Todd McFarlane wants his upcoming Spawn/Batman crossover to be this century's biggest comic book – The A.V. Club

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Comic book icon Todd McFarlane has always been laser-focused, off the cuff, and unflappable. His drive and determination prompted him to leave Marvel Comics and start the creator-driven company Image Comics with the likes of Jim Lee and Mark Silvestri in 1992. There, he launched the famed character Spawn, and went on to create his McFarlane Toys empire, best known for producing highly detailed action figures of characters licensed from DC Comics, Mortal Kombat, and other major pop culture brands.
Thirty years later, McFarlane remains busier than ever. In addition to running his bustling empire, it’s not unusual to find him helming the occasional music video. In fact, he recently took on a multimedia project that bridges rock ’n’ roll with comics, directing Ozzy Osbourne’s new music video for “Patient Number 9.” McFarlane also wrote the comic that comes with the limited edition version of the upcoming album of the same name. But that’s not all he’s been up to. Spawn fans in particular will be excited to learn that there’s a lot more to come, both on page and on screen. McFarlane sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about Image Comics’ big anniversary, his “horrifying” writing process, the upcoming Spawn/Batman crossover that he hopes will shatter sales records, and the R-rated Spawn movie he’s had in development for the last five years.
The A.V. Club: You tapped into nostalgia with a lot of your original toys, like those Yellow Submarine figures in 1999. Now there’s a lot of crossover between music, comics, and collectible fans.

Todd McFarlane: I’ve always looked at it, especially on the toy front, that it’s a little bit like wearing a T-shirt or a hat. When people wear T-shirts and hats, let’s say a fan of a band or a movie, you’re basically showing the symbol of what you like. You can walk by people’s [work] cubicles now and they’ve got little remnants of things they likethere’s a little Game Of Thrones there, or there’s a little bit of Hobbits there. Even if you know nothing about them, you can at least walk by and go, “What? I didn’t know you were a fan of that.” Especially for the ladies, too, which is why female geekdom has grown.
I find that even with rockers and movie starshaving a plastic statue that’s 3D matters to them. When we were working on Black Adam this past Christmas, Dwayne Johnson asked if we could give him an advanced prototype of the statue we were making so he could give it to his mom for Christmas. Why? He thought it would be cool to say, “Mom, look at my next movie. Here’s your son. I look badass.” It’s just fun, geeky stuff, and it’s just another way of saying, “I support that team” or whatever that product/brand/person is. So it’s crossed way, way, way over from when I was younger. If you collected any of that stuff, you were a true geek, and that word didn’t necessarily come with a term of endearment. Today, being a geek is like a badge of honor. People are super proud of that, and they should be.
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AVC: As I visit New York Comic Con every year, I see a lot more women into geek culture than when we were growing up. I sometimes wonder if it’s a cultural shift or if it was just more of a boy’s club back then?

TM: I think a couple of things happened. Number one, the internet came along. It’s just that pre-internet, everything you knew had to be within a 20-mile radius, even closer if you didn’t drive. So if you were collecting baseball cards, if your three local shops didn’t have it, then you’re never going to get it. Now you just go to eBay. Then the second part of it is now with the advent of superhero movies being the norm, and people going to them.
The [revelatory] moment for me was when I went away for a weekend [in 2008]. My eldest daughter [who was then 20], didn’t even give a shit about action movies. I came home and I go, “What did you do this weekend?” She says, “I went and saw the new Batman movie, twice.” She got caught up in the fact that Heath Ledger had died, this is his last performance, whatever. So I understand seeing it once. But then all of a sudden it was twice, which meant that it’s becoming a girls’ night out. I remember sitting there, thinking, “If they can get my daughter to go twice in one weekend, the marketing is working.” And it’s not only domestic, it’s gone international.
I know how many people buy the Aquaman book. If you take all of those people, they all bring a date, and they all go on the same day, and the ticket is 10 bucks, you’re gonna maybe get $100,000 or $120,000. It made a billion dollars, which means the people who are going now are not coming from the same way you and I came from. You started [with] the gateway drug which is the comic book, then you get into all the video games and all the other licensed apparatus. You and I know that the Aquaman movie is a licensed apparatus. You’ve got a world now that doesn’t know there’s another origin sourceit’s just a movie to them. So that has opened up so wide that it’s going to swallow up male, female, and everything in between. It’s been a tsunami.
AVC: By the way, what did Ozzy think of your Patient Number 9 comic book?

TM: He enjoyed Comic-Con. He was like, “This is kinda cool.” He had the longest line that was allowed on the [SDCC] floor. The 70-year-old’s cool, right? But he saw the book, and he was just like, “Man, that was different than what I thought.” Because when you say comic book, especially to people who are a little bit older, comic book equals Archie and Superman because that’s all they know. That’s from their childhood. They haven’t paid attention to how the format has evolved. A comic book has word balloons, and there are no word balloons on this thing. I was like, “No, I didn’t think your fans would appreciate it. Given how cool I think your music is and even the imagery of your album covers. Look at what you have here. I needed something that I thought would attach itself a little bit seamlessly to what you guys were already doing, instead of making it like an insert.”
By the way, that dude is the fastest [autograph] signer I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve been around some fast signers who literally only put their initials and you can barely see it because it’s chicken scratch. He goes faster than those guys. He writes every letter. If he did “OO” and was going that fast, I still would have been impressed. Part of the reason I fell so far behind him was because I was watching him. It was a magic trick. He got 12 letters in that slick, and they’re legible. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I got schooled by the 70-year-old dude. I’m competitive. I usually don’t like old men showing me up.
AVC: How much time did you have to create the Patient Number 9 comic?
TM: If people saw how I put my comic books together they would be horrified. Real writers would be horrified at my process. They would just go, “He’s not a real writer. That’s not how you do it!” So [for] the Ozzy book, if you want me to give you the recipe, I found my artist who was actually a guy who normally inks traditional superhero comic books. A guy named Jonathan Glapion, and he started doing these things on Instagram that I thought were super funky cool. I’ve known Jonathan forever. But when they said that they wanted to do a [Ozzy] comic book, then I said, “I want it to be a non-traditional comic book. I think I got the perfect guy, and this stuff is crazy cool and wacky.” I’m going to get a little geeky about when I saw Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork for the very first time. It was just out of the ordinary, it was super cool. Bill Sienkiewicz was a polarizing artist at that time because there wasn’t a lot of people who did what he did. So you either loved or hated him. I was on the love side. Jonathan has that look.
I said, “Hey, Jonathan, I just need you to give me some pages. The book’s just going to all be about insanity.” He waited for a couple of days, and it was like, “Well, I’m waiting for the plot.” I told him, “Just give me some insanity. I’ll figure out the story around it. There are going to be some pages I’m going to need specific imagery. Here’s page one. Give me a shot of the institution late night.” Bam. Page one’s done. “Page two, make Patient 9’s hair a little bit long so it kinda looks like a young Ozzy, but the character isn’t Ozzy in the story. Give him long hair and make him huddled in a corner, and make it mostly black because it’s got cool lighting on it.” At some point I was busy, and he said, “What am I supposed to draw and paint today?” “Whatever you want.” [At some point] I needed the five, six, or seven pages that had specific images because I had a story in my head with a twist ending.
I got the last couple pages a few days before we went to print, and then here’s the horrifying part for everybody but me. I had to look at the 20 pages and go, “What order do I want these 20 pages to be in?” I just moved them around, like 20 puzzle pieces on a table, because I knew the beats in my head. “Okay, if I say that first and I say that second and that third, I need that image over here to make a bridge to that. Okay, I can write that.” Then I sat down and wrote it the day before it went to press. There’s a comic book.
AVC: New York Comic-Con is coming up. Will we see some exciting stuff from you?

TM: We’ll talk about the Spawn/Batman comic book I am working on now. That’s low-hanging fruit. I keep telling DC people that this is going to be number one, by far. The question is, can we make it the number one book of the century? I think we can push a million copies of it. They’re like, “What?” Last year, the number one selling book was King Spawn. I sold half a million copies of it. Here’s what I didn’t havethe artist named Greg Capullo, who’s done both Spawn and Batman—he is the preeminent Batman artist. I didn’t have Batman, and I sold half a million. You give me Capullo and Batman, so why can’t I double the sales? That should be everybody’s goal. There hasn’t been a book with a million copies sold this century, so let’s do it. It’s a given we’re gonna have the biggest book of this year. Can we have the biggest of the century? Come on, everybody, let’s get geared up. Even if nobody makes an effort, we’re going to get close.
AVC: Since we’ve discussed your “horrifying” writing process, are you going to finish it close to the deadline?

TM: The Spawn/Batman crossover process is using the same unsophisticated method I always use that has gotten me to over 330 issues of the Spawn comic. In the end, the work always gets done. I’ll let the readers debate whether it is any good or not amongst themselves.
AVC: What has it been like reuniting with Greg on the title?

TM: Greg Capullo is the best penciller in comics. Full stop. I can give an hour sermon as to why I just said that.
AVC: Image Comics is 30 years old now. Even though the sales are not like the crazy figures of the ’90s, I think Image is more relevant today because you have so many interesting series and more diversity than we see in any other comics company right now.
TM: Although you’re right, the beginning of Image was crazy, the sales we’re having right now is a renaissance in terms of that. The four books I put out last year all set records. Not only was one a record for Image, the other three were industry records, and we’re getting lots and lots of those. A few years ago, maybe three [Image] books would sell over 35,000. Now we have 14 sometimes in a month. Premiere books debuting at over 100,000—you could count those on a finger maybe once every four years. We’re now having 15 to 20 of those in a year, easy. Our sales here in the pandemic are at the highest they’ve been in this century. We keep track of all of it.
AVC: I like recent Image series like Saga, Chew, Spread, and What’s The Furthest Place From Here? Some of them have been optioned for film and TV.
TM: I think 23 of our books have been optioned and/or are in development. Sweet Tooth came out—the only frustrating thing is if we don’t get our logo on it like DC and Marvel. Because I think people would go, “What, that’s an Image book?” So seven or eight shows that [are based on Image comics] are out there. It’s just that they don’t look like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Batman, so people aren’t aware that they’re coming from the same corner. Right now Hollywood can’t get Marvel and DC because those are owned by the big boys. Warner Bros. and Disney have those two kids in lockdown, so you can’t license their products. So anybody trying to look for comic book stuff is going down the sales chart and saying, “Okay, can’t get anything from Marvel, can’t get anything from DC. What’s the next biggest company?” That’s us. And we have been for 30 years. We’re just now the de facto first phone call because they can’t get Marvel and DC. So we were elevated by default into the number one slot.
AVC: What has changed in writing Spawn in 2022 as opposed to 1992? What personal life lessons can you apply to the character today?

TM: The Spawn character has always been a metaphor of my own life. I’m not a big fan of others telling me how to live my life or why I should serve someone else’s agenda. And I go counter to a lot of “group think.” For the Spawn character, those same ideas apply, except they come in the form of fantastical ideas, but the motivations are still the same. The biggest change for the Spawn character is that he has now become a willing participant in the war he battles, and he is fully fluent on the rules. For decades he resisted both those positions. Now he is fully engaged in wanting to wipe out his enemies.
AVC: You’ve said you want to make a scarier, R-rated Spawn movie. How will it compare to what we’re seeing from the likes of the MCU today?

TM: First, the name is Todd … only rhymes with God. If I could do it all then the film would be a dark, scary picture with a dose of psychological horror. But ultimately, the final product will be what a team of us decided, including the investors. [At New York Comic-Con] we’ll announce some of the creative talent that jumped on board for the Spawn movie. People will go, “Who else came up on board for it?” We were going to do it at San Diego Comic-Con, but all the PR people left it up to me and I went, “Why don’t we just push it off to New York?” And then by that point, who knows what we’ll have done with the studios? So we’ll have another big drumbeat on the minimum, and hopefully, best case scenario, two big drum beats.
AVC: What did you think of Venom: Let There Be Carnage?
TM: Didn’t see it. Haven’t seen most of the superhero films and the few I have hold no interest to my 60-year-old tastes.

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