A Talk With Todd McFarlane

A Talk With Todd

“NEW ZEALAND! I’M CANADIAN! We love the Commonwealth! We love you guys! Forget the Americans! It’s all about the Commonwealth!”

With an intro like that, it was hard to keep my energy any lower than 11 as the mad lad that is Todd McFarlane stormed onto my phoneline, ready to talk all things McFarlane and Venom. 

For those who don’t know, all things McFarlane is more than just his part in the co-creation of Venom; It’s Image Comics, Spawn, McFarlane Action Figures and Toys and a huge interest in sport memorabilia that only makes up a small part of the man that is held with high-regard in the comics AND entertainment industry. 

Even with all that behind the name, when I congratulate him on the sensational box office earnings Venom has had, he quickly retorts “I can take very little credit for that! All the credit for the movie goes to Sony and the people who worked on it, Ruben [Fleischer, Director of Venom] and the cast, Tom [Hardy], I mean…like they didn’t need to get the stamp of approval from Todd McFarlane!” 

“I’m just happy that I pushed the boulder down the hill and it made a splash 30 years later!”

While he may be remiss to say that his very part in its creation is of note for its success in cinemas, he to this day is oft-mentioned when Venom is brought up; “Good, bad or indifferent, you give birth to it! I gave birth to a vision! All you can hope for is that it goes out to the world and people enjoy some of the stuff that you’re doing! And you know, on a comic book level, obviously, he grew through the rank and file and is now in the mythology of the big supervillains. Then him being an anti-hero now, grew large enough, was gnarly enough and bad-ass enough that the fans just wanted to see more of him! And now that wasn’t an accident just to comic book readers, because you put that up on the screen and they’re getting a reaction to it right!” 

“We’re gonna continue to want more Venom gnarliness! I want to see him kick some more ass!”

“There’s nothing wrong with having a hero, anti-hero, quasi-villain that just is a little bit reckless and doesn’t really care about the rules around him.  

We leave that to the Superman’s of the world. They can be the boy-scouts, right? Sometimes it’s nice to not have the polite guys.” 

Briefly appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #299 before its first full appearance in issue 300, Venom was the result of Spider-Man’s Symbiote suit, introduced in Secret Wars #8, finding Eddie Brock by matter of coincidence to form a villain that could counter the Spider-Man.
Tormenting the web-slinger at first, as time passes and the relationship between Brock and the Symbiote grow, he becomes the Lethal Protector; A character who wants to do good, at any cost. 

“I think that’s one of the reasons why characters like Punisher and Wolverine are also popular, and you know Spawn to a degree.  

They don’t care about what the rules of society are. They just need to get the job done.”

As we spoke about this, it’s hard not to recognize that McFarlane is drawn to the idea of the anti-hero. Not only is it his work on Venom and Spawn that carves this out, but his passion behind the subjects and ideologies of the anti-hero. 

“At some point all these characters just go “We’ll let the system take care of things up to a point, but once it shows us that the system is faulty and can’t keep the bad or evil away, then I’ll just do it in my own brand!”, and so sometimes these heroes have a little bit of that chip and they just go “I’m not here to play polite, it’s just we need to stop this crazy.” 

And stop the crazy is something that McFarlane’s character Spawn is well-known for. While Venom may have beaten Spawn to the modern movie screen, Spawn already had their own film in 1997 and is now getting ready to return as soon as McFarlane can sort it. 

Pushing to see if I could get any insider info, you heard it hear it first: 

“You’re going to be the lead in the movie!”

I’m humble enough to say my talent may not reach the standard set by Jamie Foxx, who is the reported lead for the production, but I’ll give it a try.  

“Sorry to spring it on you so suddenly, because you may not have seen the terms yet! But we’re putting the finances together and getting it there. It’s gonna be a departure from the sort-of-normal formulas of the superhero movie so I have to get Hollywood sort of past that, saying “It’ll still work, it’ll still work!”. 

Early reports have the film touted as a grounded affair, with Spawn treated more as a supernatural background character that the city responds to as he takes to his vigilante ways as the ‘King of Rat City’. 

“I just got off a phone call last week where I said I’m not making the movie if I have to bend to all the norms! I’ll just go back to my day job and just not do it! I’m not gonna make the movie that they would make, which is why I never sold it to them cause then they would just make the traditional [superhero] movie. Which might be the right move and it might make more money!” 

“But I’m not willing to give this property up for that.” 

Understandable considering how he feels about placing Venom into the lexicon of pop-culture. And like any successful thing, and as is the rage these days, could we see the likes of Spawn grow into its own universe? This new movie-mecca of all things Image; 

“Here’s what I think is interesting! What if…what if…I’ll give you a big what if okay. There’s a head guy at Sony, his name is Tom Rothman, hopefully he’ll read your stuff; Hopefully he goes to New Zealand websites on a regular basis. Could you have Venom and Spawn and then some of the other movies that they’re planning on coming out with, either from other comic companies; Could you amalgamate those at some point in the future?” 

“I’m not saying in 2 years in the future, 3 years or whatever. I’m saying could it be that you could actually now start taking different comic book universes and basically putting them together, right?!” 

Tapping into the ridiculousness of the amalgam events in comics, where Marvel and DC put aside their differences and not only had characters meet, fight and then team-up; Many also merged to become new characters fused from the former (honestly, look them up. Some are wild.) 

“It’s a big curious question that would be worth saying out loud just to see what the reaction is.” 

Between licensing, ownership, royalties and more, it’s fair to say that the amalgam events or just different brands meeting at some point on the big screen would be many fan’s dreams. And McFarlane has one of those himself. 

“Do you want to hear my wet dream?! Sony releases Venom, it makes a billion dollars! Checkmark number 1 already happened, okay! Checkmark number 2, Sony takes Spawn and basically releases Spawn, like why do you want me to go someplace else and use the word ‘Venom’ with another studio, come on! Come on Sony! AND THEN the 2 of them…we say “Could Venom and Spawn ever play together? You pose the question and then if I can prove I can direct, then maybe someday, and I’m talking 20 years down the line maybe, 10 if I’m lucky I don’t know;” 

“There’s a Spawn/Venom crossover movie directed by the guy who created the both of them. That’s it.” 

Genius moves in not only creation, but marketing, it’s safe to say that even after 30+ years in the industry, McFarlane is still thinking up ways to maximize the popularity and profitability of characters he not only helped create, but helped endure across time itself. 

With that in mind, you have to wonder if his intention was ever to have the likes of Venom endure as much as it has; This idea that posits whether he made it for that reason or if he just liked idea of this statuesque, creepy creature. 

“Oh, oh, oh, okay. Let’s back up that truck!” 

I wonder if that’s a Canadian saying. 

“Obviously you haven’t heard about the origin of Venom!” 

Ahh, the hotly debated discussion of what creative inputs dictate the birth and ownership of a character; With writer David Michelinie frequently given co-creator credit with McFarlane (I did say co-creator at the start true believers). I push further: 

“So, you’re saying we created this character cause we had to come up with this big, fancy supervillain that’s gonna someday blow up??” 

“No, no and no.” 

“The Black costume was on Peter Parker and I walked into the Spider-Man office looking for work, and they wanted to give me work! I go “But I’m not gonna draw that black costume ‘cause that’s not Spider-Man”. I wanted to draw Spider-Man, and Spider-Man is blue and red. BLUE AND RED! So, they had to get rid of that black costume, but they can’t get rid of the black costume! Guy upstairs, the Editor-In-Chief, he likes it!” 

“Well…we’ll just come up with another character! Don’t worry about it!” 

“We’ll call him Hemlock or…call him…you know…Formaldahyde, something that will poison you! AHH! OKAY! VENOM! COOL!” 

Whether or not that’s how the name came to be is anyone’s guess, and something not-so-important to McFarlane, as his baby on the project was the visuals for the character itself. 

“So, I came up with the design for him [Venom], and go “Can we rip the costume off Peter Parker and just put it on this creature called Venom and let’s go from there! And that’s when, later on, the writer [Michilinie] came in and said “Hey! We’re gonna make this character not just a monster, he’s gonna be Eddie Brock, so he’s gonna have an alter-ego!”, which was weird because I didn’t design him to be human, but okay we’ll figure that out. And if you take a look at issue 300, which is considered the first full appearance of Venom, that whole story is how do we get the costume off Peter Parker? Right?” 

“And put Venom there so Todd can draw the red and blue!” 

“So, I wish I could say it was way more intelligent and well-thought out, and coordinated; It was just…Todd was just egotistical enough to go I DON’T WANT TO DRAW THAT COSTUME!” 

It takes a brave man who’s looked back over his past and seen his follies, to admit that his ego was the reason why Venom exists and Spider-Man returned to his original ‘stume, but without him we wouldn’t have “Sony’s happy billion-dollar accident!”. 

In that respect, given the chance, would McFarlane return to change Venom in anyway? Or would he leave him “creepy and kooky” as he first intended? 

“I wanted him big! And physically way more powerful than Spider-Man, so that Spider-Man couldn’t beat him in a one-on-one fight!” 

While that was the case when he first burst on to the scene, he’s since had things such as tendrils added, and other changes like Erik Larsen’s (Image creator of Savage Dragon) giant tongue and drool effects; Does that leave anything for Todd to imagine onto his lethal boy? 

“They’d be minor, small, superficial things. It wouldn’t be anything dramatic! The shape of the eyes a little bit…the teeth I’d make a little more animalistic, and moving forward I would make the sliminess of him dry up a little bit. Not the way he could move! But just…it’s a bad example, but when my children were born out of the womb of their mother, I was there for all 3 of them! Those babies come out slimy, right?” 

I’d have to take his word for it as a single, child-less male but I digress. 

“The babies come out pretty slimy! But eventually they just, even if you don’t clean ‘em, they actually dry, right? They wouldn’t be shiny! My baby daughter wouldn’t be as shiny! So, for me, as he goes, I wouldn’t make him quite as shiny.” 

“And here’s why artistically! I’m just gonna geek out here.” 

Honestly, I thought I would be the one doing the geeking out, so this was a nice moment to share with Todd as we plunged into his imagination; 

“Because then I keep the shiny eyes and the shiny teeth, because of the slobber. So, then he’d have a sort-of, this slather-black on the costume and then the eyes would glow and I feel like the glowing, and the teeth, there’d be more contrast, so that when he stared at you and bared those teeth, they’d be more dramatic, I think.” 

“But that’s just me being a geek.” 

You and me both Todd. On the subject of geekdom, I had to ask (on-behalf of my friend Jesse) Todd if he had the chance to team-up with any writer within comics, who would it be? A question that would seem an open one to many, is much more condensed for someone of McFarlane’s stature, the conversation was silenced for a moment. 

“Wow…I would…probably I would…say…probably I would say…” 

“Brian Michael Bendis.” 

“I think Brian, when he’s on his A-Game, he does a lot of realistic stuff. And I admire him a lot for that.” 

Absolutely taken aback by a brilliant answer, I changed gears to see how Todd felt about Tom Hardy’s performance in 3 words; A clever trick if I must say so myself. 

“Super f**king cool.” 

Todd is a prepared man, and I commend him for a statement that’s so perfectly him.  

“I didn’t have it ready! But I know if it were 4 words, I would’ve added another curse word! Obviously, Tom Hardy is an A-Lister, right? He wasn’t gonna fail us.” 

Localizing the content before I needed to wrap up my conversation with Todd, I wanted to confirm a story I’d heard from my local comic shop (Arkham City Comics for those playing at home), whereon I’d heard a story of Todd purchasing home run baseballs to utilize sports channels such as ESPN for advertising of Spawn ‘97; 

“It wasn’t specifically publicity [for Spawn] or ESPN! I used it to draw attention, so that then that attention could be used when I wasn’t knocking on the doors of the major sports leagues, who hadn’t let me through the door to let me ask them if I could make toys [the McFarlane Sports figures range]; They would then read articles and go “Oh my god! Look! It’s that guy! He must be successful! He’s spent a lot of money and must be a super-geek! BRING HIM IN! BRING HIM IN!”, so you know…” 

“at some point I had to tell people it’s like if you’re gonna play the big boys poker game, sometimes you gotta ante-up and that was my ante to get to the poker game.” 

I still can’t believe it’s an actual story, but the man himself has confirmed it.  

Like all good things, we head towards an end; An end where I wonder if he has any last stories which he’d want to tell for any of his characters. 

“As weird as it is, when I created Spawn and issue number 1, I already had the ending in mind.” 

Gobsmacked, I tripped over words wondering how anyone could do such a thing; Impart a timeline upon a thing which has no time applied to it. I had to ask if we’ll see this… 

“I hope not! Here’s the only reason why you’d ever tell that story. It’s that people don’t care about your character, so you go “OH YEAH?! I’m gonna put a period at the end of my character then!”. If they like the character, you never have to tell that story.” 

“So, do I have the ending? Yeah! Do I ever hope I have to tell it? I hope not.” 

Admitting that it’s some form of mantra we should all take on-board, where we could learn from writing our own ending and hoping that we never have to tell it, I have to tell Todd that it is our ending now. 

“Okay! Next time we do it, it should be a longer conversation!” 

I agree, but implore that I wanted it to reflect the man himself; Sharp, snappy and “gnarly”. 

“We’ll figure out a follow-up at some point and we’ll go roaming all over! 

“So, I should come to Canada and do it?” 

WE’LL DO IT IN CANADA!” 

To use what I’ve learnt from the man himself, it appears that he must have enjoyed this. Because it looks like that ending I had prepared, isn’t needed just yet. 

VENOM releases January 2nd on Digital and for Blu-Ray and DVD on January 16th.

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