Todd McFarlane is trying to convince Hollywood that audiences are ready for a Spawn reboot, his kind of Spawn reboot.
“When I say R-rated, people go 'oh, like Deadpool!’” McFarlane says. “No, no, I'm talking like 'The Exorcist.' You know — scary, creepy, odd, messed-up stuff and Spawn fits that bill. I know there's a hunger for it, I know there's an audience that goes to those fun, superhero popcorn movies that are over the age of 30 that can still handle some cool, gritty stuff.”
Cool and gritty wouldn’t be new for McFarlane. The prolific 57-year-old “Spawn” creator and Image Comics President has been pushing boundaries in the comic book world for 30 plus years, and he's still at it.
Reached in Phoenix, McFarlane is hard at work on Spawn 301. The book is poised to break a record for longest-running creator-owned comic series (incidentally held by another Canadian — ‘Cerebus’ creator Dave Sim) and is set to hit the printers in a few days. McFarlane is on the clock. He has to get it finished before he hops on a plane to Toronto for Fan Expo Canada, where he’ll be making an appearance.
Incidentally, Toronto is McFarlane’s top choice at the moment in terms of locations to shoot Spawn.
"As of right now, if the money comes, Toronto is our go-to," McFarlane says, adding that he's already scouted some locations and done some pre-production for the film.
But first he has to convince Hollywood to make the movie his way, which essentially means totally different from most of the kid-friendly, quip-driven crowd pleasers being churned out to the theatres. McFarlane makes no bones about the fact these movies don't interest him.
"I don't go to the superhero movies because it's plastic people in bright-coloured uniforms, right? They don't act like real human beings to me. They don't talk like real human beings. If you want to know how real human beings talk, watch a couple of dramas," he says.
"Instead we get into grandeur, into all this simplistic soap opera stuff. I can't do it, I'm not 13 years old any more. I'm sure if I was 13 I'd like every one of those movies."
He admits that the idea of breaking with the typical comic book movie formula makes some studios uncomfortable (the film is still in the financing stages), but it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his career that McFarlane wants to do things his own way.
Early in life, the Calgary native had a plan; to play baseball by day and write comics by night.
After playing ball in college, he even got the opportunity to try out for a Blue Jays farm team in Lethbridge, a tryout where he says he played "over his head."
"They called me to the office and said 'hey, we got a kid from Philadelphia who we drafted and offered a lot of money. He doesn't want it. We now have an opening on the roster. We're going to phone up Toronto and tell them that we think you should be the 25th man and you're from Calgary, so it would be super cool," McFarlane recalls.
But when he came in the next day, it wasn't to be.
"I could see there was a solemn look on their face and I went uh-oh, hey what's up?' and they said 'the kid from Philadelphia decided to take the money so he's back on board,' which basically meant that you never want to be the 26th guy on a 25-man roster."
The result was disappointing, but when baseball didn't pan out, McFarlane turned all his energy to his other dream.
In college, he had sent out no fewer than a staggering 700 samples of his work to any comic book editor he could find an address for.
"If there was a company making comics, I sent off samples to them," McFarlane remembers. "I would probably send them off 30, 40 at a time. I'd sit back and wait for what turned out to be hundreds of rejections, hoping for the elusive 'yes.'"
While other people would have quit with no shame after the first 100 or so, McFarlane says it was a mix of "a little bit of determination with a healthy dose of delusion and immaturity" that kept him sending out submissions. "I just didn't know that I wasn't that good," he says.
He adds that his tenacity is borne out of a truism in life:
"Nobody is going to do you any favours other than yourself.
"There is no human being, there is nobody on this planet of eight billion people that wakes up in the morning and the first thought says 'How can I make Todd McFarlane's life better?' Nobody."
Finally someone gave him a break and after working on some lesser-known books, in the early 90s he found himself at Marvel Comics, drawing Spiderman.
It was on that job that McFarlane both made a name for himself as one of the great comic book artists, and incurred the wrath of his editors.
"I was looking at what they were doing on Spiderman and said nah, plenty of other people are doing that. The other new kids coming in are basically just doing bad knock-offs of what's been done for the last 30 years. I'm going to see if I could just add a bit of fun and panache to it, and at the same time have fun while I'm drawing it."
McFarlane gave Spiderman a new look. Among other changes, he enlarged the eyes on the mask and came up with more intricate webbing. (When an Italian editor pejoratively told him that his webbing looked like a mess of spaghetti, McFarlane loved the name "spaghetti webbing" and it stuck.)
Fans loved the new look and sales of McFarlane's Spiderman books soared.
('Spawn' creator Todd McFarlane is pictured in his office. (Handout))
"Luckily, luckily my instincts at least in my career so far, that whatever I like seems to be sort of average because there seem to be a lot of other average people that respond to what I do," he says.
However the editors were not pleased.
"I had a steady stream of meetings with the higher echelons of Marvel comics telling me not to draw that way," McFarlane remembers.
"This whole reinvention of Spiderman that took them to the top of the charts artistically, in which the books today still pay homage to my artwork – the whole time I was doing it, I was being reprimanded and called into the office, saying 'stop it, stop it.' You're wrecking the status quo. That's not how he's supposed to be drawn."
One of the fights gave rise to one of the most iconic characters in the Spiderman world.
Asked to draw Spiderman in a black suit, McFarlane refused, and instead helped invent a separate character that would wear a black suit so that McFarlane would be free to draw Spiderman in his classic colours.
The result was "Venom," a massively popular character which just received the Hollywood treatment with a blockbuster film starring Tom Hardy.
Recalling the battle for his creative freedom, McFarlane speaks passionately – almost as if the dispute just happened yesterday – and says one of the biggest struggles he sees in life is a battle against the status quo.
"Most people don't want to rock the boat, most people don't want to be the guy that's not getting along. Most people don't want to be the one who says 'hey boss I think there's a better way of doing it.' Most people don't want to say 'the emperor's not wearing any clothes.' It's easier to just go along. For whatever reason, I'm just not built that way."
Ultimately, McFarlane says, he became fed up with the arguments and he left Marvel at the top of his game to start his own company, Image Comics, where he started drawing Spawn, a character he’d had in mind since high school.
Returning from the dead to see his wife by way of a deal with the devil, Spawn (Al Simmons) comes back to occupy a grey-space – neither a force for pure good nor evil.
Sometimes described as a brooding anti-hero, McFarlane shrugs off the idea that Spawn is "dark."
"Given that a lot of superhero books are these perfect, boy scout, pablum-driven superheros, the moment you show any flaws in your hero, all of a sudden it's 'dark' and he becomes tagged as an anti-hero," McFarlane says. "I'm just saying he's just a normal person who happens to get hit by a bolt of lightning and now has super powers and he still acts and thinks and makes the same mistakes as human beings.
('Spawn' creator Todd McFarlane faces off against his creation. (Handout))
"We're emotional creatures and sometimes we let the better of those emotions and intelligence either help or hinder us in the day."
Image Comics eventually grew and expanded to publish other books, such as "Walking Dead." McFarlane also started a toy company.
While Spawn got the theatrical treatment back in 1997, McFarlane says the time is right now to reboot the story on film.
"It's been over 20 years so everything is new again. Somebody who was just born then is 22 years old, so a Spawn movie is maybe something that's new to them," he says.
He traces the recent evolution of superhero films from movies about "boy scout" superheroes to films that flout convention, such as "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Deadpool" and "Wolverine" and says that the appetite is there for another step in that development.
"There's not a lot that's not working so all I'm saying is that I think there are still corners that can be touched in the superhero/comic book genre," he says. "But you have to have the right character and I think Spawn is the character."
If Hollywood still needs convincing, McFarlane knows there's one group that doesn't – the fans.
Making his second-ever appearance at Fan Expo, it's an understatement to say he's likely to encounter some enthusiasm for any future Spawn projects.
McFarlane says he enjoys hearing stories from people who have been inspired by his work and describes the experience of attending a convention as a bit of a "false positive" in terms of judging how people generally see you.
"I sit down and very gracious people who have been supporting me over the years stand in line, sometimes for hours, so that they can get that 30 seconds and say nice things to me. There's no hardship in going to a convention," he says. "The minute you walk out that show you become a nobody again."
He also appreciates the chance to come "back to the homeland."
He has a house on Vancouver Island where he escapes to whenever the heat gets too intense in Phoenix.
"We've got a little house up on Vancouver Island," he says. "We used to live up there before we moved down here. When it gets miserably hot we go up to the island. I recommend every Canadian spend at least a couple of days on Vancouver Island at some point in your life."
This year will also be the first Fan Expo since the passing of comics legend Stan Lee, who also happened to be an inspiration and friend to McFarlane.
"When you look at him in terms of his impact, the sheer volume of characters he helped co-create, it's a staggering list," McFarlane says. "Most of us – if we create one or two characters that have a lasting impact – we consider that to be a heck of a career."
('Spawn' creator Todd McFarlane is pictured in his studio. (Handout)
McFarlane was just 16 when he met Lee for the first time at a convention at a Florida hotel where his family happened to be staying.
"I was thinking about maybe trying to break into comic books. He let me sit next to him, literally sit next to him for the whole day just peppering him with questions," McFarlane remembers.
"After that I was even more determined I was going to break into the industry because I had knowledge now that this guy whose name was on every comic book I was collecting at that point just let me ask him literally a hundred questions that day."
He recalls that when the editors at Marvel were pressuring him to stick to the old way of drawing Spiderman, Lee – who created the iconic character – encouraged him to push on.
"He was always encouraging, like 'keep going young man' when all the editors were like 'stop drawing like that.'"
Years later when Lee's vision and hearing had declined, McFarlane was asked to accompany him onstage at various public appearances to act as moderator and to relay questions.
"I've probably been onstage with him more than any other human being," he says.
As such, McFarlane says he has insight into Lee's true "superpower."
"Stan Lee understood almost better than any human being that I've been around, that the consumer, the fan is the one who gives us our career and without the fan, we're nothing," McFarlane says.
"Stan's own personal superpower was making the 30 seconds he may have with you as a fan individually seem like it was the most important 30 seconds of his day that day, even though there was a lineup of 800 to 1,000 people behind that person.
"He gave every ounce of energy he could to that 30 seconds. To make another human being feel good, that's special."
Like Lee, McFarlane seems to have almost boundless energy.
As if trying to helm comic book and toy companies and trying to get a film made weren't enough, McFarlane says that he still manages to find time to draw every day.
He reveals toward the end of our lengthy chat that he’s been drawing for Spawn 301 the entire time.
"I got a deadline. I gotta get this book out!"
Todd McFarlane will be appearing at Fan Expo Canada at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Aug. 24 and 25.