I arrived late to the party appreciating Vertigo’s Fables, written by Bill Willingham. Thankfully it was not too late to get an interview with him. I wish to thank Mr. Willingham for his time and thoughts, as well as thank DC’s Adam Philips for his instrumental role in making this interview possible. Enjoy.
O’Shea: Fabletown is part of New York. When originally developing the series, did you ever consider setting it in another major metropolitan city, or is New York essential to the series’ landscape?
Willingham: Yes, I did initially consider other places in which to place Fabletown, but the reasons it had to be in New York quickly became obvious to me. In strictly practical terms the New York setting is perfect because a number of different artists need to be able to accurately draw the setting and visual reference of NYC is readily available, even for artists who don’t live there and have never been there. In addition the DC/Vertigo offices are in New York, so, in a pinch, the Vertigo editors can (and have at least once that I know of) run out and snap a quick couple of pictures of whatever’s needed to depict. It’s also near enough to where I live that I can come into the city, in order to scout locations.
But, even if the choice weren’t so practical, it had to be New York to best serve the story, because it’s the American immigrant city. It’s the place all people came to when looking to build a new life in a new world. In retrospect, how could it be any other place?
O’Shea: Folklore can be rather complicated at times. How much research (or how much knowledge) of the Grimm tales and other folklore sources is involved in establishing these tales? Are there some characters that you’d like to use, but realize they may be too obscure to include?
Willingham: I do exactly as much research as seems interesting to me. If it begins to feel too much like tedium, I stop, but that doesn’t happen too often, because Fables has become, among other things, a wonderful excuse for me to reread fairy tale and folklore tales, to my heart’s content, and still justify it as time well spent pursuing my career. What kind of wonderful job is it when I’m forced to read great old stories as part of my work day? I will often spend the time tracking down multiple versions of any given story, until I find the one I want to use. For example, it took me some time to find the version of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolf survives at the end, so I could justify my stated policy of not changing the original tales, from which my versions are spawned.
And no, I don’t consider any character from fairy tales, fables and folklore too obscure to include in the Fables comic series. The sole determining factors on whether or not something will be used are: 1) is the character or story free for use – meaning in the public domain? and, 2) do I want to use it? That’s it. No other considerations apply. I write the Fables stories so that anyone at all can enjoy them, even if they’ve never before heard of the characters, or ever read a single fairy tale. But there’s also plenty of stuff there for the reader who wants to do more work – who can occasionally be inspired to hit the books and track down the obscure references they’ve encountered in the comic.
Of course there’s other research involved, outside of reading fables and folklore. For example, in order to write the faked crime scene in the first story arc, I had to consult with a crime-scene specialist and blood-spatter expert. I love doing stuff like that – sticking my nose into the lives of interesting people and grilling them about their professions. If I haven’t made it clear yet, this is a wonderful job.
O’Shea: Correct me if I’m wrong, but by the nature of being exiles are the residents of Fabletown by nature generally unhappy folks, because of their circumstances? Will Fables ever tell any happily ever after tales, or is that inherently impossible, thanks to “The Adversary”?
Willingham: Some are and some aren’t. Fairy tales are rife with kings, princes and princesses as their major characters. And the premise of Fables is that most have them have lost their lands, fortunes and titles. Obviously, since it’s generally better to be king than not, those folks dearly miss the old life they were forced to leave behind. Then there are those who’ve taken rather well to the new mundy world. Like any community, some are happy, some aren’t, and changes in each status are always on the way.
As far as the Adversary goes, no one likes to leave an evil conqueror in power. Think of all the Cuban immigrants who’ve made great new lives for themselves in America, but still long for the day Castro is thrown out of power. I guess, no matter how good your life, longing for your home is built into the human makeup. So to some extent, there will always be a general level of unhappiness in Fabletown, as long as the Adversary continues in power. This misery would be even more acute among the animal Fables of the Farm, who are basically imprisoned there, until such time as they can safely return home. So “happily ever after” might very well be in short supply these days.
O’Shea: By setting this fairytale narrative in the modern day, was this also an intentional way for you to utilize current events to play off your characters (such as Jack venturing into online business adventures foolishly AFTER the dot-com bust)?
Willingham: Yes. This series wouldn’t have worked as a period piece. No other option was ever considered.
O’Shea: After the publication of the prose piece (A WOLF IN THE FOLD) in the FABLES TPB, do you have a desire (and do you think Vertigo would be interested) in a full-length FABLES prose novel?
Willingham: Yes, I have the desire to write a full-length, lavishly illustrated Fables prose novel – or perhaps even more than one. I have no idea if Vertigo will be interested in publishing such a thing. But, one way or another, we’ll find out – perhaps soon.
O’Shea: You’ve already had one novel published.
Willingham: Three actually, but all small ones, easy to overlook, and who’s really counting?
O’Shea: When developing story ideas, is your story development process different when trying to develop a comic book series versus a novel? In other words, do you have to come up with a story infrastructure that inherently lends itself for artistic/visual portrayal?
Willingham: Yes, it is. Some are obvious. When sitting down to write a prose story I never once have to pause and consider how the artist is going to interpret any part of the story. Also, one generally writes a novel, before trying to sell it. Therefore you don’t (or at least I never have) write a proposal first, geared towards trying in very few words to instruct some disinterested party in becoming excited about the prospect of you being allowed to tell a given story. In comics you generally have to write the proposal first, and I loathe that part. It owes more to writing clear stereo assembly instructions, than to anything creative. I’m terrible at writing series proposals, which is why I’m surprised to ever get any comic writing jobs.
Then again, writing a comic script is its own Jekyll and Hyde process. You have to simultaneously be both the creative writer and the technical writer, and be able to switch back and forth between them pretty much at will. You have to write interesting and engaging dialogue, captions and whatever other parts actually tell the story with words, but you also have to be the skilled technical writer, in the parts where you are writing clear and concise instructions to the artist on what to draw in any given panel – those parts that only the artist (and editor) will ever actually see.
Novels present their own problems, but at least one doesn’t have to switch skill sets several times per work session.
But in each case the final goal is the same – to create an interesting and engaging story that will keep the readers turning pages, and leave them not feeling cheated at the end.
O’Shea: Are there other areas about your work that you’d like to discuss that I may have not asked?
Willingham: Only to once again thank those who currently make Fables part of their monthly reading habits and to invite those who don’t to consider picking up a trial issue or three.
Interview with Joanne Mutch, creator of Rummblestrips