Slow and steady may have won the race for Aesop’s tortoise, but Bill Willingham’s Fables has unfolded at a relative breakneck pace since it burst onto the scene in 2002. Eleven years later, the Vertigo staple has spawned 120+ issues, several spin-offs (Fairest, Jack of Fables), original graphic novels (Werewolves of the Heartland, 1001 Nights of Snowfall), and original prose novels (Peter & Max). Given the nature of the source material, this seems like the kind of rich, ever-deepening gig that Willingham could pursue for the rest of his days – sort of like Hal Foster’s 34-year-run on Prince Valiant, only with more Big Bad Wolf and flying blue monkeys. To find out what makes Mr. Willingham tick, I caught up with the Fables pharaoh to pick his brain on everything from the attraction of writing mythological characters to burrito fillings.
Nerdist: You’ve been doing Fables for over ten years now, and it’s incredible, because it seems like the popularity hasn’t waned at all. What gives this book such a lasting appeal?
Bill Willingham: Boy, that’s a good question, and it’s one that I don’t know I have a satisfying answer for, because I don’t trust it, either. A little peek into my psychology: I’m still thinking that if I play my cards right, I might be able to break into comics some day. [laughs] That’s kind of the mindset under which I operate, so, with Fables, my hope is that it’s going to catch on. I guess we’re 127 issues into it; I still think this thing might possibly have legs someday.
That said, what do I attribute the popularity to? I think it’s part and parcel that people like stories about people they know. They like to know what’s happened lately with them. Maybe it’s the sprawling cast, maybe it’s the fact that a lot of good drama is built upon building on reader frustration. We want to get back to this character, we want this terrible thing to be resolved, and that frustration is what keeps us turning pages. When you have a sprawling cast like Fables, it might be that we’re having a wonderful time with these characters, but we want to get to these other characters that we know are out there doing stuff and having terrible things happen to them too. But, who knows? If I could tell you exactly why Fables is doing as well as it does, I’d have twelve successful series out there repeating the same formula.
N: Going off of the “reader frustration” that you mentioned – is that part of the reason why we have spin-offs like Jack of Fables, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, and Fairest?
BW: Well, certainly. The downside of having such a huge cast to draw from, and with more old fairy tales being discovered every day, you can never get to all of them. We’re often asked if we are going to run out of ideas, but that’s not the problem. It’s exactly the opposite – all of these characters and stories which suggest new stories just pile up; we’ll never get to them. We’ll never be able to get to all of them that we could or would want to tell. Fairest and Jack of Fables, which spun off for a while, things like that are kind of an instance of, even though we can never get to all of them, this way we can get to more of them.
We could have a dozen Fables-related books and still not be scratching the surface of the stories begging to be told, which I think is a good thing. It’s better to leave the table a little bit hungry, leave the audience wanting more versus oh, dear God, I’ve had so much of this that I could never eat another bite of it.
N: Is there a Fable you’ve been jonesing to write, a spin-off that you haven’t had an opportunity to pursue, either because there isn’t enough material yet or they don’t have the same sort of popular reader base?
BW: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know that Jack was that popular of a character when we spun him off, but he was an interesting character in the sense that both Matt Sturges and I love the idea of writing a book about a person we would never, never want to know. If you’re in Jack’s book, you’re gonna get screwed over at some point because he is not a good fellow. It seems like the only thing worse than being Jack’s enemy was being Jack’s friend in terms of the calamity in your future. So, I think that’s more what comes to mind when we look to create spin-offs; it’s not a calculation of whether or not the character has the popularity to support his own book.
I’m of the school that says that any character can be made a main character if you put enough thought and effort into it because everyone has some interesting possibilities. I mean, The Flycatcher character was intended to only be a background character, a little running joke from time to time about an inbred prince that keeps eating flies. And it turned out to be much more than a one-joke premise; he had one of the most satisfying epics within the run of Fables. So, I think any character can potentially grab and hold the spotlight like that. The real calculation is which character is interesting enough for the writers to want to pursue now. Once again, part of Fairest is to give ourselves a chance to do just that. Say, here’s an obscure character that one writer has an idea for – let’s run with that.
N: So, along these lines, will Fairest be primarily one-off stories or fleshed-out arcs that will tie in to the primary Fables-verse?
BW: It’s going to be a little bit of both. At the beginning of the series, for the first couple of years – and this is not in the hope we get a first couple of years – we’ll be introducing new characters and story arcs, characters that we may have seen before but didn’t necessarily explore well. In the long run, what I’d love to see happen is to have mini-series for each of these, just as we’ve done with Cinderella, where she’s had a couple of mini-series and special arcs that take us deeper and deeper into her character each time we revisit her. I’d like to revisit all of these characters here and see a little more of a sprawling epic and a little less of a done-and-one kind of story. I’d like to see the same writers come back and become associated with these characters. We’re just in the middle of the Lauren Beukes run on Rapunzel right now, and a year or so down the road, I’d like to see, assuming that Rapunzel survives whatever’s happening – and that’s no guarantee – have those surviving characters revisited by the same team. So, a little bit of both.
Eventually, any series – even one where you’re handing off the writers – builds up a wake of continuity where other writers will come along and say, “I want to find out what happens to this character down the road.” The last time we saw the Bottle Imp, he was left behind at a hamburger stand; let’s find out what’s happened. I hope that will occur, and I hope to have the audience and readership that would allow a book like that to happen.
N: There’s definitely the appeal there because, as a reader, you grew up with these mythic characters and you want to see what’s going to happen to them in this new context.
BW: Yeah. I have a very strong “what happens next?” urge within me. I don’t think I’m unique that way. Which is why I love series television, serialized books – as much as I loved the first 37 Tarzan novels, I want to see what new lost civilization he’ll discover down the road. I think that’s part of the engine that drives Fables. And it’s part of what we’d planned to do. We take these characters that have existed for years and years – centuries in some cases – and just start answering the question of “what happens next with these characters?”
N: Now more than ever, that’s a question that seems like it’s gripping the public consciousness. With the success of shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, and obviously the success of Fables, people want to what happens next.
BW: Sure! They’re all old friends. You want to catch up on their lives.
N: Is there room for a episodic Fables TV series? Has there been any movement on that front?
BW: Of course, I think there’s potential for a Fables TV series or movie or all sorts of things in other mediums. Whether or not there’s any movement on that front, I’m the last person to ask because I’m the last person to find out. I’m sure at the end of this interview, [DC Entertainment publicist] Pamela Mullins will give you the direct number of Time Warner’s presidents of such and you can just ask them directly. That’s doable, right, Dan?
N: Of course. I cleared the next couple of hours for that express purpose. Shifting gears a bit, tell me about Werewolves of the Heartland. That’s exciting, because Bigby’s been such a fan favorite. What era of his storied history does it cover?
BW: It’s fairly recent. Werewolves of the Heartland takes place in the one point of all the plans for Bigby where we had room for him to get off on his own. And there’s been a strong desire on our part as well to have a Bigby solo adventure, so we picked that one point where we could get him off on his own, which was when they were leaving the Farm for Haven after Mr. Dark had finally won the duel between him and Frau Totenkinder. King Cole sends Bigby off to look for potential new places to start a new Fabletown, assuming that we are not going to be able to recover this one. During the retreat from the Farm to Haven, they ran out of backup plans, so Cole says to Bigby, “Go get me new places to fall back on.” So, Bigby is out in the Heartlands, the remote parts of America that are removed from the East Coast. While doing this, he discovers a small town, Story City, Iowa, that seems to be entirely populated by werewolves. Then, the hilarity ensues from there. It’s like the God of All Wolves finding a community of his people, which might be a good thing, but, as you can probably guess, might not be. As you can probably guess from the cover and from the title – I mean, the title gives everything away: they’re in the Heartland and there are werewolves. And the cover shows they might not be getting along too well. Bigby’s there with some blonde, and what an interesting number of questions that raises since he seems to be happily married to not a blonde. Some blonde and Bigby are battling off legions of werewolves. What could be better than that?
N: Honestly, not much. So, along the lines of spin-offs and revisiting characters, is there any chance we could see more original prose novels set in the Fables universe like Peter & Max?
BW: The answer is yes, there is a chance. I have really fond feelings towards Peter & Max; I think it was pretty much a success. The things I don’t like about it are just noodling things that I think any writer who looks back at his work has. I’d like to do more Fables prose novels. The idea, of course, of the Peter & Max story was that it could only be done as a novel. If we tried to do it as a comic, it would have tied up two to three years of the series, which might have strained even DC and Vertigo’s willingness to let me have plenty of rope in which to tell these stories and the length I need to do so. The novel-writing part of me is fairly booked at the moment. I just finished a prose novel not related to Fables called Down the Mysterly River. I’ve kind of promised a sequel to that, which is next up. Potentially, beyond that there could be another Fables prose novel, but don’t take that as an absolute promise because, you know, things come up. The desire, though, is definitely there.
N: As a writer, which proves more challenging – writing a comic book script or a full-length novel?
BW: I think they present their own challenges and they’re almost completely different. To write a comic strip, the main challenge is that no matter how sprawling your epic gets, you’re still vastly limited in room and number of pages, which is an absolute limit. You can’t exceed – I think we’re doing 20 pages a month now in the regular book. And you can’t have all those pages devoted to, let’s say, one extended conversation which goes on for thirty of them. You can. It’s been done and I think it’s been done wonderfully in comics, but the medium fights against that. In comics, you have to be terse, you have to get to the point immediately and because of the rude mechanics of how a page is set up, you have to not waste space at all. It’s the most absolute, conservative in the sense that there’s no extra space writing medium there is.
Juxtaposed against that is prose writing where you can have the room to languidly spread out. You can have a conversation that goes on for thirty pages knowing that you have enough room to get to the other stuff you have planned. It’s on the other side of the spectrum of storytelling. The other major difference is that you don’t have the artist in prose writing. In comics, the artist handles all the exposition. You don’t have the describe the castle on the hill – he’s drawn it. You don’t have to mention that it’s daytime – he’s shown it. All you have to do is the dialogue, which is a tough enough road on its own. In prose, you have to supply all that. It’s the challenge of how much do you do to give the reader enough of an image without boring the pants off of them. You can describe the castle on the hill, but you can’t describe every single street and resident and zoning law without losing your reader. It’s a very oddly disciplined medium. They’re almost not comparable. The nice thing about them is switching back and forth – you get to take nice rests in between.
N: I can imagine that it must be a bit re-energizing when you go back to one after just finishing the other.
BW: Yeah, it certainly is.
N: Okay, two more quick questions for you. What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
BW: See, this is the evil question where every time someone has asked, all the answers go right out of my head, but I’m going to try and remember it. It’s sort of the old “everyone you forgot to thank in the wake of your Oscar” kind of thing. So, pardon my brain fart. I’m still reading some of the wonderful books we’re about to celebrate at FablesCon like The Unwritten, American Vampire, and I’m reading the deluxe collection of Spaceman, which is just delightful. It’s one of those books that rewards intense reader involvement. I’m also following Brian [Azzarello’s] run on Wonder Woman. In the other camp, I think what Marvel is doing with Hawkeye right now is just delightful. It’s the kind of thing I look at and say, “Oh, I should be writing this. Or should have.” Sort of the daily trials and tribulations of a street-level hero, and set it in the world where the people you hang out with are gods. Anything Mike Mignola writes – all the Hellboy stuff – I’m there from the get-go. I’m forgetting all sorts of things…Saga from Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples! It’s incredibly weird and I haven’t a notion as to where they’re going, but I’m excited to find out. I’m forgetting so many things. I love the medium, I love comics.
N: That’s the problem – it seems like there’s always too many comics to read. It’s a good problem to have though.
BW: It’s a good problem to have.
N: Last, but not least, I’ve got a true hardball for you. What is in your ideal burrito?
BW: My ideal burrito? Now, you make light of this, but this is actually a very important question because many times I’ve had to build the ideal burrito over the objections of the people who are actually constructing it. First of all, let’s talk about what should not be in there. I love Mexican food and I love Mexican rice, but Mexican rice is a side dish. When you put it inside the burrito, what you’re doing is putting filler in there so you have this nice, big, fat burrito, but less of the expensive stuff. So, right away, rice is banished; it’s the filler of the burrito world. It can be put on the side and enjoyed as a side dish, but don’t you dare put it inside the burrito.
You need good steak, you need good chicken, you need good fish, whatever the burrito is, you need lots of it. It needs to be moist and juicy because there’s nothing worse than a dry burrito. You need fresh cheese, sour cream, onions, a good sauce that should have enough of a bite to it where you need a little time to recover from the last bite before you recover from the next. And, if it’s going to be handheld, a little chipotle and some enchilada sauce on the inside just because I like it.
N: Very nice detail on the interior enchilada sauce.
BW: If it’s served on a plate – you want a wet burrito – pour the enchilada sauce, the extra cheese and sour cream over the top and you eat it with a knife and a fork. It can’t be done better than that. And thank you very much for making me regret that I don’t have the stuff to make burritos in the house now.