ECCC '14: Bill Willingham on the End of Fables

Gavin Lees writes for Bleeding Cool:

DSC02211Fables has been the landmark achievement of Bill Willingham's career.  For over a decade, he has reshaped fairy tale characters into an allegory of the modern world, and conjured some incredibly memorable and thought-provoking storylines along the way.  It's no surprise that the series has garnered countless awards, and adulation from all corners of the industry.  What is a surprise is that Willingham has finally decided to end the series.  I caught up with him at this year's Emerald City Comicon to find out why.

Gavin Lees:  The last time I spoke to you in 2012, you said that you hoped to write the final page of Fables right before you die.  Should we be worried?

Bill Willingham: [laughs]  Oddly enough, there's at least one DC person that's hinted around, asking, "Did you get some bad medical news?"  Apparently, I had flippantly said something about wanting to wrap it all up before I die, and someone took it to heart.  As far as I know — no, but who knows what plans the gods, or the dogs, or whoever is running things have in store!

I'm glad you pointed that out, though, because it shows that it did indeed come as a surprise to me that it was the last story.  It only occurred to me as we were structuring it, as we were putting some of the pieces together, and saying, "OK, because this happens, this could happen…" that this had to be the last story, and it was a surprise.  I briefly flirted with the idea of just pushing that idea down the line and doing something else in the meantime, but it felt like that something else would be filler.  And I didn't want to coast.

So, yeah, my plan was just to keep going, and I was surprised to find that this was the moment that I should bow and get off the damn stage.

GL: How are you feeling about it?  Is there now an empty space ahead of you where you don't have a solid project to be working on?

BW: Oh god, yes!  I've had such a rocky career that I've never had anything approaching job security, and I've never even though of Fables that way.  Every issue I assume the entire collective readership will bop their heads and say, "Ah, we're done with this," and desert me.  So, I'm continually surprised that the readership for Fables is so loyal and so adamant about being there for every story arc.

Will there be a hole in my life?  Will anything else I do be as successful?  I guess you've got to take that leap.  The nice thing is that I've had so much experience being poor, that I'm pretty good at it.  If that is what happens, it'll not be great, but I'll be OK.  I plan on still doing stories and whatever, just not Fables.

GL: Back to doing more porn for Eros?

BW: More porn, by golly!  Probably not…  The thing I discovered about seeing if there was any porn story in me is that apparently there was.  Although porn is fun and delightful, producing it is boring as hell.  It is absolutely mind-numbingly boring to have to continually come up with a new thing for two — or more — people — or not-people — to do.  I thought, my god, my sex life must have been terribly boring because I was out of ideas.  Some of the things in Ironwood got so weird that they could never possibly happen in real life.  But, yeah, I am totally out of ideas for that.

GL: To get away from your boring sex life then [laughter] — the last arc of Fables is not just the last arc of that story, but also Fairest, and Mark Buckingham is going to be writing that.

BW: Yes, and it's a story that's been in the works for some time.  As Shelly will attest, he sold it just on the cool title — "Clamour for Glamour" — but as I said on the panel, all Mark had to do was to come up and say that he wanted to write and that would have sold it to me.  He's established his credentials as a great writer.  So many of the really magnificent story ideas for Fables came from Mark and not me.  So, he bought his way into a writing gig anytime.  As a matter of fact, as I've confessed before, for at least half the run of Fables I've just been assuming that Mark is going to wise up and realize that he did not need me anymore!  He's got the art chops, he's got the writing chops — why?  I wouldn't tell him that until now, but I don't know why he ever needed me.

So, he's going to write it, and it's going to be the farm animal fables, which has been his ballywick all along, and it's just going to be wonderful.

GL: Mark has obviously been a huge part of the Fables universe, but you've had several other artists working on the title over the years.  Are you planning on bringing any of them back for the farewell issue?

BW: The last issue is 150 pages, and it's going to have one main story that Mark is illustrating.  Each of the many, many other small stories are going to be "The Last — fill in the blank — Story."  Just like at the end of movies, where you see those blurbs where you see what happened to each character, we'll do the same — or at least hint at what their life is going to be like — those that don't die, anyway!

We invited basically anyone who has illustrated Fables before, since there are a lot of these story.  Mark said that when we got to the last Snow and Bigby story, no one was going to draw that but him — I think the knives were out when he said that.

We have just a huge Fables cast, some of whom really need to have that last moment.  There are one or two artists — I'm reluctant to name them before they've agreed — but, for example, at one point we were going to have a hero of mine, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez draw a short story, but then a schedule problem stopped him, and so I'm going to try and cash that favour in.

Like many in this business, I've kept a mental checklist of people that I wanted to work with some day, and I was able to cross off like Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben and a few others.  I was able to cross off Steve Ditko, even though it was secret!  It was long ago, long before Fables, and Steve Ditko was working for one of Jim Shooter's companies on this trading card set that was also a comic story.  He drew it all and my studio mate, Keith Wilson, inked it.  One day, I walked in and said, "Keith, you don't have to pay me a dime, and I won't even try to take credit, but I'm inking three of those cards," just so that I could say that once in my life I had worked with Steve Ditko.  I couldn't even tell you which ones they were — probably the badly-inked ones.

I do these little wish lists, and I'm still gunning for a few people up there.  Shelly Bond almost died the day that we were doing some House of Mystery short stories and she got Neal Adams to do Chris Roberson's story and not mine!  "Shelly, walk out of the room — you're gonna die!"  So, I wanna still check that off — Barry Windsor-Smith, dear god!  Lots of people, I know there's no chance, but I've got to give a shot.  Anyone I've ever been wowed about — but that list is too long because there's so much wonderful talent in the world.

GL: Without any spoilers, can you tell us the premise of this final arc?

BW: I'll tell you the jeopardy.  In Fables, we revolve around two core relationships: the Bigby and Snow White marriage, which was my attempt to explore an essentially stable, working marriage because the cliché in entertainment is to explore the broken relationships, because that's instant drama, and that's what you need for a good story.  So, it's hard to write about a working… well, anything!  So, that was one challenge, which was mirrored in the Beauty and the Beast relationship.  But the other relationship at the core of this was the thoroughly dysfunctional one, which is the relationship between Snow White and Rose Red.  There's two sisters that, depending on what day of the week it is, or what year it is, they're either best friends or worst enemies.  It seems like there's no inbetween.  But, all of the toxic stuff that went into that first abandonment — that Rose has never really recovered from — is still there and has never been aired out fully.  Well, the entire final arc is airing that out fully.

I was raised in a house full of sisters, so I know what it's like — dear god, I know what it's like!  But these, as we've hinted at all along, are two magical beings, even though we've never seen really how that manifests.  Well, this is a story about how it manifests, and it just gets big, and dire, and dark as these two go at it.  The title of the last arc is "Happily Ever After" — whether that's sincere or ironic, I will not say.  When what's incredibly powerful about them starts to manifest, it's like twin singularities that just [makes a sucking noise].  There's one page where everything is literally being sucked into a void.

When Matt Sturgess and I ended Jack of Fables, we ended by killing everyone off, because that was fun.  So, the only promise here is that not everyone will die.

GL: The Fables universe got a little bit bigger last year when Tell Tale Games brought out the game The Wolf Among Us. Have you played it?  What are your thoughts on how it's interpreted your work?

BW: Oh, I have played it, but I'm a terrible video game player.  The first time they ran it through for me, they didn't even let me play it, because they wanted to show me how the game could work, not how I can't.  It was just wonderful, though, and I've been a consultant on it all along.  I've actually been the worst consultant in history, or at least the most greedy, because we worked out a deal where I'll keep them on the right track and get a little something-something for it.  But, they created such a wonderful story and when they say they've read every issue, they know everything frontwards and backwards.  There was no major thing to correct.  I did a little few things, like remind them that Bigby can't got to the Farm, or certain lines that didn't quite work, but no big thing at all.  I feel like I'm cheating!

I've been with it from almost the beginning.  I'm just delighted that it's coming out now, and still a little surprise by each episode, because writing games is so different an animal.  You have to account for every possibility that the players can choose, so you'll see the characters say almost the same line over and over, and I just couldn't follow it to begin with.  Eventually, I got the rhythm, but some of things still come as a surprise to me — I get to approach it almost as a first-time player.

Just anecdotally, this is the first big convention I've done since it started to come out, and half of the people that came up to get their Fables signed told me that they had played the game and heard about the comics, so decided to give them a try.  That was, of course, the evil, diabolical plan all along — to bring more readers on.

I do want it on the record, though — I know some news outlets have said that the game is written by me.  I'm not the writer.  I can't name all the team, but they are a great team, and just terrific writers — my hat is off to them.  I'm not actually wearing a hat, for truth in reporting here [laughter] — but excuse me for just one second.  [Shouts to a person in the crowd] Miss?  Can I borrow your hat for just one second?  [Willingham wears the hat, then takes it off] OK, my hat is now off to you guys!

GL: One thing that became obvious from the game — and you've explored this in the comics as well — is that even before issue one there is a huge back story there and there are lots of tales that still exist, that haven't been told yet.  Is there a little temptation somewhere in the back of your head that thinks you might return to those stories one day?

BW: I won't give you a direct answer, I'll answer you this way — Shelly Bond who is editor of the series, I don't think that when we say we're ending at 150, she's understands that we're ending at 150.  I mean, she says, "Oh, OK — ending at 150…" but I don't think it's ever going to sink in because she keep floating new Fables stories ideas by me.  "We should do a graphic novel about this…"  and I have to say, "Now, Shelly…  You know it's ending,"  and she says, "Well, yeah, but in a year, and we could do all these other projects in a year."  "But Shelly…."

So, at least in one person's mind in the big Fables team, that door is still open for someday coming back and doing more things.  I certainly won't say: no, it's done.  I'll let the readers decide, after we do the last issue, whether the door is truly open for more stuff.

Gavin Lees writes for Bleeding Cool Magazine and assorted other publications.  He lives in Seattle.

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.

globe