The creator of Spawn and Venom tells EW how the legendary comic creator inspired his work at Marvel and beyond
Stan Lee’s death this week marked the end of an era. Now that he, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby have all passed on, the generation of writers and artists who kickstarted Marvel Comics in the ’60s is all but gone. Tributes have been pouring in saluting Lee’s comic creations and personal warmth, but according to Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, it’s basically impossible to judge Lee’s legacy at this point, given the continuous nature of the Marvel Universe he brought into being. McFarlane would know, having co-created the antihero Venom as the artist on Amazing Spider-Man in the late ’80s.
“There’s so much that he helped to co-create with his artists. Every day the institution of Marvel is built to expand on that, not contract or maintain it,” McFarlane tells EW. “I helped co-create this character Venom, but without Spider-Man there is no Venom. It still all leads back to the ’60s comics that Stan and a handful of artists helped create. Whatever we think Stan’s legacy is today, it’s just going to keep going, and there’s going to be no end. We’ve seen it with other people who have created some characters and got them to have global impact. Walt Disney was able to create something and that momentum became so unstoppable that it just keeps expanding. Stan and the people who created those characters with him, we’ll look back in 20 years on what people said about his legacy on this day, and we’ll think we sold him short. It’ll probably be twice as big.”
Lee’s legacy could even be said to reach beyond Marvel. After making his name on Spider-Man comics, McFarlane eventually left Marvel in the early ’90s to co-found a new comics company, Image Comics, alongside fellow superstar artists Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, and Jim Valentino. McFarlane and the others had resented editorial interference at Marvel, so they built Image around the idea of creative ownership. To this day, Image titles are owned by the writers and artists who created them, not the publisher, which is why it’s become home to such beloved and critically acclaimed comics as The Walking Dead, Saga, Monstress, and more.
McFarlane tells EW that Image’s focus on creator-owned properties was also inspired by the travails of Marvel creators like Lee, Kirby, and Ditko. Since they were working on work-for-hire contracts for Marvel, they never fully reaped the benefits of the popularity of their creations like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Though Lee was eventually able to work out a deal to become Marvel’s “publisher emeritus” with a good share of the profits, it took him years to get as much money out of his own creations as original publisher Martin Goodman did.
“We were inspired both by how Stan and his artists were turning out pages and pages each month so we could enjoy ourselves, and then also by watching them go through the baptism by fire of doing that at a corporation,” McFarlane says. “They were the trailblazers for both good and bad. On the creative level, it’s why we got into the business, and then on the business level it was coming up with a new way of conducting ourselves and our creative community based on what we saw unraveling in front of our eyes. We were the benefactors of knowing where some of the pitfalls were, and steered ourselves from places that we knew weren’t going to be favorable. I know for a fact if you talk to any of my partners who started the company at that time, they would say the same thing. We were all aware of it and inspired by it.”
McFarlane first met Lee when he was a 16-year-old kid from Canada who was in Miami for baseball. The hotel he was staying in happened to be hosting a comic convention at the same time (“Back then, comic conventions could fit in a Holiday Inn ballroom,” he says). Even as a burgeoning comic fan, McFarlane recognized Lee’s name, since every single Marvel comic came with the tagline “Stan Lee Presents.”
“I saw Stan Lee and I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ At this point I have some aspirations of maybe trying to break into comic books. I introduced myself as a fan, like he’d met a thousand times before, and asked, ‘Hey, is there any way i can hang out and ask you some questions?’ He grabbed a chair, pulled it next to him, tapped it, and said, ‘Sit down, son,’” McFarlane recalls. “He let me sit down, literally right next to him. For seven hours I sat there amazed that I was sitting next to Stan Lee. When he wasn’t signing signatures, I just peppered him with questions about everything about comics because I wanted to learn about the industry. Then I went home with a renewed enthusiasm, like, ‘I’m going to keep trying to break into this industry!’ That was one of those moments that helped lead to me not only breaking into comics, but drawing for Marvel and doing some of the characters Stan created, specifically Spider-Man. The Spider-Man creator on that day did not know the 16-year-old kid sitting next to him would one day draw Spider-Man. And so it came full circle.”