EXCLUSIVE: Talking Walking Dead, Spidey, Spawn + toys with Image Comics' Todd McFarlane

Between his role at Walking Dead publisher Image Comics and his own McFarlane Toys company, Todd McFarlane has left a mark on both industries over the past few decades. In the comics world, McFarlane is likely best known as the creator of Spawn, along with being a cofounder of Image Comics, where he currently serves as president. During his tenure, Image has grown into one of the most celebrated indie comic houses on the planet — buoyed largely by both Spawn and the risky little zombie comic Walking Dead that they took a chance on more than a decade ago.

But before he left the big comic companies to start his own house, McFarlane was an established hit maker, and put together one of the best and most successful Spider-Man runs in history. Plus, he was the first guy to fully draw the baddie Venom, so his shadow and iconic style still hangs over the franchise and many others all these years later. 

We had a chance to chat with McFarlane about everything from comics to the state of comic-book movies and his new line of Walking Dead toys. Check it out below.

The Walking Dead is one of the biggest properties under Image Comics’ banner — and on the market overall at this point. Can you talk about the early days when Robert Kirkman was getting it off the ground there, and the impact it has had on the marketplace over the past decade?

It’s interesting that most people are aware of The Walking Dead as being a smash TV show. They’re not really aware of the genesis of where it came from. I had a front-row seat being president of Image Comics, when Walking Dead issue No. 1 came out more than 10 years ago. At the time, the book came out in black and white because Robert couldn’t afford to do color [laughs]. It makes sense now, but the decision was more an economic one back then. Plus, when the book first came out, it was not wholly popular. I want to say it only sold 3,000-5,000 copies, so not a big hit. But what ended up happening was, unlike most comics that come out with a number and start to atrophy, like movies or bands, this did the opposite, and the books started growing and growing, and at some point there was that momentum and we said "Hey, we have something here, maybe." He was able to keep all that momentum going on it, and then it became a solid hit — a least in terms of independent comic-book sales. I know he ran around trying to sell it, and took a few years for someone willing to take a chance. It’s easy to roll your eyes and ask why we need another zombie movie and things like that, but obviously it struck, because his angle was dealing more about the characters than the monsters themselves. It was just ripe for TV, like a series like Lost. Yeah, they’re on an island, but it's about the survivors. That’s Walking Dead.

With The Walking Dead, and now comics like Outcast, Clone and Rat Queens all being worked on for TV development, that’s quite a few Image Comics properties eyeing a jump in medium. What it is about these stories that makes them so compelling for TV development?

I think there’s a blessing and a curse to having a bunch of spandex guys. The upside is, it's big and dramatic and super-impressive on the screen, especially when you have a $150 million budget. We’ve seen those examples in the last 4-5 years. The downside is, you can only play that trick so many times. How many superhero movies can you do? I think Hollywood is about to answer that question, and they’re going to keep going until they wear us out. What we've done at Image Comics is gotten way more eclectic in putting out a wide range of ideas that happen to be called comic books.

The weird thing is, you say the word "comic book" and most people instantly think Superman or Batman, but you don’t get that stereotypical knee jerk when you look at somewhere like Japan or Europe. Comics are any idea possible on paper with words and pictures. You say "comics" and it's just like TV and movies, and can be any story. You can tell any story in comics, but we in America are just so trained that it has to be spandex stuff. So what we’re doing at Image is way more suited for TV, because i think you put these stories out on TV and people wouldn’t even know they came from comic books. They’re character-driven, interesting stuff that doesn’t have to be the destruction of Earth on a daily basis.

Speaking of the ongoing development on Clone and Outcast for TV, what you can tell us about how work is progressing on those projects? 

They’re moving forward, and my guess is it's a lot of the same stuff that happened with The Walking Dead, which is that Hollywood is a big copycat mentality, and everyone wants their Walking Dead. Not just zombie stuff, but stuff that comes from that type of source material that might turn out to be a big hit. There’s an interesting thing happening in the marketplace for creators, and you have to think that Warner Bros. owns DC comic books, so they’re not going to let those children go to any other studios. Then Marvel got bought by Disney, and they’re going to clamp down completely — except for letting X-Men and Spider-Man and a few out the door before, though they're trying to figure out how to cobble it back and get the family all under one roof.

What that means is that if you’re Universal, or Paramount, and you want a comic property, you’re not getting Marvel and you’re not getting DC. Those are off the street, and that’s what I keep telling the creative community. If you have the 92nd best comic book idea, and the first 91 had a Marvel or DC logo on it, you’re in first place. Those are six studios that have to come to you, because you have the hottest thing that’s still available. Right now is a tremendous time to be in creator-owned, independent comics, because the possibility of having your Star Wars or Walking Dead still exists. That American dream is still there. I think that knowledge is getting well spread, because you’re starting to see in the past five years or so, way more corporate guys, creators, come — and not leave big companies, but work for big companies and do some independent stuff at the same time. I think you’ll continue to see that. Those creators look around and see some of the independent guys having success outside of just printing comics.

Tell us about this new line of Walking Dead brick building toys you’re putting together at McFarlane Toys? 

Twenty years ago, I entered the toy industry based upon one question I asked when I walked down the action figure aisle. I looked at the products, and as an artist, said, "I don’t understand why it can’t be cooler looking." I don’t get it. It’s just a consumer question. So I started my own business and found out modeling plastic into cooler shapes is not rocket science. Fast-forward 20 years into the future, and looking at the construction aisle, building block aisle, and I’m asking the exact same question. I don’t get why it can’t look cooler. Now, with 20 years in the plastic goods business, I know there’s no reason it can’t. There’s no scientific reason it can’t, only a business-model reason. Twenty years ago, they gave me an artistic gap that needed to be filled, and I went in and did it. Now I’m taking the same mindset and moving it over. It can look cooler. 

It just bubbled to the surface, more specifically, in recent years with big products out in the marketplace that were based on "mature" brands. HaloCall of Duty, and stuff like that. Looking at it going in, I get it’s a big brand and a mature brand — but I don’t see maturity with it. To me, there’s a disconnect. If Company A wants to do a fire station and make it silly for 6-year-olds, that’s great. I’ve bought those for my kids. But doing something consumed by 20-and-above people, I don’t get why you’re still using 6-year-old models. So we’re going to show a different way to skin the cat.

What are the biggest factors you have to consider when designing a brick building toys model, compared to a regular action figure?

With action figures, I get to do it all and force-feed you the art, but one of the fun parts about people who mess around with bricks and construction pieces, you can move those around into different shapes and transform it in a different way. For me, to venture into this aisle, I still needed to adhere to the rules most people are used to. Let's get the big question out of the way: "Are blocks compatible with the leading brands?" Absolutely, you can mix and match. But I’m saying, why can’t it be sexier? We’re taking what people understand, how to play with bricks, and the magic we’re bringing to the table is that at the end of the build, where I think other companies stop short, is they get there and they’re done. To my eye, I say it's still bitmapped. I’m not seeing the sleekness of what it should be. We then come in and add an extra layer that makes it cooler to look at.

It’s interesting, when we took the idea to big companies that have been buying a long time they understood the art part, and said it looks terrific, but didn’t get the build. But the moment we pulled a few planks up, then the light bulb went off. Underneath that art, it's just traditional building blocks. You tell people, then you show them and they don’t understand until you peel the skin. It’s still blocks, but way better art on the blocks. We’re basically skinning it with better art. As much as I appreciate someone building a 10,000-piece real-life Batman or Millennium Falcon, the problem for me is the closer I get to that build, it's like zooming into a photo on my computer, it starts to bitmap. Its made out of a bunch of bricks. I mean, I get it. If I had a billion-dollar model that worked, I’d keep the model, too. But it allows opportunities for guys like me to service this corner of people maybe a little older and more sophisticated, who are expecting more out of that final build. So when it's built, it’ll be closer to a piece of art or a diorama you can put on display.

You’ve talked about doing a new Spawn movie for a while now. What would you like to see from another film version of the property, and how is that process going?

It would be a psychological terror, R-rated movie. I’m not as concerned about special effects and things like that. The more interesting concept to me is of this sentinel, this being, the Spawn, and that force is now walking in a normal world. It has the look of any other R-rated movie. I’ve never been big fan of PG-13 action movies, because I do that all day. I need a dose of reality. I’ve always been a drama guy. I just want to do a movie that, minus the one supernatural element, the rest of the world is completely normal. It harkens back to my days as a kid watching horror movies. There was Dracula in that world, and that was it. There's not 12 Draculas. The monster was the only fantastic element in that world. You could say the same thing with movies like The Exorcist. There’s only one girl who can spin her head, not 12, and the guy that tried to exorcise her didn’t have special powers. You take that girl out of the movie, and it was just the world. Those have always been more intriguing to me. That’s the story I’m working on with the screenplay.

Considering your extensive experience on Spider-Man back when you were at Marvel, what’s your take on the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man films?

I think those have a nice fun factor to them. I think there’s some imagery, especially in the last one, where you could freeze-frame and go "Wow, that’d make a comic-book cover." This dude is a fan of comics, doing a lot of comic-book stuff. I think with a character like Spider-Man, you need those elements. His popularity is so huge, especially among the kids. I don’t go into those movies thinking, "Is this going to entertain me, per se, as an older gentleman?" I think, "If I were 13, would I think it's the coolest thing?" If the answer is yes, then I think they did a good job of it.

It’s like Transformers, with a giant robot sitting on a giant dinosaur robot. A 12- or 13-year-old is not as concerned about whether the story has the plot elements and all that, it’s just about looking at it and seeing if you say it's cool. I try not to get too critical about stuff, given I know it wasn’t aimed at an adult audience. What’s the target audience? Did it hit it? If so, then I say they did their job right. I think they’re doing some cool, crazy stuff visually. Now you can almost effortlessly blow up the world on screen. So how do you top that? I’ve seen it in eight movies, where do you go next? Somebody's going to have to think of something much more grand.

With the studio putting together a new Venom spinoff film, what type of design cues would you like to see them use for the character (McFarlane was the first artist to fully draw Venom in the comics)?

First off, Venom should be a bad guy, right? I’ve never been a fan of trying to make the bad guy good. He should still be nasty, and should not only act the part but look the part. I think there have been some different visuals some artists have done that I’d say were cool that I wish I’d have done, while some have been a little too polite. Put that application on the movie version (in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3), it was OK. I didn’t think he was gnarly and nasty and imposing enough for what he should’ve been.

Crazy design hypothetical — how would you design an Alien xenomorph?

Hmm ... that’s a tough one, because there a lot of designs out there where you go, "Hey, I’d like to take a stab at that." But that design is pretty good. You could do more gnarly-ness, but I’d still be paying homage to what was already laid down. Iconic. I think it's a word people use in Hollywood and throw that around way too easily, and I usually roll my eyes when they say it. But that character, it deserves that word. i think that design and everything that is a derivative of it is completely well-earned. Some masterpieces need to be left untouched.

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