Bill Willingham On Edgar Rice Burroughs And The Greatest Adventure

When Dynamite announced The Greatest Adventure, a new comic series featuring the vast universe of characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the thing that got me the most interested was that Bill Willingham (Fables) was going to be writing it. If anyone could pull together characters like Tarzan, John Carter and the Mucker into a single adventure and keep it fast paced and fun, it was Willingham. I had the opportunity to read over the first script for the new series and ask some questions. Below is what followed. The Greatest Adventure is in the current Previews catalog for book shipping in April. Cover art by Cary Nord, Rags Morales and Roberto Castro.

gereatadven01covanordBill Willingham: I don't usually weigh in before addressing the first question, but I had to say how much I like the questions listed below. They're like those study help questions in school textbooks that are meant to incite discussion (and prove the student actually read the material). All that's lacking is the required "Choose two lines from the story to support your answer" bit that ends all of those questions. Well done!

Dan Wickline: You mention in the first issue that if you ever got to work on any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs characters, you'd want to work on all of them at once. Now that it has happened, why did you want to do that?

Bill: Probably because my love of ERB books, and the characters within, was and remains pretty much all-inclusive. At this stage in my life and career any chance to work within a given fictional universe might be my only chance, therefore I'd best make the most of it. Go everywhere. Use everyone. Do everything I might ever want to do.

Dan: What is it about his characters that has made them stand the test of time?

Bill: I can't swear that the ERB characters have stood the test of time. Tarzan, John Carter, and others, either have to be done as a period piece – interesting artifacts of a bygone era – or so woefully changed to fit into today's so-called more enlightened age. If you do a Tarzan movie today, for example, you can't possibly be faithful to the original. Tarzan can't be more capable than Jane, or else she ends up being "just a damsel." He can't outshine his native African pals, or it's a white supremacy story. Therefore each Waziri tribesman has to be able to swing on vines and do Tarzany things, just as well as he – making Tarzan just a bit redundant. In a John Carter film, it seemed imperative that Carter be rewritten as a "make war no more" Civil War burnout, because a character who actually revels in battle would be a monster by today's standards. Those are just two examples. I could go on for pages. But it seems pretty clear time has passed these characters by. The undiluted, unaltered versions no longer have a place in mainstream entertainment. A very small minority of readers still love the hoary old unreconstructed versions, but we don't dare flaunt that love in polite society. One other comment about this and I'll move on: Those who've only encountered Tarzan from his many films have never met the character. Now that John Carter finally got a movie, the same can be said about him.

Dan: We start off the story with Jason Gridley flying a plane towards Tarzan's African estate. For those who aren't familiar with Gridley, who is he, how does he fit into the ERB universe and what do readers need to know about him going into the story?

Bill: After Ras Thavas (the Mastermind of Mars), Gridley is the most prominent mad-scientist character in the ERB universe. He's not really mad though, just an idiosyncratic tinkerer, gifted beyond his years. He's figured into a number of ERB adventures.

Dan: And what is the Gridley Wave device?

gereatadven01covbmoralesBill: It's a device that allows instant communication across vast distances. In the ERB books it was mostly used as a way to justify a man from our world (Gridley) receiving wondrous tales from those in other worlds, so that the stories could be published by ERB as his books. I however have asked (as I assume many others have) what other uses could be made of such a remarkable invention? What might happen if other men of low character got ahold of one and tried to weaponize it.

Dan: There are eighteen members of the ship's crew. A diverse mix of men and women. Are they all ERB characters? Can you tell us a little bit about some of them? Anything specific we need to know? And something I've always wondered, why is Billy Byrne called The Mucker?

Bill: Yes, they are all ERB characters. The closest thing to a character I created is Julian the 2nd, one of the ancestors of the Julian who featured in ERB adventures set in the fairly distant future (making him therefore unavailable for use in this series). But, in his stories, that Julian referred to the ancestor Julian who was more contemporaneous with Tarzan and the others, making him an ERB creation too – just not as fleshed out as some of the others. Billy Byrne was The Mucker, because mucker was an antique term, popular at the time his story was written, for a thug, a brute – someone who is or might run amok. Mucker.

Dan: The first script for the Greatest Adventure reads like the beginning of a Saturday matinee serial where you introduce us to a ton of characters, give us the setup for the series, establish the villain and show us enough interaction between the characters that we get a sense of who some of them are. How do you approach handling a script/series this big with so much to tell the reader? Is this the pace and feel that will care through the remainder of the issues?

Bill: Some of the sprawling cast will be winnowed out along the way. Just like Heracles left the crew of the Argo, long before they completed the Quest of the Golden Fleece, some of the characters may have to leave (on various side missions – or lost in battle) during the course of The Greatest Adventure. Otherwise, yes, this would be far too large a cast for someone of my limited powers to handle with perfect élan. The idea is to give each of the lesser-known characters at least one shining moment in the spotlight. We'll see how that works out.

Dan: As an artist yourself, what types of things do you do in your working relationship with Cezar Rezak to convey the vision you have for the series? What are the differences in preparing a script for another artist as opposed to making one for yourself?

gereatadven01covccastroBill: The best thing one artist can do when writing for another artist is not to try to do his job for him. I have to confess I hate the practice of comic artists-turned-writers of laying out the script in thumbnails (even in stick figures) for the other artist. It seems an insult at best. In my penciling days I had to work that way with former artists-turned-writers and it was no joy. That said, a writer who draws should have enough visual sense at least to know not to call for things in his script that no one could possibly draw. Writers with no real visual understanding tend to be the type to call for 18 panel pages with sweeping details in each panel, along with multiple word balloons and "what the hell" let's throw in a few captions too. The one area where I have been a bit of a dictator with Cezar is that I want certain things drawn on-model. My version of the correct Tarzan shouldn't be the Conanesque, over-muscled character who is too often depicted. He should be built more like a swimmer. My version of Tarzan seldom smiles and never laughs, because that was the character from the books. Martian swords should be elegant weapons, and not the unwieldy meat cleavers that passed as swords in a recent Barsoomian film. And so on. I have many cranky opinions about what's correct and what isn't in the ERB universe. To facilitate this I find lots of reference for Cezar, because, if I'm the one who wants things a certain way, I should do the work to make it happen.

Dan: One of the big marketing aspects of this series is the ERB universe. But taking a step back from that, how would you describe the series to someone who has never read and Burroughs or seen any of the Tarzan, John Carter or other adaptations of his work? 

Bill: In many ways this might be better if you come in knowing nothing of the characters, because then the films (and other adaptations) haven't contaminated you with their much-altered versions of the characters. I may not be able to portray the pure ERB version of each character in this series (I'm as flawed as any human), but I can promise they'll be handled with respect. As for the story: It's old fashioned adventure when adventure was still in fashion. Heroes were still heroic and damsel wasn't a dirty word – and was in fact used to describe admirable women of iron and grit. If that sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then I enthusiastically invite you to give The Greatest Adventure a try.

For more information on The Greatest Adventure, click here.

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About Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.
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