One of the true superstars of the comic book world, Todd McFarlane burst onto the scene in the late '80s and early '90s, writing and pencilling blockbuster titles such as 'Spider-Man', 'Spawn,' and of course 'Detective Comics' -- for which he contributed to the 'Batman: Year Two' storyline. After co-founding Image Comics in 1992, McFarlane has also since focused on his companies McFarlane Entertainment and McFarlane Toys. We caught up with him at last week's San Diego Comic-Con, where he was celebrating the release of DC Collectibles' 100th Batman: Black & White figure based on his fan-favorite cover to 'Batman' #423 at the Comic-Con Museum's "Batman Experience." Here he talks about some of favorite Batman artists, possible future McFarlane toys based on DC characters, and the moment that something "cool" inspires an artist...
In addition to everything else you’ve accomplished, you're one of the most iconic Batman artists of the late 20th century. I think there’s an entire generation that saw the distinct cape you gave the character on a spinner rack or a newsstand, and thought, "Holy crap!" It was just such a dynamic pose.
It’s interesting, that one cover has lived so long, and I know that it has some impact because when I do shows... I don’t do that many, but I get a big crowd and I like to get to as many people as possible, so I usually limit people to like one or two books. So now they have to comb through my 20-30 years and go, "Oh, I can only get two, right?" So you can imagine there’s a couple that you see a lot. Maybe 'Spider-Man' #300, 'Spider-Man' #1, 'Spawn' #1, but strangely enough, that cover comes up way more than you would expect, right? So they just go, "Do I take my 'Spider-Man' #300 or do I take this Batman cover?" And they’re making the choice. They’re putting it in with some other prestigious covers. It sort of got a lot of attention, right?
Your work on the character was so different from what came before, from Frank Miller’s 'Year One,' and yet it was so influential, like the spaghetti webbing you gave Spidey. What inspired the cape you have Batman?
I was a geek and a fan and I collect a lot of comic books; a lot, a lot, a lot of comic books. If you’re asking me who did the best Batman, I’m going to just tell you my guy, Marshall Rogers. Marshall Rogers did these giant capes [pictured above], and they were just like super cool, and I’m like, "Oh my God. If I ever draw a comic book, I’m going to do a giant cape." John Byrne did nice capes, but he didn’t do them giant, right? They had a lot of flare. So I go, "What happens if you make them with a lot of dynamic action in the cape, and make it big?" Because there were a couple images that Marshall did that really stuck with me, that 16/17-year-old kid wannabe artist. Oh my God. So that was it. I mean, I had created Spawn prior to all that when I was a kid, but when it finally came full circle and I was able to do that book, I took, again, the influence of big capes, and I just carried it into my own character. They just visually look good.
They’re graphic images, right? People ask, "What’s happening underneath the cape? What’s he doing?" Honestly, I never thought about it. My job is to do a cool-looking graphic image that will capture people’s attention, and whether it’s realistic or not, I’ll leave that to other people to criticize, right? But I can tell you, in my years with this character called Spider-Man, in which I put him into poses that no human being can go into, it sort of defined my career, and arguably how Spider-Man is drawn today. We’re in comic books. Everything’s melodrama. Everything’s sort of accentuated big, right? Everybody’s got big muscles, big poses, big words, big threats. Everything’s big. To me, I’m not worried. This is just Broadway play stuff. I’m not worried about the reality of it. I’m worried about the entertainment value, and if a guy’s standing there with a cool, big, giant cape that looks good, and you think that somehow the anatomy under there doesn’t work, obviously, you’ve missed the word "cool." When you just see something cool...it’s a fraction of a moment, when cool hits you. You don’t define it. You don’t do an autopsy on the word. You just go, "That’s cool, mom. Can I get it?" If it’s done right, you’re done and you move on.
You obviously know your Batman history. If you had to pick a top five, are there four other artists -- in addition to Marshall Rogers -- whose work you consider definitive?
I’m going to be a little bit biased. Because I’m going to pick a lot of people from the era when I was collecting, because all the artists when I was collecting impacted me... Oh my God -- Jim Aparo, who was doing Batman, he was doing 'The Brave and the Bold'. I always liked team-up books and I just thought it was super cool that he did what I thought was one of the better Batman books. And it was so consistent, that Batman. I believed it was the exact same Batman in every issue, because Jim was doing them. So he was doing some good stuff. Obviously, the stuff that Neal Adams did was just... When he came on and did his realistic look it just sort of blew everybody apart, and then he went on to do Green Arrow, and you’re going, "Oh my gosh, look at that..." So those three guys. Ross Andru came on and did it a little bit when he moved. There’s a couple guys that were bouncing, and Ross Andru came over and did it a little bit. Most of it was when he was doing 'Superman' -- there were a couple Batmans that were in the background, but I thought they were just sort of classic. José Luis García-Lopez, who’s just great -- I think you can give him a cucumber and he’d draw it and it would look great. His stuff is dynamic. Then as you go a little bit later, obviously Jim Lee comes on board and does cool stuff. Then more recently, what Greg Capullo brought to it. He’s made his mark, his legacy, on Batman.
In Capullo's work, we’ve been able to see some of your influence.
I talk to Greg all the time. Talked to him just earlier today. There’s going to be a whole generation that are going to be... People come up to me saying, "Oh my God, I grew up on your Spider-Man." I think there’s going to be a whole generation that will be coming up to Greg for 50 years and going, "Oh my gosh, your Batman was the definite Batman." That doesn’t diminish what everybody else did before that, obviously, because I could give you another lengthy list of those guys who were around in the '50s and '60s. But what ends up happening, just like everything else, whenever we do our top 100, there’s always this distortion of the newer guys rising higher, because they’re more relevant to our lives, right? When you go, "Who’s the best center fielder?" You know, they’re going to talk about Mike Trout almost as equal to Willie Mays, because he’s here today, right? He didn’t hit 600 home runs yet, right? Maybe he never will. Didn’t have a 24-year career. I don’t know if Greg is going to, but he’s relevant to the generation now. So that generation that I mentioned was, to me, some of the best. And I’m fortunate enough to be friends with some of the guys I think are making an impact on the generation now.
Can you talk about what brought you back to do the 100th Batman Black-and-White statue arriving next May from DC Collectibles?
Jim Lee and I talk often. So there have been sort of talks about, "Hey, would it be cool..." We never got around to it, and in combination with my toy company taking over the license to do some action figures that are coming out in 2020, it just seemed like sort of a good kickstart to my relationship with DC and Warner Bros. Everybody should be on the same team.
What can you tell us about those action figures? Anything to whet our appetites?
Yeah, we’re going to do all the things that we’re known for. But here’s what I do know... Every license I’ve taken always seems to take six months to a year before everybody really gets into the groove, and then you get to go crazy, right? Because that first year is making sure that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do, getting a trust factor and a relationship; making sure that the art turns out the way you want, maybe even making a couple missteps along the way. Again, the consumer never sees any of that, right? But any of us who are artists, we’re all neurotics, we always see our little stupid mistakes along the way. Then after you’ve been doing it, it's like any other job. After a year, after 365 days, you go, "I got it." If you look at the first Spawn I did, and you look at maybe the eighth one -- the eighth one is way cooler. Because there was a learning curve in all of it. Of just going, "How does this work? What are the expectations?" Even though people are very kind about the stuff in the very beginning. To use an example... When I wrote 'Spider-Man,' I knew that the 'Spider-Man' book I wrote, #1, which was the biggest seller for a single creator, I knew it was going to be the worst book I ever wrote, because it was my first one. So it was a weird thing that my worst story was going to be my biggest seller, right? And it was going to be downhill from there. Here’s what I do know about the action figures... DC’s got a ton of cool characters. They’ve got some great visuals. Even if you don’t know the characters, because they’re not all household names, I think some of the costumes and some of the coloring are awesome. Then I’ve been having a conversation too with them about "Once we all get comfortable, can we basically expand the box artistically and do some of that stuff?" So they seem to be open to that. We all want to walk before we run. But we’re having a lot of fun with it right now, and we’re just going to keep pushing.
So we may at some point see your own redesigns for some of the DC characters?
It's possible. Yeah, we’ve had the conversation. I’ve got to get their trust on my side that I’ll do them right. [Laughs.]
Of course you'd be going full circle, because your DC roots are in 'All-Star Squadron,' the Justice Society book set at the start of many different characters.
[Laughs.] It’s weird. I go, "Hey, I can do a Batman toy based upon 'Batman: Year Two,' which I drew." But I can’t really do that toy because there’s no articulation. Maybe I could articulate the cape, right? But anyway. We’re at the infancy of it. We’ve got lots of stuff. They’ve got lots of good ideas in conjunction with what Warner Bros wants to make a priority in some of the movies. Then at some point, the consumers tell us. The consumers always vote with their dollar, and they’re going to tell us what they want and what they don’t want, how big, how small. They’re a vocal group.
For more on the San Diego Comic-Con Museum, vist the museum's official website.