Bill Willingham, the writer of the Vertigo series "Fables," is a man who knows how to tell a good story, a skill he had plenty of opportunity to exhibit during his Spotlight panel at the 2011 Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo. John Cunningham, vice president of marketing for Vertigo parent company DC Comics, kicked off the panel by acknowledging that Fables panels in the past have tended to be "raucous." When asked to interview Willingham, Cunningham told the crowd, he decided to take a different approach: "I would really love to take more of an 'Inside the Actors Studio' approach and discuss Bill's craft, rather than engage in cheap showman theatrics," although he quickly added, "Don't worry, some of that will go on today."
In that spirit, Cunningham guided Willingham through a series of questions about his life and his inspirations, starting with his early childhood in U.S. Army housing in Germany, when his five sisters would read him comics and other books. "Comics were ubiquitous," Willingham said, "but there was no value in collecting them, just in reading the stories. There was no comics collection, there was just this eternal Brownian motion of anyone who had comics would look at their stack and say, 'OK, I have read all these,' put them in their wagon and go up and down the housing area and just trade with anyone."
Upon returning to the States, the writer's mother introduced him rather abruptly to the pleasures of prose fiction when he was home sick one day. Willingham explained his mother had a standing deal with her children: "'If you can be sick without my noticing, just stay in bed and don't make a pest of yourself. At some point today when I run the errands, I will pick up a stack of comics for you,'" he said. "That was such a deal that I faked sickness many times just because, in my little time sense I thought -- there might be new [comics] on the stands."
One day, his mother broke the deal and brought home a prose book, "The Return of Tarzan," by Edgar Rice Burroughs, instead of comics. "I thought this was the biggest betrayal any woman has ever done to any man," Willingham recalled, but when his arguments didn't work ("Her lawyers were better than mine"), he finally gave up and read it. "It was wonderful. I was a little upset I couldn't stay sick the next day just so I could finish the book."
Willingham's first foray into writing fiction came in junior high school, when he got bored with an assignment to keep a diary for his Language Arts class and started improvising. "My friend Bruce Gibbon had told me about this story he read in the library that I couldn't find because it was always checked out," he said, "It was something about a kid finding out that his father is a pod person, and so, just having heard the secondary version of that from Bruce Gibbon, I wrote that into [my journal]: 'And today I found this pod in my garage and now I understand why my father has been acting weird, that he is actually a pod person and has replaced my real father and I am going to find out where the real father was buried so I can expose the pod person.'" One of his teachers was aghast, but the other one encouraged him to continue, so Willingham kept adding to the story. "I'm just writing this journal, just making stuff up, and I'm realizing the more bizarre stuff I make up, the more praise I'm getting for this."
Linking his childhood expriences directly to his current professional career, Willingham told the audience he didn't have a single moment of inspiration for "Fables," but a key revelation came when he saw "Fractured Fairy Tales," a cartoon that was part of the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" television show. "I grew up assuming someone was in charge of everything," he said, "that there was authority for 'This is the official version of this story,' and you cannot tell it any other way or the story police would come to your house and drag you away. I was amazed they could get away with changing the stories like this." His mother explained that folk tales belong to everyone, therefore, anyone can tinker with them. "That just blew my mind," Willingham said, "That probably locked away the idea that, well, someday I can grow up and just tell them any way I wanted to. That stuck with me."
Another revelation came when his brother told him that Thor was not just a Marvel Comics hero but was a character from mythology. "My brother swore it was in the encyclopedia," Willingham said. "To prove him wrong, I went and got the encyclopedia and looked up Thor, and he was right there. That was another area of revelation, [that] other people are doing exactly that, taking stuff that's free material and making their version of it." He also realized that creators can change a character and when they do, that character becomes theirs.
Upon launching his career in comics, Willingham found, "fairy tale and folklore stuff started just entering into my books, even 'The Elementals,' which should have been strict superhero. I kept having folklore characters show up, and it increased rather than decreased as I did other things." After working on a string of comics that were critically acclaimed but didn't sell well, finally Willingham took the advice he had been handing out to others at cons: "Comics is hard -- don't waste time on anything but stories you are just dying to tell."
In creating "Fables," Willingham told the audience there were some characters who were "locked in" to the story and others that surprised him along the way. "Boy Blue, for example, was put in specifically so that Snow White would have someone to talk to in the business office so that she doesn't talk to herself," Willingham said, having deliberately chosen a character who didn't have much of an existing story. With Flycatcher, he was not that intrigued by the idea of the frog prince except for one thing: "Wouldn't it be funny if he still had a taste for flies? It's a one-joke premise," he said. On the other hand, all he knew about Frau Totenkinder, at first, was that she would be the archetypal witch. "She would be unassuming and kind of grumpy, and you would never want to get on her bad side," he said. "Just the idea of a frail old lady being the toughest thing in town appealed to me."
To make it into "Fables," a character must both be in the public domain and be someone Willingham wants to work with. The final criterion is simple: "Don't use any character where you are denying the original story. For example, the Big Bad Wolf really was a big bad wolf who did all those terrible things. I am not going to go back and say they didn't happen. Everything that was said in the stories did happen to him, but now, how can I take that and move it over here where I want it? It has to be reasonable: Can I come up with a reason he would reform, for example? For [Bigby], it was that he met the woman he liked. She was a reformer so he had to reform in order to appeal to her, which I think is a powerful thing."
Looking back at the first 100 issues of "Fables," Willingham said he regretted making Shere Khan a villain. The problem with villains, he said, is he has to get rid of them or the hero seems ineffective. "If I had a character like the Joker, and 80-odd years into the story the Joker is still coming back and killing Cub Scouts and stuff like that, that would mean the story of Batman is really the story about the most ineffective human being in history."
As for Shere Khan, he said, "I wanted Snow to be able to do something extraordinary in the second arc to show what she was really made of, so she had to basically overcome a tiger that was coming to eat her, all on her own. I think that really works. I don't think I would want to take that back, but somehow I wish he hadn't died so early on, that perhaps I would have chosen some other tough, sacrificial character to show off Snow's mettle."
Asked how he keeps Fables fresh after 100 issues, Willingham replied, "'Fables' is not one series about these characters, it is an ensemble piece. You can recast it anytime and tell more stories. People also ask, because Vertigo comics tend to come to a specific ending, will 'Fables' ever end? My answer is, 'Fables' ends all the time. There are very specific stories that come to very specific endings, but now, here is another story that takes place in the same world. 'Fables' begins and ends all the time, and I think as long as we can keep doing that, we will keep doing that."