An Interview with Bill Willingham

Bill Willingham is the author of the award-winning Vertigo comic series Fables, as well as coauthor of the spinoff series Jack of Fables and writer of related prose work such as the novel Peter & Max. He also has an upcoming middle-grade book from Tor in September called Down the Mysterly River.

The Fables Re-Read on has been going for a few months now, and we’re glad to have a chance to talk with Mr. Willingham about both the Fables comic and his forthcoming book. Below the cut are some exclusive details about upcoming events in the Fables storyline, a little argument about representation and women characters, and the stories behind some of the most engaging characters in the comic—plus plenty more.

Brit Mandelo: Hello, and thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

Bill Willingham: You’re entirely welcome.

Brit Mandelo: One of the most interesting bits of the Fables world for me is that you treat each character’s backstory as accretive—they’re all the same wolf, or all the same Prince Charming. How did that idea come about?

Bill Willingham: It came about as naturally and honestly as anything does in the writing business. When I was young I assumed the Big Bad Wolf in the Red Riding Hood story was the same Big Bad Wolf in the Three Little Pigs story. Why wouldn’t he be? After all the Spiderman who occasionally showed up in the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil, was the same Spiderman who showed up in his own book, so I naturally assumed such crossovers were the norm, long before I actually knew the term ‘crossover’. Later on, as a more advanced reader, the idea was reinforced when Robin Hood showed up for a guest appearance in Ivanhoe. The truth is, it took me time to learn that the norm was that similar characters in different works weren’t supposed to be the same character. I’m still not sure I believe that.

Then again, combined characters in Fables isn’t a hard and fast rule. I use that ploy when it works for me and feel no remorse dropping it when it doesn’t suit my needs. That’s why Jack can be Jack Horner, Jack of the Beanstalk, Jack in the Green, and Jack the Giant Killer, but absolutely not Jack Spratt. I needed Spratt to be his own fellow and so he was, by absolute writer’s fiat.

Brit Mandelo: Coming back to Prince Charming—in the Re-Read we’re doing here I keep coming back to his character as he grows into this complex and layered guy, whereas in the first volume he’s a feckless cheating loser almost on par with Jack. Had you intended from the beginning to have Prince Charming develop so much, or was it more “by accident?”

Bill Willingham: The hidden depths of Prince Charming were designed in from the beginning, compared to the hidden depths of Boy Blue, for example. Blue started out as nearly a cipher, whose only purpose was to give Snow White someone to talk to while at work in the Business Office. In Charming’s case, yes, at first he appeared as a simple rogue and womanizer, but only in the sense that that is the first thing one would notice about him. That’s the part of him that’s out there for all to see. The other qualities were the ones you had to get to know him better before they were revealed. Just as in real life, no one knows anyone fully at the beginning. Every person is a voyage of discovery, so I think every fully realized character should be the same. The depths of Boy Blue came about closer to the “by accident” method you mentioned, first because it turned out Snow didn’t need to have a lot of conversations with him in the Business Office, as the story seemed to go in different directions, and I began to get curious to find an in-story reason for why he would only play the blues. Of course he would only play the blues because it works better thematically for a character named Boy Blue. But why in his personal backstory is that the case? Eventually I started finding that out.

Brit Mandelo: Which leads me to another question: how far ahead do you generally plot the story? Do you see “The End” down the road, or do you see Fables continuing for years to come?

Bill Willingham: My preference would be for Fables to continue for years and years. In just one example, Hal Foster did Prince Valiant for 34 years, if my memory is correct, and it never got stale under his pen. So I see no reason not to try to make Fables a lifelong undertaking as well. But, let’s be clear, Fables stories already do come to an end all the time. We’ve seen many of the Fables stories end. It’s really the fictional setting that continues, and will continue, as long as we think there are new stories worth doing there.

With much help and advice from Mark Buckingham, I am now plotting Fables, in a general way, at least two to three years out. In the hard, specific, locked-in, “we can’t change this now” way, it’s plotted a bit more than one year out.

Brit Mandelo: During the war arcs you introduce the Arabian fables, and while the introduction of people of color to the storyline was great, I had some issues with their representation. How would you answer the critique that the Arabian characters are sometimes shown as being inferior to the Western fables, intellectually and otherwise?

Bill Willingham: My first answer is that I don’t accept the premise of the question. Like any characters, just like real people, the Arabian Fables aren’t any one thing as a group. They are individual characters. Anytime two or more characters come together, regardless of color, some are more intelligent than others, some wiser than others, some more virtuous and more villainous than others, and so on. No collective group in Fables has ever been shown to all be anything.

Brit Mandelo: (For example, the bit where Sinbad didn’t realize slavery was wrong until the Western fables told him so in “Arabian Nights (And Days),” or Snow giving Scheherazade the story-telling idea in 1001 Nights of Snowfall.)

Bill Willingham: There is no scene in Fables where Sinbad suddenly realizes slavery is wrong. I can’t imagine anyone conducting slavery not knowing it’s wrong. There is however a scene where he finds out that he’s not going to get away with slavery in a given situation, and then admires the fellow who out maneuvered him in that instance, as a chess player can both admire his opponent and still try to win the game. I believe chess was even used as a visual metaphor in that scene. I often admire an able opponent over an insipid ally, which is what that scene was all about. If that isn’t a universal human quality, then at least it’s a very common one. In my mind that scene shows Sinbad as an able character with an agile mind.

As far as the scene between Snow and Scheherazade, I don’t see every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor. If others do, I suspect that might be something they’re bringing to the author/reader collaboration, rather than something I contributed. If art, including storytelling, has any purpose at all, it isn’t to tell your audience what to do, but to show your audience who they are–revelatory, rather than instructional.

Brit Mandelo: Do you plan on including further “fable trees,” so to speak, such as African or Chinese fables? What sorts of research do you plan on doing if so?

Bill Willingham: It’s entirely possible some African and Chinese fairytale and folklore characters will show up in the pages of Fables. Maybe even soon. That’s as much as I’m willing to say, without spoilers. In such cases my research methods will no doubt mirror what I currently do, which is to read lots of fairytales, fables, nursery rhymes, folksongs and folklore, and then cherry pick what I want to use, based entirely on how interesting the source material is to me. It’s a perfect research method, since it never feels like work and generally keeps me happy.

Brit Mandelo: Starting with “The Dark Ages,” the comic goes into the unintended consequences of winning the war with the Empire. There are also things like Prince Charming taking King Cole’s job and his later realizations about the consequences of his decision. I’m tempted to say that “everything has consequences” is a theme of Fables—what do you think?

Bill Willingham: A wiser man than me once said, and I’m heavily paraphrasing here (because I’m too lazy to look it up just now), that a writer should worry only about writing good, entertaining stories, and let those who come after, the readers and academics and critics and such, worry about themes. That said, I do seem to like telling stories about the consequences of our actions. I suspect it can be said that’s what every story is about, at least on some level.

There’s a high school history teacher I admire now that I used to hate at the time, because he made us really work. His name was Mr. Bristol (to this day I think his first name really was Mister), and he once taught us a universal formula for problem solving: Step One: Identify the problem. Step Two: Construct a solution. Step Three: Identify the new problems created by the proposed solution. Step Four: Repeat the first three steps until you devise a solution that is better than the problems it causes. I think most of the difficulties in war and politics, and most everything else, is that few consider those all-important third and fourth steps. I suspect a majority of my stories focus, sooner or later, on what happens when one forgets to consider those steps.

Brit Mandelo: Can you tell us anything about what’s coming soon for the Fables crew, where you’re planning to take the story next?

Bill Willingham: Yes, a forum like this deserves at least one bit of exclusive news. Issues 108 through 111 involve, among other things, the first results of that enigmatic prophesy about the Cubs—the one-page Fables story (that was a give-away to readers at the San Diego show) that revealed the future of the seven Wolf Cubs: specifically the line that says, “The first child will be a king.” We find out which child that line applies to. After that we finally visit our version of Toyland in a story arc called Cubs in Toyland, and boy is that not a nice place.

Brit Mandelo: As for some of the things that have grown from your work on the Fables comic, like Peter & Max, how does writing in prose compare for you with writing in script-form? Do you prefer one over the other?

Bill Willingham: I don’t think I prefer one over the other, but I have to confess I was surprised to discover how different they are. Comics writing and prose writing should really be considered two separate and distinct species of critter. That said, I’m enjoying the challenges of prose writing that are no longer there in comics writing. Of course crafting a good story will always be challenging in any medium, but after more than twenty years writing funnybooks, there are no more technical secrets to learn about the raw mechanics of how it’s done. Prose still holds many of those lovely pitfalls for me.

Brit Mandelo: Speaking of prose work, you have a book being re-released by Tor soon, Down the Mysterly River. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Bill Willingham: Sure. Ten years ago I wrote a novel, since I had plenty of time to do such a thing. This was pre-Fables, at a null time in my career when no one was exactly tearing up the phone lines trying to get me to write for their company, or attend their convention. So I had scads of time to write the talking animal story I long wanted to attempt. And then I self-published it (through the writing group I belonged to called Clockwork Storybook) with no marketing plan or budget, and it sold maybe a hundred copies. Then Fables came along and I was busy for ten years or so. The novel, Down the Mysterly River, was consigned to one of the storage boxes of my mind and that (I thought) was that. But my agent insisted it was worth dusting off and shopping around for real publication and I let him do it, not expecting anything. He placed it with Tor and I was blessed, or cursed (Hi, Susan), with a truly remarkable editor who immediately identified and targeted each and every flaw in the story. I wanted to rewrite the thing before it saw light again. She forced me to do a detailed and effective rewrite, to the point where I’d almost have to say it’s a brand new novel, loosely based on the previous book by the same title.

Brit Mandelo: Was writing a middle-grade book a different experience for you, compared to comics or adult novels?

Bill Willingham: I’m not sure. I didn’t set out to write a novel for any particular age group. I just wrote the talking animal story I wanted to write. Later on, agents, publishers and editors revealed that it was clearly a middle readers book. Who knew?

Brit Mandelo: One critique I have of the book is that the only women who play roles in the story are members of the Blue Cutters—there are plenty of villainous, scary women, but no positive ones at all. In Fables, you do pay attention to giving women greater roles for the most part, like Snow White. Was this a development for you as an author, as Down the Mysterly River originally predates Fables?

Bill Willingham: No, the number of women versus men in any given story never figure into the calculus. One of the other tasks I set for myself with Down the Mysterly River, in addition to doing the talking animal story, was to do a story in which the Boy Scouts are portrayed in a positive light, no doubt because they’ve been getting too much unfair press lately. Since the story only had room for one human protagonist (to join the three animal protagonists), and since almost all Boy Scouts are male, a female character was never considered for the part. So, yes, that results in the only women in this story being villains, including Lady Slider, who I think makes a truly excellent villain. But at least they aren’t complete caricatures. I trust my admiration for many of the qualities of Lady Diana (for instance) showed through.

For those who do need to count male versus female characters in any given tale, you’ll be pleased to note that the main protagonist in Mysterly’s sequel, if one is warranted, is already cast as a female, because, once again, she was the exact character the role required.

But I’ve never in my life counted the number of male versus female characters in a story. Looking for some sort of optimum balance of gender, race (or any other defined group) in a given story is a chimera if there ever was one. Should I ever catch myself doing such a thing, I’ll know I’ve ceased to be a writer and entered politics, at which point it’s retirement for me (preferably somewhere remote, with only an hour of phone, computer and TV service a day, and finally, at long last, time to attend to that massive pile of books from other writers stacked up next to my gently-swaying hammock).

Brit Mandelo: The universe in Down the Mysterly River seems to have been a seeding ground for many of the things that show up later in Fables. Are these concepts that have always been interesting to you?

Bill Willingham: When I talk about the origin of Fables as a series, I refer to how much those elements were seeping into every other bit of work I was doing. Mysterly River is a good example of that. Fables didn’t come to me in a rush of inspiration so much as it seemed to be something I’d been circling for years, and gradually closing in on.

Brit Mandelo: I also have to ask—since you write so many metafictional stories, are you a fan of the postmodernist movement? Any influences, there?

Bill Willingham: I had a friend explain post modernism to me once (Hi, Caroline), and I was able to hold it in my head for maybe all of ten minutes before it melted down into the indecipherable gobbelty-gook such things seem to be made of. If you held a gun to my head right now and asked me to define it, you’d be pulling the trigger for certain. Hey, I’m just a simple small-town shoemaker, Ma’am. If there’s any postmodernism getting into the product, it must be down to those damned magic elves who work the nightshift.

Brit Mandelo: Do you have any other projects on the horizon—new prose work or comics, or both?

Bill Willingham: Yes, in prose I think I might have fallen prey to the multi-volume epic syndrome—maybe even the dreaded trilogy. I’m still resisting—still trying to keep it in a single volume, but it isn’t fighting fair. It’s not Fables related and not the Mysterly sequel. But it’s in the same general sandbox of the kinds of things I seem to be interested in. I call it the Zelazny genre (since he pretty much created his own, otherwise unclassifiable genre) of practical heroes in a miraculous setting.

Brit Mandelo: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, and I hope Down the Mysterly River finds plenty of fans.

Bill Willingham: And readers. Thank you.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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