Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Todd McFarlane (@Todd_McFarlane), an Emmy- and Grammy-winning director/producer and creator of one of the world’s best-selling comic books, Spawn. He is best known to many comic book fans for his work as the artist on The Amazing Spider-Man, for which he co-created Marvel’s top villain, Venom.
Todd is the CEO of Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane Toys (one of the US’s top action-figure manufacturers), and McFarlane Films. He is also a co-founder of Image Comics, which debuted Spawn in 1992, selling 1.7 million copies of the first issue. In 1997, Spawn was made into an Emmy Award-winning animated series on HBO and a live-action feature film that grossed over $100 million. In 2019, Todd made history with Spawn #301, earning the Guinness World Record for longest-running creator-owned superhero comic book series.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today, I’m so excited to have with us, Todd McFarlane. He is an Emmy- and Grammy-winning director, producer, and creator of one of the world’s best-selling comic books, Spawn. He is best known to many comic book fans for his work as the artist on The Amazing Spider-Man, for which he co-created Marvel’s top villain, Venom.
Todd is the CEO of Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane Toys, one of the US’ top action figure manufacturers, and McFarlane Films. He is also a co-founder of Image Comics, which debuted Spawn in 1992, selling 1.7 million copies of the first issue.
In 1997, Spawn was made into an Emmy award-winning animated series on HBO and a live-action feature film that grossed more than $100 million. In 2019. Todd made history with Spawn #301, earning the Guinness World Record for longest trying creator-owned superhero comic books series. You can find him on all the social Instagram @toddmcfarlane, Twitter @Todd_ McFarlane, Facebook liketoddmcfarlane.
Todd, welcome to the show. Nice to see you.
Todd McFarlane: Hey, Tim. Thanks for having me this morning. Appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: And I thought we could start with a confession on my side, which is ever since I was a kid and to this day, I still have a poster of The Incredible Hulk #340, Grey Hulk versus Wolverine, that features your artwork. And I am a longtime collector and fan of your work. So it’s exciting to have you here and I’m excited to dig into all sorts of things. And I thought we would begin, and this might be a dead end, we’ll see where it goes, but asking about how baseball informed your approach to art and comics, if at all, if those two things tie together for you.
Todd McFarlane: So here’s what I would say about that. And I’ll give you a little bit of back history. I would say it informed me more on the eventual business side, the competitiveness on the business side.
It’s always interesting when you do certain interviews with people. I always think that sometimes interviews are laying on a psychologist’s couch, and they’re like, “Todd, why are you like that? What drives you?”
Here’s the answer to that question so we can get that out of the way. I think it was the day I came out of the womb and it was in my DNA, right? So there’s not a single day I don’t recall not being taught. So what is natural for me, I guess for other people, because I now understand as I get older, their personalities, that my personality has been baked every day of my life.
And it’s like it’s not an effort to do what I’ve done in life. So people go, “Oh, my God, you’re so tenacious, and you go up against people, and you’re such a rebel, and you fight for what you believe in.” Of course. There’s no other option in my brain. So I’m not fighting, there’s no other option. So it’s just a natural progression on where I want to go.
But I would argue that whatever that DNA is got enhanced with two things. One, I had a brother that was a year older and one a year younger. And then you get three boys together, what are you talking about? Every day was a competition, who could eat the cereal the fastest, who could jump the most steps down, who could run to school the fast — what are you talking about? Everything is a competition. And then you take that and eventually —
I was never going to go to university. I remember being in class when they brought — in high school, they brought the recruit into college, and they sort of talked. And I go, “Well, I’m not going, so I’ll just put my head down and continue drawing,” because I was always doodling. And then somebody tapped me on the shoulder, I remember, and they went, “Son, why is your arm not raised?” And I’m like, “What?”
I wasn’t even paying attention, sadly. And I go, “Well, what was the question?” They go, “Well, who wants to go to college?” And I looked up and every single person in my class had their arm up. Now that’s okay. But I looked at the two sort of druggies that I know because I’m friends with all of them. And I’m looking at them going, “What are you talking about? You’re not going to college, You got Fs across the board. You might even drop out in grade 12.”
So anyways, I gave them my reason, which is I don’t enjoy education. And so let’s just convert it to broccoli, and let’s say I don’t like broccoli. Why would I then go and pay people money to eat more broccoli? Doesn’t make much sense, does it? So I go, “I’m not going.”
Now, did I go to college? Of course, I did. Why? Because I’m an athlete, and so I played baseball. Getting back to your question. And somebody offered me a scholarship to go to play baseball. So my last three years, I was on a Pac-10 baseball scholarship. And at some point, now you have to get sort of simplistic. If somebody’s going to give you free education, I’m going to grab it. Did I want it? Not really. But if it’s free, I’m going to grab it.
And oddly, Tim, of the 25 guys on our team, only two of us graduated with a degree in four years. And the other guy was — I’m Canadian. The other guy was a Canadian. I remember the coach going, “Because Canadians don’t want to hustle as much in sports.” Right? Because we got a degree? What are you talking about? It was free.
And the reason I took it and I got it done for free because the dumb athlete was alive and well, but they’re not really dumb, they just don’t go to class. And if you don’t go to class, you don’t get your marks. And if you don’t get your marks, then eventually you don’t get your degree. Here’s the funny thing about that. Somebody is offering you a free degree, and 23 of my teammates decided they wouldn’t get it in four years. So either they would never get a degree, or, gun to my head, this is weird, they’re going to come back and pay to finish it.
I go, “Finish it? The buffet was opened the whole time you were there and you chose not to eat.” Oh, my gosh. So if nothing else, given that I’m sort of a cheap skate, I’m going, “They’re going to give it to me for free. I’m not paying another penny to come back here, I’ll take that degree.” So I got my degree and I was off to the races.
Now, between the baseball, which is competitive, and my brothers, then all of a sudden, three weeks before I graduate, I end up getting my first job in comic books. And all of that sort of made me a freelancer, and I had to begin taking care of myself. And it’s like, “Okay, just another game, another game of competition.”
Tim Ferriss: First job in comic books, you have posted, I want to say, photographs of 350 or so, rejection letters.
Todd McFarlane: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: When did you first start sending those out? And did you get any particularly helpful feedback that allowed you to modify things so that you were able to get that first job?
Todd McFarlane: Yes. So let’s go through it real quick. Did I get over 300 rejections? Yes. Is that tenacious? Is that determination, or is that delusion?
At what point do you say, “I’m going to be an opera singer,” and people keep giving you no’s, and you go, “Man, look at how determined…” At what point do you say, “Maybe I just can’t sing opera?” Right? But again —
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Todd McFarlane: So there’s a fine line. People give me way too much credit for those 300. I think a normal sane person with sort of less enthusiasm, we’ll leave it at that word, than me would’ve probably, at 200 rejections, found another option to make money. But the reason I was able to assimilate that many rejections was because I was going to college. So I was sending off samples almost continuously while I was in school. So it’s like I didn’t have a job, I was going to school, so I didn’t care.
I had four years to basically try and get a job. And then probably at the end of those four years, I was going to look at that pile and say, “Maybe I need to find something else.” My degree, I thought, is in graphic designing, and I thought I was going to be the guy who’s going to do Michelin Tire ads, right? I go, “That’s okay. It’s an admirable job, it’s a graphic designer.” That was sort of where I thought the reality of it was going to be.
But three weeks before I graduate, I get my first job. And how did I get it? By sending literally 700 samples over the course of those four years. And just on one level, I think I just wore them out because I sent it to every editor at every company. And so they used to have, let’s say at Marvel, because my first job was at Marvel, they have one submission editor.
No, no, no, no, no. The people who give you the work are the editors, and they have 16 editors. So I would send it to all 16 editors. Ultimately, I went around the submission guy, I just went, “What? You’ve got to give it to the editors anyways. Might as well send it directly to the editors.” So I would keep sending it to the editors over and over and over to every company, every editor.
And I think, Tim, in hindsight, I think that they probably had a board meeting or whatever, one of those Monday morning meetings, and they just said something like, and I’m making this up, but said, “Oh, for the love of God, that Todd kid, that punk that keeps sending us, we keep getting a box of mail from this guy every two weeks. Would somebody in this room give him a couple pages just so we don’t have to open up his mail every two weeks?” I think I just wore ’em out. And I got the job literally three weeks before I graduated. So I never even had to use my degree.
What informed me in those?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Todd McFarlane: It was all constructive criticism. Let me tell you, because people say, “Oh, Todd, you got the last laugh.” No, no, no. Everything they put in those letters was constructive criticism. Because the people who just thought that I was not very good threw my portfolio and my samples in the garbage. So everybody who took the time to write back actually gave a little bit of insight.
And so what I would do that didn’t know was actually going to keep me fueled, is that I would take that insight and then redo another batch and send it to everybody again. So where I was making 20 mistakes, eventually it got down to 18 and then 16 and then 15. And I think probably when I was at six mistakes, I think they finally said, “Hey, he’s getting better. He’s not perfect. And he seems to be enthusiastic. So somebody give him a chance, see what he can do.”
Tim Ferriss: So for people who don’t have any familiarity with comic books, penciling, anything along these lines, what were some of the things you were getting feedback on and getting better at? And I suppose this leads into the question of, what does it look like as a comic book artist to get better? What are you getting better at? Maybe that sounds like a silly question, but I’ll give it a shot.
Todd McFarlane: There’s two things that I think make a good artist in the comic book industry. One is just pure drawing skills. So there are hundreds if not thousands of people who can draw circles around me. So that if you can just draw pretty pictures, you can go a long way. The second piece is storytelling. And if you can do great storytelling and be an average drawer, you’re still going to have a pretty good career because people then will be entertained by everything you do. So I’ll use an example, and because I’m friends with him, I hope he doesn’t take it —
Frank Miller is a great, great storyteller. He’s the one that wrote The Dark Knight for Batman. He’s the one that created 300 that ended up getting turned into a movie, and Sin City and all these things. He rejuvenated dead characters like Daredevil.
I wouldn’t say, and I think Frank would agree, that he’s not the best anatomically correct artist and his drawings don’t get every muscle right. What he does is he tells stories better than anybody else in our industry, period. So he could do it with stick men, and you would still be engaged because of his writing, the way he does it, and what’s happening in it. So Frank has been able to take that storytelling, which to me as I’ve gotten older, is way more important than whether you’ve got flashy lines.
I came in as a kid who wanted to do flashy lines because people go, “Oh, my God, look at all the detail he’s doing.” But then I found out that really what they wanted was less flash and more clarity on the pages. You should be able to give a comic book to a non-comic book writer, go next door to your neighbor, give it to your mom. And at the end, they should be able to say, “Not my cup of tea. I don’t collect comic books, but that was kind of interesting,” because they understood what they were supposed to be reading in the sequence they were supposed to be reading it. And if you don’t do that, you’re no good in our industry.
One more thing, if you can’t keep a deadline, then you’re for sure not good at anything. As a matter of fact, people who can keep a deadline in an industry that is driven by monthly deadlines can have long careers and not be very good at drawing because you have to get product out every 30 days. So go ahead if you want to be the kid that’s flashy and do a bunch of lines and take twice as long, but they’re never going to give you a regular gig because you have to get books out on time, period, out.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m embarrassed that I don’t know this, but I never made it far enough.
Todd McFarlane: You can still lead a productive life, Tim. Don’t worry about that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’m working on it, working on the productive side. But what are the deliverables on a monthly basis? Are you shipping out a few pages at a time? Are they waiting until you have the entire book done, so to speak? What do the actual deadlines and deliverables look like for a full-time comic book artist?
Todd McFarlane: So it has shifted, as you can imagine, with technology. So the way that it used to work, and I’ll age myself because I got into the business sort of pre-internet, that I’d have to do my pages, take them to the — either phone FedEx — and they were called Federal Express at that point. And so I would have to phone Federal Express. When I use FedEx, my wife goes, “Oh, you’re so hip, calling them FedEx.” And then eventually they caught up.
But so you’d phone FedEx, they’d either come and pick it up. Or sometimes you would miss the call on their deadline. The drivers were — I was living in a remote area up in Canada and on an island in Canada. And so if I missed a driver, I would literally — which is why I hired an assistant to help sort of package stuff up. He would drive to the airport, which was about an hour and 15 away, while I was finishing up pages.
So I go, “Oh, I’ve got another hour.” And then we drive to the airport. Do you know how many times I ran down the tarmac? Because it was a little sort of prop plane that flew to Vancouver, British Columbia. I think he was always looking over his shoulder going, “Todd will be here in about two minutes.” And I’d be running down the tarmac, and I’d basically throw my package to him, and he’d get it done. Today, all of that’s taken away because now you can scan your pages and hit, literally, a download. Boom, it’s gone.
It doesn’t solve anything, Tim. All’s it means is you just get to push your luck with deadlines later and later. So let’s give you an example currently happening.
The biggest comic book that’s going to come out this year in our industry is a book called Batman/Spawn, Right? That goes to print — because I just talked to the people at DC Comics yesterday. It goes to print on Monday, right? You and I are talking on Friday, right?
Tim Ferriss: Friday.
Todd McFarlane: I still have to write — it’s a 48-page book. I’ve only written eight pages. I’ve got to finish writing the 40 pages. There’s 10 pages that haven’t been colored. I literally talked to the person who does the word balloons after I give them the script to say, “Hey, sorry, dude, we’ve got to both work pretty hard over the weekend.”
They’re going to probably get the last pages at midnight on Sunday. They’re going to look at it, make sure no pages are upside down or backwards. And then they’re going to hit send, and it’s going to go to the printer. And the printer’s waiting because when you’ve got a big print run — because like I said, it’s going to be the biggest of this year. You can’t swap out books and say, “Ah, we’ll just swap out another book. Can you just substitute?” Not of that magnitude. They’ve got lots of printer presses waiting for this one book, and we’ve got to deliver.
So how does it work? By our chinny chin chin, like a lot of other things in the world. You just get it done.
Tim Ferriss: Well, so let me back up for a second because I think I heard you correctly. Now, you have delivered so many deadlines, even if you have to chase down the plane on the tarmac. You know how to train, obviously, through the athletics.
Todd McFarlane: I missed the plane a couple times.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve missed the plane a couple times. So this is a huge book, biggest in the industry of this year. Did I hear you correctly that you said you have eight pages done out of 48? I guess I’m just wondering if you —
Todd McFarlane: Writing-wise.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean? Yeah, writing-wise. Okay.
Todd McFarlane: That means —
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So is it —
Todd McFarlane: Tim, I’ll tell you what that means. That means before I talked to you this morning, I talked to what they call the letterer, the guy who actually converts your script into the word balloon. I talk to my letterer and go, “Dude, we’re going all night tonight. Every three pages I’m going to send to you.” So it’s going to be, I do three, I send it to him, he works on it. By the time he’s done with those three, I feed him another three, and we’re just going to see how it works and we’ll get it done.
Tim, we’ll get it done. Right? Like you said earlier —
Tim Ferriss: I believe you.
Todd McFarlane: — a couple years ago, I set a record. I mean, Spawn is the longest running creator-owned book. We’re up to issue 335. That’s over 30 years of doing books. And now I do a monthly book every week. You just get it done. It’s just like going to the gym. Every workout isn’t awesome. But did you get your workout in? Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. By the hair of your chinny chin chin.
Todd McFarlane: Nobody knows on the other side. Nobody knows.
Tim Ferriss: That’s true, nobody knows.
Todd McFarlane: Everybody’s going to look at that book and go, “Man, look how professionally done it was.”
Tim Ferriss: So let’s then come back to a word you used, which is important, and that is the longest running creator-owned superhero comic book series, the creator-owned piece.
Todd McFarlane: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: When and how did you decide to start Image Comics? Because I remember as a kid, I wanted to be a penciller for about 10 years.
Todd McFarlane: Oh, wow.
Tim Ferriss: I was really tracking all of this. And then I was an illustrator in high school and then part of college. I was the graphics editor in a magazine where Jim Lee had been the previous graphics editor. So I had —
Todd McFarlane: Jim Lee. Yeah, Jim Lee, the head of DC —
Tim Ferriss: — the same desk that he’d use.
Todd McFarlane: Jim Lee’s the head of DC Comics, for those who don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: And he had these sketches in the desk that he’d done after getting hammered in college. And I thought, these are just treasures at the time. So this is a lot of fun for me to explore. And I remember Image being a very big deal. So for people who have no context, can you explain sort of why and when Image was founded? Because I think that’s a big piece of this story.
Todd McFarlane: Look, I assume that the majority of people listening don’t collect comic books and whatever. So we’ll keep it simple. Everybody knows Marvel and DC, everybody, right? If you ask the next natural question, “Huh? Who’s number three?” That has been Image Comic Books for 30 years. We are celebrating our 30th anniversary with the Spawn character, because it came out that first year. And we’ve been number three for 30 consecutive years. As a matter of fact, those first couple months we came out, we actually passed DC Comic Books.
We were number two for a few months. So when people sort of get past the Marvel and DC, and even in the industry of Hollywood, and or people that are looking for ancillary products, which you have to because people don’t know Marvel’s owned by Disney, right? Marvel’s owned by Disney. They don’t share that too much. And DC Comic Books for a long, long time has been owned by Time Warner, now Warner Bros. Discovery, AT&T. But let’s call it Warner Bros. So one’s owned by Disney, one’s owned by Warner Bros.
Okay, so your Sony, your Universal, your Paramount Studios, your Netflix, your Apple, your Paramount Plus, what are you talking about? Where you getting product? Not getting it from Marvel. Why? They’re not sharing. And you’re not getting it from DC because they’re not sharing. So you literally have to go and redact all of those books. And you’re left with everybody else. And that puts our books in really good position.
Now let’s go back, because that doesn’t answer your question. How did we get to Image Comic Books? For me personally, when I was trying to break into comic books, like I said, in all those years leading up to breaking in, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about our industry.
And what I found was I was coming across a common theme. And the common theme was that everybody, no matter how big your standing had been in our industry, eventually got pushed out against their will, and in some cases got the short end of creative and financial sticks. So I remember —
Tim Ferriss: These are artists?
Todd McFarlane: These are artists, writers —
Tim Ferriss: These are artists.
Todd McFarlane: — whatever. These stories had been written over and over and over again. And so I remember one in particular reading about. There was a gentleman, his name was Jack Kirby, and his nickname was Jack “The King” Kirby. To put in perspective to people who are layman listening, that they called him The King for a reason because he was, and he got the short end of the stick. And Jack Kirby’s the guy who helped create The Fantastic Four and The X-Men and even created the costume for Spider-Man and The Hulk and Iron Man and on and on. That’s who Jack Kirby was, right? He helped create it with Stan Lee, right?
So I remember reading those articles, and this is long before I break into the industry, and I went, “Man, if they can do that to Jack “King” Kirby, they can do it to anyone.” And so when I got my first job in comic books, three weeks before I graduated, I went in with my eyes wide open. And so I knew what the game was, and I go, “Okay, their job is to exploit me as much as possible. Can I do the same in reverse at the same time?”
The win is they’re getting something of value out of you, you’re getting something out of value out of them. And the value that I was getting out of them was twofold. One, I had all these dozens of characters in my portfolio, including Spawn, and I never ever had one second temptation to ever pull any of those out and offer them to Marvel or DC when I was working with them. Did I create new characters when I got the plots from the writers? Of course I did.
I was a professional. So I helped co-create and I’m the visual creator of Venom, right? So Venom’s my guy. Why? Because we came up with a story and that was what it was. Okay, fine. But I never said, “Oh, man, I’m having a good career at Marvel. Let me reach into my portfolio and offer them my characters.” Never. Why? Because in the back of my mind, those stories had been haunting me that were there.
And at some point, Tim, I was selling more comic books than any human being Marvel was employing, period, to the point that I had set a record on one of the books. I helped take over, artistically, Amazing Spider-Man. It was sitting at number 22 in the sales chart. They came, and they went, “Hey, Todd, if you want to draw it, cool.” Because I had just finished a run on The Incredible Hulk that you had mentioned. And they said, “Whatever you want to do, because it’s sort of in the dumper. Spider-Man‘s in the dumper.”
In short order, at some point, Amazing Spider-Man became number one or two every single month in total sales, to the point then that they were like, “Oh.” And it’s really what catapulted my career. And just so you know, all the things that I was doing artistically to help move it from number 22 to number one, I was getting pushback from the corporate entity up above and the executives up above and the editor in chief up above that, “You can’t do what you’re doing, Todd. You’re messing with the icon. That’s not how we do it.”
Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, as an old man now, the single greatest danger you are going to meet in your life is status quo. It is the thing that they are going to fight and battle you against more than any other thing in the world. And what’s staggering about what I just said, which is a truism, is that there’s only two, there’s only two hundred-percenters in the world that I can give you. One, we’re all going to die. Hate to break it to you. It’s just a matter of time. The second is everything is going to eventually change, otherwise we’d be living in caves right now. Change is part of the human condition. And yet every day you run into systems that are crushingly holding on to status quo, are holding on to yesterday. And for those of us that are wired to think about tomorrow, we become the rebels, we become the outcasts, we become the people who are rocking the boat, who are just, “Todd, why don’t you just relax, get along?” All the things that they’re going to tell you. And what I’m saying that happened to me has happened to millions of people throughout history that want to do something different. Not better. Let me be very clear, not better, different.
So when I was doing my different Spider-Man, I wasn’t doing it because I thought I was better. I wasn’t doing it because I thought what they were doing was worse, which is how they took it. I was doing it because I’m a young kid with a career and I need to figure out how to stand out in a sea of people that are doing the exact same job as me. And there’s only one way. I’ve got to be a little bit different. So I started doing some funky fun little stuff on Spider-Man. And guess what? The fans liked it. And more importantly, it was enjoyable for me to draw because drawing is a lonely occupation, like a novelist, where you sit in a room for 12 hours a day with you and your thoughts, that’s your day. And if you can’t entertain yourself, it’s a long day.
So I was coming up with crazy little silly things I was putting in the book. They were having a heart attack. I was getting called on the carpet. As the sales are going up, I finally quit Spider-Man. They go, No, no, no, because you’re selling so many books. We’ll give you a new Spider-Man book. They were going to do a fourth Spider-Man book anyway, so they could have one every week of the month. So they gave it to me. I’ve never written before. I’m going, “You’re going to give it to me?” I’ve never written before, but I have got to write. Which is why I quit. I go, “I want to write.” And that’s because I don’t want to draw other people’s stories. I want to tell my story. And they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And that book set a record. It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most sales by a single creator.
I also own that record on the other side with Spawn. I own the corporate and non-corporate record for a single issue by a single person. Done. Now I’m not saying that bragging, I’m just saying that as a fact, so that now that guy who’s setting records when he comes into the office in New York from Canada, little Canadian hick, you would think that they would say, “Thank you,” not “Fuck you.” Right? And instead they’re calling me on the carpet going, “Todd, you’ve got to stop doing this and this and this.” All the things that got me and their books were there. And I remember having these bizarre conversations with the editors going, “Dude, you don’t have to like me personally, you don’t have to like my drawing style, you don’t have to like anything I do. You hired me for one job: sell comic books. You guys are in the commerce business. Don’t you realize? You’re a money-making machine. You want to sell books. I do that better than anybody that you employ. Why are we continuing to have these conversations?” And they wore me out, Tim. They wore me out.
Tim Ferriss: So, was there a particular moment when you knew —
Todd McFarlane: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: It seems like you had basically in your back pocket the plan to eventually go out on your own, because you had all these characters you developed. So what was the day or the conversation where you’re just like, fuck this, now is the time I’m splitting off.
Todd McFarlane: I remember, with clarity. Comic books have this thing in a corner called the Comics Code. And the Comics Code was created because in the late ’50s there was the whole Wertham scare that comic books were degrading the youth of America. And they had the Senate hearings. And it actually, in a weird way, ended up leading to the advent of Marvel Comics. Because Marvel was a company called Timely Comics. But then they went, “Uh-oh, we don’t want to get caught up in this whole Senate hearing. Let’s whitewash, if you will, our presentation.” And they changed their name to Marvel and their first book out, Fantastic Four. And then after that, here comes Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, and all the other things that we all know. So you can argue that, thanks to some loony tune in the Senate in the late ’50s, Marvel exists.
Maybe minus him, there is no Marvel. So we actually shouldn’t be giving all the credit to Stan Lee, we should be giving it to McCarthy. And Dr. Wertham, who was the one who wrote the book, Seduction of the Innocent. So look it up. Anyways, I’m doing the books, because of that Comics Code, every now and then they would get you to fix a panel. “Todd, you can’t do that.” “Why?” “Because the Comics Code.” “Okay,” now I used to ask them, “could somebody actually send me the Comics Code? So instead of having to guess what’s in the Comics Code, and then you guys tell me I’ve got to redraw something, because I have deadlines and I don’t like to redraw and redo anything.” And so it’s like burning your pasta. Then you go, “Ah, man, I’ve got to cook it and boil the water again.” You get aggravated the second time around.
So at some point they kept doing that and then the day came and then it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, because I’d been doing it for years. And they sat there and it was this issue and it was the Sideways issue, my last issue at Marvel. It was a Sideways issue of the Spider-Man book. The one I was writing myself, except for, we were doing a crossover with some of the mutant X-Men in this case, X-Factor characters, the ones where Deadpool and Cable came from, those characters. And there was a bad guy and his name was The Juggernaut. And The Juggernaut was like, you couldn’t beat The Juggernaut, right? He’s a big, giant dude and he had armor and you couldn’t do it. So my thing was, “Well he’s got eye slits, he’s got to look out those eye slits.”
And so the way that I was going to get to him was I had one of the mutants take their sword and put it in the eye and he’d jam it in the eye because then it would be like, oh, my gosh, you’d catch him off guard and then if you team tackle him, you’re going to win the day. So I drew that, I still have that page today, Tim, because it’s the page that broke the camel’s back. I have the unedited version, even better. I don’t even have the edited version, I have the unedited versions. And so they phoned me up and they said, “Todd, you’ve got to redraw it.” And I went, “What? Redraw what?” “You can’t stab somebody in the eye with a knife.” And I go, “What are you talking about?” “The Comics Code.” And I go, “Well, of course you can, because just not long ago there was this great cover, not only was it in, it was on the cover of Daredevil, Frank Miller.
And he’s got Bullseye on the cover and he’s stabbing Elektra, a character, on the cover.” And so I go, “Of course you can stab people.” And they go, “Well, yes, you can stab people, but you can’t have a rear exit wound.” And I went, “What are you talking about? Did you look at that cover? The guy’s killing Elektra. It’s going in the front, it’s coming out the back.” “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You can stab them and it can come out of an exit wound, but you can’t tear the cloth. So if you look at the drawing, you’re going to see that it’s like, you don’t really see the sword coming out. It’s like a teepee. It’s like a teepee, the back of her costume’s like a teepee, but it hasn’t cut.”
So I go, “So I just want to be clear, you can gut somebody and you can have it come out the other side after you gut them. You just can’t rip the cloth. And that won’t offend the mothers and the children?” “Yes.” “Wow. Okay. So there’s no rear exit wound. I’m just stabbing them in the eye.” “Yeah, but you know what? People are sensitive to eyes, because if everybody gets something in their eye, we all know how much pain that is and teeth. Because if you go to the dentist and he drills you wrong…” and I’m having this absurd conversation with five or six of my editors and I’m just going, “So I just want to be clear, can I stab him in the chest?” “Yes.” “In the knee?” “Yes.” “In the elbow?” “Yes.” “In the eye?” “No.” “In the cheek?” “Yes.” “In the neck?” “Yes.” “In the mouth?” “No.” “Wow.” So somehow, I was in bizarre land. And so at that moment I stopped the conversation, because you never want to have a conversation with anybody where two plus two equals giraffe, right?
Never talk to somebody who comes out with that equation. So I said, “Guys, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to send you the page. I’ll do a little quick drawing over if you want. You guys fix it any way you see fit. By the way, I’m handing in my resignation. I am done. I am exhausted.” I also was a few days or away from becoming a father for the first time. And I just went, you know what? It’s time to catch my breath. I don’t know what being a dad’s about. These guys have worn me out. And all I do is sell books for them. And I just called uncle. And that was it. That was the day I walked away. Now, did I have a plan B? Of course I did, Tim. Of course I did. The plan B was I had Spawn as a character and I just went, I guess I’ll just have to self-publish, right? Not ideal, but okay, here we go.
The upside of it was that I was talking to a couple other people, let me also say before me quitting, I also was going around trying to create a union. I was like the Norma Rae. I’d just go, “Come on man. Power to the people. If we stopped drawing, put pencils down, they’ve got nothing to print.” We showed them our power. It was frustrating for me when I tried it for a few months that the most scared people that will say, “Yeah, let’s join together,” are those that don’t have a job. It was weird to me. I’d be talking to dozens of people that I knew that wanted to be in the business, that were in the business, but weren’t getting steady work, that needed a better life. And I go, “Come on, let’s just go. Let’s just create an enclave of people and again, deal with the whole is better than the parts.” And they would say, “No, Todd, I can’t, because what if they blackball me?” And I’m like, “Blackball you? What are you talking about? You’re not getting any work from them right now.”
“Yeah, but what if they blackball me?” I go, so I go, “Here, dude, here’s what I’ll do for you. Right now you have no job, no car, no girlfriend, no house, no money. If you join this enclave, I will promise I will make all of those equal to you. You’ve got nothing to lose other than to go up. Come on, man. I’m selling more books than anybody else. I’m making more money than anybody else in our industry and I’m willing to throw it away. You should be 10 times more fearless than me.” It was actually oddly the opposite. So during that time, I had been talking to two of my friends and peers. They were also in the industry, a gentleman by the name of Rob Liefeld and another one named Erik Larsen and both of them had that same entrepreneurial, let’s just call it rebellious trait in them.
And we were always talking, and I remember in one conversation Rob was saying, “Yeah, I’m going to maybe go,” he’s still working for Marvel, so was Erik. And it’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to go do my own book.” And then Erik was on the call going, “Yeah, I’m going to go do my own book.” And I had just quit. And at some point during the conversation, the topic came up and I go, “Well, if you’re going to do your own book on your own, Rob, and you’re going to do your own book on your own, Erik, and I’m planning on it, why don’t we do all of them together in the same place? It’s never been done.” What’s happened is people have left Marvel and DC one at a time, or they push them out the door. Think of it like a sports team. So you lose a free agent, you’ll go get another player. So you lose another.
But what if 10 of your players on a championship team quit the same year? That would be detrimental to that competition of that team. So the conversation was, “Why don’t we just join forces?” So all of a sudden, very quickly, it was three. Rob, who’s super energetic, came up with the name Image Comic Books. And the reason why he came up with the name, so he tells me, is that there was a commercial that was on TV and it was Andre Agassi, I think, and it was a camera commercial. And he says, “Image is everything.” So that was the punchline of the commercial. So he was like, “Let’s do Image. If image is everything, let’s do Image.” So that was how Image Comic Books was born. You don’t overthink. People think that we come up with all this stuff and we know what we’re doing. No. Venom in and of itself was a happy accident.
We can go back to that in a minute if you want to. But so the three of us get together and then Rob says, “Todd, I’ve got a buddy, Jim Valentino, he does some independent comic books. Is it okay if he comes?” And so I’m like, “What are you talking about? This is a group. The more the merrier.” So we’ve got four and then we find somebody to help us publish and we say, that’s it. We’re flying to New York and we’re going to break the news to Marvel that we’re quitting. Four of us, Rob, Erik, Todd, Jim Valentino. We fly to New York and I land the day before. We have a meeting with the top people, Terry Stewart, who was the publishing head at that point. And later at that meeting I’ll get to, was the editor in chief who just happened to be walking down the hall.
So I got a meeting with Terry Stewart, the top dog, and to basically say, “We’re quitting. Here’s our reasons why. And if it was me, I would close this barn door because you might have some more people quitting next week or the week after, the week after.” So we land the day before and I’ve got to blow some time. So I happen to walk around. I heard there’s an auction, somebody’s selling some artwork. I go to the auction and Jim Lee, the person you know, you talked about at the beginning.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Todd McFarlane: Who’s now the head of DC Comic Books. Jim Lee is at the auction and he’s like, “Hey, Todd, what are you doing here?” I’m like, “Oh,” And I told him, and then I start giving the sales pitch. Tim, let me tell you one thing. When I have my passion involved, I’m a good salesman. I’m a good salesman. And so I start pounding on Jim Lee. And Jim Lee at this point, just so you know, is doing The X-Men. And it is the number-one-selling book, he’s doing the number-one-selling book. The only time I ever got beat was Jim Lee. That guy. He was my competition. So I was Magic Johnson, he was Larry Bird. And so we had our rival, but we liked each other and we got along. So I tell him what we’re doing and he starts thinking about it. And then to my surprise says, “I think I can go with that.”
Now, this is a monumental moment from my perspective, and here’s why, ladies and gentlemen. Todd the rebel leaving was going to be easy for Marvel to basically discount, because they were going to go, “That kid’s always rocking the boat and he’s always a bit of a pistol. You know what? That’s fine.” Rob Liefeld had the same attitude. So it’s like, we were the bad boys. “So the bad boys left. Good riddance.” Jim Lee was the golden child. He was the chef’s kiss. He was the guy. He was perfect. If they could clone employees and artists, Jim Lee was the mold. And so when Jim said he would go, that was a thunderclap in my head to go, “Oh, my God. If the choir boy can go, then that means all bets are off. And they’re going to have to sit up and pay attention, because not only are you losing the bad boys, you are losing the model citizens.” And so Jim then says, “Oh, by the way, I got a pal, Whilce Portacio. Is it okay if I phone him? Because he’s looking for work, I think he’ll join too.”
Shoot, he was doing another X-Men book. I’m going, what? We’re going to get two X-Men? The X-Men books are the number one selling book at that point. Bring them on. So we got six and I’m walking now back to my hotel with the biggest grin on my face because I go, “They don’t even know it’s about to come.” And as I’m walking into my hotel, I see another peer, a guy by the name of Marc Silvestri. Now Marc Silvestri to me, at that time, was the best artist. Just in terms of skill, Marc Silvestri.
Bob McFarlane: Don’t believe a thing that my son is saying.
Todd McFarlane: Yeah, that’s my dad, I’m taking care of him.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, no problem.
Todd McFarlane: Yeah. So Marc Silvestri’s there and it’s about 11:00 o’clock at night and I go, “Hey Marc, what are you doing?” He goes, “Oh, I’m going to bed.” “You got five minutes for me?” And so I sit down and like Mussolini from the balcony, I give him this speech and I give it to him and he’s like, “Oh, my God.” He goes, “Todd, that sounds good. And Jim Lee’s on board?” “Yeah, he just signed on.” “Let me think about it.” I go, “Marc, here’s the gig. We’ve got a meeting at 8:00 o’clock tomorrow morning; I need to know if you’re in or not by 8:00 o’clock in the morning.” He goes, “So I’ve got to go to bed, I’ve got to think about it whether I’m going to change my entire career and I’ve got nine hours, of which eight of them I’m going to sleep.” “Yeah, that’s it.” Now, I don’t know what he did or how well he slept that night, but in the morning at 7:30 the phone rings and he goes, “Hey Todd, Marc. I’m in.” Seven.
We went to New York, I flew to New York with Rob, with four of us, with four of us. And by the time we walk into that office, we’ve got seven. Oh, by the way, Marc Silvestri was doing the Wolverine comic book. We had literally the dream team, to put in perspective for people listening again that don’t know, there’s probably, every year about, that year was probably about six, 7,000 comic books come out from all companies, because again, Spider-Man comes out once a month, so it’s 12. And then you’ve got three Spider-Man books, that’s 36 and then Iron Man’s another 12 and 12. And you add it all up. Literally thousands of comic books come out. The people who gathered together to create Image, we had accomplished 44 of the top 50 sales that year. Just to put in perspective who we were, 44 of the top 50 sales of 6,000.
We were literally the comic book equivalent of the Dream Team, the basketball team that was happening in basketball at that time. So I knew this was going to reverberate somewhere. And again, the stock went down at Marvel the next day, take a look at it, because CNN reported on it. And we went into the meeting and essentially it went like this. And here would be a fun interview, is to get Terry Stewart’s perspective of it. Because not only has he literally lied about it, he will tell you otherwise, but not only has he lied about it, but then 30 years later, I met up with him and my wife went and talked to him and he still is spewing the lie. And I get it. He’s corporate. What’s he going to do? He doesn’t want to say that it was on his watch that all these people left. But here’s his lie.
And it is, because I’ve got witnesses, because there’s more than one of us in that room. Is, he’s saying, we came in and we asked for the copyrights of our characters. What are you talking about? None of us is that crazy. We understood the dynamics of the business. “Yeah, give me Spider-Man and give him The X-Men.” What are you talking about? He’s saying he had to let us go because that was our demand. No, no. The way that it went down was simply like this, “We are leaving. There’s nothing you can give us that’s going to keep us. And oh, by the way, here’s some of our reasons. If it was us, you may want to do something about those reasons, because next week you may have another seven quitting. I don’t understand why you want to keep having people quitting, but you know what? Do what you’ve got to do, It’s your company, whatever.”
Now during that conversation the editor in chief, which coincidentally happened to be up on the upper floors, don’t know why, and just came in and whatever. He was a good man, Tom DeFalco, one that used to tell me, “Can’t do that, Todd. You can’t do that, Todd, on Spider-Man.” But so anyway, at the end of this conversation, because Rob Liefeld, who was in there and my wife was there and Jim Lee was there, Rob left because he had to go pick up his girlfriend. So that was classic Rob, like, “Oh, you guys just finished this world-changing conversation. I’ve got to go get my wife and got to grab a burger.” And this is why I like Rob so much, because he’s by the cuff and it’s what makes him special to me. Anyways, we get in the elevator at the end of this conversation and I will never forget the words, as the elevator doors are closing, just like in a movie. The doors are closing and you can see the editor in chief looking at us and he says, “Hey, if it doesn’t work, you’re welcome back.” And the doors shut.
And I remember turning to Jim Lee, now, just to give a little background on Jim Lee. Jim Lee went to college to become a doctor. I think his dad’s a doctor. This is a smart, intelligent human being. And for me, my dad, who you just heard was in the printing business for 40, 50 years. The one thing that I knew it’s printing, and if not, I knew lots of people who did. So the doors closed and I looked at Jim and I go, “Oh, my God, they think we’re dumb.”Oh, and oh, not that we’re smart, Tim. Not that we’re smart, Tim, but you know what printing comic books is? Ink on paper. That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Ink on paper. Done.
Maybe there’s a couple details beyond that, but that’s it. Every time you pick up a pen and you write on a piece of paper, it’s like doing comic books. It’s just, if you keep going and draw it in the shape of Spider-Man or the Hulk, you’ve got a comic book. It’s not rocket science. And so I was like, “Oh, my God, they don’t think we can print. Oh, my God.” So that was it. And from there, the collective whole of the seven of us left. Here’s this silly funny part of the rest of that day. Historically what was happening, Tim, is that if you quit Marvel, you only had one choice. You went literally across the street to DC Comics, or if you quit DC Comics, you quit and you walked across the street to Marvel.
That’s all you did. You literally ping ponged your whole career back and forth, back and forth. Whenever you got mad, you just went to the other date that was across the street. So we went across the street to DC Comic Books and DC sees, I had done about a year, year and a half there. Rob Liefeld had done a year there. But Jim Lee and I walk in there. Jim Lee has never stepped foot in DC Comic Books. And he’s the golden child at Marvel. And they just go, “There’s only one reason he’s in the office. Somebody got mad and we’re getting the golden child and we’re getting Todd? We’ll take the bad boy too, because these are the number-one- and number-two-selling guys in the industry. Woo. We hit the mother lode. The mother lode, oh, my God.” And quickly they assemble 15, 16 people in this room and they pour the coffee and they get us the refreshments and they just go, “Oh, my goodness.”
We are sitting here. And we sit down and then they hear the fateful words. I go, “Hey, guys, just so you know, we’re not here to work for you. Just a couple things. We just quit Marvel.” Their eyes light up. “But we are not here to work for you either.” And you could just see the lead balloon. And then we’re like, and it’s like, “No, no, no, we’re not here to work for you.” And you could just see, “So we’re just clear here. So you came here with Jim Lee and walked into our offices and are now dangling and teasing us and saying it’s for nothing?” “That’s exactly what we’re saying.” “Wow. Wow. Why would you guys do that?” And I go, “Well, because we’ve got some other plans.” And then they start giving their sales pitch. “Well, here’s why you should work for us. Don’t do that. DC is your place to be. DC, DC, DC.”
And they go, “And by the way, we just did a new contract that’s for the betterment of the creative community.” And then I asked them the question for me that was like the dagger for me, where I go, “Hey, no, that was super cool. That was super, super cool. You wrote up that new contract for the creative community. Could I just ask you just one question here just before we get going? Did you ask one fucking creator to have any input in that contract that is to better the creative community? Did you ask one single creator?” And let me tell you, Tim, when you get pregnant pauses in rooms, it’s all you need to know. You get your answer at the pregnant pause. Of course they didn’t. Of course they didn’t. And that was the reason.
“This is why we’re quitting Marvel. This is why we’re quitting DC, because of your disregard for your community.” And Jim and I are examples, and we’ve climbed the top of the ladder, just like Jack King Kirby and all those hundreds before him. This is just a repeat of history, and it’s time. And we thought that that was it. And that was when the collective whole, not me, the collective whole, the seven of us, started Image Comics.
Tim Ferriss: So, the DC visit, I’m trying to think of the names involved. Was there anyone who was quitting DC or did you just go in there to put them on alert and say —
Todd McFarlane: No, no. We came up —
Tim Ferriss: “Listen up.”
Todd McFarlane: We put them on alert and gave them the same sort of speech we gave Marvel, “If you think that the dissatisfaction of the seven of us is unique to the seven of us, you guys are blind. It is…”
Tim Ferriss: I see. It was a, “Change your ways or become a fatality.”
Todd McFarlane: Right. Every conversation is the exact same and you’re just going to — and if we prove that there’s any success on the outside of the only two bubbles that exist in most freelancers’ sort of brains, which is Marvel, DC, or you get another job. And I mean another job in another industry.
So, if we move on and we create a third possibility, why do that? Now, to their credit, let me say, Tim, to their credit, they did start changing. They did start bettering pay and even starting to give medical, which was never a part of the equation, and giving bonuses and being a little more fair-minded on royalties because they knew that what we were saying at some point, that reality sunk in, that we could start losing almost all of our top talent, if not a big portion of our talent.
And this isn’t good for business. So even those that were jealous in our creative community and/or thought that we were crazies or whatever, they still, whether they know it or not, prospered by us leaving because all their contracts got upgraded while they were still throwing darts at us. Our own community, as you can imagine, saying, “You guys go take your big egos and go do your thing.”
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so I just came back from a bathroom break. You mentioned before we started recording you had a camel bladder and that you can talk until I had to take a bathroom break, which was true. So, how is a camel bladder a competitive advantage?
Todd McFarlane: It is. Because people go, “So you don’t go to the bathroom?” I mean, I went to a signing not long ago and I got there at seven and I signed from seven in the morning to midnight and I didn’t move from the desk where I was signing. Again, other human beings had to eat and go to the bathroom during. I go, “You’d better have two teams, then. You’re going to have to rotate them.”
Let me just quickly get out of the way first how you cannot go to the bathroom for 17 hours. It’s really sort of easy stuff. If you don’t put anything into your top hole, nothing comes out of any of the bottom holes. It’s just basic. I don’t eat and I don’t drink. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation. But they’re going, “How do you do that?” That’s another conversation. But if you don’t put anything, nothing in, nothing out. Simple, easy. And I know this to be scientifically true because I’ve used it to my advantage.
Now, because I have a camel bladder, two things have happened in my career that I think have been advantageous. One, everybody, when I go to the conventions, would have to go and take a lunch break. Why? Because they’re hungry. They’re hungry, right? My wife would tell you, I have never uttered those words, “I’m hungry.” I eat because science says I need to. My body needs fuel. So I put it in, not because I’m hungry, because I have to, it’s an essential ingredient. Food. I do it, but I can outlast you if you’ve got to go away. People would take off at conventions and go away for lunch or bathroom breaks or whatever. Guess who didn’t me? Me.
And here’s why that matters. Because there’s people in line. At the time of our popularity, when they used to open it up, you’d have at times, I’m telling you, literally thousands of people in line waiting for your autograph. First off, in good conscience, I can’t have somebody waiting in line for two hours, three hours and then look at them and say, “Cut. I’m going for an hour and a half lunch break.” And the kid’s going, “What? I’ve already been in line for three hours.” I can’t do it. I can’t look at somebody in the eye, I won’t do it.
I said, “No, I’ll just figure out how to not do this thing that most humans do.” And here’s where the upside is, is that when all my peers have gone to lunch, then people are waiting in line and then they’re just sitting there going, “Well, that guy’s still signing. What’s his name? Todd, Tom, Tim, whatever. What’s he do? Spider-Man? Well, I like comic books. I know Spider-Man.” And guess what happens, Tim? They get in your line.
They don’t care really at that point about you. They just go, “He’s signing. That line’s moving, I’ll get in his line.” And then they come up, you’ve got 20 seconds, you become as gracious as you can to them and maybe you peel off and you’ve got a new couple fans and all of a sudden it’s like, “I only collect X-Men. But that Todd was a gentleman and he was very nice and he smiled at me, he was very kind. You know what? Maybe I’ll go buy one of his Spider-Man books or, in the future, his Spawn books.” And so that’s it. Good, right? I’ll always be nice to anybody no matter who they are.
Number two on the business end. And this one is sadly even easier and it’s just pathetic at times. I live in Phoenix, Arizona. And Phoenix, Arizona can be 110 degrees. Let me tell you, I’m like a cockroach. I don’t care what the weather is, I’ll survive. Don’t worry about me, I’m good. But here’s what I know about other people. They have comfort zones. And so whenever I was in some big legal dispute or contract dispute, I would say, especially the people in L.A., I go, “You fly them to me, you fly them to me.”
Now, this is just the art of war. My desk is facing a big giant glass window, and I know when the sun comes down that window. Now, usually when I’m in my room, I bring down the drapes and I put up the AC and I’m comfortable. But when the enemy’s coming, i.e., the people I’ve got to negotiate with come, I make sure that the blinds are up and that I turn the air conditioning so that it’s actually stuffy in that room because why? I can endure it. I’ve done it plenty of times.
And then they always come dressed in a three-piece suit. Wrong move, guys. Wrong move. And then they come in and they come into the room and I close the door and I know it’s going to get stuffy, and then I put a giant pitcher of water in front of them, and then I utter the words, “Guys, this has been going on far, far too long. Here’s the deal. We’re not leaving this room until we settle every single outstanding point.” And during those conversations, they either pour their own water on a constant basis because they’ve got their three-piece wool suit on. I’ve got my t-shirt and I’m in my Nike shorts and I can just see them getting hotter and hotter and hotter, and they keep having to get more and more water.
And at some point, nature calls and then we get down to the last one and I go, “I’m not moving on point 10, I’m not moving. It’s a deal breaker. If I don’t get it, this whole deal…” And how many times I’ve had people in my room go, “Fine.” This is how it works, it goes just, “Fine. You can have point 10. Are we done?” “Yes.” “Are we done?” “Yes.” “Where’s your bathroom?” The very next thing is, “Where’s your bathroom?”
Because I think in my mind that they literally caved in on the 10th point because they couldn’t hold it anymore. And if they could have held it, they could have argued longer with me, and perhaps I might have conceded or we could have compromised on that point, but their bladder costs them. Too bad, how sad, right? You find your advantages wherever you can get them.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, McFarlane, the barbarian. What a savage. Nice work. So, let’s come back to Venom. You mentioned that Venom came together, I think, as an accident maybe was the phrasing that you used. I mean, this is an iconic character known the world over.
Todd McFarlane: A happy, happy accident. Happy accident.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So how did it come together?
Todd McFarlane: We’ll go back early in my Marvel career. Like I said early in the podcast, if you can keep deadlines, that’s a giant value in that industry. I was showing them that I could keep deadlines, so I knew then that was going to be getting me continuous work.
Once you get continuous work, the next upgrade is can you draw characters that people have heard of, right? The first job I got at Marvel was on a book and it was an obscure book. It was called Steve Englehart’s Coyote. And it wasn’t even Coyote. I was doing a backup in the Coyote. I was doing an obscure backup in an obscure book. It literally was starting in the mail room.
But eventually, I got a steady job over at DC because they canceled Coyote, and I got a monthly book over at DC. Unfortunately, Tim, and this is where sometimes one person’s break is another person’s tragedy. An artist on another book who was a fit human being, was a super awesome artist, I followed him, was a health freak, drank some unpasteurized milk, went into a seizure, and had an allergic reaction and died.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God.
Todd McFarlane: I get a phone call and they go, “Hey, Todd, my artist just passed away, can you come on and help us for a couple months?” And at that point, they had canceled Coyote. Literally took me years to get in. I was employed for four months and then they canceled Coyote. And I’m like, “Man…” I sent my samples back to all the people that were gracious enough to give me constructive criticism, except for a thing changed on the resume, Tim, I was now able to say, “I am Todd McFarlane, the professional from Marvel Comic Books.”
The drawing was exactly the same, it’d only been four months, it was just as horrible as it was four months earlier. Except instead of being an amateur, I got to go now into the smaller pile, which is “The professional is looking for work” pile. I get the job. I go, “Yeah, I’ve got some work.” The guy who was supposed to take over that book, because I was only supposed to fill in for two months, decided to bail. After the first issue they said, “Do you want to take over the book?” It was a book called Infinity, Inc. And I stayed on that book for two, three years.
So, when I went over to Marvel, they went, “Okay, you can keep a deadline. Check. The question is, you’ve got to stop doing…” And here’s a bizarre thing that was happening at Marvel at that point, “You’ve got to stop doing,” what they called, they dubbed, “your big dice drawing style.” And the only reason it was called that because on one page in Infinity Inc., I drew this page layout and it was these big giant dice. And then I did panels inside, drawings inside the big dice. And somebody, I guess in editorial, saw that page.
And so it was like, “Oh, he’s the big giant dice guy.” And the reason I was doing giant dice and doing all these crazy flamboyant layouts in Infinity Inc., because Tim, my drawing was mediocre. I knew that. At some point, you’ve got to be realistic about your skills. I was mediocre and I had two choices. I could either put mediocre drawings and boring layouts or I could be flamboyant and baffle them with my BS and get them to look at all this sort of window trimming and not pay attention that maybe I’m drawing my eyes crooked.
And it worked and it worked. People were like, “Oh, my gosh.” And so by the time I left Infinity, I think I had risen to the point that I was voted the fifth most popular penciler at that point. I’m like, “Wow.” I go over to Marvel and then they say, which was weird because Marvel was always the house of ideas, and at this point they had flopped with DC and they were boring. And they said, “You can come, but you can’t do the giant dice style.” And I go, “What do you want me to do?”
And they go, “We just want you to do a grid.” Now, let me just tell you, anybody listening, that means you take a piece of paper and you divide it into six equal panels and you go. It is the most boring, easiest thing to do. Essentially they took a guy like me, who I thought was an artistic sprinter, and they said, “Could you put lead boots on?” Shoot. This is going to be easy, right? I don’t know why you want to do it, but it was frustrating because there was no artistic freedom to do it.
I did it. They give me the first job back at Marvel and they go, “Hey, problem, you usually have 30 days to do a book, once a month, but we’re behind the eight ball, we can give you this job but you’ve only got 10 days.” I gave it to them in eight. Was it my best job? Of course it wasn’t, but was it done in eight? Yeah. Did it get me brownie points right on the spot? They were amazed I gave it to them in eight days. Boom, within weeks they’re offering me The Incredible Hulk.
Now, once you get to Incredible Hulk, this is the next step in climbing the ladder. All of a sudden, look, I’ve been in the business probably two, three, four years at that point. And when I get The Incredible Hulk, finally I hear the words from my mom and dad, “Oh, my God, you finally made it.” And the reason was because they’d heard of The Hulk. Up to then, everything I was doing was like, “I don’t know if he is ever going to make it.” I was still working at Marvel and DC, it just wasn’t for books.
But if you can go to the neighbors’ Halloween party and say, “My son draws The Hulk,” they’ve heard of the word Hulk too, so all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, your son. He must be good.” It’s important to have characters that you know because it helps the relatives in your circle to think that you’re a bigger shot than you are, even though it’s the exact same amount of work and the same pay on top of it.
Okay, so you get to the next step and now you’re going hot. Now you’re just fighting for the next step up. And I’ll quickly sort of get you to this, and I know I’m long winded in all your questions. I wish I was better, that I —
Tim Ferriss: I’m into it.
Todd McFarlane: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Run with it. Run with it.
Todd McFarlane: I do The Hulk. I’m doing penciling and then I go, “I’m going to do inking,” because at this point I got fast enough that I could do two books. There wasn’t too many people that could do two books. I was doing two books. So they give me a second book. The same editor who gave me The Incredible Hulk gives me another book. It’s called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
Now, the thing that’s sort of ironic about that is I was living up in Canada and it never really sort — I was going, “Wow, if they only knew that this Canadian” — and I’m Canadian, up here in Canada — “[is] drawing their real American heroes, this might be a bit of a problem,” but nobody’s going to tell. There was no internet.
I did it, the first issue of G.I. Joe, and I was doing The Hulk, and I get a phone call and I was going back and forth with this writer and we were bashing heads every single page of that. And finally after the first issue, my editor phones up and says, “Todd, I’ve got to let you go.” I’m like, “One issue?” I’m one issue into G.I. Joe. I’m making my marks on The Hulk because now I’m in the top three of some of the voting artistically. And I go, “What? You’re going to fire me?”
But let me just tell you, it was a relief because it was such a pain for that one month. And that my view of comic books and the writer’s view of comic books were so diametrically opposed. I just —
Tim Ferriss: Where did you guys clash on that? What kind of decisions or what type of stuff?
Todd McFarlane: Well, he probably sees it a little bit differently, but I’ll just give you my point of view. I assumed the people that were reading the comic books had eyes and brains. He assumed, from my perspective, they didn’t. Because he said it, “Assume your reader isn’t,” and it’s his words, not mine, “Assume the reader is an aboriginal bushman and he just came out of the tundra in Australia and he’s never seen a comic book. Your storytelling must be that clear,” which basically meant you can’t have somebody walk into a house and then cut to them inside the house or even closing the door on the inside. You have to grab the door, open the door, walk in the room.
And I just went, “Larry, I guess I see the world differently. I assume, silly me, that the people reading the comic books watch fucking TV, go to movies, read books. They understand how stories are told.” And as a matter of fact, on a movie when you cut scenes, they don’t even have a caption in 99.9 percent of the time. People just know that it’s different people in a different setting, it must be a scene cut. You don’t have to do it.
But anyways, he had his way of seeing the world. I had my way of seeing the world. Fine, no big deal. So, he fires me off it. And I remember, I was sitting in my apartment up in Vancouver and I leaned back and I looked at the clock and it was 12:06 and I was a little bit bombed because I’m like, “Man, I’ve never been fired.” It was, “Oh, man.” At 12:14, “Dring.” I am telling you, no lie, seven minutes. I was unemployed for seven minutes. Dring. “Todd?” Yeah. “Hey, this is Dick Giordano over at DC.”
Now, remember I’d left DC to go back over to Marvel, “You remember when you left you said the only reason you would come back is to draw Batman?” “Yeah.” “Well, we’ve got this book and it’s…” First there was Batman: The Dark Night, then there was Batman: Year One, and they had another project. It was called Batman: Year Two. “We’ve got a book called Batman: Year Two. And the artist, it’s a four-part story, and the artist quit after the first one. Can you finish the last three?”
“What? You’re saying my choice right now is either stay on, which I didn’t have an option, but stay on G.I. Joe, that I just got fired from, that was basically putting daggers in my eyes, or do Batman? That was the only character I’d come back for?” So, I jumped on Batman: Year Two.
Now, it gets a little crazier by that point because at this point I was only being the pencil artist. And in comic books, they’d bring in another person who is the inker. Some people call him the tracer. It’s not true. Good inkers add a lot to pages. But I thought I had — my drawing style is what I would call sort of this new wave ’90 style. And I was constantly getting inkers that were like these 1960s old school brush guys.
I was drawing in a way that I thought you should be using a pen because there’s a different technique with it. And they kept putting brush guys on me, and it was so transforming. They literally would bury the artwork. If you saw what I was drawing, you saw the printed page, it was, to me, night and day. I do this, the part two of Batman: Year Two. Then I do part three and then they send me the samples and I finally, again, another one of those moments in my life with clarity, that I look at it and I see this flash page and this flash page has a Commissioner Gordon and he’s holding the gun. And to me it looks hairy, right?
I go, “It’s metallic. Why is it looking hairy?” And it’s because the inker was doing these lines that worked for him, I guess. And then I looked at another panel and it was the hallway. And when you’re doing a down shot of a hallway, the lines get closer. It’s basically perspective. I won’t bore people, but it’s just the illusion of depth. And I’d done all these drawings or these lines to give that illusion and they were horizontal. And then I looked at the panel and he had done the exact same thing, it was brilliant, except he did them vertically.
And so it was these moments. And so it wasn’t that one was better than the other. They both worked. Again, I just try to get as simple as possible. The reason, and I don’t know if anybody could understand this concept, but the reason I made them go up and down vertically was because, silly me, I fucking wanted them to go up and down vertically. Because if I had wanted them to go horizontally, which was another option, I would’ve drawn them. I can draw horizontal lines equally as well as vertical lines. The reason they were vertical, because I must have meant horizontal. That’s why I did. What are you talking about? Just copy the lines and do your thing with the lines that are there.
And so I phoned the editor and I go, “Hey, Denny, I don’t mean to do this to you because you already lost one artist. And I don’t mean to do power play because I don’t like doing that. I don’t want to be that guy. But here’s the gig. If I can’t ink the last chapter of this book, and let me be completely honest, I’ve never inked before. I’m a complete noob. I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I can’t have people literally going in the opposite direction of my artwork. I can’t do it.”
He was in a tough spot. He was like, “Oh, okay, Paul and Todd, can you get it done by the deadline?” Yeah, sure. I did my first inking. Thanks to all those inkers for turning me into an inker. And from there on out, I was my own inker. I started inking The Hulk. If you look at it, I went back to my editor on The Hulk and I go, “Well, they let me ink the Batman.” And so he is like, “Oh, okay, I guess you can ink The Hulk.” And now I’m going to eventually get to your question about Venom. It was a long winded way. Sorry. Eventually —
Tim Ferriss: That’s okay. Let me pause you for just a quick sec. For people who have no context on your art, I mean, very fine details. And when you’re talking about the older school inking, lots of thick black, I mean, lots of —
Todd McFarlane: You simplify.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, you simplified, right?
Todd McFarlane: Right.
Tim Ferriss: When you went from penciling to, “I need to ink this or I’m out,” what were the biggest differences between penciling and inking? As someone who’s never inked, I’d be curious to know what you learned or felt or if it just mapped over really easily. What was it like to do your first ink?
Todd McFarlane: Tim, here’s the first shock that sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of me, and there’s nobody that hates Todd more than Todd at times because it’s like, “What are you doing, Todd?” Then I learn the magic. I’m now going to do two jobs. If you pencil a book, you get 30 days. If you ink a book — I pencil it, they give me 30 days. Then they hand the pages to you, Tim, you ink it, you get 30 days.
If I want to pencil and ink, they don’t give me 30 plus 30, right? If there’s two of us, it’s 30 plus 30. I get 30, you get 30. They’re going, “You can do two jobs, Todd, but you’ve still only got 30 days.” Essentially you’re doing twice the work and you have to do it twice as fast because the book still comes out. And so, lesson learned, if you’re going to pick up more work, you might want to ask how much extra time do you have? And when the answer is zero, you might want to rethink your ask. So because eventually I got to the point going, “I’m going to write my own stories too,” right? And that extra time also is zero. But that comes a little bit later in the career. So the first shock is I’ve now got to go faster. What it taught me personally, because now I’m doing two books and I’m inking, right? So I’m a bit of a unicorn at this point because very few people can even pencil two books, was I had to create for myself efficiencies. And this goes into business, right? And even though we’re doing art, this is just efficiencies. So I do the efficiency and I go, “I don’t have time to do a lot of what they call under drawing.” I’ve got to literally draw with ink. I don’t have time to do the job twice. I can’t pencil and then ink my own work. I have to do it all in one fell swoop, which is horrifying to people who’ve never inked themselves.
Because every person I’ve shown amongst some amazing peers, amongst some amazing peers, when they see what my process is, they go, “I can’t even make out what’s on your page.” And I go, “That’s okay, I’m just going to finish it with the ink.” And they go, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no you can’t go with the ink.” I’m like, “Why?” “Because it’s permanent.” I’m like, “What if you make a mistake?” “There’s a thing called Wite-Out? You just white it out.” And they’re going, “Yeah, but what if you make another mistake?” “I just use Wite-Out.” “Let me ask you a question in reverse. What happens if you draw in pencil and you make a mistake?” “Oh, I just use an eraser.” “Well why can you use an eraser and I can’t use Wite-Out? It’s the same thing.” “Yeah, but it’s ink.” And it literally was this mental wall for people.
And these are people that I would sit next to at a convention, that would do 20 sketches with a pencil and never erase one line. And I used to turn to them and go, “Why couldn’t you have done that with ink?” And their answer was always the same. “What if I made a mistake?” “You didn’t. I’ve been watching you for four hours, you haven’t made one mistake. Why is it if I changed the tool and somehow you’re going to make a mistake? But you know what, you do you, I’ll do my thing.” And so I had to just pull back the drawing and figure it out in one step so I could keep the deadline. That was my learning experience. Now, question number two, did I hit the ground running? Of course I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. But if you look at my inking at the beginning, it’s very, very crude. And even on Spider-Man, which is the book The Catapult, if you look at the thickness of the webs on his costume, you will see a noticeable difference, I think, from issue 300 when I started inking Spider-Man.
And if you look at about issue 320 for sure, by the time I get on the new Spider-Man book that I’m drawing, for sure there’s a dramatic difference visually. So I was constantly learning that trade. It was Todd, the professional who’d been penciling for five, six years, and Todd, the newbie inker. I wasn’t going to be a five- or six-year vet inking, I was a new inker. So I had to learn that trade and catch up those five or six years that the other half of my brain had already sort of tackled with penciling. So go ahead. Because eventually now this going to get me to Venom.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, to Venom. Yeah. Yeah.
Todd McFarlane: So very quickly.
Tim Ferriss: Fire away.
Todd McFarlane: So then I finished the Batman project and now I’m back down to only one book so I can do two books. And so again, I’m looking for another book and all the editors at Marvel said, “Hey, yeah, yeah, yeah. Come and talk to me. But whatever you do, don’t go into the Spider-Man office because it’s a shambles.” Now you may or may not have gathered that Todd doesn’t seem to color inside the lines a lot of the times. So you don’t tell me, “Don’t go into that office,” right? Because to me —
Tim Ferriss: Unless you want Todd to go into the office.
Todd McFarlane: Yeah, what are you guys doing? So I went into the office and it was the editor, Jim Salicrup at that time, a good man, was losing and turning over artists. The books were in a bit of a sales decline. Like I said, I picked up the book, it was like at number 21, 22. And I said, “Hey, I can do another book.” And we had a chat and I said, “I want to ink the book.” And then they’re like, “Well, maybe in a couple of months.” And I go, “I’m inking The Hulk,” right? “Come on, go talk to Bob, the editor on that book.” And he’s like, “Well, just give me a couple of months. How about starting at 300, you can ink the book.” And I’m like, “Yeah, okay, we’ll do it.” But the other piece of it was, oh, this one other sort of slight problem.
Spider-Man’s got a black costume. And this is a costume that was created for this book called Secret War, which is the black costume with the white spider on it. And I go, “That’s not Spider-Man to me. Maybe I’m just old school. Spider-Man’s that guy in the blue and the red with the webs on it, Spider-Man. So can we just get rid of that black costume and get back to Spider-Man?” And then this is sort of the happy accident. He said, “Well, the editor in chief really likes the black costume and I don’t think he’s going to go for that. So he is not going to want to get rid of it. He had something to do with Secret Wars and they’re digging it.”
And I went, “Man, I don’t want to draw Spider-Man in the black costume. It’s like doing Batman in polka dots. Doesn’t make any sense to me. So what if I come back to you with some designs? We just rip the costume off, we put it on somebody, I’ll create another character, give it to the writers we just figured out and then we still have the black costume and then we can get the red and blue back on Peter Parker and it’s a win, win, win.” He was like, “Okay, that might work.” So I go away, I do the drawing, the costume was alive. So I go, “Oh, it must be an alien.” So I created this big giant hulking alien and gave him the big eyes and the slobbering teeth. And to me, it was a gorilla. It’s like an alien gorilla. And then the claws and everything else. And that was a design for Venom, like, “Here.” We didn’t have a name at that point. I’d just go, “Here. Here’s the new bad guy, here it is. Go.”
And they looked at it and went, “Oh, that’s cool. We’ll give it to the writer.” And so they gave it to the writer, they cleared it through upper management. They said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that seems like a reasonable thing.” The writer comes back to me and says, “Todd, the guy is Eddie Brock.” And I went, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” The writer’s name was David. “Whoa, David, Eddie Brock? Eddie Brock’s a human. Did you see my design?” Information I could have used earlier. I would’ve designed it differently if I knew it was a human that I was putting the black costume on. But I sort of liked the design. I thought it was cool and it was giant and I thought that it would be more formidable for Spider-Man to go up against something that was way bigger than him, than another human humanoid form. And this is sort of the geeky stuff that us creators go through. And so I said, “But man, if Bruce Banner, little shunt, can turn into The Hulk, then by gosh, why can’t Eddie Brock somehow be buried in this costume somewhere,” right?
So we never sort of wavered from it. Venom comes out, has a big play in issue 300, Amazing Spider-Man 300. Sales go crazy. We knew we had something on our hands because every time Venom kept coming back the mail, again, there was no internet. But the mail kept getting bigger and people were like, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.” And so now, fast forward with hindsight and Venom is a worldwide brand, made a billion dollars, we saw it in movies. So again, there’s the happy accident. And if you look at issue 300, if you want to go buy it, it comes with a couple of things. One, it’s an anniversary book. Sales have gone way up on it. One, it’s an anniversary book. Issue 300, Amazing Spider-Man. Good buy. Some of the very first early work of me on Spider-Man and my first inking job on Spider-Man. But more importantly, it’s the origin of Venom, right?
And so for people, they spend hundreds of dollars. If you get these books, great, it’s thousands of dollars. So you can get the origin of Venom. I don’t consider that book. If you were to ask me, “Is that the origin of Venom?” “No. It’s the issue, ‘How do we get that black costume off Peter Parker so I can draw the classic red and blue costume because that’s Spider-Man to me,'” right? Venom, I didn’t care at that moment about Venom. It was like I get rid of it. The last page of that issue, Peter Parker gets rid of the black costume because he has a fight with Venom. Venom goes on his way and he pulls a box out from underneath the bed and he pulls out the classic uniform, the red and blue, the one that to me is Spider-Man. And the last page, which I still have today because it was like, “Finally, I’m drawing Spider-Man.”
Because I started on issue 298. No black costume. 299, no black costume. And every page, but one of issue 300. But that last page, it was — and it even says, I think the caption, it says, “And the new beginning.” And to me I go, “Finally, I get to draw Spider-Man.” This was for me, finally. Now somehow Venom was the byproduct of that, right? Now here’s what should happen, Tim. An employee should come into the office, they should say, “No, he’s wearing the black costume. We want to give you the job on Amazing Spider-Man,” one of the granddaddy books of the company. And most sane employees will go, “Yes sir, yes ma’am. When is the book due?” I don’t know, Todd is Todd and ya ya yay, right? And so I just was like, “No, I need the red and blue costume.” But because of some of that arrogance, ego, immaturity, whatever you want to call it, your by-product is you’ve got a character called Venom that now creates Carnage and this whole slew.
So if I was that guy, that employee, all of that maybe never materializes, that’s the true possibility of that. And then I just take all of that — remember, Marvel’s at their boring storytelling. I start pushing the boundaries of storytelling to make it more, I thought, dynamic. I thought everything we do in comic books is just a Broadway play. You must, everything should be big and you should be talking and performing for the lady with bad hearing that’s in the last row at the theater. So that’s what comic books are, bravado. And so I was doing all this fancy storytelling and my editors were going, “Todd, you can’t. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” But I just kept doing it. And then eventually, I was asking them and I go, “Why can’t we?” And they go, “Well the editor in chief, Jim Shooter, he doesn’t like that.”
I found that to be impossible to believe, impossible to believe. Jim Shooter wants vanilla when he can have tutti fruity or a banana split. Hard to believe. So we went and had a meeting one time, my editor, Bob Harras, who ended up being the top dog at DC, I think he still is maybe. And we went into this meeting with Jim Shooter, the editor in chief, where every editor was literally shaking in their boots from Jim Shooter. He was like this authoritarian sort of figure. And as he’s walking in the meeting, all Bob says, “Don’t ask him about storytelling, Todd,” because he just wanted to say hi to me. Because I was this new guy on The Hulk and my career was starting to bud and he just wanted to say hi to me. It was just a casual conversation. We have a nice pleasant conversation.
And then it’s like he goes, “Okay, I’ve got to get to my next meeting.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And as we get up, because I wanted Bob to be moving, I went, “Oh, hey Jim, just have one quick question. Can I change storytelling? Let me just ask you, am I allowed to have characters burst out of the panels? Because that was what I was doing with Spider-Man, and they’re going, ‘You can’t, you can’t.'” And he was like, looked at me inquisitively and went, “Yeah, sure. Why?” “Okay, but can I do this other thing?” And he went, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.” And I went, “So it’s okay for me to…” Because I go, “I think I heard somebody. It wasn’t Bob my editor standing in front of you. It must have been somebody else, told me that somehow that you said you can’t have things, you can’t have panels overlapping and you can’t have characters punching out.” And I walked them through a couple of things and he was horrified.
And he was like, “What? What are you saying, Todd?” And I’m going, “Yeah, yeah, that’s just what they’re telling all the artists.” And he was like, “No.” And he got angry at that moment. He goes, “No, I never said that.” He goes, “Here’s what I said, ‘You cannot…'” And I knew this was the answer, Tim, I knew this was the answer. He said, “You can’t do bad overlapping panels and bad drawings of people jumping out.” And then he explained to me the difference between a bad version and a good version, right? And I knew what the bad and good version was. “Basically, don’t have a guy jumping out of a panel and you’re covering up half the drawing of the next panel, right? As long as you’re doing it in some negative space, you are okay. Just as long as the storytelling’s clear, I don’t care how you design it, Todd.” I knew it. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, and shoot. From that meeting on, you take a look at my layouts in Spider-Man. It started getting crazier and crazier.
Now, Jim Shooter gets pushed out very quickly. I keep doing my Todd thing on Spider-Man. And here’s what I did on Spider-Man that literally catapulted my career. It was a simple move. They were doing Spider-Man, emphasis on “Man.” I flipped it to Spider-Man, emphasis on the word “Spider.” So when he put the costume on, I thought he was an insect. And I didn’t care about anatomy, I didn’t care whether it mattered. I just cared about the dynamics of this character looking like a bug man and crawling in a way. And then as part of that, I added more webbing on his costume. And then I had to come up with a new way of doing his webs that have been done this way for 30 years.
I go, “It doesn’t work if you want to shoot it towards camera, or if you want to create a false sense of volume, which is the only thing we have as artists, you must give the illusion of 3D given that you’re drawing on a 2D piece of paper.” So again, all these silly things that would bore people, but I was doing it and oh, by the way, it fucking looks cool.
Tim Ferriss: It doesn’t bore me. No, this stuff is key. These are important decisions.
Todd McFarlane: And so one thing in the moment, so I go, “And it looks cool.” And here’s the moment I was talking about earlier. The moment you start messing with anybody’s icon, status quo comes into the equation and I’m now messing with it. I probably could have done what I did with a lower tier character, but not Spider-Man. Spider-Man at this point, again at the Republic company, is on their checks. Every check’s got a little Spidey on it. He’s on their quarterly reports, he’s on their internal memos and I’m messing with that look, right? And so they came and they were sitting there and they took it as I was doing something, I thought they were doing it wrong and I was right. No, no, no, no, no. Here is the reality of it. And I’ve said it plenty of times. I thought that the look that had been presented, the classic look that was there, the one that everybody, if you close your eyes, you have in your mind, if you’re a certain age, was literally the Norman Rockwell version of Spider-Man. It was perfect.
And the best I could hope for as a young budding artist is to do a bad version of that and go, “Man, that’s almost as cool as Norman Rockwell’s painting.” Let me tell you, if you’re going to be a painter, never paint like Norman Rockwell. The best you’re going to get is “Man, he’s almost as good as Norman.” That’s the best you can hope for. You will never be better than Norman, right? He’s already conquered that hill. Go find another hill and make it your own. You can take pieces of Norman Rockwell, but you can’t be that exact same look. So I was putting all these different looks together and then coming up with some crazy stuff and just making the spider part of it. The eyes got bigger, more webs. I had reinvented the webbing, I made the blue a little bit darker, I forgot about anatomy. And I put them in these cool funky poses that the readers just went crazy for.
And every single time I walked into the offices, so I didn’t go there that often, they would call me on the carpet and they would say, “No, no, Stop it. Stop it.” And Tom denies it, but I’m like, “Tom, there are moments of clarity in my life. This is one of them.” Tom DeFalco was the editor in chief. He’s an Italian guy. And he was giving me heck again, wiggling his finger, going, “You’ve got to stop doing the big eyes.” And then he got so mad. I remember his face getting a little red and he goes, “And that webbing, those damn spaghetti webbing, you’ve got to stop it.” Now from my perspective, ladies and gentlemen, if you’re in my head, it’s like a Charlie Brown sort of cartoon. All I heard was “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, spaghetti webbing.” And I went, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got a name for them now.”
So I was so happy in that moment because Tom gave me an official name for ’em. They’ve been known ever since as the spaghetti webbing. Thank you, Tom DeFalco. I think he was cussing me out and giving me heck at that point. I wasn’t paying attention, though, because I was like, “Oh, super cool, I’ve got a name for it.” He then says in that same meeting, “Todd, you’ve just got to control this stuff.” And my answer was, and if anybody is under the age of 30ish listening, I’m going to give you a bit of a golden rule. Anybody asks you to do something, especially somebody in authority, always say yes even if you’re not going to do it. It’s just way easier. You get out of the room faster. No confrontation, just nod your head yes in agreement and go do whatever the hell you want. And I knew that the editors would only circle back every 90 days and look at the books and do their evaluation.
And I walked out of that room. Not only did I not make the webbing smaller, I’ll show you the issue they got twice as long, right? Because they just look cool. I’ve got to tell you, Tim, they look cool. And by the time I came back, the next time they —
Tim Ferriss: I’ve seen the books, I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them. I have them at home in Long Island where I grew up..
Todd McFarlane: They wiggle their finger at you and they go, “No.” And next time I go to New York, they’ll go, “No, Todd.” But here’s what was happening, and here was their conundrum. Sales were going up, sales were going up. And at one point, again, I had that conversation. It’s like, “Tom, what do you care how I draw? What do you care? All you should care about is that I am selling you comic book. And you gave me the task of moving Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, from 21 up the ranks, and it’s at number two right now.” Jim Lee and The X-Men were beating us. And I was at one meeting, it was odd. There was this stranger in the room. I never met him before, didn’t know who he was. And he just sat there silent the whole time. He had this big, fat book. I didn’t know who he was. And then finally at the end of an hour conversation when I said that, I go, “I’m selling more books than almost anybody you employ right here, right now.” This dude, I found out later, was an accountant.
He opened up his big, giant accounting book. Tom came behind him. The accountant didn’t utter a word, he just pointed at something on his data sheet and he shook his head yes. What he just said, “Yes, sales are going up.” And it was, you could just see that it was like, “What do we do? Right? It’s working, but we disagree with it because the status quo is getting, “Let me tell your audience.” Here’s the bizarre thing now that years have passed. Everything they told me not to do on Spider-Man, that I was rebellious against and I just stuck to my guns and I did it and the sales are — do you know that if you’re a young person right now and you go to Marvel and you draw Spider-Man, do you know what style you have to draw Spider-Man in? Todd McFarlane. So the guy who was told not to create it, I’ve now bizarrely, as I was going, “No, I’m not going to draw that status quo. I’m going to do something funky.” My style is now the new status quo. And I don’t think anybody should draw in Todd McFarlane’s style because the next person, they should be encouraging to do their thing because it might be five times better than what I ever came up with.
I don’t understand corporations of just coming up with an idea and glomming onto it so hard. Yes, I’m talking to you, IBM. And then these little dudes in the garage come up with this little computer and they call it an Apple. And somehow they beat you eventually because you become dinosaurs. And this is the thing, there is nobody in the world that’s ever made change and everybody like them, especially the people who had the power and the prestige and the money ahead of them. Nobody, If you go to any corporation and you say, “I’ve got this new idea,” you will never hear the words from the people that are the industry leaders, “That sounds super cool. Let us get out of your way so you can just do that on your own unfettered.”
Are you out of your mind? They will take out bazookas and blades and put down the strips and the throwing darts and they will do everything in their powers to discourage you because they are industry leaders. But eventually, they become their own worst enemy.
Tim Ferriss: Todd, we are at almost two hours now. I’ve realized that we’ve barely scratched the service. We’ve established a lot of the background; of course the personality, the rule breaking, the camel bladder. And we have not even touched upon your personal relationship with Stan Lee, which is of great interest to me. We have not talked about the toy empire. We have not talked about how any of that started. TV, film, music, Spawn. I mean there’s a long list of things that I would love to cover with you. Would you be open to doing a round two? I think people would certainly be interested in listening to one. Could I convince you to come back for a round two?
Todd McFarlane: Tim, you’ll find that I’m not shy at opening my mouth and talking. To the point I’m always going, “Am I boring people?” Because I actually know all these stories, because I lived them. But yeah, I think there are some interesting forks in the road that may be not interesting for my career, but just sort of the human condition of what happens when you get to certain wall. And now I’ve been talking about what I had to do in one industry, but now because of that success, what you just mentioned, I was able to break into multiple industries and found some of the same sort of repetition and how you navigate the sharks when you’re a guppy, right? So yeah, I’ll come back. I appreciate you. Hopefully we haven’t bored people, these two. Because they’ll go, “Why would I want to listen to another two?” So it’s your show, I’ll let you decide whether that works.
Tim Ferriss: Well ultimately, I mean let’s call it self-interested, if I keep it interesting for me, just like you in those 10-, 12-hour days, you’ve got to keep your artwork interesting to you. Because otherwise, and even maybe still, it can be really lonely. So for me, I just try to scratch my own itch and asking questions about the things I’m interested in. So I’m very interested. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of people along for the ride. And people can find you on all the social handles that I mentioned, of course. Are there any other places you’d like to point them? They can find you on Instagram @ToddMcFarlane, Twitter, @Todd_McFarlane.
Todd McFarlane: Whatever. People they type it, you can find it. These are hipsters, right? I’m the old guy.
Tim Ferriss: They’ll type in your name. They’ll find you.
Todd McFarlane: Yeah, it’s whatever people, if you’re interested you can find it. What I’ll try and endeavor the next time is to answer more than three questions. Because I think that’s all you got in. I need to temper and get like, “Todd, he just asked you how old you are. You don’t have to talk about the entire evolution of humanity to get to that answer.” But I think that a little bit of backstory to get to the reasoning why when you make that call at that moment matters.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. It’s critical.
Todd McFarlane: Yeah. So we’ve now painted, hopefully, some of the personality. So now we can just maybe be a little more varied into questions, and we can pepper and jump around a bunch of industries. And I can tell you some silly stories about those ones too.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we’ll get into the trenches and we can hear more of your art of war stories.
Todd McFarlane: Right.The day I almost killed Eddie Vedder. We’ll talk about that one.
Tim Ferriss: There we go. So that’ll be the cliffhanger.
And everybody listening, as usual, we will put show notes and links to everything in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, don’t be afraid of rocking the boat and consider your upside downside. Just like you were talking about those artists earlier and image, it’s human nature, what a thing. And Todd, thank you for making the time today. So to be continued and we’ll figure out a time for round two.
Todd McFarlane: All right, thank you, Tim.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.