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INTERVIEW: TODD MCFARLANE talks unleashing the Gunslinger and why all Spawns aren’t created equal

Will Spawn be getting a digital-only title as well?

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Gunslinger Spawn #1 cover, pencils by Brett Booth and inks by Macfarlane.

The comics industry is currently undergoing significant changes, seismic in scale in certain regards. Digital comics are seeing consistent growth in readership and overall presence, independent creators have newer platforms through which to sell their product, and even comic shops are looking to adapt to the shifting landscape with different events or community-building initiatives to bring customers in.

Spawn creator and legendary artist Todd McFarlane is meeting this next phase in comics with a shared universe, an expansion of all things Spawn with multiple books and even a team series in the works. Much like what Marvel and DC have been doing for decades upon decades, McFarlane is trying to make sure Spawn’s place in the industry doesn’t diminish or fade out. What better way of attempting this than by getting new Spawn books out each month rather than just the original one?

It’s a gamble that seems to be paying off so far, with Spawn Universe #1 and King Spawn #1 already selling hard and fast. Sustainability is key going forward, and the newest book in the Spawn universe, Gunslinger Spawn #1 (slated for an October 20, 2021 release), is hoping to provide just that.

The Beat sat down with Todd McFarlane to talk Gunslinger Spawn’s role in the new universe and what the future will look like for the new line-up. Also, will Spawn be get a digital-only title down the line? The interview follows below.


RICARDO SERRANO: Spawn has always been a very adaptable character. He fits a lot of devilishly violent personas and has been successful in its various iterations. What made you put your chips down on Gunslinger Spawn on this particular moment in the character’s history?

TODD MCFARLANE: Gunslinger Spawn is just a badass, right? You know, you have to tell stories that hopefully are compelling enough for people to come back to them, and because he’s sort of a cowboy and sort of been ripped out of time, we’re going to be able to go back and forth in the storytelling to get the most out of him.

With the Gunslinger, I want to let the audience know that, as part of the Spawn mythology, all spawns are not created equal. They don’t have the same powers or the same abilities, or even the same skill sets. This particular Spawn, for instance, is maybe half as strong as the Al Simmons Spawn. He has to be just a little, you know, more determined and more nasty to be able to accomplish what he needs to because his risk factor is way higher.

When I was younger, I used to compare Superman and Batman. Batman was always more intriguing to me. There was always that risk element that you could throw him out of a window without his utility belt and he would splat down on the sidewalk. Superman would never have that happen to him.

To me it was like Batman has got to take way more risks every time he walks out of the confines of his own limitations. He might get hurt way more or at least feel the pain of being a superhero way more than other superheroes that have powers. I wanted the Gunslinger to fall more into that risk category. He’s endowed with the power of Spawn, but it’s not to the same level as some of the other ones, past, present, and future.

Gunslinger Spawn #1, variant cover by Greg Capullo

SERRANO: It sounds like Gunslinger Spawn is going to be a mainstay going forward then.

MCFARLANE: The next book coming out is a team book and Gunslinger will definitely be a part of it. We’re obviously in the big leagues now and because he’ll have his own book I’ll be able to spill into it as much as I can. Having said that, the team book is meant to cover different time periods and it’ll feature a rotating roster, kind of like any sports team.

The name can be the same, but the players eventually get turned over. So, could there be a team in a future setting where every character in the team book has no affiliation to the Al Simmons Spawn? The answer is yes. There’s a chance for brewing a smaller Spawn mythology for future stories, somewhat like happens with the Batman family.

New books can jumpstart these newer myths. If I do my job right, then it will only be a corner of the universe that is, quote/unquote, Spawn related. Hopefully 5 to 10 years from now people will be coming up to me saying that those four or five new characters are way cooler than the original Spawn or any other Spawn. And if that’s true, we’ve all done our jobs properly.

SERRANO: Then I think a good question would be why didn’t you expand the universe sooner?

MCFARLANE: I know. It’s like I can hear my mom saying I should’ve cleaned my room up earlier. You’re absolutely right. I was procrastinating for a long, long time. I mean, we’ve talked about a shared universe since day one when Image was starting out. It just never took fruition.

I kind of started and walked away from it several times. I had a toy business going as well, so to get too busy with any universe stuff while also doing that and some stuff in Hollywood would’ve meant having too much on my plate. My wife and I started having kids too, so life got complicated.

By the way, some of the new Spawns we’ll be seeing in the upcoming books were the product of design experiments for our toys lineup, things we came up with 10 or 15 years ago that we’re now repurposing.

Circling back, as I was nearing issue #300, I saw the perfect opportunity to finally pull the trigger. Then the pandemic hit. Life gets complicated for everybody. But then I saw that comics were thriving despite the lockdown and that the industry was doing quite well. We’ve seen that comics are going to survive no matter what. So, I went and put a plan together to make 2021 the year of Spawn.

Spawn Universe #1, cover by Brett Booth

SERRANO: While you mention wanting Spawn to have a universe not unlike that found in Marvel or DC, I’m curious as to what kind of Big Two mistakes or pitfalls you’re actively trying to avoid?

MCFARLANE: You know, it’s an interesting question, but I would actually come at it from the opposite angle. I think Marvel and DC both have done an amazing amount of good things over the course of building their universes. Giving options to the readers is one of those things. Making some of their characters be at the forefront of their team books and events is another, mixing and matching and doing continuity.

When I first started collecting comic books when I was 16, I had way more fun reading Marvel Comics because sometimes the characters would either crossover or they would put the little asterisk in the word balloon where an editor would guide readers to another Marvel book to get more background on the story.

I think this still works today if you don’t go overboard with it. A little bit of continuity, that’s not heavy handed, and quality artwork are the key ingredients. They let the readers pick their favorite books, right? Everybody’s always planting new seeds. Some of them take root and succeed while others go on to become like the great redwoods of California.

Gunslinger Spawn #1, cover by Brett Booth

SERRANO: So you’re thinking of keeping a steady flow of new Spawn series to nurture the universe’s growth?

MCFARLANE: Okay, so here’s the plan. The plan, and so far it’s gone pretty good, is can I get up to four books now. Why four books? The reason is because by doing one book a month I was letting my fanbase walk away for a month and get distracted. And not only distracted with the world, which is a pretty cool place, but also get distracted with possibly coming in and buying other comic books with no Spawn in sight for another month.

I started thinking, could I then make it so that I have a book essentially every week now? If I could have a book a week, then I could feed the needs of everybody who I think had an interest in the Spawn universe.

You have to build momentum. To buy an issue #1 from a new and growing universe should feel like you’re buying into something ambitious. I was able to get some terrific numbers on Spawn Universe #1, I think because of that, and it got me going out of gate running. The sales came in strong and I ended up having to go back and print more.

Then, two months later, when I’m asking for order numbers for King Spawn #1, there’s two things that I have at that point. One is you’ve got a known quantity spot. Try to make it as easy as you can on the retailer when they’re ordering books. The expectation of sales might make some retailers comfortable ordering more of it.

It’s about trying to bring the risk factor down. Retailers can go in more confident on reorders given the numbers on the previous number one. If Gunslinger Spawn works then that should give a better sense of how many of Spawn’s team book you should be ordering when the time comes.

Gunslinger Spawn, variant cover by Todd McFarlane

SERRANO: Last question. As more and more creators move to digital-only platforms and newsletters—such as Webtoons and Substack—where does Spawn fit in all this? Will we be seeing a digital-only Spawn title?

MCFARLANE: I don’t know. I’m not going to say definitively one way or the other. What I will say is that I’m already digital, right? In terms of how I do my artwork, I draw digitally. But what you’re saying is different, which is to deliver it digitally.

I may be an old man, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think comic books are a unique medium. I don’t think that they’re TV, I don’t think that they’re film, and I don’t think that they’re novels. I think you can all digitize that. I mean, they did it with music. They were saying “hey, you know, we don’t have to go and buy the CD, or my son plays video games and you can download them now.”

There’s a whole new generation coming up, I get that, but I still think the tactile part of comics is important. That’s a part of the experience that I think will make it very hard for that transition from print to digital to fully take over. In fact, print is what we do a lot of in comic book conventions. The creators of these books go to shows and people want their books signed. I’ve been in the business for over 30 years and I can tell you right now that over 95% of what I signed, and I do a lot of toys, is still the comic book.

I think that the relationship between the fan and their book, and the hope that at some point they might get one of them signed, is quite powerful.

I don’t think that printed comic books are going to get overtaken by digital anytime soon. And here’s why. Digital comic books have been around for a long time. They haven’t moved the needle yet. I’m a results guy and I’m a sports guy, and at some point when that prospect from the first-round draft picks that showed so much potential is now his seventh year and still isn’t a star, he’s not going to be a star. There’s nobody in pro sports that turns into a star in their seventh year. Either you are or you’re not.

Now take a step back and think, who’s getting rich off it? Because if somebody was getting rich, let me tell you, they’d be bragging about it. If it was a public company, or if it was a small company, they’d be bragging about it because people are not very shy about saying it when they’re successful.

I know what the percentages of printed copies compared to digital copies are. It’s about five to one, six to one on any given month. Okay, it seems cool. Seems hip. It seems the same as video games and all the other stuff. But people underestimate the comic book itself in that relationship I spoke of between fan, creator, comic book, and collection. I think it’s unique compared to all those other areas.

When somebody proves to me that digital is actually where more eyeballs are going to, I’ll go digital. If the fans want to migrate to all digital, I’ll go there. They want to migrate to reading comic books on the side of a blimp, I’ll get to the side of the blimp. But so far, nobody has shown me in any meaningful way that digital is superior. We’ll see.

Gunslinger Spawn #1, variant cover by Tonton Revolver

There’s people that’ve been bugging me forever about why I need a Twitch channel or a newsletter. It’s like I hear “oh my God, are you on Discord” every day. There’s always another platform. I’m not saying that those aren’t huge platforms, or that there aren’t smart and good people using them. I’m just saying that nobody has shown that your fan base will migrate to those places in numbers that make sense for creators.

I’ve got a different theory about how I’m working stuff. There’s a movie called Field of Dreams. There’s the famous line saying “build it and they will come.” I think that’s a fucking lie. You go ahead and build whatever you want, then go sit in your room and see how many people know it exists.

They won’t come if you build it. Find out where the crowd is and stand in the middle of it and make them run you over for it. This is why I’m saying if I’ve got to go on the side of a blimp, that’s the only one reason because that’s where the crowd’s going to be. I’m not going to be a dinosaur and say I’ll never do it. I’m going to go where there’s the crowd.

Once the crowd migrates, I’ll migrate with them. I’ll try to do my thing a little better, or a little sexier, or a little cheaper, or add a little more production value to it and make it a little bit different than what everyone else is doing and grab a little bit more attention.

Somebody else that’s a lot younger, hipper, may argue with me and say “Todd, you’re out of touch.” Well, we’ll see. But please, give all of it a try. Try those platforms and see where they get you. You never know. Pay your subscription rate for your favorite creative people. I probably would. But here’s what I would also have done, I would’ve had to limit my budget to how many subscriptions I could afford in a given month.

As 100,000 creators go to a subscription base, I’m not going to be able to afford it all. It’s just like comic books. There are hundreds of comic books. People walk in and see they can only afford 20 this month, and that’s it. You’re done. Everybody isn’t going to succeed at the same rate. There are winners and losers.

I’m gonna be old school. You want to hear what I got to say? I’ll tell it to you for free. To be fair, I also have the luxury that I’ve got money and can afford to invest in new projects. Other people aren’t necessarily as lucky as I am. I’m not like, I don’t care what anybody wants to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do.

I’m busy doing other stuff. I think the things that made me attracted to comic books, big dynamic stories, dynamic characters, wicked storytelling, cool covers at a fair price on a regular basis, I think all of that still works today. I don’t know why we keep trying to overthink it. I think 15-year-old kids are still buying comic books for the same reasons that I bought comic books. It hasn’t really evolved that much. I’ll leave it up to people smarter than me to argue how to keep pace with the modern world. I’ll just keep putting out my books and setting records.

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