For nearly 30 years, Al Simmons has been doling out justice and revenge to guilty parties in the pages of Image's Spawn comics. It marks a solid run for a comic book character, but becomes nearly unparalleled when you consider that the antihero's creator, Todd McFarlane, has been writing Al's stories every step of the way.
All his hard work will pay off this summer with the release of Spawn #300, a momentous milestone issue that will tie the record for longest-running creator-owned comic on the planet with Dave Sim's Cerebus. The record will be broken by the debut of Spawn #301 soon afterward, but McFarlane is just happy to show that a comic book writer/artist can stick with a creation for so many years without tiring.
"To me, that's way more significant than how cool Spawn is and how good of an artist or writer Todd McFarlane is. It's that 25 years later, the person who started this is still driving that car," he told SYFY WIRE during a phone interview. "You don't have to like me, you don't like my character, but what you should like is that there's now proof that you — as a creative person — can now create something, own it, and 25 years later, still own it. That's the story to me over everything else... I'm gonna be an example and Image Comics is gonna be a glowing example."
Astute comic fans will recognize that the cover for Issue 300 is actually a parody of the one drawn for the 300th/25th-anniversary issue of Marvel's Spider-Man in the late '80s.
Check it out below:
"I'm just silly enough to think that the goal should be for a creative person, that you want to create characters that outlive you," McFarlane said when asked if he ever imagined that he would reach this point when he first rolled out the Spawn banner in the early '90s. "Why doesn't everybody wanna create their Mickey Mouse or their Superman? Now with the passing of my good friend Stan [Lee], all his characters will live past him, obviously."
For the first time since 1995, McFarlane's returning to pencil and ink the special 72-page Issue 300. Greg Capullo is also coming back to this world by way of illustrating the project, and DC Comics writer Scott Snyder will be sharing writing duties with McFarlane.
"I think Scott's a young, energetic writer, and so enthusiastic. Again, I'm a little bit curious about guys who haven't done Spawn," McFarlane says. "Having Greg come back onto the book, his stuff has just gotten better and more advanced as he put in his time. To have him come back, it was like a reunion. You know that big boy band that comes back onstage for one last stage? We're just gonna get back up and see if we can't hit it out of the ballpark one last time."
As for his own ink and pencil contributions to the upcoming issue, McFarlane believes he'll get back into the artistic side of things in no time at all.
"I'm hoping the first couple pages are me just me getting my artistic sea legs underneath me and then the rest of the pages I'll go, 'Ah, there it is. Like riding a bike, here we go again,'" he said.
Not only is Issue 300 a record-worthy installment and return to illustrative roots for McFarlane, it's also a chance for him to do something new with his long-running comic book creation.
"I've got a big story that will basically continue Spawn and the character's evolution. There's gonna be a change in him that nobody's seen in the first 300 issues in this book," he teases. "That evolution has always been at the forefront of where I wanted to get to and I'm just gonna continue to sow the change of the character... The audience has gotten older. If you were 15, you're now 14 if you've been collecting Spawn [comics]. I can't believe that a 40-year-old wants to read the same kind of story that they did when they were 15."
McFarlane has some first-hand experience, as he first thought up the character when he was a teenager, though the vigilante's actual print debut was in the first issue of his eponymous series in May of 1992. This was the same year McFarlane co-founded Image Comics alongside Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino.
Citing his love of quirky, somewhat obscure horror films and comic books from the 1960s (e.g. Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung-Fu), McFarlane's creation of Spawn was influenced by "odd heroes [and] odd stories that weren't necessarily your normal guys in superhero suits doing the same thing." When it was time to put his skull, spike, and chain-wearing character to paper, McFarlane realized he was taking the concept of DC's Batman up to 11.
"The difference between Spawn and Batman is that Spawn probably about the second time he ran into the Joker, [he] would've just killed him," McFarlane said. "He wouldn't [have] made no bones about it. He's going, 'If you're gonna kill people, then I'll kill you.' Simple, right? So, he's way more of a true vigilante and isn't concerned about playing with any sort of social norms or any political correctness that has to be done."
McFarlane made this particularly clear in Issue 5, in which Spawn literally disemboweled a pedophile as punishment for the man's abhorrent crimes against young children.
"I just wanted basically to plant a marker to say, 'This superhero book you're reading called Spawn, that's new to all you guys, is not gonna be bound by corporate restraints. I'm gonna tell stories that I think need to be told,'" he continues.
This new and violent vigilante was also a way for the artist/writer to present an almost Watchmen and Twilight Zone-esque approach to both the world of superheroes and society at large. Through the use of Al Simmons, McFarlane was able to hold up a cracked mirror that reflected humanity's flaws and biggest questions from karmically changing the skin color of a KKK member to turning our concepts of Heaven and Hell upside down, or using the very idea of a superhero to explore celebrity status.
Luckily, McFarlane had a lot of practice in the late '80s when he delivered Venom (as we know and love him now) to the world via his collaborations with Marvel Comics. The efforts to turn the villain into an antihero or flat-out hero (as seen in the famous Lethal Protector storyline or the recent live-action Venom movie) don't appeal all that much to his creator.
"I think it's always interesting when they try and take a character who was designed to be a villain and try to make him a little more good. The reason I say that is... your hero is only as good as your villain," he said, going on to explain that Magneto works so well because he never waivers on his core beliefs. "I think there's a way to do an antihero and not start him as a villain. Punisher is a good example and Spawn I think is another one now that you just go, 'Make him nasty to start with and make him a hero.'"
Nevertheless, he was pleased with the design of Venom in the movie that opened last fall; a film that despite so-so reviews and fan reactions, still went on to make almost $900 million worldwide.
"I only went in [to the new Venom] selfishly for one reason: To see whether he was gonna be big and gnarly," McFarlane continued. "That's how I designed him. He's a monster. And Eddie Brock is buried in there. It's not Eddie Brock [who] turns into a monster; he's a monster that happens to disguise himself as Eddie Brock or whomever. To me, I just wanted to see a big hulking character, which the director, Ruben Fleischer, put on the screen. If you remember Spider-Man 3 when they had Venom, he wasn't very big. I remember sitting in the theater going, 'Ahhh, that can't be it! We're not over yet! He's gotta get bigger, doesn't he? Ahhh, darn it!'"
Venom is out of his hands, but his focus on Spawn keeps him busy. After 300 issues, one animated HBO series, an entire toy line, a 1997 live-action film adaptation, and a movie reboot in the works, McFarlane shows no signs of slowing down the Spawn train.
"I'm just getting warmed up," he says.
Spawn #300 hits shelves August 29.