Bill Willingham Speaks: The Fables and the Facts.
For over a decade, Bill Willingham has been entertaining readers with his award-winning Vertigo series “Fables,” which presents his unique take on the fairy tales and folklore we only think we know.
Now, as a special treat to “Fables” fans and an invitation to newcomers, Bill has created the oversized graphic novel “Werewolves of the Heartland,” which provides a look at a brand new corner of the “Fables” universe and presents previously unrevealed backstory about the enigmatic and popular Bigby Wolf.
Mark Syp: Tell us a little bit about Werewolves of the Heartland.
Bill Willingham: Well, between the title and the front cover illustration, you can get a good idea what the book is about. You know the old saw “you can’t judge a book by its cover?” This time you can.
Bigby Wolf goes to the American heartland, encounters werewolves and hilarity ensues. He’s on a quest to find a new possible location for Fabletown and runs across a small town called Story City. Bigby discovers that this seemingly pleasant and picturesque town is occupied entirely by werewolves. They don’t like having Bigby around and his merely showing up starts causing all kinds of crises. They also seem to know a lot about him and he has never heard anything about them. The mystery unfolds from there.
It’s a done-in-one story featuring art from Craig Hamilton and Jim Fern. Even if you’ve never read Fables before you should be able to navigate the story with no problem at all.
MS: Tell us a little bit about Story City.
BW: There’s actually a real Story City outside of Ames, Iowa. Once I discovered a Story City exists, I couldn’t not set a Fables story there. Since we had already started planning what was to become Werewolves of the Heartland and since Story City is in fact smack dab in America’s heartland, a marriage of convenience was born.
MS: I know every couple of years you like to do something special for the fans of Fables and create a bigger project. What led you to doing an original graphic novel?
BW: The main motivation was to do it. 1001 Nights of Snowfall was a graphic novel of similar size, but it was all short stories. Peter and Max was a prose story. It was illustrated but not a graphic novel, where the illustrations are half of the process. What was left in that equation was to go back to story and art together, but in long form.
Don’t hold me to this, but I’m almost sure this is the longest done-in-one story I’ve done. Some of the Fables story arcs were longer, but they were serialized as single issues and then collected into trades. One of the things I try to do with these specials is do something I haven’t done before and setting out to tell a story from beginning to end in one huge chunk was a new experience for me.
MS: 1001 Nights was an anthology and Peter and Max featured characters who, while based on fairy tales, were original to the world of Fables. Why did you decide to focus on Bigby, who is arguably one of the main characters of the series?
BW: While Bigby is one of the main characters of Fables, and certainly the most popular male character, in 100-plus issues he’s never really had a story all his own. That alone seemed to argue for him having his own big, sprawling story.
Bigby’s name is a play on words, since he’s the Big Bad Wolf of legend, but reformed. In Fables, we’ve only really seen him since he’s been reformed. We’ve alluded to, hinted at and teased about his giant monstrous past, but we’ve never really shown it. The question kept coming up, “Is the monster inside him tamed, and what would happen if he cut loose?” This story answers that question.
MS: This story does reveal a lot of Bigby’s back-story. Is that a story you’ve kind of had in your pocket and been wanting to tell for awhile?
BW: As a writer telling new stories with older material, which is essentially what Fables is, one of the jobs you have is trying to subvert what’s gone before. One of the rules I set for myself with Fables is that all of the old fairy tales happened pretty much just as they’re well-known, but here’s what’s happened since then. We start off with the stories back then, but have the characters go through amazing transformations by the time you see them again. With every character, I sort of work out the story arc of what happened.
Since these characters are essentially immortal, you can tell stories all over the historical map. We did a two-part World War II story with Bigby in Fables. The story was about him going behind enemy lines to thwart a Nazi scheme and succeeding. Even while writing it, I found myself subverting the story and looking for loopholes and ways to make it not turn out quite so clean and pristine an ending as they thought they had. Werewolves of the Heartland is the result of that nagging at me over the years, leading me to undo some of what was done in that story and have some fun with it. And for new readers we fold that back-story into the new story, so it stands on its own.
MS: Although, I will say that if you are a reader of Fables it really does compliment the main title. For instance, Story is in many ways Fabletown gone wrong.
BW: Well, it parallels Fabletown, but with werewolves instead of fables. And the politics of it are, here’s Fabletown if we were a little more Draconian, a little more toe the line or else, and the factions that would form.
MS: The original two-parter this story is based on drew not only on fairy tales, but also a number of urban legends about World War II and, since Frankenstein’s monster was in it, a lot of the Hollywood interpretation of Frankenstein. What constitutes a legitimate source you can draw from?
BW: The two real governing rules are, “Is the story or character in the public domain?” and with that said, “Do I want to use it?” That’s really it. I like to give myself a lot of leeway in where my interests go.
The Frankenstein creature is certainly in the public domain. In the original book, the creature came out looking human, almost handsome, and the monstrous nature slowly revealed itself. In the movie, they jump right to the climax and he’s a monster from the get go. The Hollywood version is similar to what we do in Fables, which is take the original story and twist it and subvert it to make it our own. Since the story in Fables took place during World War II and the original Frankenstein story took place long before that, there’s plenty of time for the creature to have started off looking human and then degraded into his monstrous form.
MS: It also dovetails with urban legends about Nazi scientists and their experimentation. And, of course, some of that unfortunately wasn’t urban legend. You look at an urban legend like The Boys From Brazil and say, “maybe they weren’t cloning Hitler, maybe they were resurrecting Frankenstein.”
BW: Yeah, it’s an extrapolation of the some of the stuff they were really trying. It’s a weird crazy world out there, so let’s have some fun and poke some holes in it.
MS: Let’s go back to the notion of not ignoring a particular character’s back story. When I tell people about Fables, one thing they always seem to find particularly delightful is the fact that you saw that Prince Charming was the name given to the love interest in the tales of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and decided it was the same guy and he was just a womanizer.
BW: You can extrapolate some fun things from the fairy tales if you take them at their word. One of the decisions I made early on was that we could combine similar characters into a single character, if we could do it without denying the clear intent of the original storyteller and instead add to it.
MS: While you’re indeed true to the original tales, you’re also not afraid to shake things up. I remember talking to you before the “War and Pieces” storyline and you said it won’t be a few issues of fighting and then a return to the status quo. The war would have consequences and there would be a new status quo.
BW: One of the problems the big comic companies are faced with is that they have stockholders, which makes each character a valuable company asset. You can’t just throw away a valuable company asset willy-nilly. You have to be careful not to upset the status quo too much.
Compare that to Fables, where these versions of the characters are mine and mine alone. That leaves me to tell a lot of stories that others can’t. If, for the good of a great story, a beloved and valuable company asset has to go, they’re going to go.
MS: In recent arcs you’ve been working with Bigby Wolf and Snow White’s children, whom I assume to be original characters. Is that correct?
BW: There weren’t fairy tale characters that were the children of Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, since those two characters never got together, that I know of. There were tales called Beast Romances, where a beautiful woman ends up married to a creature of the forest, with the best known being The Frog Prince. So, the precedent was set for their romance.
The kids are the same way. They’re all characters I created from the ground up. But there are seven of them, since that’s an important number in fairy tales. Bigby is the seventh son of his parents, who is supposed to have magical properties, which Bigby did. The fact he would have seven children seemed to be a no-brainer. That’s a recurring motif in folklore. So, there is some aspect of the children that was drawn from folklore, just not the specific characters.
MS: Of course, there’s the prophecy surrounding the children. Have you figured out what it all means?
BW: Oh, yes. That was fun to write. I wanted to move the story of the children along and force myself to make it dangerous and interesting. Why expect readers to continue reading if there’s not some big, heroic, adventurous and dangerous stuff coming up? So, to lock myself in, I wrote the prophecy and then started figuring out what it might mean.
We’ve seen a little bit of it already. We’ve seen Winter become a King. That’s not a mistake; she becomes a King, not a Queen. We’ve seen the second big element of the prophecy come about. I don’t want to spoil it, since it just happened. We’re moving on to the others.
MS: So you’re confirming those events are actually the prophecy being fulfilled and not clever misdirection?
BW: They are. I love clever misdirection and I should do it more often, but in this case you can trust it was pretty much as it was prophesied to be.
MS: How far out do you have Fables planned? I know there’s no set end point. The last time I spoke to you, you said, and I quote, “If I have my way I would work on Fables until the day I die.”
BW: That would be a good way to go. Finish up the very last issue, tie up all of the dangling plot threads and then keel over nicely and gently. That worked for President Grant when he was finishing up his memoirs. I want that same deal, to complete Fables before anything happens to me. Then, like the tricksters of folklore, I’ll just keep writing Fables forever and keep living on.
MS: So how far ahead does the mortal you have the story planned out?
BW: In a dialed-in, specific way, with plotlines and some dialogue written down, we have it plotted out for another two years at any given time. In a general way, we have two to three years beyond that.
MS: So what can you tease without getting in trouble?
BW: We just finished up the story arc set in the past that shows just how Bigby became fated to be whom he is. It demonstrated how fate works in the Fables universe. Next, we have one issue tying up the Bufkin storyline.
After that, we begin the Snow White story arc. As you know, if you’re a Fables character it’s a pretty unlucky thing to have a story arc named after you, because we have to put you through the wringer. We really see what you’re made of and put all sorts of dire challenges in your way.
Snow White’s not having a good time right now. Several of her kids are lost and she doesn’t know if she’ll see them again. On top of that, we’re going to pile on some other challenges. We’re really seeing Snow at a moment when all kinds of crap is coming down on her at once and we’re going to see what she’s made of. We did a similar thing to Rose Red and Rose took to her bed for several months. Snow White is not going to react in the same way, because it would get boring if every time we focused on a character they spent several months in bed (laughs). I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to do, but Snow White will definitely come out of this arc a little bit different than she entered into it.
Following the Snow White story we’ll have a one or two issue interlude. The next big story arc after that has the working title “New Camelot.” It’s about the restoration of the Camelot ideal. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was actually a new Round Table. I personally wouldn’t be surprised because I know what we’re doing and we’re going to introduce a new Round Table.
MS: You work very closely with Mark Buckingham on Fables, since he’s the permanent artist. What was it like working with other artists for Werewolves of the Heartland?
BW: It’s always nice working with different artists. There are so many nice comic artists out there and I’d love to work with each and every one of them. One of the joys of Fables is that it’s popular enough that all kinds of incredibly accomplished artists are interested in visiting the Fables landscape from time to time and doing something.
That said, it’s always preferable to work with Mark Buckingham. He is artistically the heart and soul of Fables. If working with other artists is going out and having adventures, Mark is like coming home again. And it’s always nice to come home again.
I told Mark that if I could adopt him I would (laughs), since he is absolutely not allowed to leave Fables. In that scenario where I die peacefully right after writing the end of Fables, he’s not allowed to die until about a month later so that he can draw the last one.
MS: While we’re talking about collaborations, you recently debuted the spin-off series Fairest. After you write the first story arc, each subsequent one will be by a different writer.
BW: Part of that was to have the balance we didn’t get with Fables. With Fables we’ve had the opportunity to work with all of these great artists, but we were leaving off half of the creative force of comics. So, part of the idea of Fairest was to work with all of these wonderful writers that are out there. Of course, we need artists for those stories too, so we get to have even more great artists play in the Fables sandbox.
The other origin of Fairest was Adam Hughes, who is our wonderful cover artist. A few years ago at a convention Adam asked me if he could be the cover artist on Fables. I told him we had just found a new cover artist, so the answer is no. However, if you’re serious, says I, I’ll create a new Fables series for you, which I did.
MS: Is it strange to have other writers working with your characters? In a way, you’ve been playing with the Brothers Grimm’s babies; they in turn were playing with folklore. Is it weird to see people doing, for lack of a better term, the Bill Willingham Snow White or the Bill Willingham Big Bad Wolf?
BW: Yeah, it is. We had a couple of Cinderella miniseries that helped spawn the idea of doing a book with arcs from different characters and creators. Chris Roberson came to me and said, “You should do this with Cinderella” and laid out some pretty wonderful story ideas. I said, “That’s great, but that’s not my idea, it’s yours. You should write it.” That’s how the Cinderella miniseries’ came about.
Fairest works the same way. We don’t contact the writers and say “Could you do a story with this character, this way.” Instead, they come to us and say, “If I could use this character, this is what I’d do.” The cleverest ideas are the ones that get chosen.
MS: The characters the creators choose to work on is a Rorschach test of sorts.
BW: Absolutely. That’s a great way of putting it. When you get together and say “you’re a great writer, you’re a great artist, that’s a great idea. Do it!” There’s really no better formula for success.
MS: In closing, I don’t want to give anything away about the ending, but is Werewolves of the Heartland going to meet up with Fables in any way?
BW: Let me give you an answer that doesn’t give away any of the secrets and surprises in the story. The story definitely takes place in the Fables universe and if by any chance any characters survive that story there’s a good chance we’ll see those characters pop up in some way.
“Werewolves of the Heartland” is in stores now and, as Bill pointed out after the interview, makes a great Christmas present. “Fables” and “Fairest” are available monthly from Vertigo.