“Just So We’re Clear, Recorder…”: An interview with Todd McFarlane (wherein my iPhone is a secondary character)
Todd McFarlane, the genius behind Spawn, is probably one of the most affable people I’ve ever met. He sat down with me for quite a while at the NY Toy Fair, and I’m sure we would have continued talking even longer than we did if the Javits Centre hadn’t literally turned the lights off on us. So this interview is the product of what happens when you plunk Todd McFarlane down in front of a digital recorder and just listen, enraptured. Seriously, I had a huge grin on my face the whole time, just hearing him speak.
Todd: You’re working way too hard today [nodding towards my many bags full of geek swag]. There should be…a coat check for like, stuff check.
Bandit: Yeah. There really should.
Todd: They can do a stuff check. You can buy stuff, put it in a bin with your name on it, forget it and then you only have to go and pick it up at the end. Don’t you think?
Bandit: Yes! I think that’s perfect because you can do coat check but they won’t take the big bags.
Todd: I think so. I’m starting that company.
Bandit: I am all in! First things first. I told my friend Greg that I was going to talk to you and he wants to know why he doesn’t have a Reggie Dunlop to go with his Hanson Twins from Slap Shot? [a/n: it’s an awesome hockey movie from 1977 starring Paul Newman as Reggie – go watch it right now.]
Todd: Yeah, yeah. Good one! Yeah, why didn’t we do Reggie? I’m starting to think if it was just because it wasn’t part of the license, or I just thought, we can sell the skaters, and the dude in plaid pants might not actually work…but yeah he would’ve been cool. If he was on the other side of the plexiglass…doh! I might’ve just missed it! Might’ve just…
Bandit: It’s never too late. I mean you’re getting a lot of resurgence of movies from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s never too late.
Todd: […] The great thing about that movie is how dated it looks.
Todd: If you watch it you just go, ‘No way that’s how people dress! …You go, oh my gosh!’…I mean there are some movies that you go ‘No, no! It holds up 20 years later’. That one’s still funny but visually you just go ‘Wow! It’s a bit of a train wreck. That’s what we used to do in the 70’s?’…Whew!
Bandit: Yeah, you can say the same thing about Airplane! because every once in a while you get a shot of the big collars and you’re like ‘oh yeah’…you can tell.
Todd: Yeah, funny. That’s why sci-fis work. You can just go, it’s all out of date, it’s always out of date. You don’t have to worry about it. So, Westerns work […] It’s always the modern stuff that starts to date itself. Even like, flip phones. You see someone with a flip phone and you go ‘Oh, that movie must be…’ and you start to put an age on it.
Bandit: Yeah. Must be like what? 10 years ago?
Todd: They don’t have a camera right there on their phone, that’s ridiculous.
Bandit: So, tell me about new stuff that you have for The Walking Dead because I’ve gone through everything and it’s all absolutely amazing. What’s your favorite?
Todd: You know it’s interesting […] Sort of an odd question because people say “who’s your favorite child?”
[…] They all have their own personalities, so I’m not trying to avoid the question but…if you are making a statue or 6-inch figure or vehicle or we’re doing building blocks, they each come with their own set of rules, so what I strive for is, how can I make this as cool as possible, within the set of rules…and those rules don’t necessarily apply to the other venture. So, it’s more or like if you and I talk about making a statue and making a building block that’s like saying you’re making a basketball and football. They are both sports but they have a different set of rules to play the game and you have to do it. So the thing that was sort of fun with some of the Walking Dead – like their comic book statue is, you know, we can just capture the sort of frozen moments. Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead, happens to be my partner at Image Comics, so I kind of know the dude. So it was easy for me to sort of get the…he actually draws too…so he’s pretty active when we do some of the stuff for the comic book because he’ll give us some of the designs or…if we give him some of the concepts, he’ll actually make notes by doing drawings and doodles and stuff like that, which is really helpful, right? Because again I’m a visual learner, instead of somebody saying I need ‘a little more nuance in his arm’. I don’t know what the hell that means – just draw or show me what you want on his arm and we can sculpt that.
So we are having fun with that, and again when we’ve accomplished it, [it] looks like Rick Grimes’s character has blown that walker’s head and the brain’s coming out. Cool, right? I mean who’s got flying blood and flying brain particles coming out! So it’s something that’s at least…an attention getter and once we go to the 6-inch figures, you know, all we’re trying to do is some of the characters that people are asking for because they keep rotating them in the show. And some of the various walkers […] are a little more highlighted than others. People remember them. You go to a blog and see which ones they are talking about. We’ll end up doing that, trying to get some of the body language in those ones. Make them look [as] exact as possible and then with the building set, our new venture after 20 years of figures, then that’s sort of going in another step where you try and bring the environment in. And you can’t necessarily do that with every brand as big as they are. I mean, think about it. If somebody was to give me Batman, I’ll go ‘Okay, I can do the Batmobile and Batcave and I’m starting to get stuck.’ Like again I can do Commissioner Gordon’s office, I mean so a big…brand like something like Batman is, there’s not 10 places that you just go, I guess Wayne Manor is something but you can’t necessarily go there. But something like Walking Dead where you say Oh! The prison yard, people know what it is. Hershel’s barn, people know what it is. The tank scene in episode one. People get that. The Terminus tunnel. All you got to do is say these words and they know what it is. So, to me it’s one of the few big properties where the environment matters to the show itself and so it’s probably going to get harder and harder to pick a brand because it’s not necessarily about the characters, especially for the building block, it’s got to be about what’s standing behind them.
So, I mean there are plenty of brands where the person itself is important but we need to find where they co-exist, or more importantly you can do that frozen moment on a smaller scale. So the building blocks came out in Toys’R’Us and they’re now in WalMart and Target. Then we’ll come out with our second range, which is the two lit-up ones, which is our name for the product and that’s the stuff everybody’s gonna get at the same time. So I think it’s going to rock. I think the big boys are going to wake up and go ‘Wow! You’re saying this stuff is going to sell, Todd?’ That’s exactly what I’m telling you! This stuff is going to sell and they aren’t afraid of the $30 price point. You know with the kid’s stuff…the higher the price point, the sales go down. Where in our case, it was actually the opposite at Toys’R’Us. The higher the price point the more they sold because we could give them more of what people who like the brand like. And just so we are clear, recorder, I don’t call The Walking Dead a collector item. […] It is the biggest-watched cable TV show in the history of mankind. So, let’s just put it in perspective. The biggest since the existence of man and they have been keeping ratings on television. It’s the biggest ever. That’s not a collector’s line.
[…] That’s a mainstream line. So I’ve got other things that we can put in and call collector stuff, but a brand like that and I hate it when retailers try to wedge it into a collector line. I go […] when you actually take the number of people, close to 25 million people a week, when they re-run it more than once I go, if you got $10 for each one of those people that would be $250 million…per week. You don’t get that for a movie. So why can you call movies that make a $100 million mainstream, and something that can get you $250 million in one week is somehow a collector item? It’s weird to me. […] Toys mature. They just can’t get out of their box sometimes but…
Bandit: Is there any other property that you might want to play with?
Todd: Yeah! Oh, yeah!
Bandit: Is there any way you can tell me?
Todd: Oh, no! […] The brand I’m thinking of, we’ve already got it. I was thinking of, hoping, we were gonna announce it this weekend. It was supposed to be right there.
Todd: So, it was all built, all ready to go and that’s where the lawyers went, you know we are only 98% done with this concept so you can’t announce it. And I’m like ‘Alright! Okay! Don’t wanna announce the toy at Toy Fair, I understand it.’
Bandit: I know […]
Todd: So anyways we’ll bring it out at San Diego Con, so we’ll probably let the media take a look at it early on Day One so they can go out, and then we’ll let the fans come in and see, plus something else we’ve built, and the upside of it – trying to find the silver lining – is that it will be closer to the launch…that’s coming out this year.
So we’ll be able to be in San Diego and say, hey that stuff that you see right now, if you like it you can buy that in 6 weeks, 7 weeks, it’s coming. You can buy that. You can buy that because the train is moving and it’s coming. We just won’t be able to reveal it now.
Bandit: So we also review comic books at The Geekiary. So you want to talk about the comic book side of your work at Image?
Todd: Alright. Issue 250 just came out of Spawn, the return of Al Simmons, the original Spawn. So he comes back now with a new attitude. It’s been 185 issues before he blew his brains out – he was sort of like ‘Just leave me alone! Just leave me alone!’ and now the new attitude is that he’s gonna make people say leave us alone! Leave us alone. And he’s gonna go, oh! Now you feel the way I felt. So now I’m not gonna leave you alone any more than you left me alone. And he’s gonna be a little more proactive with it, a little more mature. He’s gonna have more of a game plan about what he’s doing and just go ‘Alright, I guess I’m in this game which I denied for 185 issues. I accept that I’m in the game…but I’m gonna write some of the rules. You guys don’t get to write all the rules.’
He’s gonna be more mentally mature when he comes back, you know, let’s go! Game on! Let’s see what everybody’s got here, and it’s not gonna be as easy as it was before. 250 is at the end of January, March, at the end of this month is ‘Resurrection of The One’. It’s a little bit of my tip to introducing the new creative team that’s coming on, Paul Jenkins as the writer and John Broadminer. It’s sort of playing into this silly thing […] of, Todd you can read numbers of Spawn to number one to number one or you can do number one […] It’s like dancers, never ladies and gentlemen, like never ever. So let me just [tell] you how you get to issue 250. If you spend 20 years of your life that’s 240 months of your life and if you did one book a month, which you are supposed to, you are still 10 issues short. I’m not gonna take 20 years plus in my life and turn and throw that away so that I can now be a number one with 15 other books next month…not gonna do it. So do you know many books are up to 250 right now in this country? Zero! But one! Me! So if Marvel, DC have renumbered all their damned books and want me to now be able to walk into a room and be able to say that I have the highest number of books in this country then I wear that badge of honor. You guys think that that’s a bad thing, I actually think that that’s a good thing. That means that I have weathered all the storms for 20 years and I’m still here and as much as you may not like the band ‘KISS’ they are still playing music so you at least have to tip your hat to them. You don’t have to like their music but you have to sort of tip your hat that they survived, that they have figured out how to live in this shark-infested world and still [do] their own thing.
So, the end of January is 250, February is the Resurrection of the One and if you like Resurrection number one because I’m giving you a one on it…if the only reason you’re gonna buy something [is] because there’s an artificial number in the corner, it seems like a shallow reason for me to be happy about sales. I’m hoping you’re buying it because you like it and if you don’t then it shouldn’t…matter what the number in the corner is, and for people who say they can’t jump on because they need a starting point, I need number one and a jumping-on point, I go ‘Wow! So you’re telling me that you will never go [to a] Chicago Cubs game because you never got to see all the Chicago Cubs games for the last hundred years?’ Oh! I can’t buy the fifth album of my favorite singer because I didn’t get all the favorite albums and I can’t start watching that TV show in season 3 because I didn’t get to see them all. Are you kidding me? We jump in the middle of the ship all day long. I actually think we are capable of doing it.
Here’s what matters. Is it good or isn’t it good? I mean that’s all that should matter. But I will humor everybody for one month. I will give you a Spawn Resurrection One. If you like that, though, and you like that story and you like that writing and you like that part, then you must come back to 251 the next month, and we’re back at 251 and we’re gone. Why? Because for me I’m heading up to 301, it’s not 300, it’s 301 because there’s a book called Cerebus. Cerebus had 300 issues and it’s the longest-running independent. Once I get at 301 I’ll break the record. So actually 300 might actually be a normal sized issue, 301 may be a triple-sized one because it’s a new independent record and I might bust it out there but I just don’t know. And then…that’s January, February and March, 251 comes and starts going. And then in April it’s my new book Savior, which is now me doing a book that is a little more […] like the books that are selling good at Image. I can only go and do so much work in Spawn because it was created 20 years ago and it has a trapping of American superhero comic. So this is something that’s going to be fully painted by Clayton Crain, who does awesome hard work and it’s just going to be this book […] it just looks like our world. It’s very ordinary, ordinary people, and it’s just the story of one guy who’s a little bit odder than everybody else. And at some point it’s gonna matter on a global level that this guy exits because it messes up with what we currently…[with] the world we live in today, we’re just odd…my biggest sort of interest and disappointment is the human ID, the gene pool of us called human […] They enlighten me and disappoint me on a daily basis. I just think that if J.C. himself came down he [would] figure out how to basically […] It’s a little bit of that concept that I’ve had for a while […] I can show you some of artwork of your choice.
Bandit: Sure. I would love to.
Todd: Hang on tape recorder, I’ll be right back […] What I’m hoping for is that the consumer will give me the benefit of the doubt […] I’m not a one trick pony. Like guys I can do stuff […] I can do stuff, that was where I grew up…It’s going to fully painted. There’s going to be a lot of talking, a lot of drama stuff. It’s just going to be the real world […] It starts with a small hit down. Nobody knows nothing about the bigger deal that’s happening and then […] We get to the first issue, the local small time reporter driving down with his crew…
Bandit: That is beautiful!
Todd: Then like woah! Why is that thing so low because that thing is actually going to crash and then you get your […] eventually oh my God! 300 people on board […] She happens to be a reporter. She gets the camera and as she’s filming sort of this thing which oh my gosh coming, walking out the corn field is a naked dude and he’s somebody who looks like he’s injured. Now the question is, who is that dude? And we get to know who he is. And it’s like, was he on the plane? Was he not on the plane? Why is he in the field? Does he live around here?
Bandit: Why is he naked?
Todd: Why is he naked? Why isn’t he hurt? He isn’t hurt? All the above and the world will only be interested in the extent that there’s 300 people on the plane, everybody is worried about the 300 people. But there’s one guy […] Nobody really focused on him. But this small town lady is starting to see him and notice that he’s a little bit different even though he can’t remember […] And then they are going to see that he manifested a little bit of stuff. It feels like […] He starts the Jesus thing and she’s the only one who’s going to see it for a while, and then eventually we sort of carry this on […] It was always a TV idea to me, like I’ve been doing this for seven, eight years – that it starts in a small world, then it becomes a state, he sort [of] becomes big in the state, then he goes to the big city, then it becomes a New York issue, then it becomes a national issue. Why? […] because somebody puts it up on YouTube and then it becomes a global issue and now […] If we saw somebody walking on water, tomorrow, on YouTube […] Two things happen, you either believe it or you don’t. And so instantly the fight begins: Is that real? No!…How do you know it’s not real?…Oh! You’re an idiot for liking it […] He is just going to be a catalyst for the ID, the thing that fascinates me […] Everybody is going to go, he’s the real deal, and then, what are you talking about? It’s Photoshop […] eventually it’s going to get to the point where’s it’s going to be like no, it’s legit. Now, if it’s legit how will the rest of the world react to it? And I’m getting now into issue 40 and 50 and it’s like we’ve got a lot of enemies in America and they’re sitting there going, they aren’t going to think this guy is Jesus, they’re gonna think this guy was built. Some kind of experiments, some vitamins, America gave it to him. And if they made one why can’t they make 100! That’s a pretty good army, and if they get an army of these guys we’re […] This guy’s dangerous. […] but something’s gonna happen to this guy so our enemies will now be […] Our allies will go, who is this guy? Because you put him on TV and you understand that every time you put him on TV nobody understands who he is. Not a little coach, not his girlfriend, not his family, not his co-workers, nobody. This guy is a ghost. Where did he come from? So, and he speaks more than one language. How do we know he’s American? Why do you get him? I mean we’re friends, but why did you get him? How did you know that he wasn’t here on a visit from our country […] And then in the middle of it we get people that go, nah! What do I care about him? And then some who think, oh my God! This guy is gonna give us some hope. Then we get to the other extreme doing good stuff, bunch of nice stuff on a Sunday, but this guy is a wrinkle. He’s kind of Jesus-like, but he’s not exactly Jesus-like. […] what if somebody was 90% like the guy in the book but 10% wasn’t. Is it (a) he’s a fraud, or (b) maybe that book wasn’t exactly accurate. And if that book wasn’t accurate they’re gonna start asking questions, and if they start asking questions, the flock, that’s not good for your business, and the business model, the religion. So they’ve got problems, everybody’s got a problem because this guy exists and they’re just gonna discuss it before everybody taking off […] He can heal, but he can only heal 10 a year – who are the 10? I’ve got an 8-year-old dying of cancer, you got an 8-year-old dying of cancer, who gets the touch? Because he’s already got 9 people already picked […] Why yours and not mine? What makes you so good? And once you make the decision you go “oh, fine”, but then the President gets sick and if the President drops dead in the middle of the conflict they’re gonna think we’re weak so we have to go there. He can only do 10. Rules get knocked off the list […] My 8-year-old and your 8-year-old daughter, now both of them are getting kicked off for the President! No, pick one of the other guys. I mean […] It’s just us trying to get through our lives doing the best we can […] and this guy is causing us […] Just verbalizing all this stuff out loud […] Why do we need to have fanatics? […] have you ever seen this movie The World According to Garp?
Bandit: Of course, starring Robin Williams [a/n: also a book].
Todd: Yes, so in this movie, sort of the interesting part is a Helen Keller type character […] and people love her, she’s an inspiration. Once they love her, they start a Helen Keller society or club, and it goes and goes but then it becomes a little fanatical […] And Helen Keller is like, I don’t endorse it…and then the Helen Keller club voted her out of it. She’s an honorary member but now she’s out of it. So, now the Helen Keller club rejects Helen Keller […] This is the bizarreness, sadly, of the world we live in, because it’s not that far from the truth. So this guy to some extent […] The whole world will go crazy a little bit and his attitude is going to be, I should’ve never come out [of] the cornfield. It would’ve been better if I [wouldn’t] have existed. Why? Because we just can’t accept when there’s a gift in front of us […] We just won’t accept the gift. So the byline of it says that the most dangerous man on Earth is the one trying to do the most good. I didn’t ask for it, I got it, I try and help but every time I try and help it’s a cluster […] and everybody gets crazy. Do I stop trying to help? […] So anyway I can write this story from 20 years […] This is just humanity.
Bandit: Not only would I read the hell out of that, but I would watch the hell out of that.
Todd: Good! It’s gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And then what if he gets seduced by being a celebrity? What if he actually enjoys it? Then all of a sudden […] starts wearing gold designer jeans, going to posh parties […] He’s a flawed man too. I’m not saying this guy’s perfect, this guy’s genius. He’s just like the rest of us…just happens to have couple of powers he didn’t ask for, didn’t even know where they came from. So this guy’s like, I didn’t want […] And it’s just a mess, a mess […] That’s Savior. I just gave you the first 100 issues.
Bandit: That’s awesome! So, excited. Still going to read it […] One question […] One thing I’m going to get in trouble for if I don’t ask you because a lot of people are interested. There are a lot of comic book movies lately. Are we going to see Spawn back on the big screen or TV?
Todd: So, let’s talk about two things. I’ll get to my Spawn superhero movie but I’m gonna encourage everybody…listening to this to get in their ideas, and it doesn’t have to be and it doesn’t have to be a superhero. DC comic books is owned by Warner Brothers, Warner Brothers won’t allow any of those characters outside of their box. They just won’t. Disney just drops 4 billion dollars to Marvel and they just dropped billion plus to get back X-Men and FF from Fox.
Bandit: And Spider-Man.
Todd: They just got Spider-Man which is the last piece of the puzzle, and they have to buy back Ironman so they can do the Avengers. Now Disney has all those guys. How willing do you think Disney’s going to be to share those guys with their competitors? They are not, ladies and gentlemen. So this is where the problem is right now, because if you’re Universal, if you’re Paramount, if you’re Lionsgate, if you’re Sony or a bunch of others, Fox, where are you getting your new comic book ideas? Because they aren’t from Marvel and they sure aren’t from DC because they aren’t lending them to you. So you’re gonna have to go someplace else. Luckily we’re the third largest company of comic books and we are looking for ideas without the Marvel logo. So, if you have an idea, now is the time to get that idea on paper because they want it. How do I know? Because I got this thing called Savior that’s not coming out for three months and I’ve got two studios that are putting bids on it. Seems weird they’re bidding on something that doesn’t even have one page out […] Because they need content, they need stuff now. Do it. We have about 17 books at Image that have been auctioned by Hollywood. Maybe only one or two will see the [light of day], but they’re hungry. They gotta get stuff elsewhere. It is a good time to be independent.
So, what does that mean for Spawn? Well of course by using that theory Spawn is one of those they’re looking at […] They knock and knock but I go I’m not gonna make a big budget movie […] I want to write, produce and direct. Non-negotiable. If you do not accept those terms this conversation is over. Their answer has been “fine, where’s the script?” Wow! That was easier than I thought but okay, I have to make a $10 million budget movie because if it’s a $100 million I wouldn’t be foolish enough to think I could direct that. So I go, I wanna make a $10 million budget movie, I already know what the story is […] But every time I’ve started it, I think of something new. It drives my wife crazy […] Although I haven’t been diagnosed [with] ADHD, I know I have it. She goes, I’m getting sick [and] tired of you sitting there because you write five pages of the script and then you go to scene B and oh my God! I’ve got a great idea […] and I got into the statue and then I come back and then I do 10 more pages and then I go, building blocks, we should be doing building block toys […] to build a building block you see right here takes a lot effort. So I get distracted.
February first she came into my room and went, “I love you, you know that, and although you drive me crazy I’m gonna love you, hopefully, till we both die. But here’s what I’ve done to help the love, I’ve rented this room for you. It is 10 feet by 10 feet, it has no telephone connection, it has no internet connection and it doesn’t even have a window. It’s in the middle of a building that’s locked and it’s dark. It is 10 by 10 and I’ve put your notes and your index cards and your computer in there and you. By the way, it’s one black away from the school where we drop our son off every day. So you will be dropping our son off and you’ll be going into that office and you will write than damn script because I’m getting sick and tired of people asking me the same question. Because some day they are gonna stop asking and it would be a shame that they asked you so long and you just couldn’t get it done.”
So if we ever see a movie, if we ever enjoy it, send all the acolytes to my wife because she is the one.
But it means essentially that’s where I’ve been the last few weeks […] Courtney knows […] I used to go hiking and do stuff but now it’s like I’m just gonna get fat and write the script. And even last night when I left Toy Fair I was in there, I wrote a little bit more. So the next time we talk, perhaps in San Diego, it will be done, because if it takes me more than 3 or 4 months to get that thing done, that I already have on index cards […] you’ve seen the stack […] It’s all there. If it takes me more than 3 or 4 months to get [it] done, then I’m an idiot. So to answer your question we’ll get the script and the moment we get it out, and I re-write it, and maybe some might have to come in and tweak it and we get an approved script the rest of it will go that quick. The money is waiting, the financial people are waiting, the actors are waiting. They’re all waiting and they’re just going, where is the script? Because I get the calls from their agents going, “Todd how’s that script coming because my guy who’s an Academy award winner, he’s got some other offer so should we be scheduling him or not? How’s this working dude?” So I gotta actually get it done. So it will be done by the next time we talk.
Bandit: Thank you. That’s was just perfect, I’m sorry we are getting cut off. Thank you so much Todd for talking. It has been absolutely awesome. I really appreciate it.
Todd: Thank you for coming.
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