A quarter-century ago, seven Marvel and DC Comics artists and writers, seeking creative control and a better deal, mutinied and built their own creative vessel, which they christened Image Comics. The driving ethos was that all of their titles, released through their own individual studios, were creator-owned and controlled. Among the rebels from the Big Two was Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, and the upstart company quickly rose up in the business, with several of their series, including Youngblood, The Savage Dragon and WildC.A.T.s., reportedly selling hundreds of thousands of copies or more per month.
McFarlane and Spawn have been a big part of that success. In 1993, Image had the top-selling books for seven months; over the subsequent two years, Spawn and Marvel’s X-Men regularly duked it out for that slot. McFarlane released his dark, brooding superhero title through Todd McFarlane Productions under the Image banner, and the first issue holds a record for indie comic sales at 1.7 million copies. It would, yes, spawn a 1997 movie starring Michael Jai White and John Leguizamo, and the subsequent animated series from Todd McFarlane Entertainment won two Emmy Awards.
When the comics crash of the late 1990s arrived—a top-selling title today plateaus at around 150,000 issues—Image was impacted as heavily as anyone else, but thanks to the creative vision of McFarlane and his cohorts, and the arrival of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead expanding their reach far beyond the spandex-clad realm of superheroes, Image remains a vital force in comics today. McFarlane founded McFarlane Toys in 1995, and while he does not draw Spawn much anymore aside from the occasional cover, he still writes the book, which recently surpassed 250 issues. After our interview, McFarlane announced he is planning to write and direct a “dark” and “nasty” movie reboot for the character, while Kevin Smith will be developing Spawn spin-off called Sam & Twitch for BBC America.
Amid the buzzing activity of Toy Fair, McFarlane sat down with Playboy.com to look back on the first 25 years of Image Comics and to offer his own hard-won advice on how to push forward as an industry insurgent.
Looking back at 25 years of Image Comics history, what have been the biggest milestones for you? Are there some that people might not necessarily know about?
The big ones? The survival of Jim Lee leaving [to work for DC Comics in 1998] because he was not only the golden boy coming in; he was a big reason for us to get street cred right out of the gate. Because of that great street cred that he continued to build, when he left it could’ve sent reverberations that we were wobbling a little bit. He had a studio at that point, and he took the whole [Wildstorm] studio with him, which meant he took multiple books. We had negotiations with the comic distributor, Diamond, and we had to hit a certain threshold. Part of the certain threshold were number of titles and percentage of market share, and it just walked out the door. We were under the threshold, and that meant that all the things that became part of our norm disappeared. We got a bit of a double body blow, so I had to do a quick negotiation: I know Jim’s leaving, but trust us, we can make this back.
What was the strategy after that?
We didn’t have a strategy at the moment I said we had a strategy. I just needed to make sure that people weren’t nervous, so now we had to come up with a strategy, which meant we had to get more books in. We put [Jim] Valentino in charge of being the editor. It was a little bit unfair to him because we needed to fill the void, so he was saying yes to stuff that in hindsight he might not have said yes to. Now you get into this vicious cycle of saying yes to stuff and the quality isn’t there.
Eventually we had a groupthink of which books we wanted to keep there, and the thing that gave us impact and kept us going was Robert Kirkman coming in with Walking Dead. It was an unknown black-and-white book that we turned down originally; it’s not like any of us were smart enough to know what it was going to be. It came, it worked and ultimately Robert Kirkman did what no other writer had done, which was to stop working for Marvel and DC and do his own creator stuff. He had his other books: Battle Pope, Invincible and other stuff. Marvel was chasing him like they were chasing anybody else, and he said no. I said, “Wow, he’s thinking like an artist.”
Rob Liefeld, creator of Youngblood, left the company in 1996, two years before Jim Lee, although he returned years later.
We survived Liefeld though. Liefeld leaving to me was not near the impact of Jim Lee because Rob’s books at that time were scattered and the deadlines were shot, so it wasn’t like he was at the top of his game when he said, “I’m out.” He was messing around a little bit more, so when he left there were [still] six of us.
Jim to me was the guy. If we could get past this, then we were going to be able to weather the storm. If we could weather the storm, then there’s longevity. In my mind, there’s always going to be longevity. Image will always exist because I’m putting the fucking Image logo on my Spawn cover till the day I die, so it’s at least going to my death. I don’t care if it’s only one book. If there’s going to be an Image logo, I’ll just put it on my book. I don’t care about the rest of you guys. That’s milestone number one to me.
People-pleasers don’t change the world. It’s the rebel, it’s the dick, it’s the troublemaker.
The other milestone is knowing Image Comics can lose all of its founders right now and really not be the worse for wear. The epiphany came when I went to an Image convention—egos that we are, I guess—and the whole room is like a Comic-Con that is all about our company. I was struck that if I wasn’t here or I got hit by a bus tomorrow, this room would be exactly the same as it is right now. It’s like being a parent now. My kid is going to survive away from the nest, away from me. In fact, they’re going to survive better than me. I must’ve done something good. This is good. The epiphany that I had that day was that Image is going to be around a long time because it’s now beyond the founders. We’ll just be oil paintings on the wall someday, and people will say, “Wow, look at those guys.”
We just had the 25th anniversary party. I didn’t go, but everybody else went. A noisy bar crowded with people is not my thing. I phoned [Image publisher] Eric Stephenson and asked how was it. He goes, “Noisy bar, I left after an hour or two.” But Rob, Valentino and Eric were sitting there going, “We’re the oldest guys here! Everybody else is young hipsters, and we’re the old dudes.” They all left early and nobody cared, and I’m sure they partied into the night. They didn’t even know who we were. I think it’s cool that we pushed something down the hill and it’s still rolling and has enough momentum to get there.
Do you think that Kirkman’s The Walking Dead opened the door for recent, non-superhero Image series like Saga, Chew and Spread?
Absolutely. The deal we created when we started in ‘92 is essentially the deal we have now; it’s just that the creative community finally figured out that it actually works. I guess we should have been better salesman, but we were so busy running the shop. I remember getting to the point talking to people about coming to Image to do a book, and they said think it was a different time with Jim Lee and me and Rob. Lightning is never going to strike again. So they were talking themselves out of it.
Kirkman comes and lightning hits [again in 2003], and then they’re going, “So it’s doable, and he’s a writer.” A little bit later you get something like Saga and another lightning bolt comes. Not quite to the magnitude of The Walking Dead, but it’s still a pretty big lightning bolt. Now my examples of why they should come have nothing to do with us. It’s the stuff that’s the newest. Our biggest advocates are the creative people themselves who are saying, “Hey, I do Green Lantern for DC, and it does really well, and I do creator-owned book for Image that sells a fifth but I make more money. They let me do whatever I want and I make more money.” That’s the nirvana for any creative person. Image Comics owns nothing.
When it comes to profits off of your titles, when Spawn gets turned into a movie and then an animated series and The Walking Dead gets turned into a live-action show, I’m assuming Image gets something out of that?
No. Nothing. This is the best deal on the planet. We’ve contemplated if we should change that, and we went no. We think part of the charm is that they know they can come in and exploit it the way they see fit—and good, bad or indifferent, you keep all the marbles yourself. God bless you. We get a flat fee for the comic book. It used to be a percentage, and we changed that because I didn’t think it was fair. You do a book and we charge you a percentage and it sells 100,000, and someone else does a book and it sells 10,000, we’re still doing the same work. We’re still doing the same clerical work for you with the printers, the accounting, the distribution and the transportation. So why, because you happen to have a better story than him, do I get 10 times from you? I’ve always hated commission. So flat fee, we get it first.
It’s also the 25th anniversary of Spawn. What are you doing to celebrate that milestone?
Not in direct fashion, but I think in 2017 we’re going to make a mark in Hollywood again.
Did you like the first movie?
It was okay. It was a bit ahead of its time for special effects. The second [project of mine this year] will be a low-budget horror movie.
You are a very driven individual who has done well and seems to have a lot of sage advice.
I talk to the youth…
Ah, the youth! The millennials.
Anybody who is less than 50 is the youth to me. I’ll give them my philosophy of life. Your goals can change from time to time, but you pick a goal. Put it up on the chalkboard and put a number one next to it. Draw a line and everything under fucking one does not matter. It is a means to an end, [even] if you have to go to work at McDonald’s to make that money. People-pleasers don’t change the world. It’s the rebel, it’s the dick, it’s the troublemaker. There are a lot of labels for us. You have to say at some point, “I don’t care.”
It’s not easy.
No, it’s not. Look, I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, and my kids would probably go, “Dad, wasn’t it hard to say no to the drugs and the drinking?” Of course it was, but you know what was the hardest no? The first one. By the 20th one it was easy, and by the 50th one they knew. I turned it into a positive. I would then go to the party and they knew I wasn’t going to drink. I’m not going to judge you, you’re not going to judge me, we’re going to get along fine, God bless everybody. I hung out with athletes, the smart guys, and the druggies. It’s your life. I’m going to control mine, you control yours. So then when I came to the parties, they would say they have extra drugs and booze. I would say, “No no no, you can have it, Fred. You can have it, Bill.” So it got to the point that the moment I walked into the doors: “I get Todd’s! I get Todd’s!” My portion was up for bids, and I became a positive for them even though I was a square technically. The druggies were like, “I get Todd’s stash! Todd, you’re the greatest!” Of course, they sit next to you at the whole party drunk or stoned and say, “I wish I could be like you.”
I always joke that the guy who wrote The Hangover was the sober guy that day. He just walked in on his friends, wrote down the notes, and said, “This is going to make me a lot of money. They’re never going to remember that they did it.” I have to write characters, I have to write people, and there’s going to one way I can understand how people work. I have to be clear of mind.