INTERVIEW: Holding a World Record and the Evolution of Spawn with Todd McFarlane at NYCC 2019

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Todd McFarlane is a man who needs no introduction. You can call him an artist, a writer, a toymaker, and of course Co-Founder of Image Comics. But with the release of Spawn #301, McFarlane and his hellspawned hero enter the history books.This weekend at the New York City Comic Con 2019, McFarlane added a new title to his collection; world record holder.  In a ceremony attended by Robert Kirkman, Marc Silvestri, Eric Stephenson, Greg Capullo among others, Todd McFarlane was awarded the Guinness World Record for the longest running creator owned superhero comic book series.

Any record that is based on longevity, is made on the backs of dozens of people.” McFarlane said as he received his reward. “As much as I am proud to be receiving this award, I gratefully accept it on behalf of all those who helped me the past 27 years on this journey.” At a round table interview following the ceremony, I and other reporters got a chance to speak with the creator about his historic achievement.

Up Your Geek:  So Todd, How does it feel to have this world record?

McFarlane: Look, they taught me math when I was a kid in school. I knew that #301 came after #300, it was going to come. So as long as I was still going to be alive, there was never a time in my life when I started Spawn that I ever thought I was gonna stop. The goal was always, ‘Can I go until I die?’ And then hopefully, the bigger goal, is ‘Will people still want the character after I take my last breath?’ That’s the goal. That’s the victory. They’ll go “Ah, I’m sad Todd’s gone. When’s Spawn coming out?”

Why? Because every one of us sitting at this table can name ten characters that we enjoy and which the original creator is not on this Earth. For me as an artist, as a creator, that’s the mountaintop. To put something…to plant a seed, you be gone, and it’s ok because your creative children surpassed you. It just hearkened back to when I was a kid when I knew intellectually that Disney wasn’t alive anymore. But I was still watching all his characters up on the screen, and still going to Disneyland. Like wow, he just did it, but he did it with dozens. And I go, “Can I do it with one? If I can do it with one, I’ll call it a victory.

NerdBlast: What do you think of Spawn’s staying power? Why do you think he’s lasted as long as he has? He’s been successful in an animated series, the action figures, the comics and the many different takes your creative teams have put on him, what do you think keeps us coming back?

McFarlane: Well, it’s an interesting question because, what the bigger attribute to why it’s lasted so long is that I just haven’t stopped.

(Laughter)

McFarlane: No no, it’s true. It’s not like I’ve been making movies non stop and video games non stop, and even the toys non stop, or animation non stop. I’m the only one who’s gone non stop, right? So, attrition and longevity have value. The recipe for Spawn, to me, is made up of about twelve different pieces. This is one of the pieces, and this is why I know that attrition matters; I know more about the Kardashians than I should, and I have never looked them up on the internet or read anything about them, ever. Yet I know about them. Because, all of a sudden, if you just keep pushing it out, it eventually spreads, right?

So again, I keep using these big examples with Disney and whatever. I’ve always looked at these examples and go, “What’s the small version of it? What’s the one percent version of all these examples? So if I can just go out there, and I knew when I started Spawn, that if I could put out the comic book and then create four pillars, basically the foundation an then start the pillars, that would be TV, movie, video games, and toys. And I hit all four pretty early. That was the foundation that was built that allowed me to put the pillars. If you put in a big foundation, and it’s strong? I just came to the city this weekend and they’ve got buildings that tower built on one foundation. It will hold a lot of weight.

McFarlane: So to me, instead of focusing on the ebbs and flows of the highs and lows…all longevity, every single brand, other than Stan Lee who went out on top, it goes up and down. So for me the goal is, when you’re down, what do you have to do to keep it picking back up. And when it’s up how do you sustain it so that you don’t get the erosion.

But it’s gonna come, right? So you can’t worry about whether everyone likes it all the time. And sometimes people are going to be more wide open to it in certain situations. Sometimes they’re not. Today’s one of those moments.

But I’ve got a story to tell! This is the thing I keep telling creative people, tell a story! Having an issue #300 issues of any book is easy. It’s not easy, to get there, it just takes 27 years. I’m saying easy to sell. The retailers and the consumers are built for anniversary books, and Issue #1s. That’s like opening up a movie. you’re gonna get opening weekend. What about next week? That’s when you know you’ve got a hit, the next weekend. So, for me, when I went to the retailer’s summit, I said “Lookit, when you look at #300, let me paint you a bigger picture. I don’t want people coming into your store and you going ‘hey, here’s an anniversary issue, here’s #300.’ You’re in, you’re out, right? Whether you’re new or a lapsed reader, that’s not good enough.”

I’ll paint you a bigger picture. I know you guys are spooked by big numbers. I never was. I always saw a big number as a sense of pride. When I saw comic books with big numbers, you know what went through my head? Not that i was afraid because I don’t have all the issues. It was ‘This book has weathered every battle it’s ever gone through. Every single fad, every single economic up and down. it’s still here.’ I go, ‘There must be something good to this character, it’s weathered the storm’, right?

Doing ten issues, getting in and out, to me that’s easy. For me, I now need to say, ‘Here’s the 295 issues,here’s the story. #296, #297, are gonna be a reader’s digest version of the first 295 issues. So they won’t have to go out and buy…i’ll bring them up to speed in two issues. Then once they get up to speed in #296, #297, then #298, #299 is gonna be basically a prelude that’s gonna set up #300. So if they want to see the setup, there it is, I’m putting the chessboard together. And then #300? C’mon man that’s easy. All the retailers will go “Oh I can sell that.”

Plus I’m gonna give them a reason besides the 300. Here’s all these creative people who’ll be a bit of a surprise to people and have some fun. Then #301 sets a record. Now, that may not be important to you but it’s super important to me. And, by the way, there’s a cliffhanger in #300! So if they want to know, they’ve got to buy #301 to get the end of the cliffhanger. So you’ve got #296, #297, #298, #300, #301, that’s six months that you can get somebody in your store to give them a reason to just sample it. To get back on board, just to sample it. And after six issues, they will know. They will have enough knowledge to know if they want to continue the ride.

And so, they’re either gonna go “Ah, that was fun. I’ve got the big anniversary issue, I’ve got the big roller coaster ride. I’m out.” Or, they’ll  go “Wow! That was interesting.” Or some of the lapsed people from the 90s or the early 2000s, they’ll go “Wow! I didn’t know Spawn was like this.”

Because the character has been evolving. They think it’s just the same character from the first ten issues. But that’s not true. He’s been changing and shifting. So we’ll see. I knew #300, #301 were gonna rock. And they ROCKED we know. #301 is more than any comic book other than Action #1000. All those Marvel-DC books, they relaunched Spider-Man! They relaunched the X-Men!

The Carnage Unleashed, whatever they did with that.It was Action #1000 and Spawn. And we beat them, some of those, we beat them by 40% in sales. So it worked. And then #301, we’re gonna find out next week whether it’s #1 again. If it’s #1 again that’s the first time in 20 years that an Independent book, basically a non Marvel, non DC book, has been #1 two weeks in a row with the same title. And that was a book called Spawn. That was when we were at the top of the charts 20 years ago. So hopefully we’ll just come full circle with it. 

Todd McFarlane

McFarlane: #302 is the moment. I want to see where those numbers are I’m going to match them up to #295. Before the story is told, and after the story. And I’m hoping we get the big story, and the sales are 100-200% higher. We’ll see. They’re tracking that way. And now, if that’s true, can I make that the new norm? Instead of it being down where it was, can it be this triple factor? Now it’s up to me to see if I can deliver quality to them, so that they’ll stick around or at least erode at a slower rate than has happened in the past. That’s the game, but that’s the challenge. That’s the stuff that get’s my blood going! 

C’mon, C’mon guys. You guys are thinking of every issue being super special and it’s issue #95. You’ve got to back and look at the whole puzzle at times. Every piece isn’t that special. The puzzle as a whole is way more important. Spawn #1- #301 is what’s important. No one issue is anymore important than that body of work. 

ButWhyTho: Todd, you bring up the evolution of Spawn as a character, but you also bring up the evolution of the comic industry since Spawn’s inception. You launched him in the 90’s when the comic book world was in a very different place. And now we have super heroes on every screen, big screen, small screen and my phone right here. How do you feel Spawn’s place has changed in all this time? In the broader sphere of the super hero pop culture universe?

McFarlane: Here’s one of the things that’s new. If you’re not getting your sales, stop the book and renumber it to a new issue #1. Now, how many of you are comic book fans?

(Round table all nod)

McFarlane: Ok good, I got scared. Gun to my head, maybe gun to any of your heads, somebody says to you right now, ‘You’ve got 24 hours, I’m going to give you $100,000, if you need more I’ll give you more, you’ve got 24 hours to put together a list of every single fantastic fo- every single Spider-Man, chronologically,starting from Amazing Spider-Man #1. Not every title. Now track that book and go.” 

At some point, they stopped it, and then they started it, so it’s like “Oh, ok, that’s really the continuation.” But then they stopped it, and they started it, and they stopped it, and they started. Now for me as a collector, it’s confusing! If I wanted everything from that issue #1 that Stan Lee did with Steve Ditko, I don’t even know how to piece that together. I mean I could if I had some smart people. 

I used to buy the comic buyer’s guide and Overstreet. Do you guys remember the Overstreet? It was just, Detective Comics #1-#50 is this price, #53-100, it was easy! To me as a collector and a geek, I liked that. I remember making a vow when I started Spawn, “I just want this to be easy.” So when they ask me “Todd, when are you going to renumber and start Spawn #1?” and the answer is fucking never. 

Oh by the way, if the only reason someone is going to buy my book, because I’m going to have the same writer, the same characters, and the same artist, and I’ve thought about this, if the only reason they’re going to buy this book is because of an issue #1? I’ve been tempted and I still might do it where I put two numbers on the book. #302 and #1. #303 and #1, #304 and #1. If the only reason that you’re buying this book is the numerical number on the cover of my book, it seems absurd to me, but I’ll put it there! Because if that’s what puts you over the hurdle to buy the book, POP, “Oh that’s a #1. I’ll buy it!” I’ll put a #1 on every damn issue.

So it doesn’t make any sense to me. Either you like the quality of the book at the price they’re offering, or you don’t. And the number should not be relevant. And the argument to me, that the number is intimidating, is BULLSHIT. I will argue with everybody that it is not an argument. If that was true, if missing out on the prior issues froze people in their tracks, nobody would be watching Seinfeld reruns. Nobody would be watching Friends on their streaming devices. Nobody would go Yankees games because they didn’t get to see Babe Ruth Play. 

“Oh I didn’t get to see Babe Ruth play, how can I possibly go?” Of course human beings start and stop at different points along the career of many brands. It’s an absurd argument to me. 

So, the answer is just we’re gonna keep grinding. 

Oh by the way, there was a moment, shame on Marvel and DC, when they renumbered all of their books. And I had the highest numbered book in the industry. I get to walk into rooms, and I get to say to people who are not nearly as smart as all you good people at this table, I get to walk into a room and say “Hey, you know what the highest numbered book in all of comicdom is? It’s mine.”

Why would you…Superman started in the 30s! Batman started in the 30s! Spider-Man started in the 60s! I started in the 90s, and you’re going to let me walk into the room and say I’ve got the best of something? Shame on you! Are you kidding me? I’m way too competitive. I’d never let my competition,especially after I had a 40 year head start, I’d never give them any chance to catch up with me. 

And so what do they do? They lapse, they get their #1s, they get their temporary spike, it’s all a false positive. And then it’s still erodes! The chart is going like this. Spike down, spike down. How do I know that’s true? Because we all can read numbers. When I was at Marvel doing Spider-Man we were selling 300, 400, 500 thousand copies. They’re not today. If you get 100,000 it’s a big number. So all those tricks they’ve been doing for the last two decades, I get that you thought that at the moment it was working, but over all it’s not working. Because you used to sell 500,000. Now you’re selling 100,000. You’ve lost 80% of your sales. So whatever you think you’re doing, it’s not working. So you could have just as easily kept the numbers running sequentially and still lost 80% just as fast.

I just get frustrated at all the short term thinking. But now the companies are also bought and owned by public companies. Public companies have to think in 90 day increments. 90 days. That’s it. Can I make sure that when I make sure that when I go to my shareholders meetings with quarterly reports, that I’ve got my numbers right. They’re not even allowed to think long term like a guy like me. I’m allowed to think “What am I gonna do with this in the next 8,9,10 years?” And at any pace I want.

Todd McFarlane

ButWhyTho: With Spawn and Image Comics you’ve been at the forefront of the independent comics renaissance that we’re currently in right now. Comic books are more accessible to creators than ever before, and you’re at the front of this! How does that feel?

McFarlane: Cool.

(Laughter)

McFarlane: I’m like a dad. In that I’m proud that we created something…here’s what Image was; an option. In it’s simplest form it was one word, an option. You had Marvel, DC, a couple others. We were gonna create another option. If you wanted to do creator owned books it was the only option. Now there are some other quasi options. Image comics books still has to this day 27 years later, the best deal on the planet.. You do a book for us, you own it. Lock, stock and barrel, 100%. And we take a sliver, to cover overhead and get that book out. It’s a flat fee, and because it used to be a percentage, and I was advocating that it can’t be a percentage. Because If I do the same work for your book and the same work for your book-

(He gestures to another reporter)

McFarlane: -and it sells ten time better than that guy, why are we getting ten times more? We didn’t put in ten time more work. This is why I never liked commission work. So it’s a flat fee. We take a low flat fee, and then whatever’s left over, you guys get! And now you guys want to go make hats and t shirts and toys and movies and animation. Good on you! Good on you 100%. That deal’s not only the best in comic books, that deal is the best in entertainment.Period. On the planet. You can’t beat that deal. I don’t know why we don’t have almost every single human being doing comics doing that. But everyone’s like “Well, you know, what if my book doesn’t sell?”

You only have to sell a fraction of the books that you currently sell if you work for Marvel or DC, but own 100% of that fraction to match the same economics. And if you do better than that fraction, then you’re beating what you can do with the two big guys. Because the two big guys, you’re gonna be locked for what you can do scale wise in terms of your economics.

At some point if you do the most popular book there, that’s it. There’s not much more you can do. I don’t know. I keep going “why don’t you want to look at what Rob and Jim and my other partners who worked at Image did?”. Look at that possibility. Then they come up with the excuse “oh come on. You’re different. You comic started in 1992, it was a different time.”

Ok. Forget me. Forget Jim lee. Forget Rob Liefeld. How about Robert Kirkman? See? That was a big one. That was a home run. The grand slam. What about Brian K. Vaughn?

Yeah, but at some point you’re gonna have to talk somebody into having personal freedom. They don’t want it. You can only bring the horse to the water, right? And at some point I’m not going to talk to you into having personal freedom. Not only creative freedom, but personal freedom from your finances too. Go do what you got to do, right.

As a matter of fact, part of me, I think you shouldn’t do that. You should go out and exploit yourself. Because I think that everybody should advocate for themselves. In fact if you’re not going to do it there’s a part of me that says “I hope you don’t. So I never have to compete with you. Please make this a low bar to get over. Please let it be that the most talented people don’t do it, so that only the mediocre people are gonna get the jobs.

Do me this favor. After 27 years, ultimately right, I am the most successful mediocre guy that you will ever meet. And this is why. I just try to rally people, my panels, I am average! I was dumb as a kid and here I sit and you guys give me way more credit than you should. And i’m here going, “Wow! I hope that those skilled and talented and intelligent…I learned stuff along the way, but what have you were better than me to start with and you applied it? Who knows where you can go?

Like many of you, I grew up with a Spawn poster plastered on my bedroom door and more than a handful of McFarlane Toys lining my room. So I may be biased, but sitting down with Todd McFarlane at NYCC19 was remarkable. Even after 27 years and 301 issues, McFarlane hasn’t lost an ounce of passion for either the art of making comics or the business of selling them. With a new era of Spawn on the horizon, one thing’s for certain. I’ll be adding Spawn #301, and every issue after, to my pull list.