Bill Willingham Talks About Angel & Fables

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Oct 7 2009 at 8:53am

Posted in General News,Interviews

If there’s anything has learned about our visitors, it’s that they love the Whedonverse. So when we heard that Eisner Award-winning writer Bill Willingham–who happens to write one of our favorite series, Fables–was taking over IDW’s Angel, we called him up for a little chat.

The always-entertaining Willingham took us through his journey to Angel, why he thought the TV series ended perfectly, and what’s coming up for Fabletown. Read on! Hi Bill, thanks for talking to us. What attracted you to Angel at IDW?

Bill Willingham: Well, he’s a handsome man! No, at this point in my career, it’s more about finding people I want to work with, and there are some decent blokes over there, including Mariah Huehner, who used to be Shelly Bond’s assistant when we started Fables. So I’d worked with Mariah before in the past and I found out a couple of years ago that she’d gone out to San Diego and was now at IDW, and we’d spoken about, “Someday let’s do something together again,” and with her and with IDW and with some other publishers, those “Somedays” kept piling up, to where I thought that maybe I should let my DC exclusive go for a year or so, and start to retire some of those “Someday we’ll do something” obligations that had been hanging over my head forever. And so when I got my freedom back from DC, she and Chris Ryall called up, and they said, “Why don’t you write Angel for awhile?”

Now I love some of the work that Joss Whedon had done–Buffy and Angel, and Firefly in particular–and the idea of coming to play in his sandbox for awhile, courtesy of folks I’d wanted to work with anyway, was a nice combination. Too nice a combination to pass up. Had you been a fan of the Angel TV show before you took the job?

BW: Yeah, and that was actually a conflict, because Buffy was good, and it ended well, but the Angel series ended as perfectly as any of that kind of show should end. They’ve finally finished off the big baddie, at some great sacrifice, and they meet in an alley, and they find an entire army of ghoulies that they’re going to have to deal with that they couldn’t possibly survive.

And the implication is, of course, that these guys went out fighting. Kind of a Viking-esque tone to it, in the sense of, “Let me die with a sword in my hand.” And that was it; that was the end of the series: “Okay, let’s get to work.” And I thought that was just a marvelous, marvelous way to end it. So there was a part of me that was conflicted, because after a moment like that, you can puncture it by trying to tell what happened next.

Had I been offered the Angel book right from that moment, I would have turned it down. There was just no way to tell that story in any kind of satisfying way. But someone else had done it, some time had passed, and now you kind of take it with, “Okay the characters have gotten to this point, it’s done, regardless, so why not go ahead and pick it up?” Now that Angel and company are back from Hell, the book and the team seem to be in a period of rebuilding. What’s going to happen with “The Crown Prince Syndrome”?

BW: Well, for one thing, that’s the title of just that first issue only. It’s titled “The Crown Prince Syndrome” because one of the unreasonable demands I made, in return for considering doing this, was there were certain things to stay away from. One of the things that I was determined not to do was have the character of Connor betray his dad again, because he just did it so often. Maybe we should have him finally start growing up, say, “Okay, I keep doing things, I keep dropping my dad to the bottom of the sea, or turning him over to his worst enemy, or having an affair with the demon goddess who’s trying to destroy the world just to spite my dad.”

At some point in the growing-up process, you go through a time of acting out, but eventually, you want to grow up and become a more wise and contributing member of society, or you continue to be that kind of tantrum-y fellow–in which case, you’re a psychopath who belongs in prison, or worse. I wanted to go the other way, in that he’s wised up.

The whole idea of “The Crown Prince Syndrome” is, Connor is the crown prince of Angel Enterprises. Angel is the guy, and if he were to disappear, Connor is the next guy in line. So that’s what I did. The story arc in which this takes place is called “Immortality for Dummies.” It’s all about how in the wake of this whole return from Hell thing, in which the universe was kind of reset, but everyone still has their memories: everyone knows what they did in an alternate reality. They know that their next-door neighbor turned out to be a complete s#!t who sold his own children to the devil, or all of these bad things that happened.

So, what you have is a paranoid and suspicious city. I mean, imagine, if you will, being able to look at anyone you know, and know what their deepest, darkest thoughts were–what they’re capable of. When the chips are down, here’s what their character will reveal. And everyone knows this about everyone! And so that’s an interesting place to set the story.

I think LA, with that as a premise, is much more hellish than actually being in Hell. If you’re actually in Hell, you can say, “This is really bad, but let’s band together and make the most of it, and try to get out of it.” But if you have this sort of situation, where no one has actually done anything, but you know what everyone can, or will, or under certain circumstances would have done, that’s a pretty dire setting. So that appealed to me. And Angel is famous now; everyone knows that he’s a vampire.

The “Immortality for Dummies” thing comes from the fact that this is also LA/Hollywood land: a vampire is immortal, and his looks are never going to fade. LA is full of stars and starlets that want 300-year movie careers, and so someone kidnaps Angel to have him work for them as a living immortality factory, producing vampires. Now this story has kind of been done before, but we’re doing a new twist on it, and I don’t want to give it all away, but the company that does this, Immortality Incorporated, is cognizant of that fact that if you just make a vampire out of someone, then they have no soul and they turn into a monster-demon.

One of the benefits of knowing all this stuff about Hell is they know how all of this works. So they set up a situation where they’re going to recreate the whole Angel thing and create vampires with guaranteed, bonafide souls. And there’s a lot of gobbledegook, but the upshot is, that’s why they specifically need Angel to do the turning; no other vampire would quite work. And so, they kidnap him, and they do it in such a way that the rest of Angel Investigations, the team, doesn’t know it happened. Being Angel, they assume that he just met some new girl and he’s off with her for a week or so, being all typically morose and pouty, and, “We can never be together because of this tragic person I am,” so they’re not worried.

But Connor steps up, and says, “Okay, it’s my Dad’s company, he’s away, and I’m going to run the business,” and we’re going to see how that works out. So we have to two storylines: how’s Angel going to get out of his little problem of creating a world of rich and celebrity vampires, and how is Connor going to do running the show. Are Kate, Dez, and Gwen still part of the team?

BW: I think I’ve got the whole team there. We have Gunn, we have Illyria, not Fred–that’s the other thing. You might as well let the readers know, because this is sort of burned in, that we are not having the return of Fred. Illyria the demon is in that shape, but Fred’s gone and not coming back.

But yeah, it’s Gunn, it’s Illyria, it’s Spike, it’s Dez, James–the sort of half-fallen angel–and Kate, and George, the telepathic fish. I think I’ve got them all in there. Pretty much the whole gang. We’ll have it shake out. They’ve got a lot of Angel projects going, so in the main series I wanted to keep the cast as big as possible, so when characters are leached off for various miniseries and solo adventures, it doesn’t completely gut the core cast for the regular book. Are you going to deal with the fractured relationship between Gwen and Connor?

BW: Right out of the box, no, because Gwen is off doing something else, but she will probably get folded back into the cast. But there is going to be a little thing between Angel’s son and possibly everyone else, that they realize that Connor has this problem of picking up dad’s girls.

It may just be a running joke: when Angel gets involved with someone, asking Connor, “Can you leave this one alone, son?” We’re going to have a little fun with stuff like that. If it was all just going out and fighting monsters, that would get a little bit tedious, so you have the fun and personal relationships, and hopefully in the kind of quirky, acerbic, slightly distorted worldview that the Whedonverse is so capable of doing. With Gunn back on the team, does that mean he’s redeemed? What’s his relationship going to be like with the other members?

BW: Strained. If there’s a theme behind the whole group, it’s that they’re all broken, fallen characters. And there was this lovely, funny story arc in the Drew Carey Show, where it was done as a complete comedy and farce, where Drew and his misfit friends were actually sentenced by a judge to only be friends with each other, because the rest of society is protected, because those guys are a thing unto their own. That’s almost how I look at it, in that these people only deserve each other, in the sense that they’re all broken, they’re all, in many ways, a reflection of Angel himself: trying to be a decent person with lots and lots of baggage to overcome. So yes, Gunn fits in just perfectly on that point, doesn’t he? Yes! So, is Joss himself involved in this story arc?

BW: No. I mean, I don’t speak to him at all after that incident that one time . . . What incident?

BW: I’m making it up. I assume at some point he becomes aware of this, and if I’m going too far off the beaten track, that he might mention something, but so far, it seems to be smooth sailing. What’s it like working with Brian Denham? I haven’t seen any of his artwork for Angel yet.

BW: Brian and I have known each other since our respective careers began, when we were both just wannabe hot young turks breaking into the business. I have wanted to work with him for as long as I’ve known him, and I knew him from just when he started getting work, when he was working in a comic shop, and after 20-plus years, it’s finally worked out that we get to.

He draws like a dream and he does the one thing that in a comic like this is essential: he’s drawing Angel and the various characters on model, so you can recognize the likenesses that they came from, but he doesn’t do that thing where you’re working from publicity photos, where there’s this very cartoony style, and then there’s this very well-rendered, real person’s head stuck on these bodies. That’s always a story-disengagement problem when you have it.

What he does is with a few deft lines, he gets the essence of the character, but it fits right into his style, so there aren’t these glaring instances of, “Oh, there’s David Boreanaz’s head on that body!” He’s just note-perfect at that. So I’ll call attention to that. The readers are going to find various other reasons to just love his work when they start seeing it. I’m pretty happy with how the first issues we’re doing are turning out. Moving on to Fables, that has also taken a horror bent, with the recent story arc, “The Dark Ages,” and Mister Dark. What’s going to be happening with Mister Dark?

BW: Well, Mister Dark is not a nice fellow, I think we’ve established that. Boy, I sure hope so. If not, my skills in this funnybook business need serious reconsideration. He’s going to be the villain for awhile, it’s not going to be an easy fix. Indirectly or directly, he’s caused more calamity to the Fables than The Adversary did, in the sense that The Adversary was sort of responsible for creating Fabletown, that these were all sort of individual refugees that kind of came together, and Mister Dark, just by virtue of showing up, destroyed it in an afternoon. He did in one day what it took The Adversary centuries to accomplish.

So hopefully that sets a tone that they have quite a challenge ahead of them. And also, not by design but by the virtue in how his arrival worked, he took away all of the good stuff the Fables had going for them: all the magic, all the gold, the residence–everything! So they’re left not only homeless and on the run again, but homeless and on the run with an empty wallet and no resources whatsoever. Took all their crutches away.

And the reason to do that of course is to see what these characters are made out of. Character is revealed out of adversity, etc. etc. And so Mister Dark is going to be a lot of fun in that he’s done all that to them. That said, we’re going to have all sorts of fun stuff coming up. Some stories directly involving their attempts to defeat him, and of course, before they do that, they have to understand him. And even the very act of gathering information on this character is going to be fraught with danger. Is Mister Dark actually going to go after the Fables directly, or are they going to come into conflict with him trying to retake Fabletown?

BW: Well, that’s a good question. So far, he’s after the Fables, because he’s stated pretty clearly that he’s going to punish them for having the temerity to borrow his powers to make the Witching Well and the Witching Cloak, and things like that, and even though the Fables didn’t understand what they were doing, that’s kind of no excuse. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

So he intends to do it, but it’s sort of like, there are two types of hunting: you can go tramping through the woods, stalking your prey, or you can set up a nice place where you know the prey is likely to come by some day, and wait for them to show up and take care of them that way. And he seems to be a pretty patient fellow, because right now, he seems to be content to sit in the ruins of Fabletown and let the Fables finally come back to him. We’ll see if that is a completely static situation, or if other circumstances warrant him taking a more active role. So what is the future of the Farm? They’re already cash strapped, they’re vulnerable to the real world for the first time. Are they going to be able to become a self-sustaining farm, or are they going to lose that as well?

BW: We don’t know, do we? I think part of doing this is as a writer, asking myself, “What are the worst things I can possibly do to these characters I love?” I think being a writer is like being an abusive husband, in the sense that the speech is like, “Oh honey, if you wouldn’t act that way, I wouldn’t have to hit you so much. It’s because I love you that I have to treat you this way!” Which is a terrible, terrible thing to do in real life. But as an author, to characters, I think that’s exactly the kind of personality you have to be. The ones you love most, you have to put through the cauldron most, because that’s where fun stories can be created. Well that brings me to Rose Red. Is she finally going to pull it together, or is she going to continue her downward spiral?

BW: Without saying particularly, let me say that the next arc following the “Witches” arc is called “Rose Red.” And it’s I think five issues long, I’ll have to check. Most of the arcs are either four, five, or six issues. But anyway, if all she’s going to do during these five issues is stay in bed and be depressed, it’s going to be a pretty boring arc. So with that said, maybe that situation we’ve set up will come to some sort of head. Either she’s going to sink further, or maybe find a way to rally and rise up out of it. No promises either way. What’s coming up with the “Witches” arc? In the last issue I read, Frau Totenkinder had regained her youth and stepped away to parts unknown.

BW: Yes. Pretty exciting. I love these moments when the readers are clued into that fact that we are not afraid to make some pretty dramatic changes to the status quo. The one we did with Frau Totenkinder in this latest issue is one we’ve been looking forward to for some time, Bucky, Shelly, and I.

We plan these things so far in advance, there’s always this little bit of frustration, that “Oh my goodness, we’re a year away from being able to do this wonderful thing,” and occasionally you get the joy of finally getting to those moments where you know the readers could be knocked over with a feather, like “Oh my god, what are they doing?”

And we’re at one now, so I’m not going to tell you what’s in the next issue, other than hopefully it will be pretty cool. What will happen is, we’ll get to meet some of the other characters of the 13th Floor, and I think that’s pretty fun. Some of them are going to be very interesting cast members. The other big recent revelation is that Beauty and the Beast are having a baby, which had been foreshadowed, and apparently it’s going to have many arms and legs.

BW: Unless the old witch has a more grotesque sense of humor than anyone suspects! I mean, what a great practical joke to play on someone, if indeed that’s what it turns out to be. I’ve played a few good practical jokes on my friends, but that one just takes the cake. With that said, I suspect that you’re beginning to understand that I’m not really going to comment on that on way or another. Yep! My question would be, they’ve been married for so many centuries, why now would they suddenly have a kid?

BW: That is a wonderful segue, and thank you very much for setting me up with that question. For the answer to that, for the mechanism of why pregnancies among Fables are rare, successful ones rarer still, and why you never saw, to a certain extent, too many bright and bushy-tailed kids running around, you should pick up the Peter & Max novel, because so many of the reasons behind things such as this are revealed. Peter & Max is a giant prequel, right?

BW: Well yes. A lot of it takes place in current times, but a lot of it takes place in the early history of Fabletown, and the pre-history of Fabletown, back in the Homelands, pre-invasion, in various places. So the book covers a lot of range in both time and space. I notice that the description of the novel mentions it’s going to reveal some secrets about Bo Peep. We haven’t seen much of her in the past, so I’m interested to see what that would be like.

BW: We will find out why Little Bo Peep lost her sheep, we will find out why Peter Piper picked a pickled pepper, we’ll even find out why that same Peter, because I couldn’t come up with any reason why they should be different characters, the same Peter put his wife in a pumpkin shell, and why that was, under the circumstances, the only intelligent and reasonable thing to do.

And those are all questions I used to ask as a kid. You hear those nursery rhymes, and I said, “Mom, why did he put her in a pumpkin shell?” That just seems like an odd thing to do. “Honey, we’re having marriage troubles, get inside the pumpkin and that will solve everything!”

If it works, it’s a tribute to all of the wonderful advisors I had on this project. If it turns out to not work as a story element, then it’s my fault. But yeah, we had to have good reasons for the characters to act this way–and not only intelligent reasons, but things that actually advanced the plot. And that was kind of a nice challenge.

But anyway, you’ll find out all that kind of stuff in the Peter & Max novel. You’ll find out why the Black Forest Witch, Frau Totenkinder, had a grudge against the town of Hamlin, and all kinds of things. Another project you have coming up that we’re excited about is the Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love series. What can you tell us about that?

BW: I can tell you that I just did the final approval on the first issue. This is being written with as little kvetching from me as possible by Chris Roberson, who’s a fine fellow, a terrific writer, and a good friend, and just to set the record straight, we became friends because he was so good a writer, not vice versa. It wasn’t quite nepotism in the sense of, “Well, I’ll just get my buddies to write comic books.” It’s more of a case of, we became buddies because they were such talented writers, and I just wanted to be in the company of that talent. So Chris Roberson is an accomplished novelist who has loved comics as long as he’s been aware of them, and he had this idea for a Cinderella miniseries. This interview is for horror month. What do you think about horror in general?

BW: I like it, I like being scared–I like being intelligently scared–I love great ghost stories, and terrific monster movies and things like that, in the tradition of the first version of The Haunting, the old black-and-white movie, which just scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid.

I do not like the more expansive definition of horror, which includes slasher flicks and things like that. That’s just about as boring to me as can be. As a general rule, I like stories that rise out of following the adventures of people who know how to act intelligently, and in a slasher flick, or things like that, you really need everyone always doing the stupidest possible thing at the stupidest possible moment in order for that to work, so I have a very low tolerance for that.

But scaring folks by just telling them a story that gets them worried, what an amazing skill that is! I would love to have that ability. I give a shot at it every once in a while–I think maybe the closest I’ve come is disturbing the readership every once in a while, but a really good case of the willies is the gold standard, and I don’t know if we’ve achieved that yet, but god bless those who can. Well, thanks again for talking with us!

BW: Thank you!

Make sure to pre-order Angel #28 now to catch Willingham’s debut issue, and catch up on Fables and Angel while you’re at it.

Have any burning questions for Bill Willingham that we didn’t answer? Are you looking forward to his take on Angel? Post your comments below!