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Why Todd McFarlane loves inking artists' pencils (and why he does it for free)

Greg Capullo and Todd McFarlane
(Image credit: McFarlane Productions)

Todd McFarlane enjoys talking about his comics, his toys, and his creations - but from interviewing him numerous times we've found that he gets the most excited when talking about comic art - especially working with others.

As plans are underway for his long-running Spawn comic book title at Image Comics to expand into a whole line of Spawn comic books by him and other creators, we caught up with McFarlane to talk about art - specifically inking, which he's doing more and more these days.

In this rambling conversation, the Spawn creator talks about inking over the likes of Jim Cheung, Greg Capullo, Rob Liefeld and more, and his thoughts underpin a deep love for the collaborative nature of comics and reveal the writer/artist/businessman's ethos when it comes to working with other people - and he also reveals who he's still pining to work with.

Todd McFarlane

(Image credit: McFarlane Productions)

Newsarama: Okay so Todd, last time we spoke about the Spawn Universe titles, you mentioned you wanted to ink Jim Cheung's pages, but he did it himself as usual. So I'm curious... how does somebody with your style approach inking someone else who has a defined, marketable style people are buying for?

McFarlane: That's actually an interesting question. 

Usually, if you have seen their pencils, there are varying degrees to them. To the guys and gals who have very fine pencils, I'm not too interested in that because what I usually do is open the conversation telling them 'Hey, you can draw half of what you draw and I can fill it in and finish it and it'll still look like your stuff.'

So I remember with Jimmy, I just did a screengrab of something he had done that was very loose and inked over it and explained 'This is how loose you can give me stuff and this is what it would look like.'

There's a cover that's coming out that Greg might have spent maybe 20 minutes on and I went in to fill it up.

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(Image credit: Greg Capullo (McFarlane Productions))

Spawn cover process art

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(Image credit: Greg Capullo/Todd McFarlane (McFarlane Productions))

This is how little I need to be able to convert it to a finished over and it still looks like Greg Capullo. I mean, it's still Greg by Todd, but the elements of his style are still all there. 

What I want to do with the artist is say, "If you want help, I'll do it free of charge. You'll still get your inking rates. I can draw a little bit, you don't have to do all of it.'

It's all about deadlines and helping out your teammates. 

I'm not even saying that you have to do a full body; maybe just put squares or something or little lines for a skyline, I get it.

Nrama: Okay, so you're one of those kinda people. It's interesting because inkers have said the same thing to me before. About a decade ago with Zatanna's monthly, I talked to Stephane Roux who was the series artist at the time and he personally picked Karl Story to ink him. Now, talking to Karl he felt like anybody could have scanned in Roux's pages and just darkened them and you would have gotten the same result.

There was no real room for, as you said, interpretation. I look at Greg Capullo's Batman stuff or his pencils on anything and they're so much looser than one would expect. And I know he's been inked by Jonathan Glapion for years and years now and it's interesting because he reminds me of you. Lots of detail, creases, but when he was inked by Danny Miki, it became more sleek and streamlined.

Obviously, this goes with the territory of an inker and interpreting that artist's linework.

(Image credit: Greg Capullo/Todd McFarlane/FCO Plascencia (Image Comics/McFarlane Productions))

McFarlane: Right, and I think that's more of a Marvel and DC thing when most of the time the penciler doesn't know who is going to ink them so they have to make their pages bulletproof. Brett Booth didn't know I was going to ink him for those covers, and I might do more of them, and if that's the case I can tell him to pull back some.

If you look at Greg's stuff, although it's loose, all the information is there. He indicates where he wants his shadows and where he wants it to fade. Even though it looks loose, from an inker's point of view, it's all there.

There's a lot of things you can do very quickly and I'll go to town on it. As an inker, there's no fun in super tight pencils. There's just not a lot of interpretation. Just thinking when I used to ink a lot of the early covers of Marc Silvestri or even Rob Liefeld... they still come out looking like Rob because they were still loose enough, especially in the faces.

(Image credit: Rob Liefeld/Todd McFarlane (Marvel Comics))

It should still look like the artist, and only when you get close enough and study it, should you be able to pick out the small details and notice 'there's a little bit of Todd here and there,' but not anything crucial. It's usually on, like, building details or cross-hatching or debris. It's the silly stuff, but it's enjoyable for me to do. It's like 'Dude, you don't have to f------ draw the smoke, just give me a few lines and I'll handle it.'

Nrama: Who do you like inking your stuff?

McFarlane: [Laughs] See, this is terrible and after all that I knew this is where this was going and the answer is no one!

Nrama: I figured that's what you were going to say.

McFarlane: Here's the problem, it's because I don't pencil tight. I've been inking myself for decades and it's why you don't see a lot of just my pencils out there. I do like 85-90% of my actual drawing in the inking stage. That baffles some people.

To me, the ink pen in my hand is the pencil a lot of the time because I have that confidence. If I had to tighten my pencils, that tells my brain it's going to take twice as long and if it's going to take that long, I might as well just do it myself. 

I don't draw as good as Greg does and I remember when I would send in the pencil pages for Spider-Man with arrows saying what these little blobs are. 'This blob is Mary Jane, this blob is Peter Parker'"... so I had to make sure letterers knew where to put the tail because most of the time they were indistinguishable.

Todd McFarlane

(Image credit: McFarlane Productions)

Nrama: Okay, so besides people who would be fun to ink, what are you looking for when you want certain talent on Spawn? I get it, he's your kid, so when you want artists on your books, what gets your attention the most?

McFarlane: It's interesting because I'm amazed how many people ink their own stuff and I'm like 'Darn it.' 

The one guy who I've been saying for years and years and years I wanted to get and finally get to do a page with is John Romita, Jr. He was on this shortlist of guys I had that I wanted to ink them.

Nrama: Who else is on that list?

McFarlane: John Buscema and Gene Colan.

Nrama: Oh.

McFarlane: Yeah, I've talked to Marv Wolfman and he has some Gene's original pencil pages and he's going to scan them in for me and just for my own brain, figure out what the two of us would look like. Does Todd McFarlane over Gene Colan look cool...or something else? It's going to be one or the other. His stuff looks so good but historically gets these brush artists like Tom Palmer and look what they did for Tomb of Dracula.

Obviously, John and Gene are no longer amongst the living, so the last guy on that list that is left is John Romita, Jr. I think his drawing and his construction and his compositions and layouts are just impeccable. Then he always gets these big brush artists sometimes on him but I kept wondering what would he look like if he got a noodler like me.

Now Danny Miki did the Superman book with him and there are some parts where it was like 'F---.... this looks super cool.' I don't know if John liked it or not, we haven't had that conversation [laughs]. The geeky fan in me just kept thinking how cool it looked and I think us together would be something that we've never seen before. So hopefully whatever he gives me on the cover, there's enough fun on there for me to noodle with.

Read about Todd McFarlane's upcoming expansion of his Spawn comic book title into a line of comic books - and the artists he's invited to participate.

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.