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.
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?
Todd 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)
Todd 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.
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?
Todd McFarlane: Cool.
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)
Todd 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.