Exclusive NYCC Todd McFarlane Interview

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If you were to ask the average comic book reader walking around New York Comic Con to list the most prominent creators of the modern age of comics, odds are the majority of them would include Todd McFarlane. Best known as one of the co-founders of Image Comics, where he created Spawn, McFarlane also had stints at DC and Marvel. It was at the latter where he also left his indelible thumbprint on The Amazing Spider-Man, co-creating Venom — one of Marvel’s most popular characters of the last three decades — with writer David Michelinie.

We caught up with McFarlane at New York Comic Con this weekend to learn more about the new Spawn movie he’s working on, his thoughts on its predecessor 20 years later, the 30th anniversary of Venom, and what he’s up to at McFarlane Toys.

How is New York Comic Con treating you so far?

Todd McFarlane: Today is day two, before day trek. I would say that some of us that are on the creative end, the celebrity end, get the easier end of it because we get to do panels and sit down. I admire all the fans that come here and they have to walk literally. If they all had their Fitbits on, I’d be surprised at how many miles they walk during the four days. Anybody trying to lose weight, don’t go on a diet. Just come to a big comic book convention someday, either in San Diego or New York, and I’m telling you you will lose pounds.

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Can you give us an update on the Spawn film?

Todd McFarlane: You know movies sort of move at a slow pace, but the script’s in and we just began budgeting it. From there, we’ll then go into Hollywood and make our pre-distribution deal. A release date will come with that deal probably. So that will be the next big sort of important piece of news that the Internet will care about.

Gathering the money and doing some of the other stuff behind the scenes isn’t sexy, and then once we make that pre-distribution deal, then we’ll hire the actors and then start going fast. We’ll hire the actors, we’ll jump into pre-production, and then we’ll get into production probably five-six weeks after we start pre-production. So we’re hoping to be into pre-production which means everything’s lined up. We’ll have all of our actors in place by the beginning of the New Year, which means we’ll be shooting hopefully late to middle of February.

Jason Blum

Can you talk about how Jason Blum fits into the new film?

Todd McFarlane: Producing alongside Jason Blum who’s got Blum House Productions. Their last couple of big movies were “Get Out” and “Split.” They did those for combined $15-16 million budgets in terms of production, and they grossed over $600 million worldwide. He’s sort of a master of being able to take ideas, not spend a lot of money, and still execute it at a high level so that the chances of it succeeding are there. He was the producer behind the “Purge” and “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity.”

I chose him for a couple reasons: One, he’s the hot guy in Hollywood. Number two, I keep saying the movie is not going to be a superhero movie on any level. It’s going to be this supernatural, creepy, odd, disturbing, dark R-rated movie. The easiest way to get there is to just say, “I’ve got Jason Blum here, you’ve seen his movies, that’s what we’re living. We’re living in his space, not in Marvel and DC land.”

We’re about 20 years out from the original Spawn movie. Looking back at the film are there things you wished had been done differently?

Todd McFarlane: Lots! There are things five seconds after the movie was done I wished (were done differently). The difference was, on that one — and I’m not saying that my ideas are any better or any worse than anybody else — but I was only the executive producer on that one. I didn’t have a lot of authority in terms of the script and what was going on the screen and even the final edit. It was OK for it’s time. There is some stuff on the screen I thought that looked unfinished because we were rushing at the end. I made my suggestion on some stuff, but it didn’t get implemented. Now we’re 20 years past and I’m in a position where I get to say, “No, I want to control exactly what I think this character is.” Given that he’s evolved over those 20 years, and the simple evolution is that I just think my fans have gotten older.

I think that they expect something more sophisticated than just an action movie, PG-13, superhero, fun-fest. There are plenty of those out there and they all do well. I just don’t think that that’s the expectation from my fans. Especially, we did three years of HBO and I get way more e-mail asking for that tone — which was R and had every single warning on it before the show started — than the PG-13 action movie.

Will the heaven and hell aspects of Spawn be present in the new film?

Todd McFarlane: In the story I’ve written, I’m not overly concerned about the heaven and hell elements of it. I always tell my writers I think it’s a crutch. “I get it, he comes from hell!” It doesn’t mean any more than if you come from North Dakota that every story has to involve somebody from North Dakota. It just means that’s where you are born. Now start telling me about the adventures of the guy globally, given that he’s not in North Dakota anymore.

I’m way more interested and concerned about sort of the evil and the darkness that are in men’s hearts, not demons or angels. The headlines that I read every day, those are the actions of men and not the actions of anything sort of out-of-worldly. I was a big fan growing up of drama, R-rated drama. Even the creepy movies I watched, I’m sure you can put yours in the same bucket. Whatever your three, four, or 500 top creepy movies are, there is one thing in common with all of them: You take the creepy thing out and the rest of the movie is normal. Superhero movies don’t work that way. You take Batman out, you still have the Batmobile and the headquarters and the Joker and Robin, and I mean there’s a dozen things that are still fantastic in it.

And creepy movies work because I think, and they’re accessible because, you only have to disband your belief on one idea. Everything else leading up to the boogeyman is always real. You go out on a date with your girlfriend, you have a nice evening. You’re going down a dirt road, you run out of gas. We’ve all probably been there once. There is a house on the top of the hill, you’ve got to go knock on the door, and, “Oh, is there a psycho killer inside?” That allows you to have a creepy movie. You only have to go, “Is it possible to have a creepy guy inside a house in the middle of the farmlands?” I think most of us will go, “I think so.”

Can creepy people and insane people exist? Yes, sure. What are we talking about? We just saw it in Vegas a few days ago. You only have to give up one thing. Where, for me, in action movies — not just superhero movies, but action movies in general — you have to disband your belief and at times dozens of practical things, right? People straddling two cars at 90 miles an hour going down the freeway dodging bullets. I go, “I don’t know if that would actually work, but OK. It looks cool. I get it.”

I’m a drama guy, and maybe it’s just my age, but I’m a drama guy and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do dark, real, gritty. Everything’s real except for one element. And that’s what you and I call Spawn.

Venom Todd McFarlane

The 30th Anniversary of Venom is coming up. What are your thoughts on his evolution and legacy?

Todd McFarlane: I know what I laid down and then there’s been some odd stuff along the way, like trying to make him a good guy for a while. I’ve seen it before when I was a kid. They would make the Joker a good guy or Doctor Doom a good guy. They would get so popular as bad guys, they go, “Hey, we can make him a good guy and make more money.” No, that’s why they’re so popular. Because they’re bad guys.

Then even his appearance in the movie, the Sam Raimi movie. Physically, I didn’t think he was as imposing as I’ve always had him in my brain. I drew him big. He was gorilla big, and the reason is I just wanted him to be physically way more impressive than Spider-Man. And when Spider-Man was standing next to him, then you would go, “Oh my gosh!” There’s a distortion here at least physically. So, Spider-Man is going to have an issue. I understand they’re going to be doing the R-rated version, so we’ll see. We’ll see how dark they go with it, how creepy they go with that. I know what I would do with it if they gave it to me and I did it R. I’d scare the shit out of you.

I don’t know that they’re going to go that deep because they still need to sell shirts and toys, it will be interesting.

To me, Venom has always been first and foremost a monster. And then that he’s Eddie Brock or anybody else underneath to me was secondary. Once the monster came out, then, to me, Eddie Brock went away. It was just sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once the personality flips, then you don’t worry about what’s underneath it. You just play the monster. It will be interesting, given that they’ve signed up Tom Hardy, what they’ll do.

I hope it does well on a couple of different reasons. One is my name will be somewhat attached to it. But number two, the Spawn movie should be coming out fairly soon afterward and I’ll be able to put on the trailer, “from co-creator of Venom comes!” I’ll be able to ride on the coattails, so I’m hoping it does good.

Eric Larsen Todd McFarlane

Of the image co-founders, who would you say is the company’s Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, or John Romita?

Todd McFarlane: Erik Larsen, hands down. Hands down. I say that not necessarily because he’s created 20 iconic characters that will last forever and make movies out of them. Of anybody I’ve met in the comic book industry in my almost 30 years now, Eric Larson is the purest comic geek that I’ve ever met. I mean, he gets up every morning and he only wants to do one thing in his career and that’s to draw comic books. Write and draw comic books. He doesn’t want to worry about making toys. He doesn’t want to worry about making TV shows like Robert [Kirkman] and I do. He doesn’t worry about having a staff. He just wants to do comic books, and I admire and I’m jealous at how myopic that love affair is that he has. It’s brilliant.

What are you working on in the toy industry?

Todd McFarlane: Well, sort of the biggest piece of my business has been shifting. For 20-plus years, we were pretty much exclusively in the action figure aisle. And now we’re doing a lot of product in what they call the construction aisle, the building block aisle. Right. That’s a place where products like Kre-O from Hasbro, and Mega Bloks from Mattel, and in Legos. Blocks, that’s why they call it construction. It’s where you build stuff.

And the interesting thing is, a lot of the patents have lapsed. That basically means you can now buy these blocks from five different companies and they all work. You don’t have to be a frustrated parent and go, “AARRGGHH! I’ve got all these blocks and they don’t sort of hook up.” They all hook up now because the specs of them have now become public domain. So, we started with Walking Dead and a little bit of Game of Thrones. Didn’t quite do what I thought it was, and part of me says maybe adults, older geeks don’t shop that aisle. They shop the action figure aisle, they just don’t shop the building block aisle. But the kids do. And the parents do.

So we came out with a brand called Five Nights of Freddy, it’s an App game. It is the single largest selling product, bar none, by a lot that I’ve done in 20-plus years. And again, remember I’ve had the NFL. I’ve had Major League Baseball, Matrix, the Predator and Aliens, Shrek. You know, big TV and movie stuff that we’ve done. Walking Dead and Beatles, Elvis Presley. This app game is blowing them all out of the water.

With that then they’ve asked us to do some more. So we also have in that aisle now coming Rick and Morty. The Rick and Morty stuff is pretty fun because unlike just buying a figure you get these environments or these moments so what we’re doing is designing these moments in the show that people hopefully will remember and go, “Oh yeah, that was a cool one.” And those are doing good. They just hit the shelves right now, and they’re doing really well for us. I think in that aisle, too, we also have Steven Universe, a little bit younger audience, and then South Park. We’re having goofy fun with that one.

And then on the action figure aisle, we continue to do our stuff. But you know some of our bigger ones, [like] Destiny. My kid plays it all the time. He’s crazy for it. And it’s interesting on that one ’cause we’re getting the sales data on that one.

We put out three of the factions that are out there, and we thought that everybody would sort of pick the character that they play in the game. So I go. “I don’t know if the Warlocks are going to sell as many as the Hunters, right?” But they’re sold equally, so that either tells me that the fans are equally divided or that the fans are just buying all of them. They go, “Hey, I’m a Destiny fan. I’m going to buy all three.” So that one is doing good for us.

I mean, obviously, we continue to do Walking Dead. That’s been around for five, six years for us. I guess the seventh year they’re starting. We still have the NFL and football stuff.

Stranger Things. We got the license for Stranger Things from Netflix. They’re just beginning to start letting some of their properties come out. So we were fortunate enough to be able to get the action figure side of that business.

Then we continue to knock on doors and come up with any sort of stuff that may be a surprise hit. The thing that’s super interesting to me right now is that Five Nights of Friday is so popular yet it’s not public. This is the phenomenon of it, is it’s selling like nothing I’ve ever done before. Yet when you say Five Nights of Friday to most people, they don’t know what it is. We are now living in a world, because of the Internet and the way that kids are consuming their entertainment, we’re living in a world now where something can be popular and yet the adults don’t know.

I have three children myself, and I keep saying that if your child comes downstairs and tells you at dinner time what they like and what’s popular, it’s a year old. It’s too late, right? Because why? Because they were up in their rooms consuming it for the last year. First, to see if they liked it, personally. Second, to see if the friends like it so they could be in the peer group. And then third, to see if anybody on the Internet or on a broader scale outside their bubble of friends liked it. And then they play it and then they see if it’s going to actually be popular for any length of time. And then if all those happen, eventually they’ll come downstairs and they’ll tell you they like it.

But a year’s gone by. And so what that means to me is that there could be other Five Nights of Freddy’s out there. And we are all equally blind to it. And I take that as an advantage, because when I go up against Fortune 500 companies, Hasbro and Mattel, they always beat me. Hot movie, hot TV show, I go, “Oh, I’m interested in it, they’re interested in it.” I go, “Can I do it?” and they back up a Brinks truck, drop the cash, and they win every single time. And so I go, “Wow! So you’re now saying that I’m as equally blind or they are as equally blind as I am in finding what might be the next hot thing.” And Five Nights at Freddy’s, to put it in perspective: One of the items that Funko did was the number one selling item at Christmastime time this past Christmas. In all those toys. Not in one aisle, in all those toys. One of our Five Nights of Freddy buildings sets was the third best seller in the entire construction, and I’m going up against Lego.

And I still had that third best-selling one. Who am I? So the little players can now play, just like you. You can go and do your podcast and you can do your internet stuff and other people can have 20 million followers. That’s awesome. You don’t have to go through the system and you can still basically do what they’re doing. And some of that is trickling down into the toy industry. It’s kind of cool.

Exclusive NYCC Todd McFarlane Interview

What are your plans for the Demogorgon toy from ‘Stranger Things?’

Todd McFarlane: Yeah, the one thing that we try to do as much as possible, and sometimes you have to sort of shift your price range, is to try and get the scale as correct as possible. When we do come up with the Demogorgon then, again obviously, it’s going to be as tall as it is in the TV show, which may force us to charge a few dollars more to get it. But then when you put it next to Eleven or Hopper or something, you’re going to go, “Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s right.” Just like when we do sports figures, we try to get their body types accurate, too, so that every football player or basketball player isn’t the same height or width.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what they call a lineup for animation. What they do is, once you develop a show — and they do it with video games, too — you have your eight or 10 characters, 12 characters, 20 characters. Then what they do is a lineup, sort of like a police line. And a fun thing to me is making those silhouettes. And
if you make those silhouettes and you can still tell who’s who or at least there’s a bounce in the size of them, there’s the fun it. And you go, “Oh, there’s a little guy, there’s a medium guy, there’s a big guy, there’s the wide guy, there’s a tall guy, there’s the lady with the long hair.” Whatever it is, I don’t care. I think the toys should reflect that.

But again, if you’re doing a licensed product, you’re only as good as these little characters they designed, and you hope that they’re looking at the same things you are.


What was the most interesting comment by McFarlane? Comment below.

Roger Riddell
Essentially Peter Parker with all the charm of Wolverine, he's a DC-based B2B journalist who occasionally writes about music and pop culture in his free time. His love for comics, metal, and videogames has also landed him gigs writing for the A.V. Club, Comic Book Resources, and Louisville Magazine. Keep him away from the whiskey, and don't ask him how much he hates the Spider-Man movies unless you're ready to hear about his overarching plot for a six-film series that would put the Dark Knight trilogy to shame.

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