Image Founder week continues with my interview with rock star Todd McFarlane. I've seldom been around a man who has as much star presence. Todd really seems to command a room as he walks around it, radiating charisma and his own inimitable energy. Todd also talks fast — really, really fast, in this sort of helter-skelter, endlessly enthusiastic way that carries you along for the ride. This was one of the most fun interviews I did at Image Expo, and I hope you enjoy it too.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: You were one of the main guys who got this thing of the ground.
Todd McFarlane: If we go way, way back then the origin was that Erik Larsen was getting a little disenchanted, and Erik and Rob Liefeld had been talking about printing their own comic books. I jumped into the conversation; we were all pals at that point.
And so as we started talking a little bit more, the question came up: if we were ever going to do stuff on our own, wouldn't it be cool if we all did it together at the same time? What kind of impact would that have? And I'm sure we chuckled about it the first couple of times, but I think that the more we thought about it, [the more] we were going, "That was actually a legit conversation that we just had there."
Then we just got to the point of going ,"Are you willing to make the jump?" And we all said, "Yeah." I was easily ready to quit Marvel. I was getting more and more away from Marvel, and I was just about ready to have my first child, so I was ready to take time off anyway. I went, "I'll quit right now and I'll start my new book."
And then Erik was going, "Okay." Rob went, "Okay." But I didn't feel that just three of us were going to be quite enough. Then we went to New York and we were going to go tell Marvel that we were quitting. And there was some comic book auction, I believe, in New York at that time, and Jim Lee was there. We pull Jim aside [and] sort of gave him the sales pitch. He came on board real quick.
And then Jim knew Whilce [Portacio], so he dragged Whilce on. All of a sudden we were up to five and were gonna have the meeting with Marvel to tell them that we're leaving. In that hotel that day, in the lobby, I ran into Marc Silvestri. I mean, literally, if Marc Silvestri has been staying in another hotel, maybe I would have recruited somebody else. But he came in, and it was that night that we were going to talk to Marvel.
Marc had the biggest gun to his head because I said," We're going to talk to Marvel and we need to know whether you're on board or not because we want to know whether we can put your name out there." And he sort of went," Uh, okay." He went to bed, thought about it, got up the next morning and said,"I'm in."
Then Rob brought Valentino on with him and we had our core of seven, and we said ,"Let's go and tell Marvel why we're quitting and our reasons for it. Let's go cross the street. Let's go talk to DC Comics and tell them why we're quitting, and then let's walk out of there saying, 'Image Comics is officially formed.'" And that was it. That was December 1991.
CB: What are the main reasons you decided to break away? I know you sold a zillion copies of Spider-Man, but you probably weren't making what you deserved to make.
McFarlane: I was making plenty of money. Actually, I was making more than anybody else. So it wasn't about the cash. It was that when I took it over Amazing Spider-Man, they said, "Todd, can you and a couple of other guys jump onboard and do something with the book?" Because Spider-Man wasn't selling very well, when I came on.
And then we took Amazing Spider-Man to the top of the charts. When I wanted to write, they gave me the new book — just Spider-Man — and it set sales records. All of a sudden, they started coming on and going, "You can't really do stories like that and you're making Spider-Man's eyes too big and you can't do 'the Spaghetti Webbing.'" Tom DeFalco denies it to this day, but he came up with the name. I was sitting in a room and he was criticizing going, "Stop doing that Spaghetti Webbing stuff you do," and I'm [saying], "Wow, I've got a name for it now, the Spaghetti Webbing."
And so they didn't want me messing with the icon, even though as I was messing with it, the sales were going up. It was interesting because I kept having these conversations with them saying ,"Guys, you don't have to like my artwork. You don't even have to like me personally. We don't have to go out and have barbeque together,"
I said, "You hired me to sell comic books for you, and I do that better than anybody in the country right now." And somehow we kept having these odd conversations like, "Todd, stop doing that thing you do better than anybody else." These odd conversations: "Can you fix this? Can you tone that down? Can you do this? You might offend somebody." All the things that got us to the top were now not good enough. Over time, it just wore me out, and I just went, "Enough. Uncle. I'll go and do my own gig, We'll start our own thing."
I was ready just go and do small, and I was ready to make the leap completely; shut off Marvel and DC and just start whole hog with this new venture and just take whatever happened.
By the way, since we only get like one one-hundredth of the pie over at the big publishers, we only had to sell one one-hundredth of the comic books at Image and we'd get the same finances. But that's not what happened. We actually sold the same amount and we got a hundred percent [of it], and all a sudden we're going, "Life's pretty good."
It allowed me to then sock some of the money away — not go buy big houses and fancy cars — but sock the money away so that when the opportunities came up to start my own toy company, I had the money to fund it. When I ran into the same conversation with big Fortune 500 toymakers about Spawn, I just went, "Screw it, I'll just do my own. I don't think you guys understand what we want to do here." The money has allowed me to basically buy my creative freedom.
CB: You guys were rock stars for a while, too.
McFarlane: Remember the early '90s? It was crazy. it was actually overwhelming at times. It was during that time [that] I stopped doing conventions because — and this may seem egotistical — you couldn't please the number of people that were there. I used to tell people, "We're only gonna do one signature per person. I can do about 300 an hour, and I'll stay for 10 hours, and I won't take a break. So do the math, that's 3,000."
But I'd go to these places and there would be 5,000, 6,000 people in line. I say, "Half of them are gonna go home angry," and that was what was happening. I was leaving conventions and having 3,000 people pissed off at me because they were in the back half of that line. I just finally said, "If I don't go to conventions, I won't have thousands of people in that city that don't like me today. If I go, I'm gonna have thousands of people that are gonna be mad." So it was just easier to not go.
CB: They had to actually even put you outside of the main buildi
ng at times.
McFarlane: We did one, yeah, the Chicago con, and we were in a tent. That was crazy stuff. It was a just crazy time in comic books. That's when sales were way up. Remember all the speculators were in the market? So it was sort of [a] false positive; they weren't all consumers per se. But it was a good time.
CB: Every one of you guys I've talked to keeps repeating that all the success totally allowed you to fuel your dreams. That's what this weekend's all about: the success. You built a giant company that's doing really well and you're getting to do the stuff you love to do.
McFarlane: Well, let me see if I can sharpen that a little bit. The things that I'm most proud of: one, that Image is now there as an option. If you get tired of those Big Two publishers, there's an option.
[Number two], if you want to own your own character, we have the best deal in North America, possibly on the planet. Image Comics owns nothing right now.
Number three, once you get whatever success you get, you get to steer it the way you want. So if you want to do nothing after that, if you want to go off to a desert island or if you want to act like a hermit or if you want to turn it into toys and TV shows like Robert [Kirkman] and me, you, the creative person, gets to make every single one of those decisions.
I'm not saying that if you come to Image, you should replicate what Robert and I did. If you want to try it, God bless you. But if you don't want to try it, if you think it's pimping yourself [and] you just want to do your comic book, God bless you, too. The thing that I'm proud of is that the freedom to make that decision is now completely on the shoulders of the creative person, which we didn't have when we were working for the Big Two.
CB: And you get to collect classic baseballs. You have the McGwire ball right?
McFarlane: I have the McGwire 70, Sammy Sosa 66 and the Barry Bonds 73. They're the top three home runs in MLB history. Those are mine. Those are mine.
CB: Sweet. Not that many cartoonists can say they have that kind of success in their lives. Is that what you were dreaming of when you were growing up on Vancouver Island?
McFarlane: No. Like I said, here's how it goes. I want to be able to say that if I fail or succeed, the only guy I can blame is the guy I shave in the mirror with; that's it. I don't want to be able to pass the buck on to anybody else. So even if it doesn't work out, I can still go to bed at night going, "You know what, that was my decision, I can live with it, good or bad." Pretty good life at that point.
CB: Yeah, talk about living your dream right?
McFarlane: Yeah, no bleeding ulcers.
Don't miss the rest of our series of interviews with the Image founders!