From his humble beginnings on “Infinity Inc.” through his hugely popular work on “Spider-Man” and “Spawn,“ comics creator and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane has blazed his own path. At Baltimore Comic-Con, he met with fans to discuss some of the steps he took along the way.
When he was 15 or 16, McFarlane was a closet comics collector. What usually happens, he said, is that you collect comics and then you discover girls. When the woman who became his wife first saw his comics, McFarlane was quick to disavow them: “It’s my brother’s collection!”
Even before discovering comics, McFarlane doodled all the time. “I remember when I was five-years old, the first thing I ever won an award for was a painting I did of a farm with animals,” he said. The teacher tried to correct McFarlane for painting the sky green but he pointed out that it was a perspective shot, looking down at the farm, and the green was grass. He conceded, though, that it might not have been the teacher’s fault. “It was bad perspective, but still it was perspective, right?“
McFarlane never read comics until age 16, but quickly amassed a huge collection. Armed with this reference material, he taught himself “American style comics art.”
That’s how most comics artists learn, he said. While McFarlane went to school for graphic design, they didn’t really teach comics. When he said to the school, “I want to be an illustrator,” he was told, “An illustrator is a whore.”
They wanted him to draw abstracts and live in “a dank basement apartment with no food.” “I’d actually like to have electricity in my life,” McFarlane said.
The artist sent out samples, trying to get illustrating work. “I was immature and too sort of dumb to know I wasn’t good enough,” McFarlane admitted. Finally, Marvel said, “Please stop sending us samples” and gave him his first assignment. It was a ten-page backup story for “Coyote,“ Steve Englehart’s book for Epic. “That was the moment I knew, you go from amateur to pro.”
McFarlane threw himself into the project, drawing eight hours a day to get it done. “If you do something for eight hours, I don’t care what it is, you will get better.” Unfortunately, “Coyote” was cancelled and McFarlane’s story never ran. That didn’t matter, though, because he had a professional credit to put on his resume, and more importantly, he’d met his deadline.
“Take a look at my early stuff. It’s not very good,” McFarlane said, explaining that a great artist who can‘t meet a deadline is of no use to editors. You may get a miniseries, you may get a poster, you may get a cover, but you won‘t get steady work. “If you’re average and can meet a deadline, you’ll be employed for 20 years, I guarantee. Guys who can’t get books done, it’s not because they’re slow. The reason they don’t get books done: they’re not at the table. It’s that simple. If you can keep deadlines, they keep employing you.”
Later, McFarlane moved over to Marvel proper, and after some trials, they put him on “The Hulk.” Suddenly, McFarlane was on a character his family had heard of, winning him some respect. “I was no longer the family idiot who was going to be an artist,” he said.
Armed with his carefully-honed reputation as a guy who hits deadlines, and against the heartfelt advice of his peers, McFarlane went into the Spider-Man office. He thought he might get a job on “Web of Spider-Man,” but emerged as the new artist for “Amazing Spider-Man,” one of Marvel’s flagship books. This was during the black costume era, and he immediately began lobbying for a return to the classic red and blue. McFarlane’s first issue was #298, and by the last page of issue #300, Spider-Man was back in the old costume. “I just drew that whole double-sized issue just to get to that,” McFarlane said.
He didn’t just draw the classic costume, though, he embellished it, adding triple the number of web lines -- a move he regretted almost immediately. “Once you do that once,” McFalrane said, “you have to do it forever. When you’re young and enthusiastic, it’s crazy, the stuff that you’ll do.”
Another change came when McFarlane applied his own interpretation of the character. Creator Steve Ditko had drawn Spider-Man “sort of odd and quirky,” McFarlane said, but subsequent artists had always emphasized the Man over the Spider. “I flipped it” and emphasized the Spider, putting him in “all these creepy poses. Why? Because it’s a spider, it’s a bug!”
|Page from "Haunt" #9, other preview art displayed at Baltimore Comic-Con|
McFarlane also changed the look of the webbing. Spider-Man’s webbing had traditionally been drawn as a set of arcs connected by X’s. Depending on the angle of the shot, this could look pretty good. McFarlane wanted Spider-Man to be able to shoot webbing out of the frame, toward the reader, and came up with a way to do that: gooey, globby-looking webbing that editor Tom DeFalco called “spaghetti webs.”
“My style is an amalgamation of about forty different guys,” McFarlane said. “I’ve got this guy’s cape and that guy’s spaceship and this guy’s monster and that guy’s laser. Little bits and pieces that you shove all together and you turn it out and it’s called, for me, ‘McFarlane style.’”
Marvel wasn’t sure about the new Spider-Man look. Spider-Man was their icon. He was on bed sheets and posters, and it was always in the John Romita style. While giving all respect to Romita, McFarlane didn’t want to draw like him “because he was perfect.” Draw like Romita and the best thing you can hope for is that someone might say you’re as good as Romita, McFarlane explained. “Even if they say you’re better, Romita is never out of that sentence. “So I went in and I messed up their icon.”
McFarlane said that DeFalco asked him repeatedly to change his style but now denies doing so. “Your boss or your mom asks you to do something, just say yes, even if you’re not going to do it. It solves the conversation pretty quickly,” McFarlane remarked.
Eventually, though, the time came to pay the piper. Sitting in a meeting with DeFalco and others from Marvel editorial, McFarlane pointed out what by then had become obvious: “Amazing Spider-Man” was the best-selling book in the country. “Why are we even having this conversation?” he asked.
Since then, McFarlane said, kids who want to draw Spider-Man are told to “draw it like Todd.“ “Why now do you want the next generation of kids to come along and do it like me? How do you know they can’t come up with something that’s twice as good as me?”
|Preview art displayed at Baltimore Comic-Con|
Eventually, McFarlane became frustrated with those kinds of conversations, and decided to leave Spider-Man behind. He was about to have his first child, and wanted to take some time off. After talking to a bunch of guys, mostly Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen, we said, “Why don’t we just go off and do some of our own stuff?” McFarlane said the idea began to solidify, more artists joined in, and they decided to go to Marvel and tell them they were leaving. Serendipitously, they ran into Marc Silvestri and told him they were quitting. Getting Jim Lee to come along was the key, McFarlane said, because he was “the company man.”
The group went to Marvel, McFarlane said, not to demand anything -- because they really wanted to quit -- but to explain why they were quitting, in the hopes that Marvel could solve the problems that led to their leaving. Then they went to DC with the same explanation. McFarlane said that DC’s initial hopes that they were moving en masse from Marvel to DC were quickly dashed.
McFarlane created Spawn, he said, when he was in high school. “I just never took him out of my portfolio! You can tell I created him a long time ago because it’s old-school design.“ Spawn had a cape because when McFarlane was a kid, everybody had a cape. He added the chains and spikes “to make him a bit more gnarly.”
Later, McFarlane came up with the idea that the costume was alive. The reason for that was simple: McFarlane kept drawing Spawn off-model. His pack moved from one leg to the other, the number of spikes kept changing, the cape was all different lengths.
When “Spawn” came out, it was the number one seller. Very quickly, “corporate guys” began to flock around, hoping to put Spawn on pajamas and toothpaste. It quickly became clear to McFarlane that all they knew about the character was that he had a top-selling comic book. “Have you actually read the book?” asked McFarlane. “Do you understand that it’s a guy from the pit of Hell?”
|"Spawn" preview art displayed at Baltimore Comic-Con|
McFarlane said that was really why he started the toy company, because toy companies were coming to him. He wanted to produce an unconventional toy and sell it in unconventional places. Producing a conventional toy with corporate backing would fail, and that would spoil his chances to do it the way he wanted. “My whole intent, when you’re trying to market something, is to pick your audience! I wanted to make a toy that repulsed Mom. It’s intentional! What dude at sixteen wants to pull out a cool toy and have mom say, ‘That’s kind of nice! We should start a collection together!’ The kid’s gonna drop that thing right away!”
McFarlane went to a toy convention and succeeded in selling the concept to Toys-R-Us. They asked if he had a sample, and he told them it would be ready next week. “The whole lie-to-mom thing works all the time,” he said.
In the first three minutes of the “Spawn” cartoon on HbO, the F-bombs flew, four guys were popped dead. McFarlane wanted to get to the “young dude” demographic as quickly as he could. He was making a cartoon for dudes, and he wanted to get Fred and Ethel to turn it off and watch something else. “Pick your audience!” he said again.
“I have super-thick skin.“ McFarlane said. “I don’t care if you don’t buy my stuff, what do I care? What bugs me is censorship. In my opinion, art should be like vegetables. You put it out like at the grocery store. As a consumer, you get to walk down the aisle with all the vegetables and you get to take home what you like and your family likes. No one ever goes up to the grocery guy and says, ‘I don’t like spinach. Why do you have it on your shelf?’”
McFarlane then fired up a projector and quickly ran through some slides. “Spawn” #200 is coming up. It will be the second time an independent book has made it to 200, he said, the first being “Cerebus.” He hopes to make it to at least issue #301, just to beat “Cerebus” creator Dave Sim.
|"Spawn" preview art displayed at Baltimore Comic-Con|
“Spawn” #199 will feature “Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane going crazy.” Larsen is very particular about how his art is inked, said McFarlane. If the inker adds an extra line, Larsen notices and complains. For “Spawn” #199, Larsen just does rough layouts “so I could ink the crap out of it.”
Starting with issue #201, there will be a new artist on “Spawn.“ His name is Szymon (pronounced “Schmoon”) and he’s from Poland. “I found him on Twitter,“ said McFarlane. “God bless the internet, right? So now this kid who was sitting in obscurity is now doing the book. By the time we finish up issue #200, he’ll have like seven issues in the can, so what I’m going to do is have ‘Spawn’ come out every three weeks, just to catch up.”
Before the panel concluded, McFarlane mentioned “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,” a video game he’s producing. The trailer can be seen at http://www.reckoningthegame.com/.