'Spawn' Creator Todd McFarlane is Inspired by His Terrifying Nightmares

Image Comics made the nineties weird and one artist's horrific dreams come true.

A poster for 'Spawn' by Todd McFarlane

This article by Carlos Meija originally appeared on Van Winkles, the publication devoted to sleep.

Few men have left such a mark on modern day nerdom as Todd McFarlane. For 25 years, the Canadian cartoonist, writer and entrepreneur has created pop culture-defining characters (Spawn), leant his ink and unique sensibilities to established titles (Batman, Spiderman) and reinvented the toy aisle.

McFarlane, now 54, got his big break in the late 1980s working for DC and Marvel Comics, where he was acclaimed for his incredibly detailed style on such titles as Batman and Spider-Man. In 1992, he branched off with several high-profile artists to form an innovative publishing company where writers and artists would own their comic creations and have artistic control. The result was Image Comics, where he launched Spawn, the popular series about a special ops soldier-turned-hell demon. Image Comics persevered as the industry struggled and today is stronger than ever. (It publishes a certain little title called The Walking Dead.)

In addition to comics and general pop culture, McFarlane redefined the modern collector. The eponymous McFarlane Toys, introduced in 1994, creates excruciatingly detailed models of characters from all walks of pop culture, including Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Halo. Their popularity has waned in recent years, but the toys are still sought-after by the most fervent collectors.

McFarlane attributes solid sleep to his years of success, saying it’s critical to shutting off his constantly streaming creativity and staying sound of mind. “Otherwise I would be a 24-hour guy who would be thinking up stuff all the time,” he says. “I’m sure at some point that would put me in the class of insanity.”

In his own words, the comic legend discusses harnessing sleep, dreams and calmly dealing with his wife’s night terrors.


The standard question I hear is, “How do you come up with that crazy shit?” And people ask, “What kind of dreams do you have?” Truthfully? I sleep like a baby. I don’t wake up with epiphanies and go, “Oh my god! I have the newest movie trilogy in my brain!” I’m the opposite. I think it’s because I spend my daytime hours doing crazy stuff. By the night, I’m exhausted and I already got it out of my system. I don’t have any catholic guilt when I go to bed. I see my bed as a reprieve. I don’t have to doubt or think about anything. I’ll do that in the morning.

Even if I am dreaming, the moment I wake up it disappears so I can’t write it down. It vanishes.

If you take care of the body, the mind is not that far behind it. I stay up later than my wife most of the time. And that harkens back to when I was younger and working [in comics] through the night all the time to get deadlines done. I think there’s a little bit of that. Even though it’s been a decade, that hasn’t gone.

“I don’t wake up with epiphanies and go, “Oh my god! I have the newest movie trilogy in my brain!” I’m the opposite.”

My wife is the opposite. She’s had night terrors for 30 years now. She’s as normal as a person as you want. She’s a professor at ASU and she’s smart. On a fairly regular basis I get woken up with screams and panic and her running around — sometimes to the point where she doesn’t recognize who I am. I have these bad theories on the subject. I get to get all the demons out during the day, I go to bed and I’m out. I’m my own boss so I get to throw all the rules out, but the average person has to deal with stress — I hate that word — and, when they go to bed, like my wife, they’re just crazy when they fall asleep. I think I should make her a novelist so she could get it out during the day.

If you’ve never slept with someone who has night terrors, the easiest way I can explain it is put yourself in a deep sleep and have someone with a pair of cymbals clang them right to your ear. It is that jarring. The difference from a night terror and a dream is that a night terror goes from zero to 100. Logic doesn’t come to play in a situation like that.

But some of it is funny. A normal one will be, “We didn’t feed the horse.” Which is ridiculous because we don’t have a horse. Then she’ll get mad at me and say, “Of course we have a horse. You didn’t feed him!” So this is where it gets fun. I’ll say, “Wanda, you’re right. Just one question: What’s the name of our horse?” And this is where the brain starts to be logical and she goes, “It’s…it’s…I’m having one of those night terrors.” Then she’ll fall asleep in two seconds. And then I’m left lying awake.

“I get to get all the demons out during the day, I go to bed and I’m out.”

A lot of the terrors were where she thought there was a giant spider hanging over her in the bed. I might have been drawing Spider-Man at the time, but there were so many instances of that. One time she woke me up and said, “There’s a giant one!” I said, “Wanda, no there isn’t. Look, let’s just get out bed.” And she goes, “I can’t! I’ve been webbed!”

To get myself back to sleep, I’ll think of who was on the starting line up of the 1972 Philadelphia Phillies. If I can get through the whole line up, I’ll list the top five pitchers. Eventually I’ll get to the bench, but I rarely get past the pitchers. It’s my version of counting sheep. I just don’t list them. I go, first base, Willie Montanez. Oh yeah, he used to play for the Giants. And I start thinking about his career. Then I’ll jump into the next position.

Sadly I haven’t recorded more of my wife. It would make awesome YouTube stuff. She keeps me on my toes.

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