Since its debut in 2002, Fables has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans — as well as 14 (and counting!) Eisner Awards. Created by writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham, Fables asked the question, what if our classic fairytale characters were real — and lived in New York? Since then, Fables has become darker, richer, and more engrossing, bringing readers to colorful new worlds, delighting them with enthralling storylines and characters, and breaking their hearts with shocking twists and turns that most comics wouldn’t dare attempt. Think of the original Grimm Fairy Tales, before Mickey Mouse got his hands on them.
In anticipation of our Bill Willingham Fables signing 4/26, we sat down for an interview the writer, fresh off his successful FablesCon event, of which Things From Another World was a proud sponsor. We chatted with him about the latest story arc, Cubs in Toyland, the current one, Snow White, and upcoming Fables crossover with Unwritten, beginning with issue #50. SPOILER ALERT! While we’ve tried to avoid specific details, we do discuss recent events and their impact on certain characters.
New to Fables? Check out our discussion of (SPOILER ALERT!) Fables Volumes 1-11. Live in the Portland, Oregon area? Make sure to RSVP for our Bill Willingham Fables Signing on Facebook, or see him at Stumptown Comics Fest April 27 and 28.
TFAW.com: For readers who haven’t picked up the book yet, what do you think is the most important thing to know about Fables?
Bill Willingham: I think the most important thing to know about Fables is that it’s a fun book of romance, action-adventure, drama — and everything else. Anything that we can think to put in it!
TFAW.com: The thing that most surprises me about Fables, especially with Mark Buckingham’s sweet, pretty art, is how many dark and out-and-out horrific moments there are in the book. Do you ever surprise people who expected a Disney-fied story, but instead got a more authentic, Grimm Fairy Tales-style experience?
BW: I think we do, I think we surprise some of our readers. Surprising the new readers is always a good idea; surprising the longtime readers is the best thing. If you’ve got a longtime reader who’s used to what you’re doing, if you can still take them by surprise, that’s a good thing. Certainly, going grim and dark is one way to do it.
I think Buckingham is one of those guys — he looks so sweet and he talks so nice, and he seems like such a gentle soul, that it is a surprise to everyone to when they learn, as I have, what a dark and sinister heart he has. I am certain right now that if he’s not actually drawing, which he should be, of course, because we’re perpetually behind on things, he’s probably foreclosing on some poor widow’s mortgage or something. I think he just goes out to do evil for the sake of it from time to time. Just for sport.
TFAW.com: I was definitely shocked by the end of the last story arc, Cubs in Toyland, with Therese and Dare. It got so much darker than I expected. With a storyline like that, with a beloved child in danger, usually someone swoops in at the end and everything is happy and jolly, and pretty much the exact opposite happened here. What kind of reaction have you gotten?
BW: Well, we’ve gotten exactly that kind of reaction, which is, that it was not at all what readers were expecting. We’ve built it a couple of times where we were dropping the hope that some kind of last-second magical fate could come at the last moment; we did that with Boy Blue and his deteriorating sickness, and we did it with Dare, in the sense of him trying all of these things to get out of the fate he kind of knew was hanging over his head.
I mean, he knew what was supposed to happen, and eventually figured out what his part was to play in it, and then like so many, he starts bargaining: “You know, I’m prepared to make a sacrifice, certainly, but, is it necessary in this case? Is there some other clever thing I’m supposed to think of, or figure out, in order to make it all come out right and happy in the end?”
And the answer is, sometimes, no matter how clever you are, or inventive you are, or how good your intentions are, the bad choice is just the only one available. And if anything was the theme of that story, I suppose that was it. And that, more than anything else, Mark and I had a tough time pulling the trigger on that final moment. Right up to the point where we did it, if you’ll forgive the terrible and probably inappropriate pun, we were asking ourselves, “Dare we do it? Can we instead try to pull a rabbit out of the hat and save him at the last moment?” And we could’ve — I mean it’s our book, we can do what we want, of course, but we wanted to get the best story out of it.
TFAW.com: In the current story arc, Snow White, you’ve got Prince Brandish [previously known in Fables as Werian Holt, a cohort of the evil Mister Dark], Snow White’s childhood love, revealing himself and claiming his bride. Where has he been, pre-Mister Dark?
BW: Well we will see some of the “Where has he been,” so if you don’t mind I won’t answer that. How he gets involved with Mister Dark is some interesting back story that we want to reveal.
TFAW.com: Why is he popping up now? Snow White has been a prominent member of Fabletown, and it seems like he should have been able to find her before now.
BW: You’d think so, and “Why now” is, this is the opportunity, this is moment he has to control. You know, there are a lot of creepy ex-boyfriends out there. And they always do seem to show up when you’re at low ebb, when the chips are really down and you wonder, “How can this get worse?” For Snow, it’s “My husband is off, and I’m all alone, and we’ve got kids missing, and there seems to be a very slim chance that we’ll find them.” And just when it seems like things couldn’t get worse, at that moment the creepy ex-boyfriend shows up.
I think half of our readership can relate to that, although it’s written in a pretty fantastical way. It’s the bad penny from your past. And the other half, our male readership, at least probably knows someone — hopefully they don’t relate to the story by being the creepy ex-boyfriend. All of our Fables readers are too nice and wonderful for that. But it is, in this kind of fantasy setting, a story that everyone can understand, some with happier memories than others.
TFAW.com: So is Prince Brandish evil, or is he just old-fashioned? It seems like he thinks he’s obeying the letter of the Fables’ law, and indeed, with the research the others have done, that’s what they’ve discovered.
BW: That’s a philosophical question — I’m not going to hand the readers the answer on a silver platter, but that’s what you wrestle with. King David, who is one of the more celebrated personages of the Bible, had 900 wives, and still sent a beloved general out to get slaughtered so he could get that extra one. Now was he evil, or was he just the product of his time, too? Back when slavery was allowed, I’ll bet there were a lot of slave owners who were considered not evil, but just part of their times. By today’s standards, they absolutely would be considered evil people. Figure it out for yourselves, I think.
TFAW.com: One thing I’ve really enjoyed about Fables is how a lot of the female characters, who have been more passive in their own stories, are now cast as the heroines. You’ve got Snow White, who became the deputy mayor, you’ve got Cinderella, who’s a spy, you have Rapunzel running all over the world. So one of the shocking moments of this storyline is how helpless Snow White seems, and how no one can defend her. Is that the patriarchal order of their original world coming to a head here?
BW: The story is certainly about the old way of doing things, and we’ve included in that deal the old way of doing fairytales, which is usually — with one or two rare exceptions — if it’s a female character, the story is about the things that happen to her. She doesn’t do a lot on her own; all kinds of things happen to her, until eventually she is rescued. Often with the male characters, you also get the wily trickster who is able to outwit sorcerers and witches and kings. You don’t have a lot of wily trickster female characters in the old tales.
So in that sense, yes, it’s like Snow White, against her will, finds herself as the star in one of those old tales. The difference of course is, is she going to accept that status quo? Is she going to accept being someone locked away in a tower who has to be rescued? And in answer to that question, I would say, maybe you should check out the final issue in this story arc!
TFAW.com: Mirroring this, and speaking of wily tricksters, there’s another arranged marriage in the works between the Blue Fairy and Geppetto. However, it seems like it’s being played for laughs. What made you decide to go there?
BW: In a way that I could never do justice, it’s almost my Groucho Marx story. In all of those wonderful movies, you have the upset dowager, who is aghast at the hijinx of the Marx brothers, until Groucho somehow manages to flatter her and woo her and turn her completely around for awhile, in such a surprising way that she’s completely off balance. To a certain extent, it’s my take on that. Also, in more of a serious context, if Geppetto doesn’t pull off this trickery, someone’s life is on the line — possibly his!
TFAW.com: Another intriguing character is Leigh, or the former Mrs. Sprat. She was a background character, a nurse who was possibly torturing Boy Blue, then she partnered up with Mister Dark, and went through her own extreme makeover, eventually developing feelings for Werian Holt, now Prince Brandish. Now she’s a discontent in the background again. Do you have bigger plans for her?
TFAW.com: Could you tell us any of them?
BW: Oh, you want a more elaborate answer? Yes, in the wake of the Snow White arc, and during the next big arc that follows, which is called Camelot, we see her put her plan into motion. Basically, she and Brandish had teamed up to hatch their schemes. It was implied that they may have been coordinating schemes, and we see now that they are. But their separate schemes can be put into motion: Brandish is doing his now, and she will have her chance in the next arc. There are some definite things going on with her, that she will . . . well, we’ll just leave it at that.
TFAW.com: Do you have more immediate plans for the cubs? We know that Therese ages to an adult in Toyland and comes back. Can she really come back to the family now? Also, Winter is off in training to become the new North Wind. Will there be a continued focus on that?
BW: Yes, we’ll continue looking in on the cubs. If you’ll notice, we’re sort of doing a one-on, one-off kind of thing, where a story focuses on the cubs, and then we go back to the original adult cast. Right now we are definitely looking at the original adult cast. Camelot will sort of be a mix of the two. While Therese showed up at the end of Cubs in Toyland, we’ll see what happens in Camelot, right after that scene.
TFAW.com: So another upcoming Fables event is the Unwritten crossover, beginning in Unwritten #50. How involved are you in that?
BW: Pretty involved, to the extent of, let’s say Mike Carey, and Peter Gross, and Mark Buckingham, and I all decided to go on this road trip together, but Mike is the one driving the car, in the sense that — I know he and Peter work on the story together — but he produced the script. With his evil concoction, the Unwritten group came up with a delightfully sinister storyline that involves their characters interacting with the Fables characters. For Mark and I, our contribution was mostly, “Oh dear, you seemed so nice, but we will never turn our backs on you guys again!” It was really just wonderfully wicked.
But we are playing a little bit. There are certain scenes, particularly in the first issue, that I begged Mike to let me step in and write, because I’ll never get a chance to handle certain characters in this way again. One hopes. So Mark and I will do a little bit in each issue. It’s not an out-and-out crossover because you won’t see the storyline reflected, at least not immediately, in the Fables storyline. It takes place entirely within Unwritten. But when it all shakes loose, there will be ripples that lap up against our shores, if I can be forgiven a really terrible metaphor there.
TFAW.com: It sounds like a match made in heaven, because one of the primary themes of Unwritten is the power of words, but also the power of readers, and of readers’ beliefs. And that’s certainly been reflected in Fables — for example, when Snow White was shot in the head, she couldn’t die, because too many people believed in her. How do you see that reflected in real life, and with comics?
BW: In comics and in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, it’s reflected a lot, and there’s a term for it called consensus reality, which is the power of the belief creates the reality. To a certain extent, in real life, you can find situations of consensus reality. Let’s look at economics, for example. Economics is an entirely fabricated thing. Money is made up, it has no real meaning or worth, other than what we assign to it. But the fact is that the willingness of so many people to assign value to these pieces of paper, of course makes it real. Makes it real and wealthy, and makes it something that people will put their lives on the line for to try and rob, or that people will dedicate their lives to make more of, or that people will feel miserable because they don’t have enough of.
To a certain extent, we assign power to things, and because we all kind of agree, it becomes real. With politics, it’s the same thing. No military commander has the physical ability to force hundreds of thousands of men to rush into harm’s way. But somehow he says, “Go,” and they go, because there is this consensus that the power and authority reside in him.
So yeah, we play consensus reality all the time. Art is valuable because we say it is, this location is better than that because we agree it is. All of our lives are shaped that way. So we kind of formalize it in these books and say, “Yes, there is an actual cause-and-effect physical relationship going on.”
TFAW.com: You’ve been writing Fables for more than 10 years now. Do you have an end point planned? How much longer can you guarantee that we get to read it?
BW: Mark is in the process of buying an island right now, so I’ve been informed that I’m not allowed to stop until he has it all taken care of. No, I don’t really have a serious answer to that. Yes, I have one or more possible endpoints. How much longer is dependent largely upon the readers. If they want more, I’d be silly not to do it.
Fables is not just a single story idea, it’s more of a setting or storytelling engine out of which almost any sort of story can flow. So in that sense, there’s always going to be new ideas and new things we will want to do with it, if we can. I think the “If we can” part of it is entirely up to forces outside of ourselves. If the readers keep wanting it, obviously we’re going to be interested in producing the stories, and hope DC will continue to be interested in publishing them.
TFAW.com: Looking back, is there anything you would change?
BW: Oh, god yes! Hundreds and hundreds of things. In almost every situation, I can look back at a story and say, “What if a character did this instead of that, what story might spin out of that?” I’m not sure I would, but there are certainly lots of things I would want to change, going back. I don’t think there’s a writer in the world who doesn’t play those kind of “What if” questions with his own work.
TFAW.com: Going forward, what else are you excited about?
BW: I am excited that after FablesCon, I get to go back to being a writer. That took almost a year — not entirely off — but it truncated my ability to write for about a year to do this. And it was worth doing. But my perfect life would be one of the almost total recluse, where every once in a while I poke my head out of the ground, to see if people are in fact still reading, but could otherwise disappear into my writing and write. So I’m looking forward to about a year of that. Hopefully that will translate into all sorts of new and wonderful projects like the Fairest in All the Land original graphic novel, which is what I’m working on now.
TFAW.com: Can you tell us about that?
BW: It’s sort of in the same vein as 1,001 Nights of Snowfall. It’s a series of stories tied together thematically by the Magic Mirror, who finally gets fed up with being asked who’s the fairest in all the land, and gives the answers he’s been waiting to give, rather than the ones the questioners are usually expecting. It’ll be out this fall.
TFAW.com: Is Mark Buckingham the artist?
BW: Mark will be doing one of them. It will be multiple stories written by me, each drawn by a different, wonderful artist. Every time I do a project like this, I get to check off a few of the artists I’ve always wanted to work with. We’ve got a few coming up here that I’m rather excited about.
TFAW.com: Well, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate this.
BW: Thank you — we’ll be seeing each other in not too many days!
Our thanks to Vertigo Comics and Bill Willingham for the delightful interview — hope he’s ready for quite the party at the Portland TFAW 4/26! Make sure to browse our collection of Fables, Cinderella and Fairest comics and graphic novels, and pre-order the conclusion to the Snow White arc, Fables #128, and Unwritten #50. Plus, come back and pre-order Fairest in All the Land, featuring fantastic artists like Adam Hughes, Chrissie Zullo, Mark Chiarello, Karl Kerschl, Gene Ha, Chris Sprouse, Renae De Liz, Phil Noto, and more.
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