By Kim O’Connor
Last summer, in the warm light of early evening, a friend explained how he was distracting himself from his terrible pandemic feelings by reading about the suffering of people who lived in different times.
Yeah, I feel that way too, with the book I’m on, I said.
He was talking about a seven-part history of the Civil War. I was reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Certainly I knew going in that the history of Marvel was dark. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of misery described in that book. I didn’t know that the creator of Superman spent his late career as a proofreader at Marvel. Or that Jack Kirby was routinely disparaged by his own editors. Or about the artist who burned all his comics in a bonfire in his yard, or the Marvel workers who burned an effigy of their editor in chief at a company barbeque.
In this bleak landscape, a few bright souls stood out—no one more so than “cocky and foulmouthed Canadian jock” Todd McFarlane. Despite earning enormous popularity from drawing Spider-Man, McFarlane saw the writing on the wall. He understood on a cellular level not just how badly Marvel treated artists, but also how most of his colleagues would never, EVER do anything about it.
He wisely got out and co-founded a company called Image Comics with six other guys from Marvel. They are, collectively, some of the most ridiculous people in the world, which perhaps obscures the fact that McFarlane had, from the very beginning, remarkable presence of mind and clarity of vision.
At the time, Marvel president Terry Stewart issued a wan edict on McFarlane & co.: “The importance of the creative people is still secondary to the importance of the comic-book characters.” As a statement of the company’s pathological values, this was the plain truth. But as an assessment of the market it was demonstrably false: Marvel’s stock instantly tanked, losing $137.6 million in value.
Todd McFarlane recognized the importance of putting people first. My #1 favorite part of The Untold Story is when he fired Rob Liefeld:
“Amid allegations that Liefeld was poaching talent from his partners’ studio and not paying employees, the other six [Image] co-founders told Liefeld over a conference call that he was going to be ousted from the company. McFarlane’s thick Canadian accent droned over the speakerphone. ‘Uh, in case we’re doing something illegal here, you know, then we’ll come back and do it again, but uh, we don’t like you no more, and we’re kicking you out of the company, and do I hear anybody disagree with me? And if I don’t, then let me take a formal vote…. Okay, bye, is that it? Anybody else got anything to say? Nope? Okay, good-bye.’ The line went dead.”
This guy! My spirit buoyed, my soul renewed, I could see that Todd McFarlane was a man I needed to know more about. I wondered if I should read Spawn, a comic book I had always assumed was sort of stupid. Clearly I had underestimated this man.
I: Comics Are Hell
Marvel’s egregious labor practices is one context in which Spawn must be considered. Those are the circumstances that led to its creation, and McFarlane’s career is most often framed as a rejection of the values and business practices of the Big Two. But as the most successful auteur and independent comics artist of all time, McFarlane has also been a challenge to the mores of art comics, a world in which he doesn’t comfortably fit. We like to think of auteurs as being motivated by meaning more than money. We judge their work in terms of aesthetic excellence and cultural value. We romanticize the idea that the production of this work demands noble suffering, as opposed to having fun.
Much like Marvel and DC, indie comics has focused on the value of the work more than the artists who produce it. Todd McFarlane doesn’t quite belong in either world because he holds the radical belief that cartoonists are more important than their art.
“If I’m personally happy it should show up in my work,” he has said. “I’ll be a better husband and a better person, and that, ultimately, is 10 times more important than all the comic book stuff. … To me, that’s what life’s all about.”
I really can’t overstate how out of line this ethos is with…I don’t know, most everything I’ve ever heard or read about working in comics?
McFarlane spearheaded the exodus of the so-called Image Seven when he was on paternity leave from Marvel. “Ninety percent of why I quit [Marvel] was I had a baby daughter,” McFarlane said. As his own boss, he brought her along to all the Image comic book signings.
“I took five or six months off and I had a baby daughter and I just went out in the sun and played out in the sun, and maybe the answer is the sun makes you a little better creatively,” he said. There might be something to it.
II: The Wife Guy from Hell
Spawn was not the first Image comic book, but it quickly became the company’s signature character. The first issue was released in 1992 for the price of $1.95. (The year before, RAW magazine had sold its final issue for $13 more.) Like other early-era Image comic books, Spawn #1 has a radiant, almost uncanny 1990s energy. The cover is a charged artifact that seems to contain some distilled essence of the decade itself.
As a work of fiction, I can’t say that Spawn quite lives up to its premise. The character is basically the world’s most violent Wife Guy, with all the incongruity that implies.
There is a tonal problem, where the comedic notes don’t sit well in the story. There is the distant hollow ring of what would emerge as an enormously successful toy franchise. And there is a poverty of writing style for which the art just isn’t exciting enough to compensate.
Taken as a work of autobiography, Spawn has more to offer. There is a lot of psychology going on. A superhero who made a deal with the devil, and didn’t quite know what he was getting into? Hmm. A guy who’s torn from his family and forced to do someone else’s bidding all the time? Interesting. An impotent, repulsive middle manager who’s always looking over Spawn’s shoulder and busting his balls? I wonder what that’s about. If it seems unlikely that a hellspawn who wears a human skull as a pelvic guard keeps moaning about some lady named Wanda, something clicks into place when you realize that’s the name of McFarlane’s actual wife.
Another excellent way to approach Spawn is as a document of Todd McFarlane’s imagination. To my eye, his work for Marvel is technically stronger. But Spawn and most especially Spawn #1 convey a certain enthusiasm that we should not discount. The titular character was created when McFarlane was just 16 years old, and that comes across in the best possible way. “I dusted him off, changed some aspects visually, and went on to put out Spawn #1,” McFarlane said. This included “bulking up the costume with added skulls and spikes” (good idea) and deciding that Spawn was from Hell, rather than outer space (great idea). He also added a shot of ectoplasm green as a nod to Spawn’s sci-fi heritage. Emphatically, I approve.
Aesthetic tokens of the comics world from which McFarlane launched his career line these pages. Spawn sometimes poses and crouches like Spider-man, and has the same dim moral sensibility of the Batman.
There are visual references to the work of Dave Gibbons, Frank Miller, and Jack Kirby that are so obvious that even someone like me can pick them up. This is not to say that Spawn #1 is derivative; it is uncut McFarlane. His work is pure genre yet somehow more earnest than any of those guys in a way I find compelling, even if he can’t match the reach of their imaginations. Themes and conventions around race and masculinity in Big Two superhero comics are refracted in ways that are interesting, if not necessarily coherent.
“Does it all make sense? Nah,” McFarlane said. “Ultimately it doesn’t have to make sense, really, because I’m having a kick. I’m just going, ‘Todd, this is cool. You want to draw a cartoon character? Ahh, let’s bring in a cartoon character. You want to draw a monster? Ahh, let’s bring in a monster. You want us to draw tall guys? Ahh, let’s draw tall guys. You want to do it at night time? Daytime?’ It doesn’t matter what I do, I get up and go, ‘Ahh, what’s going to entertain Todd McFarlane?’”
As an Artist with a capital A, McFarlane is lacking. And he knows it! One question the McFarlane catalog asks of us is: Who gives a fuck?
I love Todd’s Instagram stories, where he previews new comic books by flipping through the pages, pointing out what he finds cool, and narrating the sound effects. I love the profile picture on his Twitter, which is him kissing Spawn on the mouth. I love the recent SyFy documentary, in which he is shown wearing not one, but two, Spawn t-shirts.
Yeah, McFarlane is entertained. And that is entertaining, to me.
It was only in grabbing an image for this piece that I understood the dedication for Spawn #1 (which I had only ever seen out of context, and wasn’t in my omnibus). It wasn’t to his wife or daughter, as I expected. It was to Jack Kirby.
A point that’s sometimes lost in assessments of Todd McFarlane and his relationship to money is the degree to which he is truly a fan of comic books. That level of enthusiasm is itself sort of beautiful. Anyway it’s the central reason I love McFarlane.
III: Renouncing the Devil
Reading about the man, the myth, the legend in The Untold Story led me to McFarlane’s famous 1992 interview with Gary Groth. It is, without exaggeration, one of the best things that I have ever read. McFarlane (easily one of the sharpest minds in comics) turns the table on a series of “gotchas.” In the most winsome, humble, and clear-eyed manner possible, McFarlane challenges Groth about what, exactly, he wishes to accomplish as a publisher and a critic.
Here is the thought I want to leave you with: The mantra of “Comics as Art” as it was conceived by titans of independent comics like Gary Groth, Françoise Mouly, and Art Spiegelman has been passed down through the generations like a cancer. And in that interview, Todd McFarlane interrogates all of it in a manner I find absolutely thrilling, reading the exchange some 30 years later.
The empires of Marvel and DC were built on exploitation. Alt comics was built on something just as self-involved, if less financially savvy and more pure of heart. It has been championed by people who were content to pat themselves on the back for their own cleverness even as they consistently centered the work over the artists who made it. The Comics as Art campaign has enriched a handful of cartoonists while failing to provide financial stability, healthy emotional support, or even the most basic expectation of safety to most artists. It seems to feel very little urgency in terms of establishing sustainable practices and infrastructure. And it has discouraged conversations about the material circumstances of artists by focusing on the empty promise of cultural capital.
No, Todd McFarlane didn’t fix the comics industry. He is not the champion of creators’ rights that we wish he had been. But I have to ask: why does no one seem to have the same expectation of some of the titans of literary comics? Since winning a genius grant worth well over half a million dollars, Alison Bechdel has spent the better part of a decade working on a comic book about her interest in exercise. She is emblematic of the paltry few who have made enough money from comics to buy a house, then shut themselves away in it. From his historic million-dollar home, Chris Ware frequently complains about how art is suffering. Generations of artists have taken that as a mandate without stopping to question the premise.
I can’t say that I’ve ever heard Todd McFarlane talk about the unbearable difficulties of being a cartoonist. By every indication, he is a man who is living his dream—and it just moves me, really genuinely moves me, how he’s respectful and kind to fans in an industry where that mysteriously isn’t the norm.
I’m not suggesting we should disavow the accomplishments of the people who fought so bravely for comics’ representation on the cover of the New Yorker and in the world’s top-tier museums. Surely enough, comics aren’t just for kids. Message received. And of course there are industry figures like Annie Koyama who seem to have a deeper understanding and engagement with material issues. Yet I think it’s fair to say that very few artists make their living from this business (nowhere less so than in indie comics). It is a very interesting question to consider why.
“Todd McFarlane is a contented millionaire,” Groth wrote. He meant that a certain way.
But is this a sentence we might consider in a different tone?
Is it an affront to Art to say that people should be able to pursue it as more than a glorified hobby? (What good is taste when you don’t get to eat?) Would you believe that I’ve seen some contracts from Publishers of Taste that offer artists 10 percent royalties (no advance)—and one of the dirty secrets of small publishers is that even these terrible terms sometimes go unfulfilled? Comics artists have always been exploited, everywhere, at every level. Not all of them, but way too many. The only salient difference between comics and comix is the reasons why.
To say that comics will break your heart is a curious construction, grammatically. It gives inanimate objects and the industry they stand for all the agency. But what if comics weren’t the subject of the sentence? What if the comics didn’t come first?
For example: Todd McFarlane didn’t let comics break his heart. I think they almost did, at Marvel. But the lesson that McFarlane’s career has to offer—and this is his superpower, as well as his weakness—is that you should put yourself and your own happiness first.
No one’s going to give you nothing, is the first lesson of Comics.
The real power of Spawn #1 is to suggest that you take it.
Written, drawn and Inked by Todd McFarlane
Coloured by Steve Oliff, Reuben Rude and Olyoptics
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Published by Image Comics
Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Chicago. You can find more of her writing about comics here.
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I’m often fascinated at the way the famous times McFarlane dicked over other creators don’t seem to make their way into pieces like this…