Todd McFarlane is one of the most influential comics creators of the last 30 years. As a vital part of the team that founded Image Comics in 1992, he changed the shape of the industry forever. The creator-owned publisher also became the home of McFarlane’s flagship creation, Spawn, and now almost three decades later, the writer and artist is trying his hand at directing with an R-rated Spawn movie from Blumhouse Productions. We spoke with McFarlane about creating, directing, and why the time is right for a new Spawn movie.
DEN OF GEEK: Looking back 27 years to when you created Al Simmons, did you ever think that there’d be a time when you’d be directing a Spawn movie?
TODD MCFARLANE: Well, even back in the ’90s, we had the Tim Burton Batman movie and the Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, so the possibilities were there. Obviously, it was a long shot, but for me when we started Image Comics there were four pillars that I was aiming for. One was to do Spawn toys, one was to do video games, one was to do television, and then one was to do a movie. I got lucky that I was able to touch all four of those, although the toy one I ended up doing on my own. But I felt that if you could touch those four areas and put those pillars on a strong foundation of a solid storyline and character, then just like in real architecture, you could build a skyscraper on one foundation.
There were always goals, but you have to be somewhat realistic. I got lucky because when Spawn first came out it went to the top of the charts. And whenever you have anything that gets to the top of any chart—I don’t care what business you’re in—then people start paying attention, asking questions, and inquiring about opportunities. When people saw Image and Spawn were at the top, then the phone starts to ring and people go, “Oh my gosh, it’s outselling X-Men and Superman and Batman.” So they just made some leaps in logic. “Oh, Spawn‘s selling more than Batman, it must be better than Batman.” Which wasn’t true obviously, but it was good fortune for me that the phone was ringing in the first place.
Why is the time right for a gritty, horror-drenched Spawn movie?
Enough time has passed since the first movie that came out in 1997, so at that point you could either do a retelling of it or you could do a reinvention of it. Either way, anybody who is 20 years old wasn’t even on the planet then when the last movie came out. So there’s a gap there where people wouldn’t necessarily be comparing it directly.
I’m 30 years older now, and so the things that appeal to me as a 50-year-old are not necessarily the same things that appealed to me when I was 20 years old. Given that I’m still driving this character called Spawn, for my own entertainment I can’t go back and do something that essentially the first movie did. It was a PG-13 comic book action movie, and it hit all the marks. So if people want that version, go watch that movie. I’m acknowledging that the vast majority of the people who are still following Spawn are now much older because they started a decade or two decades ago. Now they’re adults, so give them an adult movie.
When people ask, “Why are you still evolving Spawn?” it’s because Todd McFarlane is still the guy writing the stories, and I would’ve gone creatively insane if I was still writing the same stories that essentially felt like issues one through five.
In the current superhero movie landscape, what are some of the challenges of bringing Spawn to the big screen?
If you take a step back and you look at the success of the Venom movie and Aquaman–and to some degree even Captain Marvel–when you see the number of dollars that are being brought in overseas, that’s the key to the success of these films. When I see that Aquaman is doing $700-800 million overseas, the reality is that there aren’t a lot of stores overseas that sell American comic books. So that means that the vast majority of viewers in Aquaman‘s case have probably never ever had an Aquaman comic book in their hands. So what they were going for was, “Ah, that looked like a cool trailer, and it looks like it might be a fun ride, I’m going to go for it.” I have to do the same thing.
Ultimately, once we get into production and we make a movie, the trailer is going to do all the talking for us. Globally, people are going to either go to YouTube, watch the trailer, and make a quick decision on whether it’s something that they think they will enjoy for their $10 or not. They’ll go, “Oh, I don’t know what Spawn is, but that looks pretty wicked.” Or they’re going to go, “Eh, I watched it. Not my thing.”
I have to make sure that I’m acknowledging the average moviegoer because if you get too geeky, then to me, you can potentially alienate a certain group if you don’t have 10 years of films behind you like the MCU. They’ve now built that geek [recognition] and people will go for the ride. You say “Marvel” and everybody jumps on board. I’m not going to have that luxury, so I need to just go into a standalone single movie and answer “is this worth your $10 today?”
For you personally, what’s the biggest drive to make the Spawn movie?
Just getting it out of my body so that I don’t go to the top of the mountains and just scream naked and become a serial killer if I don’t. I have to get it out in some form at some point, and then once you do that, just stepping back and seeing whether it was self-serving or whether there’s an audience that will go for the ride with you. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that, almost at the very beginning of nearly everything I do, I’m trying to entertain myself first. Part of that is because, especially in comic books, it can be a very lonely occupation. You sit in a room for 10 hours by yourself [with] your thoughts, and if you’re not doing stuff that excites you, then I think it shows on the page.
So I’m hoping that the same sort of attitude happens with Spawn where I just say, “I’m a little bit older, I’m a little bit more mature. I’m looking for something a little more sophisticated.” I’m not saying that PG-13 superhero movies are bad, and quite the contrary, they’re awesome. I think there’s enough diet there for people to feast off. Why would I add another one to that smorgasbord?
You’re about to hit a milestone with Spawn #301, which will make it the longest running independent comic book series. How does that feel?
I’ve got a panel at San Diego Comic-Con this year and the message is, “Forget Todd, forget Image, forget Spawn, even to some extent forget comic books.” What Spawn #301 represents to me is just that you can come up with an idea, you can start the idea, and 30 years later you could still be in control of that idea. On any level, I don’t care what medium or what business or what industry. That’s the idea that I’m hoping to get up on that stage and inspire in people.