Bill Willingham Talks Fables Novel

Thu, June 11th, 2009 at 11:59am PDT

Comic Books
Jeffrey Renaud, Staff Writer

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Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
"Peter & Max: A Fables Nove" on sale in October

Since its debut in 2002, “Fables” has become quite arguably the most celebrated comic book series in the industry. A point exemplified by the incredible 12 Eisner Awards and recent Hugo nomination the series has garnered for creator and writer Bill Willingham, primary penciller Mark Buckingham the talented array of artist they work with to bring the fantastic world of Fabletown to life.

Never shy to break boundaries and bring his magical universe to new heights (even beyond the Cloud Kingdom), Willingham and Vertigo are set to release “Peter & Max,” a 6”x9”, 400-page hardcover prose novel, on October 13. Written by Willingham, “Peter & Max” features spot illustrations by regular “Fables” collaborator Steve Leialoha and an eight-page bonus sequential comics story by Willingham and Leialoha that serves as a bridge to the “New York Times” bestselling “Fables” graphic novel collections.

Yesterday, Vertigo launched its new blog, Graphic Content, and shared the first chapter of “Peter & Max” as part of its first ever entry. The novel begins with a note from Willingham that sets “Peter & Max” firmly in “Fables” continuity:

This novel is based upon my long-running comic book series called “Fables,” but it is its own tale, autonomous and self-reliant. No one needs to be familiar with the comics to fully enjoy and understand this book. For those who do follow the comics and wish to know where this falls in the more or less official Fables chronology, the modern day portions of the story begin about two years before the Fables go to war to overthrow the Adversary and conclude a few months before that same war.

Before you check out the first chapter of "Peter & Max," see what Bill Willingham had to say about the his extraordinary tale of sibling rivalry featuring Peter Piper and his older brother Max, the once and future Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Story continues below

CBR: I know you don’t want to give too much away, and believe me, I don’t want you to spoil it, but can you share with us a little about what we’re going to see story-wise in “Peter & Max?”

BILL WILLINGHAM: The title characters are also the main characters [laughs]. And Peter and Max refer to Peter Piper and his older brother Max. One of the ways I have teased this as it was being produced is telling the “Fables” readers that each character in this novel has appeared in exactly one panel of previous “Fables” books. And Max, as most people know now, will grow up to be the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He appeared in one panel of the “1001 Nights of Snowfall” graphic novel where Frau Totenkinder, when she is still young, is saying, “Here’s a magic flute. Go punish this town that earned my ire.” And Peter was even a little more surreptitious than that. If you look at the “Burning Questions” issue [#59] of “Fables” and someone asks the question, “What song was playing when Bigby and Snow danced at the Remembrance Day Ball?” We get that little vignette of Boy Blue with the orchestra and Peter Piper is one of the fellows sitting down with the orchestra. He wasn’t identified as such but we knew even than that’s who it was.

Pages from "Peter & Max: A Fables Novel"

As a matter of fact, I was very careful. I think Jill Thompson was drawing that one, to instruct her very carefully that this is what this fellow has to look like. Even though he’s only seen from behind. Because we want people to be able to go back and say, “Yep. That’s him.”

So those are two main characters and it’s a growing up/coming-of-age story in which both Peter and Max come into their own. It’s a sibling rivalry story writ so large it’s epic and the stuff of legend. It’s kind of a here’s the good brother, here’s the bad brother and how they each got to be that way.

And it spans centuries. And in doing so, the way it touches upon, what we’ve done in “Fables” so far is we see a little bit of Bigby when he is not at all a nice creature of the night. We see a lot more of Frau Totenkinder’s backstory. And exactly what pissed her off about the town of Hamelin. And what kind of witch she was back when she was young and pretty. We see several characters that we haven’t really seen yet. We really haven’t seen Max yet. We explore him thoroughly. We haven’t really seen Peter Piper yet. We explore him thoroughly. We also find out about certain characters that I have been holding onto for some time. Bo Peep is pretty important in this.

This is something that I am maybe perversely proud of. Where as much information about Peter Piper and Little Bo Peep, characters that only appear in very small rhymes, I use every atom of those very small rhymes to move this novel along. So we will find out why Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. And we will find out how Little Bo Peep lost her sheep. And things like that. We will even find out why Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater put his wife in a pumpkin shell. I mean, why would anyone do that? It turns out that it was a vitally important thing to do at the moment. Those are some things that all went into this and yet hopefully, if I’m not completely blundered, it all flows well as its own story.

I think that’s really as much as I want to tell, except it starts in modern Fabletown, goes way back in history, comes back to modern Fabletown, goes back further in history, etc., etc., etc.

Oh, and one other thing is explained. Which is... God, do I want to give this away? No, I don’t. So yes, some other stuff is dealt with.

Pages from "Peter & Max: A Fables Novel"

The novel starts with “A Short Note Before We Begin” written by you that clearly places “Peter & Max” within the ongoing continuity of “Fables.”

Absolutely. As a matter of fact, DC came up with the idea that since it’s beginning to look like we’re going to get a lot more strictly prose readers that have never tried a “Fables“ comic-related book before this project, we are going to have a little bonus comic story in the back to give them a taste of what the comics would be like. Sort of take them by the hand and lead them right up to the gates of the comic series and say, “Here, this is something you also may be interested in looking at.” And in that little bonus story, one of the things it does is sort of hint exactly how crucial and interrelated the story is to the overall “Fables” storyline. Not in the sense that you need this. We worked very hard to make it its own story. It is very self-contained but if you wanted to see exactly how this fits in and some of the ripples and consequences that are going to flow from this and future “Fables” stories, you will get a hint of this right at the end of the novel.

Is the story you’re telling in “Peter & Max” one that was conceived specifically for this project or was it originally going to appear in the “Fables” ongoing series?

The story itself was designed after the idea of doing a prose novel was sort of pitched and accepted. Another thing we found with [the standalone “Fables” graphic novel] “1001 Nights of Snowfall” was that a “Fables” special project, hopefully one of a year, although that may be a little too much to strive for, would be a great thing. And DC encourages it. And I said, with every special project, we should make it special. It shouldn’t just be a long comic time. Each project should present its own challenges. And for an example, I said, “How about a ‘Fables’ novel?” And they said, “Great example. Let’s do that.”

And then there was the “let me think if I can come up with a story that would work better in novel form than in comic form.” And if this was a story that would have worked well in comic form, I don’t think I would have done it in novel form. I think readers will find very much that this absolutely “Fables.” And they will recognize this is every bit as much a “Fables” as any given issue but it also couldn’t have been told as well in comics or any other visual medium, movie or TV or whatever. It’s its own kind of critter.

Pages from "Peter & Max: A Fables Novel"

Will the characters featured in “Peter & Max” appear later in subsequent stories in the “Fables” comic series?

How am I going to answer this? Any character that survives the novel is pretty much guaranteed to show later in the comic series. How about that?

Was it always your intention to try “Fables” in other media, like a novel, once readership of the series reached some sort of critical mass?

From the get-go, and I think one the reasons that DC was so quick to accept “Fables” as a series was that they knew from the beginning that it could appear in other media. Of course, they were thinking movies or TV. So that planted the seed in my mind long ago that this is a series that could translate into other methods of storytelling.

And as a matter of fact, the first mention of a “Fables” novel was early on in the process, [former DC Comics President] Jeanette Kahn was leaving DC at that point to form Double Nickel Productions out in Hollywood -- which by the way came out with the wonderful, possibly final, Clint Eastwood epic “Gran Torino.” If you haven’t seen it, rush out and see it now. Okay, commercial over. She left to form that and she teamed up with Lisa Henson at Jim Henson Pictures to try and get “Fables” made as a feature film. So in the long, involved and frankly terrific talks between me and Jeanette and Lisa, one of the things that I’d mentioned then is that I didn’t think that I was the one to try a screenplay for “Fables.” I was too close to the material, so maybe they should look for an experienced write of movies to take, at least, a first pass at it. But as I said to them, if a novel adaptation of the screenplay was going to happen and it didn’t happen with me as the writer, there was going to be “Drums Along the Mohawk.”

And that probably was the first moment the idea of doing an entirely prose Fables project occurred to me. Entirely prose not meaning to diminish the work that Steve Leialoha is doing with his illustrations for the novel. His illustrations are terrific. As a matter of fact, the second of the two galleys that we’re sending out before actual publication, just got in my hands and I saw some of his illustrations for the first time and they’re just wonderful. I was over at a friend’s house giggling incoherently at the little surprises I was finding while thumbing through the galley.

Pages from "Peter & Max: A Fables Novel"

Do you already know what your next “Fables” special project is going to be?

Yeah. As a matter of fact, we’re going back to comics but not like “1001 Nights of Snowfall.” We’re going to do a very-long, epic, self-contained story centered on Bigby. And I think that’s as much as I want to say right now. But it’s going to be pretty spectacular graphic novel. It’s not a collection of previous stories. It’s it own thing.

And this is expected for sometime in 2010?

We’re still in 2009, right? So yes, it would be late 2010. Hopefully about year after the “Peter & Max” novel. So if we come just in time for Christmas every year that would just be terrific.

Do you have an ending in mind for “Fables?” Is there an ending?

Probably. I would love to do this forever. I will admit this right now. And the bug has well and truly bit me in the sense that whatever causes “Fables” to end whether I accidentally step in front of that bus that is apparently out to kill everybody or sales just go away as people find other little bobbles to interest them or what have you, the one thing that will not stop “Fables” will be a lack of new ideas to do with it.

As a matter of fact, one of the truly glorious things I loved about Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” series way back when, which he did for like 30, 40, 50 years or something, he told all these epic, sweeping sagas with Prince Valiant. And then let his kids grow up and told all of these years-long stories with them, as well.

Edgar Rice Burroughs did the same thing with Tarzan and son of Tarzan.

So it is not a coincidence that one of the first things we did, early on in “Fables,” although it didn’t seem early on at the time, it seemed like we were way into it but in hindsight it was early days for “Fables,” we gave two of the main characters kids, lots of kids. So if we are still doing this 10, 15 years down the road, we’re going to have some interesting young men and young women characters to follow their adventures for a while within “Fables.”

And by way of premonition, we are sewing the seeds for that, the possibility of continuing to follow the next generation of “Fables” in the free comic page giveaway at San Diego. It should be a pretty spectacular thing. Those of you going to San Diego, you definitely want to get one of these things.

It is probably the most monumental – something is said or done in one page that foretells what years worth of “Fables” future might be – thing that we’ve ever attempted.

Immortal characters help a lot.

TAGS:  fables, bill willingham, vertigo, peter and max, steve leialoha

 
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