Happily Ever After: Bill Willingham talks 'Fables'

Thu, August 22nd, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Fables #7]
Fables #7
DC Comics has been steadily growing their share of the market in the past year, in both sales and public perception, and has its sleeper hit series to thank. One of those series is "Fables," currently being published under its Vertigo imprint and nearing the end of the series' first arc. But even with such a brief existence, the series has managed to garner a lot of acclaim from both fans and critics, something not too common in the comic book industry. CBR News caught up with series writer Bill Willingham who explained his inspiration for the series and what his plans were for the future. For those plans who haven't a clue what "Fables" is all about, have no fear; Willingham is about to tell you everything you need to know.

"Over the past few centuries the vast armies of a dark old power (so far known only as the Adversary) have taken control of all of the fabled homelands of the various fairy tale characters we all know. One by one the Adversary has invaded each of these homelands, killing or enslaving their inhabitants, and adding each new kingdom to his ever-growing empire. 'Fables,' the comic series, presupposes that some of those fairy tale characters escaped the invading forces and have made their way to our world - the mundane world - where they've united in a community of refugees. They've done this over a vast span of years, and have lived secretly among us for centuries, but the story picks up in modern times, in the Manhattan center of the Fables exile community, which they call Fabletown.

"Now the citizens of Fabletown try to live their lives as best they can, while keeping their magical nature secret from we mundane humans (mundys). They're united by their common plight and in the hope that someday they can make their way back to their lost lands and win their homes and kingdoms back from the Adversary. The principal characters should be well known to most readers, but they've all gone through changes since last we heard their familiar old stories. Snow White is the no-nonsense deputy mayor of Fabletown and the one chiefly responsible for holding the community together. Prince Charming is her philandering ex-husband, and also formally married to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Bigby (Big Bad) Wolf has taken on semi-permanent human form and is now the sheriff of Fabletown. Other characters which will show up often in the series are Snow's sister Rose Red; Jack of the Tales; Bluebeard; King Cole (the mayor of Fabletown - who handles the ceremonial end of things, leaving everything else to Snow); Little Boy Blue; Pinocchio; and the Frog Prince (called Flycatcher these days). Then there are the Fables who're not able to pass as human, so they are kept secreted away, up at Fabletown's upstate annex, known as the Farm. The three little pigs live there (though it's been some years since they were little), and the three bears, among others. Potentially any interesting fable, fairy tale or folklore character can show up in this series, dependent only on my interest and how long the series lasts."

As Willingham is quick to explain, the concept for "Fables" grew out of a genuine affection for the characters themselves, not a desire to shock audiences with a "mature" take on classic characters or because he needed a new source of revenue. "I've always loved characters from myth and folklore and used them in the stories - comic book and otherwise - I've chosen to tell. From super hero tales to horror, these characters kept slipping in, as background or supporting characters. I suppose it was just a matter of time before they took center stage. And, with few exceptions, I'm one of those who're never quite satisfied. I always want to know what happened next, in any given story - with the good ones anyway. I'm an unabashed fan of sequels - endless sequels - the more the better. Of course many sequels, perhaps even most, are wretched. But even when the story fails, I admire the attempt someone made to get up on the stage - often on the heels of the original author - and say, 'here's what I think happened next.' That's a brave thing to do, especially if one has the temerity to attempt adding to a classic. In any case - and I hope I haven't drifted too far off topic - 'Fables,' the comic series, is my attempt to tell you what happened next, with all of these beloved old characters."

When dealing with such classic and beloved characters such as Snow White or Prince Charming, Willingham does realize that one runs the risk of being seen as needlessly making changes where none need be made and for many writers, it would be easy for the work to parallel that perception. However, in this case, he says that he has found a solution to making sure his own unique spin on the characters feels unique and not contrived. "For me it's pretty easy to do, because I simply don't worry about it," says Willingham of keeping his changes to the characters feeling fresh. "Those things that are changed from the original stories and those things that are kept, are changed or kept for no other reason than that's the way I want to do it. Other people can merrily worry about the merits and propriety of this change or that change - about the dangers of going too far, or not going far enough. Others can handle the second-guessing just fine, without me. I'm only guided by what stories I feel like telling, and what seems interesting or clever to me. My hope then is that enough readers will agree, or at least trust me enough to follow along for a while. This is folklore, meaning that any folk can do whatever they want with the material. And someone who doesn't like what I've done with the source material is perfectly free to jump up on the stage and say, 'No, this is what I think happened next,' and I'll happily listen to his version - provided he can get my attention and keep it."

"Personally I'm not much interested in reading the work of any author who includes, 'how much can I get away with?' as one of his guiding principals of story construction. Unfortunately the comics field seems to be currently rife with such projects."

As open as Willingham is to talking about the creative facets of "Fables," the series creator is much more humble when it comes to discussing the creative merits of the series, such as when he is asked what makes the series such a unique entity in the comic world today. "I'm not sure how unique it is. I'm not the first, nor will I be the last to attempt to tell new stories using these characters. In fact there seems to have been something in the air recently about revisiting these characters. The first trailers for the 'Shrek' movie appeared days after DC accepted the 'Fables' proposal, modern sequels to old fairy tales were appearing in any number of made-for-TV movies, and even in DC a major fables-inspired story line appeared in the 'Justice League' series, while my 'Fables' series was meandering through the DC development labyrinth. As the man said, 'In the time of steam engines, people build steam engines.' This seems to be the time of revisiting old fairy tales.

[Fables #6]
Fables #6
"Of course my version is going to be different from any other. It's inevitable. Give any three writers the identical premise and cast of characters and you will get three wildly divergent stories. The trick is in crafting new stories that will capture your attention and hold it for a while. I'm egotistical enough to think I can do it with this 'Fables' series. Time will tell. Also, I don't really consider 'Fables' a Vertigo book, except that Vertigo happens to be the imprint under which it is published. I don't know that the Vertigo line of books has what can be described as a single sensibility anymore. If they ever were, I doubt it can be still argued that they are of a type. In any case 'Fables' is a Willingham book and that's enough of a guiding sensibility for this comic series."

Part of that "sensibility" that seems to be hooking new readers each month can be seen in the character of Prince Charming, arguably the most popular and well-received character in the series. "Prince Charming was easy. Once I'd decided that the same character had been the handsome prince in all three tales: Snow White; Cinderella; and the Sleeping Beauty, it seemed obvious that he was much better at wooing a girl, than keeping her. A good villain is always popular. And though he may not be a villain in the strict sense, our prince is certainly a rogue. We can't help but admire those who get to break all of the laws by which we have to abide. Also, he's well spoken. No, he's not as erudite as a Shakespearean character, but clever enough by modern standards. I think we've gone so far away in our culture from requiring (or at least expecting) a certain basic level of rhetorical skill - to the point where such abilities are axiomatically considered false, or inauthentic - that we've come to miss well-spoken individuals. Then again, this might be wishful thinking on my part, since I prefer clever characters to dunces."

He's also been quite successful with his less than sweet version of Snow White and sexually frustrated Pinnochio, both of whom arose from a natural creative process that is used to create all the "Fables" characters, he explains. "Most of it comes as what I consider to be a natural progression of the character, given their original story. For example, my version of Snow comes across (to many readers so far) as a bit of a hard-assed bitch. But, considering she was betrayed early and often, by just about everyone she's ever known and loved, it seems plausible to me that she might end up one of those people with her 'no one will ever get close to me again' walls firmly in place. Some of my ideas for character changes come from the need to justify what I want them to be now. For example, though most child Fable characters have grown up by the start of this series, I wanted Pinocchio to still be a boy. Why? I have no idea, but I knew I didn't want an adult Pinocchio. So I needed a reason to justify his condition, and once that was determined, the comedy bit about him and the Blue Fairy became self-evident."

Fans of the series should also take note that there will be both a main cast of a characters and a rotating cast of supporting characters who will play a role in future stories. "A small core group, consisting of Snow, Bigby, and one or two others, will appear often enough in each story so as to constitute the book's main cast. Others will rotate in and out as needed for any given tale. Snow White is the only main character from the first arc (Legends in Exile) who plays a major role in the second (Animal Farm). Rose Red is there in a major way too, but she was hardly in the first story - except as the putative victim. Bigby is hardly seen in the Animal Farm story line, but shows up in most of the stories that follow."

If you're wondering why Willingham chose to lead off "Fables" with a murder mystery, he explains that there's no grand scheme behind the decision: it just made sense. "A murder mystery was one of the many types of stories I planned to do within the 'Fables' series, as it was proposed to DC. In the same proposal I'd also promised a political thriller (Animal Farm), a caper story, an espionage story, a "cultures in conflict" story, and so on. Someone at DC - I believe it was Karen Berger (but don't hold me to that) - asked if we could lead off with the murder mystery, and since it was a good story with which to introduce our core characters and concepts, I readily agreed."

Willingham also admits that his love for the genre, influenced by books such as those by Agatha Christie or contemporary television shows such as "Nero Wolfe," helped make that decision a lot easier. "Yes. I love an honest whodunit, which means that all of the clues needed to solve the mystery are genuinely available to the reader, so that he has a chance to solve the mystery by the time the fictional detective does. Not a good chance, one hopes, but a chance. But authentic whodunits are hard to write, so don't expect another one anytime soon."

While some writers might struggle to find inspiration for a new comic book series, Willingham says that isn't an issue at all. "I'd proposed the series with about a half-dozen different stories in mind, but each of those stories raise their own interesting questions, which implies any number of other stories, and so on, until it all spins out of control. I already have more ideas for 'Fables' stories than we can do in this lifetime, and we've only just begun. The easy part of the job: cashing the checks. The hard part: everything else. But seriously, folks, writing anything doesn't come easy to me, so it's all the hardest parts."

Willingham isn't sure where he got the idea for the series' main villain, the Adversary. "I'm not sure. I believe the idea to place the fairy tale characters in a modern urban setting came first, but I needed a compelling reason to put them there. Once the idea occurred to me that they were all hiding from something, the details of the Adversary pretty much fell into place. But the idea stage of putting a new series together is such a non-linear process, I couldn't begin to reconstruct the point at which the Adversary came to be part of it." When asked if he's afraid that said concept in "Fables" might be stretched out for too long by leaving it in the background in favor of other stories, he replies, "Nope. I'm fearless."

The very nature of "Fables" requires the stories rely on some pretty fantastic elements- magical powers and evil creatures- and balancing them with the more "human" aspects of the story can potentially be very difficult, but Willingham says it hasn't been and dismisses the notion that the series needs to be "relatable." "Any balance that needed to be struck between the two worlds was already struck before the actual work on the first script began, so I can't say now how hard it was to do. I tend to pretty thoroughly construct my fictional worlds, before beginning the actual writing - meaning that writing which readers actually end up reading. In my mind both realms - the fantastic and the mundane - already exist in full, so the actual stories are just a matter of showing them to you on whatever schedule seems interesting to me at any given time. It's now not a matter of balance, it's more a matter of wanderlust (to pick a more agile metaphor): 'Look at all of this cool stuff I have to show you, so come with me!' As long as readers keep coming with me, I'll assume it's working.

[Fables #6, Page 5]
Fables #6, Page 5
"Now, as far as readers' ability to 'relate' to the material, I've never had the slightest idea what that means, but I've always suspected it's nonsense. I don't care if anyone is able to relate to any of my stories, as long as they're able to understand and enjoy them."

One of the unique aspects of "Fables" is the fact that each new story arc has a different artistic team; a choice that Willingham made and explains that he thinks will benefit the series in the end. "It has two unimpeachable advantages over signing up a single artist for the entire run. First, it takes time to draw an issue of a comic book, and doing a good job takes even longer. Very few artists can do a monthly book, month in and month out. I can't do it. But we want 'Fables' to come out monthly. So, with multiple artists, we can give one artist the time he needs to complete his story arc, while others are simultaneously drawing different story arcs. At any given time we can have three or four artists working on different stories. And since 'Fables' editor Shelly Bond is the one getting the gray hairs scheduling all of this, it's no extra worry for me. Second, with rotating artists I get to work with several wonderful and talented cartoonists, rather than a single wonderful and talented cartoonist."

While Willingham says he'd like "Fables" to continue for "a very long time," he does admit to having some definite plans for the series' end. "I have an ending in mind, should the time come when we need to end the series, but not for many years to come, assuming both sales and my continued working relationship with DC remain healthy."

As previously mentioned, "Fables" has met with an incredible amount of acclaim and one particular comment, the mention of "Fables" as "the next 'Sandman'" (a reference to the groundbreaking Vertigo series of the 1990s), has Willingham feeling a bit uncomfortable. "I'm of two minds about it. To the extent that the comparison only means that 'Fables' is a good series that will hopefully catch on to a wide readership, drawn from those both within and outside of the current comic-reading demographic, and continue to rise in popularity, and end up years down the road collected in far too many trade paperbacks, and maybe even a hardcover or two - well, I'm all for it. I hope it proves out to be true. But if the comparison is meant to imply that 'Fables' is in some way a 'Sandman' knock-off - then I would have to disagree."

Willingham is also reluctant to hail the series as a complete success, despite the warm reception with which the series has met. "I'm not sure its acclaim is entirely across-the-board, but so far it's pretty good, and I like it. It's been a while since I've been part of producing a comic that enjoys some financial as well as critical success, and it's sort of nice. I have no clear idea why this one caught on where so many others didn't. But it's still early days yet. If the series is still going strong ten years from now, I might be willing, albeit reluctantly, to label the thing an actual success."

As the first story arc of "Fables" comes to an end, Willingham says that he looks back on it fondly but also with the same regrets as one would expect. "As with most cartoonists, by the time a given issue actually comes out, all I can see are the mistakes that didn't get caught, or things I wish I'd done differently. The only times I really enjoy my work are when I'm first writing it (and drawing it, back when I did more of that), and years later, when I pick it up again after not looking at it for some time, and maybe see that there were a few bits here and there in it that weren't so bad. Then there are those rare moments when some reader writes in, or comes up to me and talks about some aspect of some story - some favorite bit - in such a way that I realize he understood what I was getting at, so maybe it's working after all. Those times are nice. But while the fourth issue of 'Fables' has just come out, I'm putting the final touches on the script to issues fifteen and sixteen, for which I am still modestly enthusiastic. And of course that next story - the one I haven't started writing yet - is always perfect, by virtue of not having been spoiled in any way by actually having to do it yet. So, in that way at least, my outlook for the future of 'Fables' is just dandy."

What does that future hold for "Fables?" "In the Animal Farm story arc, we follow Snow and Rose Red up to the Farm, where all of the non-human looking Fables are forced to live," reveals Willingham. "They don't like being stuck in one place, while all of the human looking Fables can wander in the world wherever they please, so there's revolution brewing. This is the political thriller that was promised in one of the answers above. We'll see what the other pigs have been doing while Colin Pig has been enjoying his trip to the big city, and find out just what Goldilocks has been up to with those three bears. This arc takes up issues six through ten, and is drawn by Mark Buckingham and inked by Steve Leialoha. Do please come visit the Farm with us - but bring guns."

[Fables #6, Page 11]
Fables #6, Page 11
"After that we get a single-issue story of one of Jack's misadventures during the American Civil War. It's a fun but naughty tale, loosely based on a couple of the Appalachian Jack tales of our American folklore. Bryan Talbot (of 'Heart of Empire' fame) drew it and it looks terrific.

"Then we get a two-issue caper story, starring just about every character except Snow and Rose. A mundy reporter discovers that all of the denizens of New York's Bullfinch Street (Fabletown) have been alive, without aging, for centuries and threatens to expose them. Our heroes have to cook up a truly disturbing caper to foil his plans. Too bad it doesn't work.

"Then we get a three-issue tale all about storybook love as seen through the eyes of one Prince Charming. But his three ex-wives get to have their say too. We also meet Sergeant Wilfred of the Mouse Police.

"After that there's the big - make that huge - espionage story, featuring everyone in the extended Fables cast and introducing Red Riding Hood into the mix.

"Sometime next year, we're also going to do something that hasn't been done in funnybooks for some time - we're going to do a Fables annual. This was decided at the recent San Diego Con. And like the annuals of way back when, the story for this one will be an important one - essential to the series."

When Willingham looks at the comic book projects he'd consider his dreams, he says that "Fables" ranks pretty high and that there aren't many others. "'Fables' comes pretty close. I've gotten old and cranky enough in this business to finally realize that no project is worth my time, unless it's one I absolutely want to do. There's not enough time left for 'it's just a job' jobs. There are still a few company-owned characters that would be terrific to be able to do - provided I got to do them my way, with little or no interference. At least once I'd like to work on something Jack Kirby created. Likewise one of Edgar Rice Burrough's A-list characters. I'd be happy to entertain any offers along those lines." These projects are so desirable to Willingham because of personal reasons and he explains that, "I suspect in order to have some sort of tangible connection to the men who created so much so well, and provided the wee young me of old with so many terrific stories to grow up on."

Having been involved in the comic book industry for some time, Willingham does have some thoughts on the comic book industry and where he believes it needs to go in order to survive. "Those of us in the creative side of funnybook production should, when we can afford to, pause long enough to figure out what stories we're dying to tell so much to be worth the considerable effort of producing comic pages (which is damned hard to do well) and try to do only those stories. We should only do our best work, because it takes almost as much time and effort doing hackwork, so why bother with anything but the good stuff? Granted, this is a bit pie in the sky-ish, because we also have to make a living doing this, and usually the ones offering the better pay are the ones who have their own ideas on what constitutes a good funnybook. But now, rather than later, is the time for us to start working ourselves into the position where we can do the stories we most want to do.

"I'm glad that a variety of genres are possible in today's comic market, but I don't mind that superhero books continue to be among them. And I don't think the superhero genre is in conflict with other types of books, in the sense that the predominance of one chokes off the resources and environment for the other. I suspect the market is pretty effectively self-regulating in our business. Comics are still cheap enough (relatively) to produce so that many kinds can be tried, and the ones that can find a readership tend to remain, while the ones that can't tend to disappear. I've had a few successful books and a few failures. Personally, I plan to tell the stories I want to tell regardless of what other types of books are clogging up the other shelves in your local comic store."

Willingham will be telling lots of stories it seems, though he can't announce many of them, and he shares with readers his list of projects for the future. "I'm not sure what you'll see from me in what order, because, from now on (having learned my lesson from the past) I try to avoid announcing things until they're done. But I tend to skip around on what I work on at any given time, so I generally have no idea when any given thing will get done. I've written a few prose books and will continue to do that. If you check under my name on one of the online bookstores, you can find out what's currently published and available. In addition to that, and the 'Fables' series, I'm drawing something I've written, but it's still too far from completion to mention any details yet. The 'Pantheon' series, published by Lone Star Press, is finally coming to a close and my 'Strange Heroes' series, with the same publisher, is still chugging along nicely on the 'almost no shops carry this book' track."

Before leaving to finish some scripts, Willingham has some special words for fans of "Fables" and his other comic book work.

"Thank you for your continued support. I hope you'll keep reading 'Fables' and my other work and, if you're so inclined, tell others about the ones you like."

 
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