direction creatively, the possibility of new Spawn-related books exist as well. While he wouldn't comment on anything directly, McFarlane said, "I have given Brian Haberlin a lot of latitude to do what he thinks is right for the comics and the business as a whole. So there will definitely be new things - books and characters - coming down the pipe. Haberlin was hired to change the status quo, not keep it."

Part of McFarlane's reason for stepping down from the comic was to be more involved in the development of a new animation series and feature film of Spawn. With "comic book movies" being all the rage in Hollywood (thanks to "Batman Begins" and "Fantastic Four"), they usually come with the caveat that they must be targeted for the PG-13 market. McFarlane reminded CBR News that Spawn isn't like most superheroes though, so the same marketing rules don't necessarily apply.

"Almost all of where I wanted 'Spawn' to head was in the R-rated area. Now, that doesn't mean all of it will be. The comic, for instance, will continue to be more of a PG 13-type book. But for those that have been with this character for a long time, I think that audience is looking for something a little more sophisticated in terms of storytelling and visual content. And as I get older, my tastes change into more mature subject matter - though I must say that there are movies that fall within the PG-13 realm that are quite cool and creepy also.

"The vision from the outset has been to take what, at first glance, may appear to be a superhero book and turn it into a creepy, suspense, thriller idea. We've tried it out with some of the past titles we have done ('Hellspawn,' 'Spawn the Undead,' and others) and I have always been partial to those, because it is closer to who this character really is in my mind. You see, the Spawn I live with is always five or ten years ahead of what the readers may currently be reading, which is why when we got to issue #150 I was able to tell David Hines what I was attempting to do along the way.

"As for trying to make 'Spawn' a book or character that can compete for the same audience as the X-Men or Spider-Man, that isn't a goal. What is closer to what I'd love is to have those fans grow up and look for more edgier stuff and hopefully trip across 'Spawn.'"

McFarlane and "Spawn" are synonymous. Since Spawn's debut, all of McFarlane's works have primarily stayed within the Spawn universe. Now that he's stepping back from the comic, it would be natural for fans to wonder if they might see new books, characters, or other creations from the writer-artist.

"I am always interested in creating new ideas and characters, but I never wanted to create them for the sake of just doing it," he replied. "If you look back on the heyday of 'Spawn' the comic, it took me until issue #50 of that book before I was willing to put out another ongoing title. Some of my partners at Image had created dozens of titles by then, but I was more concerned with making sure my first 'creative child' was raised properly before attempting to add more 'children' into the mix. I have always been satisfied with owning a small group of characters that people respond to instead of possibly having a hundred that no one cares about."

That said, McFarlane added, "I am always cooking up something. Some of those ideas see the light of day, and others do not. Some are in areas where people aren't even aware that I once did comics, but the act of creating is just as exciting in those mediums as in others. I have been very fortunate to be given the chance to play in a lot of different arenas."

New Editor-In-Chief Brian Haberlin was thankfully on hand for the wrap-up of this interview, and did offer the following tease about his boss: "Don't let him be too coy - you will be seeing new comic creations from Todd himself in 2006!"

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