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Todd McFarlane has done almost everything a cartoonist could hope to do in the comic book business. He's drawn the biggest characters at Marvel and DC (Spider-Man and Batman), set sales records (Spider-Man #1, Spawn #1), and helped change the industry with the creator-owned company Image Comics.
One thing the iconic artist hadn't done since the start of his career was tackle a monthly superhero book. Until now.
The Scorched, which just debuted with a first issue that 270,000 copies — the biggest debut for a team comic from any publisher in the past 30 years — marks McFarlane's first foray into an ongoing team book since Infinity, Inc. for DC Comics in the 80s. That title, starring the offspring of the Justice Society of America, marked McFarlane's first significant work in the business. But it also happened to be what scared him off team books until now.
"I remember when I was done with Infinity, Inc. I just said to myself, 'I'll never do another team book,'" McFarlane recalls during a Zoom interview with SYFY WIRE. "And the reason was, is I felt like when I was doing it, that I was doing a lot of, like, little headshots just to get everybody in. You couldn't sort of pull the camera back too often and just sort of focus on a character here and there. Everybody had to sort of get equal billing and everybody had to have five lines. And then when I went to do a regular book like Hulk, and then after that, Spider-Man, I saw at least for me, the joy of drawing was when you could just sort of focus on one character and make it your own and not have to feel like you had to keep cutting away from them."
"People who can do team books," he continues. "I have this huge jealousy and admiration for because I... I think I can usually do anything, but [team books] is one of the things that I just go, "No, I don't have it in me."
Having interviewed the man countless times over the years, on and off camera, I can say with certainty that McFarlane is never lacking in confidence. So hearing him admit to a certain degree of insecurity about anything to do with comics was surprising. To that end, it may explain why he hedged his bets with the fourth pillar of his shared universe master plan by bringing in writer Sean Lewis to helm the scripting. Lewis is co-creator of Image books like Saints, The Few, as well as the writer on King Spawn. Artists Stephen Segovia and Paulo Sequeria round out the team, along with colorists Ulises Arreola and Nikos Koutsis and letterer Andworld Design. McFarlane says his role is to big-picture the series and helping set the scene for the stories the creative team tells.
"I want to make sure that when I'm dealing with a writer — and Sean's obviously super talented — I give him as much leeway to drive as possible. I sort of say, 'Let me download you with 30 years of Spawn mythology, because you're probably not up to speed on 90 percent of it,'" McFarlane says. "Now with all that information, what can you build upon and what gaps can you fill in? Because there's a ton of gaps [in the Spawn mythos]. I don't have all the answers. I defined some things, but not all of it, even simple questions, like where does the clown [Violator] go at night? Nobody's ever wrote that story, myself included. I want to give all that freedom there. And I want it to feel like there's a reason why these people are coming together."
The, ahem... scorching hot debut of the latest expansion block of the Spawn Universe has allowed McFarlane to notch another record. The Year of Spawn was supposed to be 2021, when a trio of number one issues, Spawn's Universe, King Spawn, and Gunslinger Spawn all debuted to blockbuster sales numbers. But now with the stellar opening sales figures for The Scorched, McFarlane seems to have accomplished his goal of launching his own expanded comics universe. Just as important, he's done it by not just relying on the MVP of the whole shebang. While Spawn (Al Simmons) is obviously a key part of the overall strategy — he has two ongoing books of his own — the original Spawn takes a back seat in the new team comic to She-Spawn, Redeemer, Gunslinger, and Medieval Spawn. That is strictly by design, according to McFarlane, who used another popular superhero team comic as an example of the type of dynamic he wants for his new title.
"So just like when you have Batman in the JLA, it doesn't mean that everything has to be taken place in an alleyway or on top of a building at night. He's just part of the group," he says. "So is Spawn. And so every [character] in this book should be equally uncomfortable that they're out of their comfort zone."
Part of the conflict in the new supernatural team will come from two of its alpha members, Spawn and Gunslinger Spawn. "It's always gonna be trouble whenever you've got two people playing and want to be the starting quarterback," McFarlane says. "Usually everybody seems to sort of have their spots predefined from a character point of view. I'm the strong man, I'm the fast man, you know, the thinker or whatever. So we're going to get into a little bit of a conflict with Al Simmons and Gunslinger because they're both a bit of the same [type] of character."
He also hints that the lineup that we see in the first issue of the book will not be the same in the near future. "Some of them are going to leave and we're going to rotate them," he says. "And while they're here, like a family reunion or something like that, you don't have to like everybody in the family. I'm not saying you have to love 'em and I'm not saying you have to hate 'em."
It is rare a conversation with McFarlane doesn't somehow veer off into sports. And predictably, he views team sports as being analogous to superhero teams. "There should be two components to being on a team. Number one, when it's game time you play as a single team, right? That's rule number one of any sort of competitive sports. You put all personalities to the side when it's game time, and then after the game's over, then you decide who you're gonna go have a drink with at the bar, or have a picnic with, or a barbecue. I think all of that is completely doable and essentially it's part of the makeup of any good team book."
When McFarlane was just a comics fan, he was often drawn to superhero titles. In the SYFY WIRE documentary Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won't, he talked about the impact John Byrne had on his future career plans. That's because Byrne was penciler and co-plotter on X-Men as it was becoming Marvel's top team comic. But that wasn't the only one he enjoyed. "Obviously X-Men was sort of the top of most everybody's list, right? But also The Avengers was always the coolest, especially when George Perez was drawing it," he notes. "I always quite enjoyed The Fantastic Four, too. There was always that fun relationship between Johnny and Ben Grimm. On the DC side, I don't really remember being smitten by the JLA per se. But I was a fan of the Legion of Superheroes, especially when Keith Giffin was doing it."
Before our talk ended, McFarlane shared his thoughts on the man widely thought to be the ultimate superhero team artist, George Perez. The iconic artist, who revealed in December he was suffering from stage 3 pancreatic cancer, has been on the minds of countless comics fans and creators. "Some of the levels that George hit artistically and put on paper, it's hard for me to imagine that I'm gonna see that ever again," he says. "I mean, it's a staggering thing that he was doing and... Greg Capullo did a little bit with Dark Night: Metals, but George was doing it on a sustained level for years. Ask Greg Capullo how long he could keep Metals up for."
"George just seemed to be able to just do it on a monthly basis. And look, there are just certain things that have to be done to get books out. And some of them are just Herculean and once you've tried it, you know how big the effort is. And what George has done in his career is amazing," McFarlane says. "George was bouncing between multiple books. He did the Teen Titans and Avengers and FF, and then the Crisis on Infinite Earths books and the JLA... he was all over. He painted both companies with his stroke. And it's hard for me to imagine anybody that can even hold a candle to that in the next 10 years, maybe ever. Especially given that we all want to sort of pencil link our own stuff and whatever else. His legacy is... it's going to be hard to have anybody come along and come close to that."