In January 2010, IDW Publishing offers a new edition of Kurt Busiek and David Wenzel's whimsical fairy tale "The Wizard's Tale," featuring the adventures of an evil wizard who just couldn't get villainy right. Originally envisioned as a three-issue miniseries from Eclipse, with each issue being 48 pages, the title was a victim of that publisher's bankruptcy and instead first saw print in 1997 as a graphic novel from Homage Comics, a Wildstorm imprint. The IDW edition features improved coloring and is completely relettered. CBR News spoke with Busiek about the book, its tumultuous road to publication, and the virtues of fairy stories.
"The Wizard's Tale" stars Bafflerog, an evil wizard who's not much good at being evil. Though his side has seemingly proven victorious in its war against the focus of good, Bafflerog knows no contentment as he seems incapable even of properly vexing the townspeople he is duty-bound to curse. "Bafflerog's from a long, long line of evil wizards. He's been trained to be evil, expected to be evil, and is part of a society where if he doesn't live up to his responsibilities as an evil sorcerer, the rest of the Darksome Council will come down on him like a ton of bricks," Busiek said. "He's trapped by legacy and circumstance, and at least at the start of the book, is under the impression that he's simply not very talented at being evil, not that he doesn't want to do it. He wants to hold up the family banner, to live up to the reputation of his forebears. It's just...he's bad at it, because his heart's not in it.
"So he really doesn't know what he truly wants, because it's buried under expectations and threats of punishment. What he really wants, I suppose, is what he'd sneak away from his studies for when he was a kid - relaxation, enjoyment of the world around him, and freedom from these horrible responsibilities," the writer continued. "If the Land of Ever-Night had bumper stickers (for which they'd need bumpers, at least), his would read, 'I'd Rather Be Fishing.'
"And that's just not an option, not without the entire make-up of the world he lives in changing. And changing the world is way too big an ambition for someone like him, who's been brought up to think of himself as an incompetent. So he's got no way to even think of going after what he wants.
"Or at least, he doesn't think so."
With the Darksome Council rejecting him, Bafflerog's only companion is Gumpwort, formerly a good wizard and now a talking toad. "Gumpwort is actually a prisoner at Rumplewhisker Keep, and has been for centuries," Busiek said. "He's the last of the wizards of the light, who denied the Darksome Council their final triumph by stealing away and hiding the Book of Worse, the grimoire that holds their most powerful and most dangerous spells. So Bafflerog's supposed to be torturing him into revealing the Book's hiding place, as generations of Rumplewhiskers have done before him.
"When Bafflerog doesn't turn out to be as heartless as his forebears, Gumpwort sees a chance. But not an easy one. He can't simply reason with Bafflerog and get him to oppose the ruling powers of the entire world, after all - Bafflerog doesn't have the confidence, the ego for it.
"So Gumpwort's got to bide his time, and find another way."
Busiek plays around with a few fantasy genre conventions in "The Wizard's Tale," including a magically-transformed frog, an unlikely king, and a perilous quest to far-off lands. "I always figured, in those old fairy tales, that after the second or third time the hapless third son of a woodcutter wound up as a king, it would make other third sons start to expect it," the writer said, referring to Muddle, the young lad who accompanies Bafflerog through the second part of his journey. "There'd be all these things people would be aware of: listen to the weird little men that tell you strange things; if animals need help, for Pete's sake give it to them; elderly ladies offering sweets (or even fruit) in the deep forest are not to be trusted; and so on. This of course presumes that fairy tales happen in the same world, and people can learn from them, but that's another thing I like, too. In 'Astro City,' I have fun playing with the genre expectations of the superhero story, and here, we play with the expectations of a fairy tale."
The writer added that he enjoys this sort of overturned expectations in other fiction, as well. "I'm a huge fan of James Thurber's 'The Thirteen Clocks,' where he plays with that sort of genre rules too, introducing the Golux, who is painfully aware that he's a literary device, or the story of Hagga who was granted a magical gift that when she cried she would weep jewels, but unlike most fairy tales, it had unhappy repercussions. And Peter S. Beagle's 'The Last Unicorn,' in which a fairy-tale adventure has to be essayed by some very ordinary people, not the noble heroes of children's tales but more regular-type schmucks who just have to find a way to keep trying, as so many of us have to with the slings and arrows of life. There's something about that kind of story that enchants me, that makes me want to see that kind of world through the eyes of more human characters than usual. So I'm glad to have had the chance to do one of my own."
The pacing of "The Wizard's Tale" owes much to Wenzel's previous work on the "The Hobbit," Busiek told CBR. "David was of course a huge factor in why the book came out the way it did, or even existed in the first place. But one factor that shaped it, that most people wouldn't know—when Dave was painting 'The Hobbit,' due to the density of the story, he was doing crowded, seven- and eight-panel pages, often with multiple establishing shots on them," the writer said. "And it was confining and exhausting. So when we set out to do 'The Wizard's Tale,' I told Dave that I'd give him room to breathe. That not only would I make sure never to go above six panels on a page (usually less), but I'd pace the story so every left-hand page was a full-page spread, kind of like a Big Little Books graphic novel. It suited the story, and it gave him room to play.
"And while we didn't wind up making every lefthand page a full-pager, the ones where we didn't were Dave's choice. Sometimes he'd add a couple of framing panels, or break up the spread a little differently," Busiek continued. "But still, he had room to play, and he exercised it, throwing it lots of detail and incident—I'm still finding stuff I didn't notice in it before, like the wrecklings with the Scotch tape on the last page. It makes the book a lot of fun, and we expanded on it in the new design. That might not be the right approach for a grim and bloody fantasy story, like a Conan adventure, but it suits this one beautifully.
"Overall, I think any story needs its own visual texture as much as it needs its own narrative texture. You don't expect Faulkner to read like Hemingway, or Dashiell Hammett to read like P.G. Wodehouse. And it's the same with comics. If you're telling a big action-oriented superhero story, you might want Kirbyesque energy and momentum and impact, while if you're Neil Gaiman telling a 'Sandman' story, Charles Vess or P. Craig Russell, with their elegance and restraint, might be the better choice. Bissette and Totleben did a wonderful job with the organic, fecund world of 'Swamp Thing,' while Dave Gibbons gives you a clean, crisp clarity. It's not just about the differences between a fantasy and a superhero story, but about what kind of story you're telling.
"All that said, fantasy probably benefits more often from a lot of texture and atmosphere, to give you a strong sense of setting, of the unearthly in a context that makes it believable. And David not only provides that, he also puts a lot of charm and whimsy into his work. But it's not accurate to say he's the right guy for this story because of his charming whimsy, but rather that the story was right for him, that because he was doing it, we created something that had charm and whimsy to it, that would be a good story for him to tell."
The complex history of "The Wizard's Tale" may be worthy of a fantasy adventure itself, involving as it does a fellowship of artists, a kingdom in decline, and a journey to a far-off land. "'The Wizard's Tale' started out life shortly after I left my staff job at Marvel in 1990 and embarked on full-time freelance writing. At the time, Dave Wenzel was finishing up 'The Hobbit' for Eclipse Comics, and they were hopeful of getting the rights to adapt 'Lord of the Rings,' but they knew the negotiations would take a while and Dave would need something to do in the meantime," Busiek recalled. "He showed them a project he'd been struggling with - an illustrated children's book called 'The Magic Book.' It hadn't worked out, in part because the story didn't work. Dave had created some fun characters he wanted to paint, and the writer he was working with had basically used them as a frame for an adventure about a kind of generic American kid. I can't really give any specifics, because I didn't read it. But Dave liked the character visuals he'd come up with and thought there might be a comics project in it, with the right writer.
"That's where I came in. [Eclipse editor] Cat Yronwode thought I'd be a good fit for the project, so she introduced me to Dave and sent me the visuals Dave had sent them. I thought the art was gorgeous, and the characters looked great, especially the old wizard and the toad," Busiek continued. "And since it was the old wizard Dave clearly liked the best, it shouldn't be a story about him facilitating some other character's adventure - he should be the lead."
The writer said that Wenzel's character designs led him to revisit material he had previously tinkered with but not completed. "Back when I was in college, I'd started writing a prose story about an evil wizard who no longer wanted to be evil, so he consulted a tale-teller about how to become a hero instead, and set out to follow the rules it would take to be a hero. So I kind of resurrected the guy, attached him to David's visual, and came up with a new (and hopefully better) story about an evil wizard without the heart to really be evil," Busiek told CBR. "Dave and Cat liked it, so we were off to the races. I wrote it, David did a wonderful job on the artwork...
"...and then about two weeks from when the first issue was supposed to come out, Eclipse went bankrupt.
"So the book didn't come out. And worse than that, I think about two issues' worth of it were in Hong Kong, at Eclipse's color separator there (this was well before home scanners, digital pre-press and all were common), and they, naturally, had a stack of unpaid bills and didn't want to give anything back until they got paid. But Eclipse wasn't in any shape to pay them, and didn't actually own the artwork. David owned it. We got the rights to the work back, but we didn't get the artwork back, so that was a problem."
A few years later, HarperCollins UK had co-published Wenzel's "The Hobbit" and were interested in "The Wizard's Tale," as well, opening up a new avenue for Busiek and Wenzel to rescue their work from the color separator. "I went to England for a convention after 'Marvels' hit, and made time to go to their offices there and try to get someone to tell the color separator to cough up the pages," Busiek said. "Dave did the same at their New York offices. And eventually, the right lawyer wrote a letter and we got the art back.
"By the point, I was in the process of moving 'Astro City' from Image to Homage Comics [an imprint of Wildstorm], so I offered them 'The Wizard's Tale,' and they liked it," the writer continued. "So we put it together for them, and while there were a lot of production headaches, the book finally came out, several months late (or over half a decade late, depending on how you count)."
Following these travails, "The Wizard's Tale" proved a success at Homage. "We sold through the hardcover and the first trade paperback edition like a shot, and went back to press on the paperback," Busiek said. "That second printing sold through more slowly, and by the time it was all sold, DC had owned Wildstorm (and thus Homage) for a while, and chose to let it go out of print rather than reprint it. So the rights returned to us again.
"We wanted to get it back into print, but we were both pretty busy, so what with one thing and another, we didn't actually get it rolling again for real until we offered it to Scott Dunbier at IDW, and Scott said, 'Sure, you bet!'"
The new IDW edition, Busiek said, will be an improved and definitive edition of "The Wizard's Tale." "There were a lot of production problems with the Homage version," the writer said of the previous printing. "The color separations are muddy, for some reason it was printed with a dot-screen so big you can see it easily, and it's on paper so thin that you can see through it to art printed on the next page. The art is all sized oddly, pages blown up or shrunk without any consistency, based on whether the production guys knew it was meant to bleed off the edge or not.
"And at the time, the general thought was that it wouldn't sell very well in comics shops if it was presented as a gently satirical fairy tale, which is really what it is," Busiek continued. "So it was packaged to try to spin it as a high-fantasy adventure, with elaborate Celtic design, and fancy lettering that some readers loved and some hated, but either way required an adjustment to get used to reading. We were glad to have it out, but it was something of a mess."
The new edition corrects these problems and errors, while also benefiting from the high production standards for which IDW is known. "The artwork's been fully color-corrected by Dave himself, so it looks as close to his originals as can be managed," Busiek said. "It's brighter, crisper, more vibrant. It's printed on excellent, heavyweight paper that'll display the art well. So right there, it's a huge improvement. Aside from that, we went with a physically larger book, because no one worries as much about fitting graphic novels into comics racks the way they used to. So it's bigger and wider, more like a children's book in shape than like a traditional comics size. It's been relettered all the way through, to make it more readable (and I took advantage of that to rescript it here and there, to fix bits that have bugged me for ten years). It's been completely redesigned, to feel more like a fairy tale than something out of 'Lord of the Rings.' And when I say redesigned, I mean redesigned all the way down to the endpapers, which are now gorgeous, and add a little bit to the story being told. And it's got a new three-page epilogue by Dave and me.
"There's even a recipe for Sunshine Cake in the back, and that's been improved too, by my sister Amy, who reworked and modernized the recipe. So better comic...better cake!
"It's a gorgeous book. It's the book I would have wanted it to be in the first place, had those options been available to us back then."
More than ten years after its original publication, Busiek said that he and Wenzel are both very proud of "The Wizard's Tale" and are happy to have it back in print. "Ever since the Homage edition went out of print, we've been hearing from readers who want it back, to buy it for their kids or for themselves, to share with readers who weren't around back when it first came out," he added.
"And the market's changed a lot, too. Back when we started, the idea of a story that was primarily a fairy tale could find an audience in the direct market was an iffy proposition at best, and it was a surprise that the book did as well as it did. Today, all ages graphic novels are more numerous, and reaching an audience with them through both comics shops and bookstore - and libraries, too - is more easily done," Busiek continued. "So we may have a better second life than we did the first time around, even.
"Plus, of course, this time we got to polish it up and do it right. There's an immense feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction in that. It's a gorgeous book, by a wonderful artist, even if there's some bozo writing it. It'll be great to have it out in an edition that shows off that wonderful art like it ought to be shown.
"I can't wait, myself."