Todd McFarlane is no stranger to San Diego Comic Con. During an exclusive interview with ComicBook.com we caught up with the Image Comics co-founder about his latest development at McFarlane Toys - AMC's Walking Dead Building Block Sets! We also ask Todd, a bit about Spawn and how the prolific artist fits all his work into a day.
ComicBook.com: Before we dive into the building block sets, I have to ask this question. As someone who has been in the industry for as long as you have, you've seen your fair share of Comic Cons here at San Diego. What's it like for you to see it grow to this magnitude?
Todd McFarlane: Yeah, I think my first one was… maybe in '82 or '83 or something like that, and the next year I was actually a "pro" at that point. But that's when it was just Downtown, you know? In the hotel in the basement, where everybody had the lunch counter fold-up tables. And now, look at us right here. We own the city.
ComicBook.com: Okay, let's start from the very beginning. Where does the idea come from for something like the Walking Dead Building Block Sets? And how do you go from idea to execution?
Todd McFarlane: The formula of it was exactly the same as it was twenty years ago when I started the toy company. So, twenty years ago, I used to walk up and down the action figure aisle to look at the toys and I'd go, "I don't get why they can't be better looking. I don't get why they can't be cooler." So eventually I go, "I'm going to start a company and show people you can make 'em cooler." To me, it was like, why can't you age toys up with us? It used to frustrate me. I'd walk into toy stores and if you're over the age of twelve what's in the store? Other than bikes and video game consoles? There's nothing in an entire toy store that's for us.
Everything should be for us, as long as you age it up and you put the right content in it. So I was able to then jump in and make the action figures. I did it for twenty years.
The last couple years I've been walking up and down that other aisle, the block-building, building-set aisle and again I think, "I don't get why they can't make these things cool." The answer is, now, at least before when I asked the action figure question I was naive, I didn't know what the answer was. I know twenty years later when I'm asking that same question-- "Why don't they look cooler?"
The answer is they can.
I'm not saying better, and I'm not saying people should stop collecting, and stop buying whatever it is they're buying. I'm saying, I think building sets can age-up. It's just that-- they need to age-up artistically as well as content-wise, so they've left me the same gap that they gave me twenty years ago in the one aisle, and they're giving me the same gap, so I'm just going to fill the gap again, and I'm just going to bring my art to that form.
ComicBook.com: Well and I think that's the thing about building sets - they're great for all ages. What is it in particular about toys like this that has such a wide appeal?
Todd McFarlane: It's one of the experiences where you're pretty interactive with it. With an action figure, you open it up and it's there. I guess you can pose it, but that's about it.
ComicBook.com: And they can hit each other.
Todd McFarlane: Right. But I think, I know I buy a lot of big building sets with my son and we build them together. I think there's a little bit of family bonding, and it's just kind of cool to put your toy together. I mean I used to build model kits when I was younger. Why do it? I don't know. I just know that a lot of people do do it. And now I'm just going to creep into that zone and go, "Don't worry about it. You're not sure if this is in the 15-and-over crowd? I'll take those guys."
ComicBook.com: Do you have plans to do building sets outside of Walking Dead?
Todd McFarlane: We'll get a couple of big licenses and then on top of that, we'll start doing some little $12.99-assortment dioramas those could be anything from TV, movies, video games, music, stuff. And things that come out of my own head, and comic books.
All the things I used to do in the first ten years of my action figure company? I can now convert those all into these buildable dioramas now. 'Cause I don't want them in that aisle. They don't want them in the action figure aisle. I can't sell the cool stuff because they don't want five brands. But now in the building aisle, they're willing to open up their arms. They say, "Todd, you've got the cool stuff. Bring it!"
ComicBook.com: With the options so open, how do you determine which set to do? Which section? Which scene?
Todd McFarlane: You know, it's not much different than how we choose our sports figure. You get a handful of people in a room and let them hash it out. My guess is probably as educated as yours.
Todd McFarlane: Probably you and I are going to pick the same figures and the same environments at least half the time. And then it's just a matter of when you get past that half, then you might have a slightly different favorite than I do. But if you and I were to list our top ten, probably at least eight of them would be exactly the same.
ComicBook.com: Fair enough. What about the reception these sets have gotten. Are you happy with the excitement building for them? Is it what you expected? Because everyone walking by here has said these are awesome.
Todd McFarlane: The thing is sort of… I don't know. It's funny because I have to do an education, because no matter how much I tell people what it is, and how it works, and what it does, they still, when they see just the finished product, they don't get it.
I had to get a sign built today that says this entire display is 623 pieces, because I had about forty people yesterday going, even though I've got that case over there with the Daryl and the governor showing people how you put it together, they walk over to this one and go, 'How does that work? I don't understand." And I'm going, 'It works just like the other one.'
ComicBook.com: 623 pieces, whoa!
Todd McFarlane: There's a lot of pieces.
Todd McFarlane: And I'm like guys, this one works exactly the same. Here's the thing, too, is that all the bricks are going to be compatible with all the leading brands out there, right?
Todd McFarlane: So everybody now is sort of able to interlink all your stuff. If you want to do some customizing, that's fine. To me, I just can't as an artist just leave it at doing silhouettes, which is what I think a couple of the other companies are doing, silhouettes. I need to put that last layer of skin on it, if you will, and make it a piece of art, instead of just lots of toys.
With other sets, they're always awesome from a distance. And the closer I get to it, as an artist, my sensibilities get out of whack. They go, "It's just plastic blocks in the shape of something." Where, what I want, as people get closer to mine, they actually discover more detail. So it actually looks cooler the closer you get to it. It doesn't bitmap.
ComicBook.com: What other toy aisles does McFarlane have his eyes on?
Todd McFarlane: You know what? It took me twenty years to get out of that one aisle, right? So if I can have a twenty year career in that next aisle, which is called construction building blocks, I'll be happy with it. I'll be happy with my twenty years and then you come back and we'll talk about where I go after that.
ComicBook.com: When you're ready, we're ready. Now before I let you go, lets chat a bit about Spawn. What's coming up for the character you've poured years of blood sweat and tears into?
Todd McFarlane: *laughs* Well the best thing is that the process is still the same. Getting a monthly book out, the process never changes.
Right now, I'm writing. So I completely direct the book. So the plans are, is that we're heading to issue 250. Which is a big anniversary milestone I guess, because Marvel and DC keep renumbering all the books. I've got the biggest number in the country now.
ComicBook.com: A rarity these days!
Todd McFarlane: But, I'm going to bring Al Simmons back, the original Spawn, and his attitude is going to be different. You know the first 180 issues of him, he was sort of just saying, "Leave me alone." And now he's going to make it so that the people he talks to go, "Please leave us alone." now. He's going to go on the offense, and just go, "I'm tired of this." 'Cause he's been gone for the last 60 issues, he's been sort of planning in the background, if you will.
I'm looking, hopefully by the end of this weekend, to find a new writer. Not that I don't like the current guy-- me-- but I think there are guys that could do a better job and more importantly it frees me up to finish the movie script that I just-- I found time earlier in the year and of course I filled that time with the building sets.
I keep getting distracted.
So now that the building sets are out, I need to just go back to concentrating on the movie again.
But for Spawn, I'm going to put a new artist / writer team on the book, probably… I haven't made the determination on the artist at this point, but… And then, just sort of make the Spawn comic book relevant again, starting with 251.
ComicBook.com: How do you go about finding a new artist? Do you just accept portfolios as they come in? Do you go out and find people?
Todd McFarlane: I mean I'm content with the guy right now, so if I can't find a guy that I think will fit with the new writer, then I've got a guy that… I want to change the style of the current art a little bit, and then I think he'd still be a perfect fit on it. But yeah, just looking at stuff and just going… if something strikes my fancy, it doesn't have to look like the previous guy, it just has to strike my fancy and ultimately the guy's gotta keep a deadline.
ComicBook.com: Last question. How do you fit it all into a day? What does an average day look like for you between working with the toys and doing the comics and now working on the movie?0comments
Todd McFarlane: You know what? I'm fortunate 'cause I employ a lot of people.
When I was just me, earlier in my career, sitting in a room, isolated, which is being a novelist and stuff like that can be a lonely occupation. Being a comic book freelancer can be a very lonely occupation. For me, now that I've got 50-60 people that can help me, I don't have to carry the burden myself. I can delegate and get through it all and then I do a lot of coaching, I've got three kids, got a family. And I just over the years have figured out how to split up that twenty four hours or so that I can just lead a normal life. My career was a bigger deal to me when I was younger. And then as you get older, you sort of understand that other things are just as important.