Board member Ted Adams, and IDW Publishing and Clover Press founder, recently met up with Todd McFarlane. Todd is the artist and creator behind Spawn and President of Image, the 3rd largest comic book company in the United States after Marvel and DC. It’s truly an honor to have these two top comic icons dedicating an hour of their time for us.
We’ve split up the interview into two segments: Todd the Artist — Part 1 published June 17 and Todd the Entrepreneur — Part 2.
Both segments have the audio and the transcribed interview. It’s great to hear Todd talk about his legendary career in his own words. This interview goes beyond the typical question and answer sessions you’ll find in most mainstream outlets. It goes beyond “why did you create this character” and delves deep into Todd’s insights on how to create stories, how to build your career as a comic book artist, and offers essential writing tips.
We hope you’ll see — just as we did while working on this — how this is packed with gems!
Would you rather listen to the interview, or read it as you listen? Click here for the full audio!
Ted Adams: Let’s spend a little time on you and your spectacular career as an entrepreneur. There’s a story I want to remind you of, when I worked for you, you were starting to do licensed products (toys based off of other people’s properties as opposed to your own). I’ve spent most of my career doing that at IDW – making licensed comic books so I know the challenges associated with dealing with licensors and approvals. In the early days I remember there was a licensor (I won’t name them) who was just making it almost impossible to get approvals. You finally, after giving them every opportunity to work with you, you finally reached a point where you just said: “I’m not doing this, you’re unreasonable and making my employees lives impossible, so we’re walking away from this deal.” And if I remember correctly, it was even after you had the sculpts done, it had to be some sort of a financial hit for you. That self-confidence that you had back then, that you’ve had your whole life, I think it’s really inspiring. I’m curious if you remember that decision and how you bring your confidence, not just to your company but to your employees, along with your work ethic. All that I assume you inspire your employees with.
Todd McFarlane: Yea, well look, I am a boss and I have had hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve employed over the years. I owe an obligation; I believe as the owner of a company to expect reasonable work with a certain level of quality from each employee. I also believe that I owe them a reasonable workplace, which means that they shouldn’t feel that there’s any undue pressure or threats from their fellow workers. And I’ve had to get rid of workers who were very good at their skill but not very good human beings. Maybe there’s a little bit of a fatherly piece there, I need to protect them from people who are being unreasonable.
TM: My wife teaches a class in which she prepares people to get ready to go from college and begin looking for jobs. The fact that I have to give them, besides that you’ll run into the status quo your entire life. I’m in my late 50s and I’m still running into it. I had a couple examples last week. So, it doesn’t go away. As long as there’s humanity you’re going to run into this thing. There’s also the piece that you’ll have to be aware in life when you’re dealing with a blind or a deaf human being who actually doesn’t have that physical impairment. That no matter what you say, how reasonably you present it, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much value you bring. If the person who’s supposed to see that and appreciate that, whether it’s external or internal. If it’s internal and it’s your manager who doesn’t see how good you are, it can be the one of the most frustrating things in your life. Unfortunately, there will come those moments where you just have to go “I’m dealing with a blind, deaf person”. You have to leave that spot; you will be wasting your time, your energy, and your stress level to basically think that you can make a blind person see. It just won’t happen.
TM: Here’s the upside. Usually, if you have a reasonable conversation with reasonable people, I’d say 90 percent of the time you can get your point across, and there’s usually a compromise. But there is that 10 percent of the time when it literally is the proverbial hitting your head against a brick wall. Instead of spending more energy, you’re better off to just go someplace else.
TM: I tell people the internet is a great place; we have the website and people used to go there. I don’t know if you remember, I’d tell the board moderators when people used to come on and say both good and bad things that “I don’t want you to defend me”. I do this for two reasons. Number one, every word you write to somebody who doesn’t like you for whatever reason. Whether they just don’t like you personally, which is the odd thing because I don’t know them, or they just don’t like your work. The more reasoning and rationale you give them, the more ammunition you give them. What I’ve found is better when I’ve got people and there are obviously thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who don’t like what I do, I just don’t engage them. At some point instead of being a dialogue it’s a monologue. Most people don’t want to argue with themselves after a while, so they just move on. As soon as you say something to acknowledge them, it gives them a podium. Instead of writing a half-page reasoned response to this person who is going to be a hater, why don’t you spend five seconds, grab a comic book, come into my office, let me sign it and send it out to somebody who said something kind. You’ll have a fan for life. Spend five minutes, two minutes and reward the people that are acting with civility, instead of trying to give an hour to somebody who’s acting like a spoiled brat. Don’t do it. It’s bad. It’s bad optics because now the people who were acting civil are going “Wow we don’t get Todd’s attention, maybe it’d be better if we just acted bad because that’s who he’s spending his time with.” So again, there are times when you just have to walk away from people and just go “whatever.” And there are certain mottos, Abe Lincoln to me is the glowing example when he said: “You can’t please all the people all the time.” If you accept that to be a truism, which it is, then you will never be disappointed every single day of your life. The first time somebody says something critical of you, you can either get worked up over it or you can do what I do and say “Man, Abe Lincoln, he’s right again that’s been forty-two thousand days in a row!” Ever since he said it, forty-two thousand days in a row, he nailed it. He’s like the Cal Ripken Jr. of clichés! He’s awesome.
TM: I don’t expect when I get up that today is going to be a perfect day. As a matter of fact, I actually have my bar lower, I get up every day and assume it’s going to be not perfect. And guess what? I’ve never been wrong. So as soon as someone cuts you off or writes you a nasty email or does something on Snapchat to you. You just go “Of course, of course”. Because we live in an imperfect world and I’m imperfect myself. So of course, this is how it goes. So, when you have a pretty decent day when nothing went wrong in any meaningful way it seems awesome, like an awesome day. You think “Wow I thought people were going to cut me off and write bad emails, but nobody did that.” It was a great day. But if you get up every day thinking it’s going to be perfect; you’re going to get your heart broken almost every single day. So, what I’ve done is try and limit that. Besides, the fact that I’ve conceded that there’s imperfect data in people and humans, that’s about how every day is going to play out.
TM: I also took control by starting my own company and because I figured that by starting my own company that at least I would have as much control as humanly possible over as much as I can. And even though Ted you said you did the same thing; you started a company and then you started getting licensed products and so now you have to get approval from other people. But at the end of the day, even if one of those people is being unreasonable, if one of them is not being kind and they’re not being a decent person. I can’t even get mad at them because I have to ask the question “Who made the contract with them?” Oh, that would be me, Todd, “Who started this company that wants to make this product, so I have to go and get that. Oh, that would be again me Todd”. And in your case would be “Oh me, Ted” and so every time something doesn’t go well, I can’t pass the buck. I have to say, “Todd this is ultimately at your feet because if you don’t want these complications in your life, then why did you create these complications?’ Besides, being an entrepreneur, you get to have a lot of freedom. I think most of us are willing to have negative results knowing that we were the ones steering the boat. The ones that are the worst are the ones when something goes bad and we had no control over it. Those are horrible times because you say, “There’s nothing I could do about it.” For me it’s part of the motivation, it’s the reason why I started most of my companies. If I only want to make ten thousand dollars this year, I can walk away from ten opportunities that I know are going to complicate my life and are just going to make me miserable but I’m going to make more money, I can now say “no.” I get to make all those decisions and so I’m good. You know, you’ve been there. It’s a good life when you get to basically control how you’re going to spend your day.
TA: I think the big difference is that, in thinking about the things that are out of your control for me, I’m very comfortable with saying “Yes, I made this decision and it was wrong, let’s move on”. It’s those things that are out of your control, what comes to mind is the dockworkers going on strike and our product sitting in containers in the Pacific Ocean and there’s literally nothing you can do. It’s those things that are really just aggravating beyond belief!
TM: The only thing is luckily, when those days happen, I think “I’m not the only one.” You know when the cost of plastic goes up and I’ve got to pass that on to the retailer who passes it on to the consumer. You know, everybody’s doing it. Everybody in my industry, arguably everybody that uses plastic, and everybody uses petroleum too because plastic is a byproduct of it. So, when a barrel of gas and oil goes up, there are literally millions of things that are going to be impacted. When it goes down, then you get the opposite, which is I can add more plastic to the value of it. You usually don’t lower the price. What I try to do is I try to add more plastic. Now what big corporations will do when the price of oil goes down is, they go “Oh my God, I’ll just keep the profits and keep the margins myself.” I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that’s fair-minded. I think that when they’re supporting you when you can’t put as much plastic in there, then the moment you can basically make it up to them I think you should. Because I think ultimately it will create loyalty and at the end of the day, from an entrepreneur’s point of view, your lifeblood is not only the ideas and the quality of the product you put out but the loyalty of the people who will give you a chance. Not only on the stuff you do well but the times when you fail. And we’ve all had those moments that they’ll still give you another chance and say, “It’s OK Todd, you do it right way more times than you do it wrong”. “I’m still going to come back and give you my hard-earned money.” And I appreciate it. I think it’s important to not take advantage of my audience by trying to squeeze every penny I can out of them. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do a lot of books, Ted. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do a lot of shows where I charge people for my autograph.
TA: You’re the last man standing in the $2.99 comic book price, that’s a good example of that as well.
TA: So, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let you go. As I look back on my career and think where I could have done things differently. I think where I would’ve done things differently is to not bring in outside money, which ultimately led to IDW becoming a public company. The scrutiny that’s associated with any public company, a focus on quarterly reports and as you know, a CEO of a public company is that person who by definition is supposed to maximize shareholder profit. And so, the focus just kind of became, I wasn’t focusing on the things that I needed to which was making great books and getting some TV shows going and those kinds of things. Instead, I was focusing on what are we going to do this quarter to boost profits. One of the things that is most interesting about your path, is that there’s no question that you’ve been approached probably by hundreds of people who wanted to buy any number of your businesses. What kept you from doing that? Is it just that same self-confidence that you’ve had your whole life or was it that you already had enough money you didn’t need to go down that path? I’m curious about that decision-making process.
TM: It was a little bit of all the above. I knew they used to call me at the beginning, but word got around. I mean, as a matter of fact, Wall Street used to do it on a regular basis and then they gave it up because I used to lecture them. Wall Street people and investors come in and they say, “We’ll give you one hundred dollars for your company, just add whatever zeros you need to make it work.” And I go “No, I’m OK.” They only have one response: they go “OK, we’ll give you a hundred fifty.” And I go “No, no, no, I’m good.” And they go, “Final offer, two hundred!”
TM: And they only have one comeback for every single thing you do which is to stack money even higher. Now my comeback to all these offers is to respond with “I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve got a lifestyle where I don’t need to spend a lot of money.” And let me explain I’m a Canadian, I’ll explain some definitions that I grew up with that may be a little bit different than Americans’ points of view. So, one of these definitions is the word “useless”. My dad taught me useless when I was a kid, which is basically you have something that you don’t use it. So, it’s useless. Because I’ve got money in the bank and I’m not using that money so that money is actually useless. I mean I’ve got more money than I need right? So, it’s useless. By definition, I can pay my bills, I have a car, I can feed my family, and I can send my kids to college. Everything else is just: “How do I spend it?” And then at times if you get too much of that thing called money, which may seem like an odd thing to people who are trying to pay their bills, but I’m just putting you in my shoes that I just say “OK, I don’t I don’t need the cash.”
TM: So, to me it’s useless. Now when they try to buy my companies, I’ve got complete freedom, right? Complete freedom. That’s the value to a guy like me that I get up every day and I’ve got nobody to blame. Good, bad, or indifferent, other than myself. And I get to set my agenda for almost ninety-five percent of what I do every single day. It’s a good life. Now for me to basically give that control away for money, of which I already have plenty of then I turn to them and I say “You’re going to give me more useless stuff, i.e. cash and I have to give you control of my life?” And you can’t imagine after months of this that they just went back to their buddies and say “Wow! Get this guy, there is this crazy Canadian and he’s saying money is useless!”
TM: Given that they’re only a one-trick pony which is money-money-money-money, that’s their answer to everything. They’re saying, “And he thinks money is useless!” They eventually stop knocking on the door and they go see another sucker.
TA: Then again, they don’t know how to process that. You know there are many things I admire about you, that is at the top of the list. I’ve spent so much of my time over the last couple of years where money was the driving force for everything. What’s interesting to me about it is there’s never an end game, basically there’s never enough money. They can have 100 million, then go to 500 million, and a billion, and 2 billion and it’s still not enough! It’s just, it’s an endless accumulation of what you’re saying. If you have a billion dollars, the second billion doesn’t matter.
TM: Here’s the difference between me and them. And I think there are a lot of differences because I started as an artist first. Every one of them that I’ve ever met in that sector of finance and investing is they continue to move the line. So, here’s how it goes. “Oh, if I could only make a million dollars” and then they make a million dollars and now they go “I’d like to make two”. So, they move the line. Now it’s two and when you get to two, they need four. And four has to be eight. They keep doubling it. And so, the answer then is the number is never enough. Here’s the difference between them and I: When I was living in Vancouver, I was doing a comic book — I was working at Marvel and doing the Hulk and G.I. Joe. A Real American Hero even though I was a Canadian drawing it in Canada which I thought was sort of ironic. I knew that both those books were selling well and that I’d get some royalties. And I remember turning to my wife, and we were a young couple and I said: “You know what Wanda, if we ever make 80 thousand dollars a year, I will never ever ask for anything more.”
TM: Ted, I passed making eighty thousand dollars a year a long time ago. I can tell you I never moved the line. So, if I ever had to go back to making 80 thousand a year, I’d be perfectly OK. Once I went past it, I didn’t crave for more. I’ve got a house, I’ve got a car, the basics are paid for. And if somebody comes in and says, “Todd, we’ll give you four hundred million dollars for your company.” What am I going to do with that? I either have to buy a private island, maybe buy a jumbo 747… I don’t even know what I’m going to do with that money. Or maybe I’ll buy a baseball team, which would be cool, but you have to start thinking of absurd things or you give it away to charity.
TM: Now again, there’s nothing wrong with basically making money so you can then try and make the world a better place. I think Bill Gates is a good example of that. He made his money and now he’s trying to basically take that money and do good on a humanitarian level. After basically being in the business world and doing things that maybe at times, he wasn’t quite so proud of. It was a means to an end because now maybe you can create a vaccine that will save millions of people. There’s all that. I’m not saying that the money doesn’t have a value, or you can’t help underprivileged kids and get them through school.
TM: So, there’s a value to the money in being able to help others. And that’s the only time that the money ever matters to me when I go, “How can I use this in a way that will help other people, not me.” “I’m OK. My family’s OK. We’re OK”. We don’t need any more. So, I don’t need more tax breaks. I don’t need more cash. I don’t need any of that. So anyways, at some point, once you’ve tasted freedom and you’ve had it, and you get used to it, then you just don’t want to go back. You don’t want to go back to it. I’m not saying, people say “Oh, Todd you hate Marvel comics, you left them”. I don’t hate Marvel comics; I didn’t dislike my time at Marvel comics. I’m just saying it got to a point where I basically couldn’t do it anymore, not for Marvel comics or DC Comics since I worked for both of them. To me, that was equivalent of my high school experience. Did I like the people? Yes. Did I enjoy my time? Yes. Did I have a lot of laughs? Yes. Do I plan on going back to high school? No. I’ve already been to high school, I’m past that. It’s just high school, although I enjoyed it, it’s something in my past.
TM: Marvel & DC, although I enjoyed it, and there are other moments where I didn’t but for the most part, I enjoyed it. It was a good livelihood, and it helped make my career. It’s in my past and I’m now old enough that there could be no conceivable reason I could be forced to go back to that place. For what, to make money? I can make money. Like I said earlier at the very beginning, this is why I encourage people to draw.
TM: The one advantage a comic book artist will have over a comic book writer is that as long as I have sight in one eye and I can hold a pencil in my hand, somebody is going to give me money to draw. I could be in Bermuda on a beach, I can be 92 years old, and as long as I can still do a decent Venom drawing (I co-created Venom) somebody will say “Todd, I’ll give you money to draw a Venom head or a Spider-Man head or a Spawn head or whatever,” I’ll be able to basically make money till the day I die. So that also takes pressure off where I don’t have to make a bunch of money for retirement because I go “What are you talking about?” If I even need more money, I’ll just sell some of my original artwork. Or reprint some of my artwork. I’m in the odd position where I can almost create money at the flip of a switch if I want to. Now I haven’t done that because there may actually come a time in my life when I’ll need to do it and I don’t want to do some of the things that happened to some of my partners early on in the formation of Image Comics. I thought that they were basically turning on the money spigot, going to the money well, when they weren’t thirsty. There was no need to make the money other than because they could. To me I’m always thinking what’s the reasoning and the rationale in doing that? So, from time to time I have conversations with someone from Marvel where they suggest “Hey Todd, let’s do a Spawn-Spidey crossover!” Which would sell gangbusters and I’m not saying that someday I might not just do it, but it will be for the creative itch of doing it.
TM: My answer is always “OK, so we do it and it sends a jolt through the comic book industry in January, so what’s propping it up in February?” It’s just it’s a momentary hit, there’s no long-term impact to it. My pride comes from, and we’re heading towards it right now is that Spawn issue 300 is coming out. Not just the mere fact that it’s a big giant anniversary but it ties the record with Cerebus for being the longest-running creator-owned comic book on the planet. And 301 is my sugar because that sets the record. I’m not saying every book is perfect. I’m not saying the character is great. I’m not saying any of that. I’m just saying that longevity has its own value. For me, it’s important that through thick and thin, this character and this creative person have endured. They may not be the biggest or the best. It’s the same reason why I tip my hat to a band like Kiss. You can talk to me about how good their music is. They swam amongst the sharks now for 40 years. Surviving in a harsh business environment, there’s something to be said about survivors that go up against giants, conglomerates and big companies. I go up against Hasbro and Mattel in the toy industry. I am under no illusion that I’m ever going to make a dent in them. The success isn’t that I’m going to make a dent in them it’s that those giants with a thousand times more money, a thousand times more profit, a thousand times more influence, a thousand times more people working for them. How are they not capable of squashing a guy like me?
TM: The answer is that they just move too slow. Because the Achilles heel of large corporations is that they move too slow. And when you’re small, as I’ve told people, retailers, and business people: The bane, the blessing and the curse of my company is my size. I’m too small for you to care about but I’m small enough to be able to move on a dime, that can have value in plenty of places. So that’s sort of been it. And if I got in too big, I would have to then start thinking like a billion-dollar company and I’d slow play everything where I’d create a bunch of rules and whatever else. I rather like living down where it’s a little bit of chaos and you get the move and sometimes you crash and burn. But as long as you get it right 80 percent of the time you can make a living at it. I encourage everybody to be an entrepreneur once in their life. Just once. Try it for a year, try it for two years. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to the institution. You can always go back, they’ll take you. Marvel Comics and DC Comics would take me back tomorrow.
TA: Your message is such an inspirational one and I think you’re absolutely right. I mean whenever I do any speaking or I’m talking to folks about what they’re going to do for their career, I always encourage the same things. Much better to work for yourself than to work for other people. Especially when you’re young. If you try for a couple of years and that doesn’t work, the jobs aren’t going away. The jobs will still be there when you get done.
TA: I’ve probably taken enough of your time, I’ll let you get back to your job and I really appreciate you doing this. And just to give another plug for Traveling Stories they’re at travellingstories.org. Anybody that can donate, it would be much appreciated. I really appreciate you doing this and again appreciate you making Traveling Stories part of your Humble Bundle as well.
TM: I’d like to say one thing to some of the young kids out there. Let me just add one thing: don’t put the pressure on yourself that you have to be the best. Stop it. What you have to be is the person willing to do the job. And that will get you amazingly farther than you think right now. If you’re in a room with 10 other artists and I’m the tenth best artist in that room, when somebody comes in and says, “Hey, I’ve got a job but it’s going to take a lot of hours to do and you’re not going to have a lot of fun in the next month.” And the nine artists that are better than me don’t raise their hand and I go “Oh I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Guess who gets the job. The 10th best got the job. So, stop thinking your career isn’t worth much because you’re not a great artist. I myself can give you a list of a thousand that are better than me. I think I’m where I’m at because I’m tenacious enough to think that I can do it all. I raise my hand a lot and say, “Yeah I’ll do that, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”
TA: I tell people just getting out of bed every day and putting one foot forward. I mean it sounds corny but just going to the office, do your job, being there and being engaged is a big deal because a lot of people just don’t do that. They just give up or they don’t have the work ethic to go there.
TM: And if you’re the 5th best person in a room and they give you the job and it’s successful. You do it with a certain quality and it works. Then you can add that to your resume and all of a sudden you start going up in people’s credibility lists. I saw they did this and that. They know they can go back to that person again because they get it done. Next thing you know you’re getting way more praise and way more accolades than you deserve. That’s my entire career!
TA: Excellent. All right well thanks again. I really appreciate your time and I hope you have a great rest of the week.
Credit: Thanks to SantiPerez for the killer illustration of Ted & Todd