Jack of One Trade (Paperback): Matt Sturges On "Jack Of Fables"

Tue, December 5th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Andy Khouri, Editor

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By now you've heard of and quite probably read "Fables." The Vertigo series created by Bill Willingham has since its debut in 2003 gone on to win countless awards throughout the comics and sci/fi fantasy worlds, including the Eisner Award for Best New Series. Earlier this year, in a move that brings "Fables" ever closer to its potential as Vertigo's next "Sandman"-level franchise, "Fables" saw its first spin-off series, "Jack of Fables."

Co-written by Willingham and comics newcomer Matt Sturges, "Jack" is, in Sturges' words, an ongoing monthly series centered on the adventures of one Jack Horner, sometimes known as "Jack of the Tales," who is a troublesome, clever, arrogant, and devilishly handsome Fable. He is of course remembered by "Fables" readers as the unscrupulous thief who stole a great deal of money from Fabletown, ran away to Hollywood, became a film producer and made movies based on his mythical exploits. In Jack's last "Fables" appearance, he was found out by the Fabletown authorities and thusly banned from both Fabletown and Hollywood, left with only the clothes on his back and a suitcase full of cash.

While both titles share a common foundation, they are nevertheless quite unique experiences on their own. "Fables on crack" might be one way to characterize the style of "Jack," with its fourth-wall shattering, in-your-face first-person narration; brazen assholery; copious nudity; ultraviolence; and laugh-out-loud level comedy. Co-writer Matt Sturgers agrees that "Jack" is indeed like crack, in that "it's inexpensive, fiercely addictive and likely damaging to your health."

"Jack Of Fables'" first story arc, which concluded this month with issue #5, finds Jack exactly where "Fables" readers saw him last. Unfortunately for Jack, he's captured immediately by humans and taken to the Golden Boughs Retirement Village, where he's imprisoned along with other Fables such as Humpty Dumpty, the cowardly lion, Mother Goose, the tooth fairy, Babe the Blue Ox, and the murderous Goldilocks, long thought dead after events depicted in an early issue of "Fables." The retirement village is managed by a powerful being calling himself Mr. Revise who keeps Fables in captivity as part of a plan to rid the world of magic. Aiding Revise is another curious being known as the Pathetic Fallacy – although he prefers to be called Gary – whose powers can bring inanimate objects to life.

The introduction of characters into the "Fables" universe who embody literacy concepts is something that's been incredibly jarring for fans of both series, but in a very exhilarating way. With characters like Mr. Revise and the Pathetic Fallacy, the sky's the limit now in terms of what Willingham and Sturges can do with this universe. In a conversation with CBR News, Matt Sturgers explained, "When we created 'Jack,' one thing we wanted to see was that there's a big wild world outside of Fabletown and there were more things in heaven and Earth than might have been previously suspected. The Pathetic Fallacy is a bit of a special case in that his name describes not only what he does, but who he is; he's essentially the personification of personification. His origin is a bit of a mystery, and one that we won't discover for a while yet. As for Revise, well, he's even more of a wildcard – is he a Fable? Is Revise even his real name? These questions will eventually be answered, but I can't say much more without giving something away."

Despite the sometimes-intense hilarity/sex/violence going on in "Jack," the book's storytelling style remains quite matter-of-fact, with the sensational elements being presented wholly without melodrama. In a recent issue, during an escape attempt, Jack falls onto a pointed fence, impaling himself in the most painful way imaginable. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction" in its approach to gruesome violence, in that the event was simultaneously shocking in its realism yet hilarious in its depiction. Sturges credits this difference in style between "Fables" and "Jack" to the fact that he is simply a different writer than Willingham, and brings his own peculiarities and sensibilities to the plot and dialogue.

"And Tony Akins is really the perfect penciller for 'Jack,'" Sturges added. "Tony knows how to make a character's eyes bug out of his head in surprise without making it look cartoony, something I never would have suspected was possible. That ability is essential, I think, to making the book work."

As a hero, Jack himself might appear problematic to some. He is, quite plainly, an unmitigated asshole. Interestingly, this only makes "Jack Of Fables" even more fun to read. Sturges explained, "I think that we as readers tend to like certain types of people in stories that we wouldn't necessary want to encounter in real life. Jack is certainly one of those." And much more, Sturges added. "Jack can also be quite charming when he needs to be, and he has a sense of honor that makes him almost moral at times. But at the end of the day, he's still Jack and that can't ever change. He'll never have an awakening and realize the true meaning of Christmas or anything like that. He's been alive for many centuries, and his outlook on himself and his relationship with the world isn't likely to change. For 'Jack,' we adopted the 'no hugging, no learning' policy that the writers of 'Seinfeld' used. The style of the book tends to follow suit.

"Bill [Willingham]has a great ear for comedy, and if I can make him laugh, then I know that I've got something," continued Sturges. "If I have any philosophy about funny, it's this: in order for something to be funny, it needs to spring naturally from the story it exists in. If you try to force it, you're guaranteeing crickets. Which isn't to say that we won't go a long way for a joke – there's a setup in issue one whose punch line doesn't come until issue five – but the joke has to come from the story, not the other way around.

"Of course, some things are always funny. A hamster driving a little car is always funny. Watching someone who is watching someone get badly hurt is always funny. The look on Old Sam's face when Jack gets impaled on the fence is, to me, what makes that scene work. But this is all in retrospect; at the time it just seemed like a good idea.

"Oh, and timing is everything."

"Fables" and "Jack" are unique among Vertigo comics in many ways. There's obviously a postmodernist statement to be made about both series, yet the books themselves don't seem to be as concerned with that or any other kind of overreaching theme or message like other classic Vertigo titles such as "The Sandman and "Preacher," or even "Fables'" "rival" book, "Y: The Last Man." Are "Jack" and "Fables" just having a bit of fun but in an extremely clever way, or are they being extremely clever in a very fun way? Does it matter?

"It's one thing to read and think and talk about things like symbolism and metaphor and theme, but when I get down to the actual business of writing, I try to put things like that out of my mind. When I'm writing a script, the only thing I care about is getting it right , which is purely aesthetic and can't really be pinned down. And when I'm done writing it, I look back over it to see if there's some point to it all, and if there's some way I can tease that out a little bit and give a sense of thematic coherence. But at the end of the day, I'm mainly interested in questions like whether it's funny, whether it has some gaping plot hole that I didn't notice before, and whether I'd honestly expect someone to pay $2.99 for the end result. At this point in my career, I'll happily settle for that."

On the official Fabletown Forums, Sturges and Willingham have been having an ongoing conversation about the art of writing comics. Sturges in particular has been very open to giving fans advice and anecdotes about getting into the comics business and how to write good scripts.

"One important lesson – which is actually a collection of many smaller lessons – is that writing comics is different than writing anything else. When I started writing 'Jack' I believed I knew what I was doing because a) I had read a bunch of comics and b) I'd written a novel and a bunch of short stories. And while both of those things helped, I quickly realized that I had (and continue to have) a lot to learn. The medium of comics is similar to other media; it's tempting to say that it's a combination of prose and filmmaking, for instance. But that comparison leaves out a lot that you don't really appreciate until you start trying to make them yourself. I've been very lucky in that I have an Eisner-winning writer going over each of my scripts and giving me copious notes about what I did right and what I did wrong. So that helps, although it can be a bit intimidating at times.

"As far as breaking into the business, I'll tell you exactly how it works. The very first thing is to compose a letter of intent, written in blood, to the company you'd like to work for (if cloning is a fear, it doesn't have to be your blood – I've found that they don't check). What follows is a lengthy and closely monitored process of virgin sacrifice, carefully administered beatings, feats of strength and endurance, and lastly a peyote-inspired vision quest in the Arizona desert. If you survive all that, and you're able to meet deadlines, then they might let you work on a book. Otherwise your corpse is encased in concrete, stamped with a gold-foil seal, and dropped off the Brooklyn Bridge."

Pages 3 and 4 from "Jack Of Fables" #6, shipping in December.

Sturges informed CBR News that he has one new project in the pipeline that he very much hopes goes through. "It's for Vertigo, it's really cool, and I wish I could tell you all about it. But if and when it happens, you'll be the first to know. Well, the second to know, anyway. Hopefully they'll tell me first."

As for "Jack Fables," the future is very exciting. The new issue ships this month from DC/Vertigo, and a trade paperback of the first arc, "The (Nearly Great) Escape" will hit bookstores in February. The book is reviewed positively by everyone who's read it, and such strong first issues are often a sign of even greater and, in this case, funnier things to come. There are exceptions, though. Could it be that one day this funny and fascinating series will not remain a comedy and go all "Cerebus" on us down the road?

"If you're asking whether Jack will ever become the Pope or fly through space, then the answer is probably no," Sturges assured us. "Although PunisherGoldilocks could be fun. What I can tell you is that many of the characters we're meeting now will turn up again, that Jack will spend some time in Las Vegas and meet his one true love, and . . . well, I've said too much already. Maybe he will become the Pope someday. Maybe he'll be roasted alive and fed to pit vipers. It's an ongoing series; you can't plan out every little detail."

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