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Todd McFarlane on Gunslinger Spawn out-dueling Spider-Gwen and the health of comic shop sales

Gunslinger Spawn #1
(Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions / Image Comics)

Todd McFarlane's Gunslinger Spawn #1 has generated retail pre-orders of 350,000 copies to comic book stores, according to Todd McFarlane Productions (TMP). 

On sale October 20, the series debut features interior art by Brett Booth, Philip Tan, and Kevin Keane with three stories of the Gunslinger by McFarlane himself and writer Ales Kot. 

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions / Image Comics)

Gunslinger Spawn's sale figures are the latest in a series of what TMP is calling record-breaking numbers, which includes the June 23 one-shot special Spawn Universe #1 and August 25's King Spawn #1

What unofficial sales record did Gunslinger Spawn #1 break? Again, according to TMP, its sales figures beat 2015's Spider-Gwen #1 (Comichron estimates it sold 254k copies) as the best-selling title featuring an established character in their solo title debut in the Diamond Comic Distributors-Direct Market era. 

Spider-Gwen, now Ghost-Spider, made her debut as Gwen Stacy: Spider-Woman in 2014's Edge of Spider-Verse #2 before Spider-Gwen #1 in February of 2015. 

Gunslinger Spawn's path to a solo title was a little more protracted. He made his debut way back in 2002's Spawn #119

As we say, these records are unofficial and a matter of interpretation so who best to talk about the figures than TMP's titular head himself, Todd McFarlane. 

The creator/publisher/president (of Image Comics)/entrepreneur sat down with us to break down the figures, tells us what they mean to him, talks about the spirit of collecting comic books and whether these strong sales figures are built on a foundation of strength or of they're part a mid-90s-like bubble. 

Oh, and we talk about whether the global pandemic has changed fandom and how we consume comic books. 

Newsarama: So, Todd, with Gunslinger Spawn you're breaking your own records here. That has to feel pretty okay, right? 

Todd McFarlane: No, no, no. They're all slightly different [laughs]. I'm a baseball guy so let's look at the stats real quick. Spawn's Universe was the biggest launch in the 21st century for Image. Cool. The next one, the biggest launch for a monthly title for King Spawn. Done. Now we have the biggest launch for a monthly title with a new character. 

And I'm using the definition of new here as somebody who hasn't had their own book. Not that you've never seen them, but that they've never had their own title before. 

So for the record, I was going for was Spider-Gwen. Now you have to take out a few things like incentive covers and a few things like that to get to apples to apples, but we did it. 

Nrama: Seems like we're in a full-blown Spawnaissance right now. 

McFarlane: Yes and no. Definitely a resurgence of interest in the Spawn character and the mythology, all that's yes. I also think there's been a resurgence of comic books as a whole since the pandemic and I think there's a resurgence in people taking a longer look at independent books. So Spawn in the last 18 months isn't the only indie book that's done well for itself. 

Nrama: Okay so break down the first issue of Gunslinger. What can readers expect? 

McFarlane: Well obviously, it's super cool and that's mainly my pitch but also, he's not Al Simmons. That's the big thing I want to keep pushing and striving for is that these Spawns are not all carbon copies of one another. They all have different personalities and powers, with some being dramatically different. Gunslinger is going to be on the weaker side of things with his powers and his motivations for doing what he does are for different reasons as well.

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions / Image Comics)

Nrama: Brett Booth is the interior artist for Gunslinger Spawn, what was it that drew you to him? 

McFarlane: Yeah, he's awesome! It's interesting whenever you come across somebody that draws your characters better than you. Greg Capullo for sure draws a better Spawn than I do. No question there. I saw two or three drawings from Brett, I knew he was the guy. Originally, he wasn't intended for the job and he was asking me what I was doing and the very next day he sent me a sketch. I didn't ask him to do it. Now, that sketch is the 'A' cover for Gunslinger #1. 

Then we started talking and asked him if he wanted to do more of them and he signed on. At first, it was going to be an all-western book, but I didn't think the audience was ready for a new character and it being essentially a period piece. So we go back and forth with that, but the story is about him navigating through this strange world as he's a man out of time. 

We're playing him as a somber character like Clint Eastwood in his old movies. So you're going to see a lot of him being curious and less funny about the changing of the times. He's going to find out that there are a lot of things we take for granted that somebody 200 years ago doesn't know how to do. 

Nrama: You have Robert Kirkman coming in for a cover. This is twice you've had somebody coming, usually known as a writer, do a cover for you. 

McFarlane: Yeah, you've got to have a fun factor for these. With Robert though, I don't know if people remember this or not, but Robert did the first five pages of Spawn #200. He laid them out and I inked it and I think he did a pretty competent job. So I was like hey man, you should come and do a Gunslinger cover and he said he'd try. Turned out great. 

Nrama: Now you're also doing a Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) certificate with this book as well. For anybody that follows you on social media, especially your Instagram, there was this video of you signing all these copies for King Spawn, but tell us how the program ended up working out for you.

McFarlane: So it took a lot longer than I thought because it's not just signing, it's putting my name, a sequential number, and a file number so I'm really putting three marks on these and, yeah, just longer than I thought it would. It was a long day, but the numbers on this one aren't as high as the numbers for King Spawn so I won't have to do as many.

But I don't know how well it actually did because I haven't followed up with CGC to see how many actually used it. It wasn't a necessity, it was just there, but now I wonder how many actually did. So I don't know if it was 5% or 50%, they would know better. 

Nrama: You should do that! 

McFarlane: Yeah, you're right. I'll do it! I have to talk to them anyway about the coupon for Gunslinger, so yeah, I should do that.  

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions / Image Comics)

Nrama: Okay just looking at sales with Gunslinger and eyeing possibilities for The Scorched, how do you feel comic shops is holding up in the COVID era? 

McFarlane: Well obviously it's strong! I just got two articles sent to me today by Steve Geppi (founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Diamond Comic Distributors) about trading cards, sports memorabilia, even NFTs, so there is definitely a desire to keep collecting alive. I don't know if it's just the comic book industry per se, but I think geekdom as a whole has driven its way through the pandemic. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out why when we're all locked into our home and when you binge your favorite shows a few times, what then? You might take that money you haven't been spending on travel or eating out at restaurants and spend it on something you might enjoy. Whether that's on cards, statues, maybe old comics, something that brings you joy. 

The question is when we get back to a new norm, which I'm not sure what will look like or if 'normal' will even exist, will be if people are more engaged with their personal collections as much as they were. An educated guess says there has to be more. Will comics go back to pre-pandemic levels? I don't think so, either. I think we caught some new readers, fans, and collectors. 

Nrama: Speaking of Steve Geppi, what do you think has happened to Diamond Comic Distributors with Marvel Comics, DC, and now IDW Publishing leaving them? 

McFarlane: I think it's pretty much what makes the world go round and that's people think they can make more money doing it another way. I wish the world we live in is based on loyalty, but I can't say that. So if somebody says to you, 'well if you do it this way we can save 4%,' that's 4% off a huge amount of money. These are big companies and they just make economic decisions, good, bad, or indifferent. 

And let me just say this, every big company, every CEO who make these decisions, they're not fucking right all the time. They're big, powerful, and have success at certain times, but if people in big companies were so fucking smart then even PanAm would be around today. Just take a look at the Dow Jones from 1965 and a third of those companies aren't even around anymore; they don't even exist on this planet. I'm sure people at that time thought they were so smart and made all the right decisions, but that's not always what happens. So I think they're doing what they think is smart for today, and history will show us what happens next. 

Nrama: You mentioned NFTs and a lot of artists still consider that controversial, but it's definitely a way to make a quick buck, would you want to ever get into that? 

McFarlane: I'll probably dip my toes, just for the curiosity factor. The question I've been asking is like can we do NFTs for like...two dollars. Like if I sell an original page, that's the only one I have, but what if I could have some pages that are across multiple platforms.

I'm trying to figure out if you can have a crowd that only has $0 to $10 to spend, and another that has $10 to $100, and then the crowd that has $100 to $1000. I know there are some elite buyers out there, but that's only a handful. Trying to see if there's a business model for this for everybody, so that's my curiosity with it. 

Nrama: But it's just curiosity, no definite plans? 

McFarlane: I mean, I'm having conversations with people so there might be an announcement soon before the end of the year if there is a decision. 

Batman-Spider-Man

(Image credit: DC / Marvel Comics)

Nrama: You know I'm sure by now you've seen DC paying an homage to you on a Batman cover.

McFarlane: Yeah I had a few people send that to me, why is that weird? I've seen hundreds of homages to me. Is it weird because it's DC doing it? I don't know. I don't know if I'm fluent enough in why [laughs] people consider this a big deal. 

Nrama: I think it's because it's usually DC that others are paying homage to. I mean, Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Green Lantern #76 with the Neal Adams cover have pretty much been done to death. So I think the situation is that it's just rare they homage not just Marvel, but something fairly contemporary. 

McFarlane: Oh, okay, yeah. Just somebody had sent it to me and I'm like, yep that's Batman in the squat. Cool! I just didn't know why that's a big deal, but it being rarer for DC makes more sense to me now. 

Nrama: I haven't seen you announced for any shows yet this year and I know it's pretty slim for what's remaining, but are you going to keep it light for a minute? 

McFarlane: Yeah, we just had a meeting with all the partners and I think nobody was overly excited about stepping out, so yeah, we're keeping things pretty cautious. Next year though, it's the 30th anniversary of Image Comics and we're hoping the world is a safer place and our comfort level has increased where we can look at feedback for shows and see what happens then. I'm sure we'll come up with something if not, whether through the mail, Internet, whatever. We're going to celebrate regardless. 

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions / Image Comics)

Nrama: Lastly, we have The Scorched coming up, which is your Spawn team book. When you announced all these new titles almost eight months ago to now, how are you feeling about how things have gone? Lower or higher than your own expectations? 

McFarlane: Well we laid out a plan so I knew they were all connected somehow. So if Spawn's Universe was an abysmal failure, I knew it would affect King Spawn because it's connected. So either they were all going to be bad, average, depending on the word of mouth, but we've been lucky enough the first book already has a couple of printings on it and they felt like they got their entertainment. 

When King Spawn came out, there was less of a risk factor involved and then it works. Now we're asking to put orders in for Gunslinger and it's doing better than the previous two. The risk factor becomes even more limited. It's going how I saw it going and anticipated with the numbers bigger than I thought they would be. Now we're setting records that haven't been touched in 30 something years. Very cool.

Just a few weeks ago Todd McFarlane spoke to Newsarama in detail about King Spawn's sales figures and what Spawn can do that Marvel and DC characters can't

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.