by Ethan Alter, Yahoo Entertainment
Todd McFarlane remembers the moment he knew he wanted to create a different complexion of superhero. The artist and writer was midway through his groundbreaking Spider-Man run when he found himself alternately intrigued and frustrated by a design limitation of Marvel Comics’s signature wall-crawler. “It always bugged me that I was drawing a character who was covered from head to toe, which meant that nobody knew who was underneath the costume,” McFarlane tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “You didn’t know if they were Asian or Latino or white, and I always had this curiosity about why. I mean, you can see the Flash and Batman from the nose down, so we know who they are. But for any character that’s covered from head to toe, the first question should be: Who is that? What’s their background and what’s driving them?”
In fact, McFarlane went as far as to create a scenario that spotlighted Spider-Man’s lack of identity, one that never made it into the pages of a Marvel comic. “I had this scene where your clichéd white Wall Street guy is walking down the street, and gets mugged by a minority character,” he remembers. “Spider-Man comes in and webs up the mugger. As he’s walking away, the Wall Street guy says, ‘Hey, thanks, Spider-Man! You saved me from that…” and drops an epithet. Spidey turns around, puts the Wall Street guy up against the f****** wall, looks him in the eye and says, ‘What color you do you think I am underneath this mask?’”
It’s no accident, then, that McFarlane had a specific creative agenda when he launched Spawn, his flagship comic and character for Image Comics, the artist-owned comics company that debuted to great fanfare in 1992. Like Spider-Man, the demonically possessed antihero was outfitted in a head-to-toe costume. But McFarlane also had a novel answer for who was underneath the mask: Al Simmons, a Black soldier and CIA agent who makes a literal deal with the devil after his untimely death that brings him back to Earth as a Hellspawn warrior.
“At the time, I was thinking, why can’t an A-plus hero be a minority character?” McFarlane says of Spawn’s introduction, which came during a fallow period for Black-led comic books at DC and Marvel. (DC’s Milestone label, which was founded by Black artists like Dwayne McDuffie and Michael Davis and featured such characters as Icon and Static, would debut a year later in 1993.) “So I created Spawn, and then I took the thing that is a trigger for most people and burnt his skin off. Now you’re at the point where you get into what Dr. King said: Judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. He’s got to figure out how to be a man and, maybe less so, a hero.”
Flash-forward to today, and it’s also no accident that McFarlane has picked Black History Month to announce his latest initiative for Spawn. After nearly three decades and over 300 issues, the character is getting his own shared universe modeled after Marvel and DC. It’s a plan that dates back to 1992 when McFarlane was wrestling with how big he wanted Al’s world to be. “We toyed with the idea at the inception of Image Comics, but I decided to focus on my main character,” he says. “Now’s the moment where I want to put my stake in the ground and create something much, much bigger.”
The Spawn-verse will officially launch in June with the one-shot comic Spawn’s Universe, which serves as the launching pad for three new comics that will hit shelves between August and December: King Spawn, featuring a battle-weary Spawn, the neo-Western Gunslinger Spawn and the team title The Scorched. And that’s just the beginning of what McFarlane has planned. “This is a 20-year plan,” he says matter-of-factly. “DC Comics did it in the 1930s and Marvel did it in the 1960s. So I’m projecting 20 years into the future of what this could potentially be, and it’s way beyond comic books. We start with these new books and these new characters, and they should beget other characters, other books and other ideas.”
McFarlane doesn’t hide the fact that he’s ultimately gunning for the kind of multi-media empire that Marvel enjoys at Walt Disney and DC has at WarnerMedia — arrangements that allow for characters to appear in blockbuster movies and buzzy streaming shows in addition to comic books. “Marvel’s off the table and DC’s off the table,” he says of the media companies that are hunting for the next big superhero property. “If they want comic book stuff, they have to look someplace else. And if you look at the staying power of Spawn, he’s not only still relevant, but he’s gaining steam. At some point, we’re going to have to find a buyer, and the question is, am I selling them Spawn or am I selling them something much, much bigger than that?”
It’s worth noting that both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe launched with Iron Man and Superman, respectively — two legacy white characters — before diversifying their population of heroes. The Spawn universe that McFarlane is imagining begins with a Black hero and grows only more diverse from there. “We’ll have that in the back of our mind,” he confirms. “I think it should be a natural progression of how we get there. That part of their background is going to seep into all of it, but ultimately whether a character ends up being male or female, white or minority, should be of no consequence. Either the character is compelling or the character isn’t compelling.”
While McFarlane will start off writing each of the new books, behind the scenes he’ll be working with a vast array of artists, including Frank Quitely, Art Adams and Javier Fernandez, with more names to come. “With the right amount of like-minded creators, we could get a fleshed-out, meaningful universe that will have impact in many, many mediums. Because if we create our Guardians of the Galaxy or our Venom, it’s going to be a billion-dollar idea. My goal isn’t to just make dark, gritty, R-rated stuff. Will there be characters that fall into that category? Of course, but there should be a wide range of characters in Spawn’s universe. To me, he’s just the rock being dropped in the water and I’m way more concerned about the ripples. If I do my job right, Spawn should become more irrelevant as the ripples get farther away.”
Those ripples start with the new characters readers will meet in the pages of King Spawn, Gunslinger Spawn and The Scorched. McFarlane describes the first book as a way to present Spawn as more of a strategist than a soldier. “We acknowledge that 30 years have gone by, and he can’t fight like a warrior anymore — he needs to fight like a king. And when you’re a king, there’s a way to destroy your enemy without having to go on the battlefield all the time.” Gunslinger Spawn, meanwhile, is McFarlane’s take on Wolverine, starring an Old West Hellspawn named Jeremy Winston, who has already been introduced in flashbacks, and will be brought into the present day. “If you want a true bad-ass, your Logan, your Punisher, your Lobo, this is your guy,” he says, adding that he plans to drop “Spawn” from the character’s name as his adventures continue. “He’s also a man out of time. I’m actually contemplating having both modern and Western stories in the same issue, because I think it would be fun to have some cowboy stories.”
Finally, The Scorched brings together previous characters like the Redeemer, Medieval Spawn and She-Spawn for a team book that will also be a vehicle to introduce new heroes. “The underlying idea is that all of these characters have been burnt sometime in their lives, either physically or mentally. In its infancy, we’ll be leaning on Spawn mythology, but the goal isn’t to create more Spawns. If I do this properly, in three to five years, none of the team will have anything to do with Spawn.”
In the short term, of course, Spawn would be the major attraction for some superhero-starved media company, be it Universal and its Peacock streaming service; Netflix and its growing stable of comic book programming; or Amazon Prime, which is quickly capitalizing on the breakout success of The Boys, adapted from Garth Ennis’s R-rated comic, by launching a new spinoff series. Besides the name recognition of his star character, McFarlane has a feature film script he’s ready to direct, and a major star — Jamie Foxx — attached to play Al Simmons. (Spawn was previously brought to the big screen in 1997 with Michael Jai White in the title role, but McFarlane had minimal involvement in that version.) “We’re continuing to build the team,” he says of the long-gestating project, which is set up with Jason Blum’s money-printing production company, Blumhouse. “Fingers crossed, we’ll have big news to share on that front by mid-year. Everything is basically keyed up and we’re just waiting for that ‘Go’ button.”
In the meantime, McFarlane is grateful to have comic books to scratch his creative itch and test-run the character who could become the next Star Lord or Groot. “To me, comics is still the epicenter of everything, and has the most value because everything else is a by-product of creating those ideas and putting them on paper. You can spin those ideas up to other mediums and platforms, but the idea has to take hold someplace and comics are the place to be. I’m going to make this a long long-term project, so 20 years from now, we can determine whether I failed miserably or I severely underestimated the magnitude of what I’m about to do!”
Spawn’s Universe will hit comic book shelves in June.