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Todd McFarlane, comic-book icon and cocreator of Marvel’s Venom, on his creative process and the potential of NFTs

Todd McFarlane, comic-book creator and CEO of McFarlane Toys.

Todd McFarlane

  • Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author, speaker, and host of “5 Questions with Dan Schawbel.
  • In a recent episode, he spoke with Todd McFarlane, comic-book artist and CEO of McFarlane Toys.
  • McFarlane says you have to be willing to advocate for yourself if you want to succeed.

Todd McFarlane is the CEO of McFarlane Toys. He’s established himself as a force in the entertainment world and has more than 150 international awards in the fields of action figures, comic books, and publishing.

Aside from creating the comic Spawn and cocreating Venom, he’s the cofounder and president of Image Comics, launched an NFT marketplace with Steve Aoki called OddKey, and has two new premium TV series “McFarland” and “Thumbs.”

During our conversation, we talked about his history with comics, approach with new projects, and best career advice.

How did you originally develop your interest in comics, and when did you know it could become a career?

I think it was a slow realization. I always knew I had an art talent growing up, and around the time I turned 16 I had a couple of friends who had comic-book collections. When I looked at them, a lightbulb went off, which was not that comic books were awesome but that it would give me a focus for my doodling.

I decided to see if I could do the superhero Americana comic-book style, and I just went at that like a rabid dog.

What was your creative process like for creating generational characters like Venom and Spawn?

Venom was a complete accident. Marvel wanted me to draw Spider-Man in a black costume, but I didn’t want to because I grew up with him in a red and blue costume.

So we decided to put the black costume on another character. I did some designs, created this big monster, and we went there. I wish I had more happy billion-dollar accidents like that.

I created Spawn when I was in high school. His success — really, I would argue almost all success in any business — is longevity. Longevity can make you part of the conversation for a long time.

When you’re early in your career, what you’re doing actually matters and people will judge you on each project. Over time, however, they’ll judge you on your entire body of work. For me, that means there’s nothing that I could draw now that’s going to make my hardcore fan base like me more or less.

Aside from being a comic-book icon, you’re also an NFT icon. As someone who’s worked in both the physical and NFT worlds, do you think they’ll complement each other, or will one replace the other?

I think for some people NFTs will replace the physical stuff, just like any other technology. The thing that’s interesting about any art is the collection itself. The delivery mechanism of how you get it or the enjoyment of what you’re collecting shouldn’t really matter.

I’ve told people before that the comic-book medium isn’t going to go away but the delivery mechanism could certainly change over time.

You have so many different projects happening simultaneously between your TV shows, comics, toys, and NFTs. How do you decide which characters you use in different mediums at different times while ensuring there’s no oversaturation?  

I would say that I’m the undersaturater. I just started my second monthly comic book a couple of months ago after 30 years. If anything, smart business people go, “Todd, you idiot, you could have done this 15 years ago.” But because I’m not a public company, my job is to just find enough customers every day so I can get up the next day and do art again. 

And I’ve been able to pull this trick off for over 30 years now. I can put stuff in the ground that I think will bear fruit in maybe five or 10 years, and I’m still going to be here because I’m never firing me from my company. I would say 80 to 85% of the decisions I’ve made for my company, I flash back and ask myself, “Would this have been good for the 16-year-old Todd who didn’t have money?” 

What’s your best piece of career advice?

Here’s what I know: The person who’s going to advocate the most for you is you. But I’ve met so many people who won’t advocate for themselves.

So to me it’s simple: If you don’t give a crap about what you’re doing, why should I? You want me to fight harder for you than you’re fighting for yourself? Never going to happen.

Every day I have to advocate for my business, and it’s a bit of a grind. I got 300 no’s before I got my first comic-book job. You have to believe in yourself. Entrepreneurs are fearless.

Watch the extended video episode on YouTube

Listen to the audio episode

Subscribe to the “5 Questions with Dan Schawbel” podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Overcast, or others.

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