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Venom co-creator: Antihero's popularity is Marvel and Sony's 'biggest magic trick'

Todd McFarlane, the Spawn artist who designed Venom's look in the comics, is glad the creature got a chance to shine separately from Spider-Man.

Venom Let There Be Carnage
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Sony Pictures

Todd McFarlane is a comic book legend, having risen to stardom as the Marvel Comics artist who redefined how Spider-Man could look on the comic book page and who co-created Venom with writer David Michelinie in the late '80s. 

McFarlane broke away from Marvel with a group of other superstar artists co-founding Image Comics in 1992. Their goal was to publish their own creations without surrendering copyright to their work -- a long-term bone of contention for writers and artists inventing things in Marvel and DC comics.

After Venom, McFarlane is best known for his Image creation Spawn, an assassin who was betrayed and resurrected as a hellish avenger. The antihero got his own movie in 1997 and an HBO animated series in the late '90s, and McFarlane has long planned to direct a big screen reboot with Jamie Foxx in the starring role.

Amazing Spider-Man 316

McFarlane's Venom was designed to be a terrifying foe for Spider-Man. 

Marvel Comics

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is available digitally now, with the 4K UHD, Blu-Ray and DVD version coming Dec. 14. I got to chat to McFarlane over Zoom. The energetic, engaging artist opened up about about seeing the most famous character he designed for Marvel on screen, how Venom has flourished away from Spidey movies, and what's happening with his Spawn movie.

Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity. 

CNET: You've previously spoken about how you were happy with the imposing physicality Venom had in the 2018 movie. What do you think of his depiction in Let There Be Carnage?
McFarlane: I have said I thought he was a little small in Spider-Man 3, compared to how big I thought he was. In the initial appearance of Carnage, he was the skinny guy.

Right, Carnage is much larger in the movie.
Everybody's getting big now, everybody's badass. They're making the symbiotes a bigger physical presence, which is good since it separates them from the human form. Visually, you just go "Those are the bad guys over there." And then we've got one guy on our side: Venom.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Carnage, however, is not one of the good guys.

Sony Pictures

The good guy who occasionally murders people?
It may be Sony and Marvel's biggest magic trick, that they've taken this antihero who was a villain to start with -- that's what we designed him to be -- and turned him into this global sensation. I meet a lot of kids that go "Oh, man, Venom's my favorite. I didn't know you had anything to do with that, Todd." Almost with the same reverence that they use for Spider-Man. I tip my hat to both of them pulling it off.

I was one of those kids and developed into one of those adults! You're not as deeply connected with Carnage, since he was spun off from Venom [in 1992] after you'd left Marvel. How do you feel about the character?
Yeah, the artist Mark Bagley created that visual. Carnage is cool because every character needs their foil. If you're not going to create the foil, then you see if you can create a harsher or a better version of that character. 

They just went, "As bad as Venom is, can we basically put him on steroids?" Which essentially became Carnage. It was a very good decision because all of a sudden, it forces somebody like Venom to start pushing back towards the center. And the gap between Venom and Carnage gets wider in terms of story content and their morals.

Todd McFarlane (Getty)

McFarlane, seen at a 2018 event for the first Venom movie, is glad the character got a chance to develop outside Spidey movies.

Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Since Venom's comic book origin is tied closely to Spider Man, how do you think bringing him to the screen without Spidey changed the character?
I would say it improved him. If Venom had come out of the gate with or against Spider Man, right off the bat, you could argue that Spider-Man would have been a bit of a crutch.

Now they've had two movies, in which Venom stands on his own. They've developed the character, you got to meet Eddie Brock and see the relationship with him and the symbiote. 

When and if Spider-Man comes in -- it has to be a "when," there shouldn't be an "if" now -- when Spider-Man comes in, it's gonna be a heck of a cocktail. There's way more anticipation because they've held that card for so long now. I think it's going to be manic when it really happens in a meaningful way. 

Venom in Spider-Man 3

Venom's first cinematic appearance came in Spider-Man 3, but the character was rebooted for his solo movie series.

Sony Pictures

Right, we already got Spider-Man and Venom in a movie [with Spider-Man 3] -- at least the approach will be different this time.
The great thing about creation is that every 10 years, you get a whole new generation of people who don't know the previous ones. I think storytelling and special effects have gotten better over time, so the presentation is going to be better when it comes. It's gonna be nutty.

Venom in Amazing Spider-Man 299

Venom first appeared in the iconic final panel of the McFarlane-drawn Amazing Spider-Man #299, from 1988.

Marvel Comics

It's also fascinating to see how your work continues to define Venom.
One of the fun things about it being a part of a tapestry, each [writer, artist or director] gets to add a piece. David Michelinie and I came along in the beginning and created a frame. But there's all the pieces that now have to go inside. It's always fun to watch others add to it. And then you let the internet debate the merits of each change.

As somebody who's been on the creative end of it, I'm not one that expects nor wants anybody to repeat what I did. I wanted to have artistic freedom and think the same methodology should apply to everybody who follows. They might be the genius who's going to come up with something that's 10 times better than what you did.

I made a career of basically breaking the rules, like with the look of Spider-Man. It wasn't because they were asking for that divergence. I was just stubborn enough to get there, and it worked. And so my attitude has always been like, well, why do you want the next artist now to do what I was doing? Why don't you want them to do even more of what they're doing? 

Because they might just be crazy good. That applies to a character like Venom -- if you keep adding, every now and then you get these big, cool surprises [like Carnage].

spawn-300

Spawn, as drawn by McFarlane for issue 300 of his comic series, has been slated for a cinematic reboot for years.

Image Comics

What's the latest with your upcoming Spawn movie? I'm quite excited for it.
We're actually pretty heavily into it right now -- we're all pushing. Hollywood is a strange business that I dabble with from time to time. If we don't make some big announcement in the first half of next year [the time of Spawn's 30th anniversary], we will have missed our opportunity. Let me just let me put it to you that way.

There'll be a moment of truth when that trailer comes out -- the moment the internet reacts to the visuals and tone.
That may be a ways off. The bigger announcement will be that we found the funding in the studio, and we've got a production date. That should be the next big announcement.

What did you learn from the Spawn Remastered Kickstarter [in which fans crowdfunded a high-end action figure]? I noticed there are a huge number of comments.
The Kickstarter was an experiment. You have to try and see where different boundaries are. We were just heading into the pandemic. So I thought, "Everybody's gonna be staying at home for a while. Why not try something new?" 

If you're asking about comments as a whole, then that's a bigger conversation. Maybe I'm just too old for it, but I don't really get worked up over the comments, good or bad. I'm on social media, but I don't really read the comments, one way or the other, because it doesn't affect me. I'm just like "Here's what I'm doing. Either like it or you don't. It's coming on Monday. You can either buy it or not, your choice."

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