Happily Ever After? Willingham talks 'Fables' and issue #9's shocker

Thu, January 30th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Cover to Fables #12 by James Jean
We all know the classic story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and how her success in that tale allowed her to become a successful politician as she became an ice cold woman. And there's the heart warming tales of Pinnochio's quest to physically gain sexual maturity as he realizes he can never grow up. Or the story of Goldilocks and the three little bears, that would even have many readers to define, "sexual relations?"

Oh, you've never heard those ones? You haven't been reading DC Comics' hit series "Fables?"

Launched late last year from DC's mature imprint Vertigo Comics, "Fables" is the brainchild of writer Bill Willingham and has struck a chord with readers, rapidly gaining new fans every month. Along with "Y-The Last Man" and mainstays "100 Bullets" and "Lucifer," the series is credited with reinvigorating the imprint that many had considered lifeless. With the second shocking arc of the series almost complete, CBR News caught up with Willingham and spoke to him about the series. "'Fables' imagines that many of the best known characters from fairy tales and folklore are still living in modern times," explains Willingham of the series' main concept. "In fact they're living in New York City, in a secret underground community, having been long since run out of their own fabled lands when the vast armies of someone known (so far) only as the Adversary invaded and conquered those lands."

The stories in "Fables" thus far have been very focused and purposeful arcs, leading some to wonder if Willingham is taking the series down the road of another Vertigo classic by the name of "Sandman," wherein the series was continued for a finite amount of time till the author's desired story was told. Upcoming solicitations do hint at some short stories, which may also mean that Willingham isn't above including any idea he fancies into his grand scheme and he admits, his plans include a mixture of both. "I have several big story arcs in mind, leading towards a big final end someday. But, until they're actually written, those stories are only fleshed out in the broadest of strokes - under the guiding notion that there's plenty of time to get where we are going, and let's not be in any hurry. In the meantime, I leave myself open for all of the interesting distractions that inspiration sends my way. 'Fables' is an ongoing series, and will only end when one (or both) of two things happen: First, the sales drop low enough that we can no longer afford to continue publishing them; or second, I run out of ideas. So far sales are fine and steadily rising and new ideas for 'Fables' stories are coming faster and in greater number than I can possibly make use of them. And yes, under the 'Fables' rubric I plan to tell all sorts of stories. We've had a murder mystery ('Legends in Exile'), followed by a political thriller ('Animal Farm'). Next comes a one-issue period piece ('Bag O' Bones'), set during the American Civil War, followed by a two-part caper story, followed by a four-part love story, followed by a fairly large espionage story. And that's just for starters. We've got a very long way to go, and it's not a race, or even a marathon - it's a leisurely stroll."

When CBR News last spoke with Willingham, he was loathe to name any favorite characters quite yet, but this time he has no such problems. "Snow White and Bigby Wolf are my favorites, and the characters I knew would be my favorites going into the series. Why? Because they are (so far) the central characters of the series, and therefore the ones I've spent the most time with - initially constructing them, and then living with them throughout many stories. They exemplify the irreducible premise of this series, in that they are each completely different characters, than who they were way back in the original tales, but they have changed into their new characters in completely justified and understandable stages, based upon everything that happened to them between the times we knew them then and have been reintroduced to them in this series. Of course the readers don't yet know all of those character-altering stages, but I do, and I'll reveal them - eventually.

"Some characters though have surprised me in becoming favorites of mine, since the series began. Bluebeard and Prince Charming, both because they are such complete rogues and bastards, but each in their own unique way. I guess, like so many others, I can't help but like the villains. Also, visually, there are some background characters who've earned a spot in my heart, simply because they were drawn so well - blame the artists for that: Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Mark Buckingham and Craig Hamilton. For example: that mean little sunflower-headed guy that Buckingham throws in, in the background, from time to time. I don't (yet) know anything about that guy, but I love the nasty little bastard."

Fables #11, Page 20 by Bryan Talbot
One of the major appeals for fans of "Fables" has been seeing their childhood favorites in a new series and it's no secret that nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. While people get excited to see these characters again, Willingham knows that sometimes fans can only want to see the characters as they see them with their mind's eye. "I do worry sometimes, but not much, and I try to worry not at all," he admits. "Here's the deal - you can't write good stories, if you're at all concerned about the possible negative reactions of your perceived readership. What you're doing in this profession is jumping up on the (metaphorical) stage and saying, 'Boy do I have a great story to tell you!' It takes some ego, and daring, and not a small bit of presumption to do that. And you can't follow that up with, 'So now tell me what kind of story you want to hear, and tell me all of the things you don't want to hear, so that I don't risk disappointing any of you.' That just doesn't work. For better or worse, once you brave taking the stage, you better show more leadership than that, or you're doomed from the outset to self-inflicted mediocrity. Of course, being full of bluff and bravado doesn't guarantee that your story will be any good, it's just that the lack of it pretty much guarantees that your story won't be.

"That said, I am, as of this writing, deep into the twentieth issue of Fables, only nine of which have been published to date. Each of the characters are so thoroughly "mine" by this point, that all concerns about how my readership will or won't accept them have vanished. These are very much my versions of these well-known characters. There are plenty of other versions of these well-known characters. So anyone who doesn't warm up to these versions has plenty of other options available to him. Not a bad deal, huh?"

Another way of keeping things fresh for readers is by creating his own fables and Willingham says you'll see a new one every so often. "Some have already shown up - the Foresworn Knight for example. But the entirely new characters will be few and far between. This series presumes old characters, from fable and folklore, re-imagined, and so they will make up the bulk of our cast."

One of those new characters is not the Adversary, the antagonist of "Fables," whose attacks on the different Fable lands led to the Fables living in New York. While Willingham has said that the Adversary is an established Fable and has dropped some clues, he also says that those who are trying to guess his true identity will have to try a bit harder. "I haven't provided enough clues at all - purposely - and many of those I have provided are purposeful misdirection," smiles Willingham. "But the readers already know as much about the Adversary as any given member of Fabletown knows. He's a mystery, and as such, lots of wild speculation about him has occurred. Yes, he is an established Fable, which isn't to say that 'he' might not actually be a 'she' or an 'it.' And yes, we will see more of him in the future, but no guarantees of when. What makes him more than just another big villain? I don't think that's for me to say, but at the risk of blowing my own horn, I don't think I've ever created just another big villain. All of my major villain characters have been pretty unique - from the E'lementals' Saker and Shapeshifter, to Coventry's Beezil, to Pantheon's Deadalus. As for what makes the Adversary such an interesting concept, I can't tell you that, without revealing more about him than I intend to. So there. You'll just have to trust me and be patient."

While only two story arcs into the series, the prominent themes this far would seem to be taking responsibility for one's actions and when asked about his thematic intent, Willingham responds with one of his trademark insightful responses. "An author I admire, one Mister Orson Scott Card, says (and I'm seriously paraphrasing here) that writers shouldn't worry about themes - that themes in fact are more a creation of critics and scholars and the other button-sorters who come along well after the fact and try to make it their business to tell folks what any given story really means and what any given author really had in mind. Card advises, rightly in my opinion, that a writer should just worry about telling a good tale, and let others worry about themes and such. So far, in 'Fables,' Snow and Bibgy seem to be on the side of taking responsibility for one's actions, but Jack and Rose Red and Bluebeard and Prince Charming seem to be on the side of avoiding responsibility. Now, which of those comprise some sort of message from the writer to the readers? Take your pick, if you like, but I wouldn't worry about it."

Speaking of compromised messages, one area of "Fables" mythology where Willingham feels there has been some creative writing is the circumstances surrounding his exit from the DC Fables Message Boards. "As near as I can tell, the prevailing rumor is that someone at DC either insisted or suggested that I no longer participate in the DC Fables message board," explains Willingham. "The only problem with this rumor is that it never happened - no part of it. I chose to stop posting on that particular message board entirely on my own. After the fact, some DC forum moderator came onto that board and posted something to the effect that, 'I was just about to advise Willingham to leave,' so perhaps that is where the notion came from, but to me it sounds a lot like, 'honestly honey, I was just about to hit that guy who was bothering you, but he and his three big friends left just in time to avoid a beating.'

"There's no big controversy or tragedy about me leaving off from the official DC message boards - it's more a difference of opinion of how such things should be run, and how people should conduct themselves there. Many people think of the Internet as one big arguing machine, where one with a lot of time on his hands can argue, quibble, split endless hairs, ad infinitum and ad nausium and do it all anonymously. I left because it was a waste of my time to continue to put up with those types, in order to continue to interact with the more reasonable people who participate there. On Internet message boards, one bad apple, if not removed immediately, often does spoil the whole bunch. But I didn't leave without first trying to find some sort of solution to the problem. First I tried to convince the DC moderator to let me control the Fables board as a moderator, which he refused to do. Then I decided only to respond to posts in which the writer had provided his actual name, thinking correctly that those who don't insist on anonymity are less likely to be among the purposely-disruptive types. This policy only pissed people off even more, until the DC Fables forum became a complete waste of the limited time I could devote to such things.

Fables #12, Page 2 by Lan Medina and Craig Hamilton
"So I left. And then the rumors began that I was booted out, after going mad with power by demanding sole control of the Fables boards. That's a fun rumor, only spoiled by the fact that no part of it actually occurred.

"Still, I am perfectly willing to interact online with whoever wishes to discuss 'Fables.' I just won't do it on the DC message boards, or any other badly moderated message board. I have always had my own 'Fables' message boards, which used to be at the now defunct Clockwork Storybook site and now reside at my own Web site. One other note about this matter, before I shut up. In the more than three years I have been one of the moderators of the Clockwork forums, including the one devoted to 'Fables,' I have never once had to delete a post or kick out a forum member. It seems the knowledge that some minimum degree of manners are required is itself enough to do the job. So much for being mad with power, huh? Too bad the DC moderator hasn't yet learned this."

The recent collection of the first "Fables" storyline, "Legends In Exile," also included an exclusive prose story that recounted the beginning of some important relationships and was received warmly by fans. Does Willingham plan to do more of these prose pieces or a "children's picture book" style issue of "Fables?" "Let's give this one a qualified yes. I have definite plans along those lines. We'll see if DC feels the same."

Between his interactions with fans online and the continuing rise in sales, which many would call a success, the "Fables" writer says that he doesn't feel any additional pressure when writing the series. "Any pressure at this point is strictly self-imposed. The (power mad) high mucky-mucks at DC and Vertigo had some understandable initial concerns along those lines, before 'Fables' was a proven commodity, but now they seem pretty confident that, with this series at least, I seem to know what I'm doing. I try to keep my focus on what will make the most interesting story - fantastic or otherwise. But I'm still not willing to concede that 'Fables' is a success yet. So far the sales are good and continue to rise a bit, from issue to issue, but that can always change. We're approaching that point now where Fables isn't new any longer. And it has yet to come close to cracking the top fifty in sales, and likely never will - so success is relative."

Willingham's approach to "Fables" does change, however, when a new artist comes onboard and with this series, that happens with each new arc. It's a change that he feels is necessary and the scribe feels that he owes it to the artist to make sure the story is satisfying to him/her as well. "In each case, my first conversation with any given artist includes the question, 'what fairy tale, fable or folklore characters do you most want to draw?' and so on. Mark Buckingham, for example, was considered for the first 'Fables' story arc, but together we agreed that it would be better to save him for the Animal Farm story. And it proved out to be a very good decision, because he is perfect for that story. Many bits in that story were then written with him in mind - how he will likely draw it. But of course, in each case, each artist on the series to date has given us more than we asked for and much more than we could reasonably hope for. I could provide specific examples, but I'd have to ramble on for pages. This is a highly collaborative medium, and one in which the visuals make or break the story. It would be a mistake to deny the lion's share of the credit for Fables' success to the terrific artists who've contributed to the series. So far they have been, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Mark Buckingham and Craig Hamilton. In the future (among others) Bryan Talbot and P. Craig Russell and Linda Medley will join their ranks."

Other than the veritable cornucopia of talented artists lending their touch to "Fables," Willingham says there are lots more exciting plans for the future of "Fables." "In the future we'll see what happens when Snow and Bigby are thrown together in a situation where they can't escape each others' company. We'll see who made it out on the last boat out of the Fable homelands, and at what cost. We'll see a mortal duel between two characters, but no, I won't mention who. We'll see why the mouse police never sleep. We'll see what happens when a mundy reporter discovers Fabletown and their secrets - or not. We'll see why Red Riding Hood hasn't made an appearance yet. We'll see some huffing and puffing. We'll see a stolen kiss or two. We'll see why it's always handy to have a woodsman around. We'll see lost treasures rediscovered. We'll see lost loves found and lost again. We'll see why Kay keeps blinding himself. And we'll see what happens to Fables who don't want to live on the Farm or in Fabletown.

"You'll also keep hearing me thanking fans and saying this: Thank you for buying the books so far. I hope you'll continue to do so and recommend the series to others. And feel free to come by the official Fables site at billwillingham.com to ask me what you want to ask and say what you need to say."

And as for the final issue of "Animal Farm," which follows the cliffhanger from issue # 9 that leaves the fate of a major character in the balance? "The final issue in the Animal Farm story arc takes place over the span of more than half a year, in which time, among many other things, we'll find out, from the horse's mouth, why Rose has hated Snow for so long," teases Willingham.

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