Spawn creator Todd McFarlane reflects on his career, his hustle, his regrets

(Image credit: Rob Kim/FilmMagic)

In what is a strange Comic-Con International: San Diego weekend, Todd McFarlane is doing what the rest of creators who were attending the show are about to do: taking the show virtually. The Image Comics co-founder had a few panels already, but on Saturday he'll be watching - like many of you - Syfy's documentary on his path to success.

Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won't takes a look at McFarlane's professional and personal life as he rose to prominence and tried to etch his name among the rest of the icons of the industry. McFarlane, his wife Wanda, and peers such as Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri will talk about their own experiences with the Spawn creator as a friend and collaborator.

Also in conjunction with the documentary release, Syfy has partnered with GoFundMe to host a charitable sweepstakes from July 20 to August 17, where fans can win limited edition merchandise autographed by McFarlane. Fans can enter by visiting here and either making a charitable donation or submitting a sweepstakes entry form. Donation proceeds will benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC). 

Newsarama spoke to McFarlane as he was preparing for the upcoming events and talked about the making of the documentary, anything he's learned by making it, and of course, any Spawn movie updates.  

Newsarama: So Todd, fans and creators were supposed to head down to San Diego for Comic-Con this weekend, but obviously that's not going to happen, what did you have planned for the convention?

Todd McFarlane: We had one on Thursday that is a sort of a roast/goofy panel talking about the documentary, so I'll be joined by Marc Silvestri,  J. Scott Campbell, and some folks from Syfy. 

And then Friday is just a Todd panel

I usually just rant and rave for like an hour, but not sure if that'll be fun over Zoom so Jim Viscardi will be the moderator/interviewer. Saturday I think is just the documentary release and I think we're trying to see if Warner Bros. will let us make an announcement on the new Multiverse toys.

Nrama: Sounds like a packed weekend and you're also announcing your RAW10 toyline, too.

McFarlane: Yeah I think that's happening [Wednesday] but yeah, you know I've been doing licensed stuff forever. You're always going to find some generic toys like army men and monsters and dinosaurs that aren't tied to anything specific so I was like, 'I could do some cool stuff. You're looking for some value? Here you go.' If you give me some space, I don't have to pay royalties and just put that money back into the toys, so Walmart said 'Sure, go for it.'

Nrama: Looking at the list of those, you brought back Cy-gor!

McFarlane: Yeah, from the original Spawn comic. We were looking at it and just - who doesn't like cybernetic gorillas? - and it just kinda went from there. We started cybering up all these different animals and coming up with fun names. These figures and toys aren't meant for our normal collectors who buy our high-end stuff but hoping they grab them. We'll see though.

Nrama: Can we expect any updated on the film/tv projects for Spawn and Sam & Twitch this weekend?

McFarlane: No. We don't have any major updates but everything is moving. I keep saying this and people are going to have to take me for my word, but things are moving behind the scenes. It's frustrating and I'm trying to do good for everybody, but we do have signed and sealed contracts. I'm not privy to say what they're about yet.

Nrama: Okay so your documentary airs Saturday, when did production of it start?

McFarlane: Wow. I don't know. They were there around Spawn #300... so maybe August or September and they wanted to get footage of the book rolling off the press. And I know they were there for New York Comic Con because #301 missed a one-week deadline so it ended up coming out two days after the show.

(Image credit: Syfy)

Nrama: You've been part of documentaries before, what makes this one different?

McFarlane: It's further along in my career but I don't know on the macro level if the message is that much different. 

The message is still the same from that point of view, me saying that almost every day of my career that I'm not special but I do advocate for myself every single day. I don't assume anybody is going to do me any favors and I try to get that point across. You might surprise yourself, but you're never going to make the next Walking Dead if you're never going to try.

Also, as part of the documentary, I wanted to show the downside of living in the fast lane so to speak and that it's not easy all the time. There's a lot of bad days that go along with those terrific days.

Nrama: Why the title, 'Like Hell I Won't!'?

McFarlane: Oh, I don't know. That wasn't me, that was Syfy. I think the other working title was 'The Devil You Know' but they never asked me. It's their money, they can do whatever they want.

Nrama: Who did Syfy get to be interviewed for this? From the trailer we see Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, even your long-time co-worker at McFarlane Toys Carmen Bryant got in on this, so who do you know was featured for the doc?

McFarlane: I think Joe Quesada if I remember, I think Robert Kirkman...maybe Eric Stephenson? Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Cardinals, my wife. Probably a couple more.

Nrama: Was there anybody you hand-picked?

McFarlane: No, but I did tell them they could ask anybody except one person, and I've got lots of enemies, so if you want to talk to my enemies, that's fine. I'm not going to apologize for my life. Go tell your story and you can make me look like a sinner or saint, but my life isn't going to change tomorrow.

Nrama: Can I ask who that one person was?

McFarlane: You can ask but, nope, I won't tell you.

Nrama: Fair enough then. It's interesting to see a documentary like this for fans who grew up with your work because for me personally, I've been following your career since I was about 11-

McFarlane: And how old are you now?

Nrama: I just turned 37 in June.

McFarlane: [Laughs] Oh, okay, that's way too long!

(Image credit: McFarlane Toys)

Nrama: So yeah, it's been interesting to watch your career unfold because when I was growing up, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the like were already legends in their own time. But for this, I think it's safe to say you're the closest thing my generation has to somebody like those. To you though, what makes your story interesting?

McFarlane: Wow. [Pauses] 

I'm going to be completely honest, the person who is most of me is me. I have to live with me 24 hours a day and I'm not overly impressed with me on any level, but I think that the story, if I had to take a step back and analyze it, is that if I can get a message across is that I'm not anything but ordinary. Skill-wise, intelligence-wise, I think I'm average across the board, but if I had to give myself something that I excel at is that I fight for what I believe in.

It shouldn't surprise you that I love Braveheart, the movie. I feel like a man out of time. I would have taken up the sword and said I'll die for my cause. So either they're going to die, or I'm going to die. That's it. It's that black and white for me. 

As I got older, I understood the word "compromise," and you have to make do with those things but when it's your time, life, and money then I don't care how people do stuff or how they worked the system. 'Here's what I have to offer, here's my art, do you want to buy it?' And luckily there's been enough support that allows me to do that.

More importantly, when I get on stage, I want to encourage people to do the same. Even if it's five, or 10 people that think to themselves 'Yeah, Todd is just a dude. There's nothing special about him, so why can't I be Todd?' 

Here's the thing: you can, but you have to start the journey. Sometimes those journeys come with bumps with the road, but I hope those are the kind of people that are on stage five years from now instead of me. I want that person to have ten times the career I had.

If you're talking about baseball or even acting, those are skills, but having the want to be a baseball player, you need the skills but I don't think the bar is as high with what we're doing. I'm just talking about as a whole. Not even talking about comics or anything, it could be about cupcakes. I want you to go out and make the best cupcakes you can do and sell them and see what happens. Go! But if you don't take the first step, it'll never happen. 

I walk around artist alley and there are hundreds of artists that can draw circles around me today, and I don't get why their careers haven't exploded. But as I get to know them, I realize they don't hustle for themselves, which is what I want people to do for themselves.

Nrama: Looking back as you were making this, do you think you would do anything differently?

McFarlane: Uh. [Long pause] There are a few things, yeah.

I would make sure I would get everything in writing so that could save me a couple of lawsuits. [laughs] That's the biggest thing to bite me in the ass. Yeah, whatever deal you make, get it on a piece of paper. 

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane/Steve Oliff/Reuben Rude/Tom Orzechowski (Image Comics))

Short of that? Probably I wish I had figured out how to balance my life and my career better. When you have the personality I have, it's easy when you're young and want to say 'Yes' to everything and to do it all. Then you find out you're not smart enough or skilled enough to do it all and you weaken yourself and lose time on things you should have or could have been doing. Hopefully, I've learned how to manage my own time and my own expectations by now.

I will say though that a documentary or a retrospective like this usually means one is at the end of their career. I started my career in my 20s and soon I'll be 60 and I plan on living to be 100. Short of me getting a fatal disease or hit by a bus, I'm confident I'm going to make it to 100, which means I'm just over half-way of my career. Shit, I got a long career ahead of me. I'm directing my Spawn feature film which means I haven't even begun one of my new careers. So they will have missed one of my careers and I feel like this is just part one in a trilogy.

I was honored to be around Stan Lee and that man went into his 90s, and that all you had to do was ask him one question, and he had 1000 answers for that one question because he had such a long life. The thing about having a long career, you get to tell more stories. I'll have more adventures and more stories.

Lan Pitts likes watching, talking, and writing comics about wrestling. He has mapped every great taco spot in the DC and Baltimore areas. He lives with his partner and their menagerie of pets who are utterly perfect in every way.