An Interview with Bill Willingham
A few days ago I had the amazing opportunity to meet and interview Bill Willingham, creator of the very popular Vertigo series Fables at the Boston Comic Con. For those of you not in the know, Fables is a book that stars our most beloved characters from fairy tales and folklore as they make their way through our world, often referred to as The Mundy. These characters were forced out of the homelands by the Adversary, and have created a new life for themselves in ways that you’d never imagine! Bill has given us Fables for more than 10 years with 131 issues of the regular series published, and multiple spin offs and graphic novels. Bill gave me about a half an hour of his time and was happy to chat it up with this Evil Geek…
1) You’ve been with Vertigo for over 15 years now, what was it about the brand that originally attracted you to bring your story to them?
Vertigo actually came looking for me. Shelly Bond (who worked as the Editor for “The Elementals,” and who is currently Executive Editor of Vertigo) reached out to me about working for the label. I didn’t know if I had Vertigo stories in me, but Shelly insisted that I submit something to her.
2) Where did the idea of Fables come from to begin with?
It’s been building up a long time. I’ve been interested in fables, fairy tales, and folk tales since childhood and those types of characters kept showing up in everything that I was doing. Since this is obviously what I was interested in, I decided to start formally writing about these types of characters. Fractured Fairy Tales inspired me and the idea really percolated over time.
3) When you started the series, did you envision it to have an ending? Or was it always very open ended?
The answer is both in that I’m going to try to have my cake and eat it too. Yes there is an endgame because stories will come to an end (matter of fact a lot of Fables stories have come to a definite end with certain characters,) but the setting of Fables can continue on. There are wonderful stories that happen in this world of ours, but just because one person’s story comes to an end we don’t just stop the world, because there are millions and millions of stories out there. So ultimately, I consider Fables the series as a setting, a place where various stories can happen. And yes, some stories in that setting come to an end all the time. In fact, there are some characters that I wont say we’ll never see again, but whose stories are told.
4) You’ve done Jack, Cinderella, and now Fairest…are there any other spinoffs that you have in mind?
No, there aren’t any formal spinoffs like new series on the rise, but Fairest is the catch-all title for many of these characters. There is a Fairest original Graphic Novel coming out in November that tells one big story in the sense that there is a big mystery, but it’s done is little bunches by different artists. It’s self-contained and will feature many different Fables characters in it(as many as we could fit in!) Also, in October we’ll release the Fables Encyclopedia by Jess Nevins (noted scholar of obscure stuff) with myself and Mark Buckingham chiming in with color commentary.
5) We’ve seen some big deaths in your series, what do you think about death on comics. Is it a revolving door?
My take on death in comics is that especially in the Marvel and DC Universes, you go in knowing that death in comics is only as good as what you’re willing to invest in the story. For example, I have no idea if they ever brough Gwen Stacy back in Spiderman. At the time I was a big Spider-Man fan and they introduced Gwen Stacy in the book, she had her tragic death and I decided that the story was over. It was one of these tragic tales where he is born in tragedy and the story ends in some other kind of tragedy, what a poignant and wonderful tale. And I see him, I know that Spider-Man is still around, but in my mind that is the story and I can make that decision as a reader.
The corporation doesn’t get to make those decisions because when your a big publicly owned company you cannot legally divest yourself of assets willy nilly and these characters are invaluable assets, so of course they’re going to keep coming back and coming back. It goes back to Stan Lee’s old adage of “Not change, but the Illusion of change.” You make something happen, and then in a little while bring it back, and then bring it back again. In the old days they figured that the readership was a revolving door with new customers turning over every four years or so and it was easy to do, but now with life-long fans they tend to notice that illusion. In Fables, I don’t have any investors to answer to, there are no stockholders. I have the option of making the story preeminent to decide what will be permanent and maybe what wont be. It’s completely a decision based on what the story needs, rather than just needing to bring characters back.
6) Are there any characters or locations that you haven’t done yet that you’re just dying to use? Who is your favorite character to work with?
The limitations of who can be Fables really has to do with the public domain. New stories and characters are making their way into the public domain every year, for example, some Tarzan stories are now there while some others are still not quite in the public domain yet, but they’re moving in all the time. I could probably get away with making Tarzan a Fable, although I don’t think that he quite fits in, but I grew up reading Tarzan, and would love to do something with that character some day. I would love to bring in the entire cast of the Narnia books into Fables, but I can’t. I give a little wink at them every once and a while, but we live with our frustrations and the joy of the fact that they do exist in their own books mitigates the fact that I can’t grab them for my books.
My favorites vary. Flycatcher during the Good Prince, Boy Blue in his arcs. We opened with Snow White and Rose Red at odds with one another, then we brought them together like true sisters, but now we’re going to throw a monkey wrench in there and put them on different sides of an important issue with each other, and right now that’s pretty fun. Just before coming to Boston Comic Con, I just wrote the best Snow White scene that I think I’ve ever done and it was just a wonderful moment. So right now she is my favorite. But I try to get into the head of whoever is in the spotlight. Even if you’re doing evil things to the characters, you’ve really got to love them.
7) You’ve handed off Fairest to other creative teams, would you ever do that with the main series? Or is that your baby?
I would never say never. One of the reasons that I love Fairest is that when I’m working on Fables I work with Mark Buckingham, or if he’s unavailable for an issue I work with the crème de la crème of comics artists. The problem is that that is only half of the people in comics that you have to work with, it cuts out all the writers out there. The idea of Fairest is that I get to work with my favorite writers in the business as well. I wouldn’t absolutely say that they core series couldn’t be touched by other hands, but my plans for what’s coming up are two or three years ahead, so really it would take a lot of luck finding that space. It’s not an absolute, but I do feel pretty territorial though.
Sidebar: Bill was signing books during the interview when a young lady came up to him and asked why he took Boy Blue away from her, and let him know how much she cried when he died. Bill answered that it was because he thought it made a really good story, and it did! But then he dropped this bomb… He told her that if you do love Boy Blue, make sure that you pick up issue 134 as soon as it comes out because in his words, “There’s a thing!”
8) You wrote some great DC stuff (I loved Shadowpact and Day of Vengeance was one of my favorites of the Infinite Crisis storyline!) Any chance you’ll go back to write in the New 52?
I don’t know. I’m torn because writing characters that other people own is a heartbreaker because I don’t hold back to good stories for the stuff that I own. So it is heartbreaking to know that anything that you write can be written out of existence by the next guy to come along, and that inevitably happens. You can be philosophical about it and say that my Robin story starts here and ends there, and although there are tons of other Robin stories out there, this particular one is mine. With that said, of course I could go and tell a story with other folks characters if there is just a character and a story that I am dying to tell.
9) The world of Fables in branching out; Can you tell us anything about the video game from Telltale? How about the rumors of the movie? Can you give us any info?
In regards to the movie, the producers from the Harry Potter films are interested and have taken a liking to Fables, so this may happen. But with any movie project there are a million ways to stop it, but so far it looks pretty good. My main involvement with the game is to be the troubleshooter. Telltale had an idea for the game, which we discussed and I thought was great. So they told me that my job would to get the increments of the game as it’s created to make sure that everyone is in character. The problem is that they are all such good writers there and apparently so well read in Fables that I really don’t have a lot to do, because there aren’t many corrections to make. In fact sometimes I look at it and say, “Gosh, I wish I’d have thought of that!” Ultimately I’m involved in a consulting manner and it’s going to be a wonderful story and my gamer friends say that it’s going to be a wonderful game from a mechanics perspective, and I’m really looking forward to it. The folks at Telltale games are wonderful, and they got the story so right that what happens in the game is canon to the books. It’s just terrific!
10) I’m from upstate NY. Was there anywhere particular that you scouted out for The Farm? Or is it just comics “Upstate?”
It is comic book upstate in that I don’t want to pin it down anywhere specific. I’m confident to say that Fabletown is on the upper west side, because you can sneak a couple blocks in there somewhere. But the Farm is so huge that it’s just there somewhere. With that said, when I was living in Vermont and would travel to New York there were certain areas that I would pass north of Albany, but before Vermont that inspired me, but I’ll never pin it down because that would be telling too much. However in Werewolves in the Heartland we did set it in the town of Story City, so for better or worse those folks get to say this is where all those werewolf attacks happened. 🙂
11) Lastly, how awesome is it to know that the wonderful work that you’ve done has started it’s own con with Fablescon?
It felt pretty good, and It was an eye opening experience. I thought that Fablescon was wonderful. It was designed to be a really small convention, but I had no idea before then how much work it takes to put on any convention. I will never complain about small things going wrong at conventions again, because although things look like they’re running smoothy right now, behind the scenes there are crises happening and fires being put out. It was an amazing amount of work. I’m glad that I did it because I can say here is my idea of what a perfect convention can be. But my hat is off to people who do this year after year, because it was just a lot of work.
I’d like to say that I’ve been a fan of Fables since I picked up the first issue in my college comic shop about ten years ago and have followed the series religiously, and have always enjoyed Bill’s work in the DCU proper. It was great to meet you Bill, and I really appreciated how gracious and honest you were during the interview. On the way to the con I just kept saying in my head, “Don’t geek out, don’t geek out…be professional…” and you were just great to speak with. I’d also like to note how impressed that I was with Bill, taking the time to talk with everyone who came up to him, chatting it up and making them feel comfortable, all the while raising funds for The Hero Initiative. I’ve had some lackluster experiences meeting my heroes in the past and it was just really great to see one of my heroes acting like, you know, a hero… Thank You Bill, you’re a real class act!
If you’re not reading Fables, what are you waiting for? Pick up some issues from your local comic show or check them out on Vertigo’s site and grab a couple of trade paperbacks. You wont be disappointed!
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