Bill Willingham created the fan favorite series Fables by twisting the fairy tale characters we know and love into a modern setting. Now, he's taking the characters of Dynamite Entertainment and twisting them into a steampunk setting giving us a new take on Vampirella, The Green Hornet, The Six Million Dollar Man and many more. Tony Lee chatted with the writer about his new series, how it came about and why he doesn't like the name "steampunk".
Tony: Bill, you're best known for Fables, where you've taken some of the best-loved characters from myth and folklore and created an entirely new mythology around them. Now you're doing the same with some of Dynamite's most iconic characters. How did this start?
Bill: Nick and I had been talking about my doing some book for Dynamite sometime, but it had never gelled, because I wasn't in a place where I had an open enough schedule to create something creator-owned, from the ground up, because there's a lot of legal housekeeping chores associated with creating a new series that don't exist when borrowing someone else's characters. However, if I were to write licensed characters I wanted said character or characters all to myself. I didn't want to coordinate continuity with one or more other writers. I basically told Nick I would be interested in a wide array of characters, as long as I was the only one writing them at the time. That wasn't possible, of course. All of their licensed characters were appearing in one or more other books, which I understood completely. I made an unreasonable demand and the right thing to do was for Dynamite to let it go. Then one day Nick called with a way we might be able to do something using all of those characters, while still making my versions of them unique and untouched by any other human hands (or inhuman hands – yeah, I'm looking at you, Matt Wagner). Once I began to see where Nick was going with his wild idea, we were off to the races.
Tony: Is this your first time working in the steampunk genre?
Bill: Yes. It's a genre I avoided before, for no better reason than I like everything about it except its name, which was started as a joke, but then stuck. The things I like about steampunk have nothing to do with the qualities of a punk. These are the worlds of HG Wells and Jules Verne. They didn't write punks. They wrote of gentlemen adventurers, men and women of dignity tempered with grit and bold action. Punks perfectly fit the cyberpunk sub-genre, because cocky punks is exactly who they were, and which is exactly why I never warmed up to it. A better name for this sub-genre would be steampulp, but I suspect the ship has already sailed on that possibility.
Tony: Were you allowed to pick and choose your characters, or were there stated guidelines from the start?
Bill: There was a master list given to me of who was available. From that list I picked the characters I thought I might be able to do something interesting with.
Tony: How were the licensors during the writing? Were there any changes you had to make?
Bill: None. I have no idea what it was like dealing with the property owners, since I didn't have to deal with them. Nick and Molly and the others at Dynamite were the perfect buffers and filters, leaving me to do the fun part, unencumbered with that side of doing licensed characters. That said, I think their dealings with the property owners must have gone well, since nothing I wanted to do so far (knock wood) has been rejected.
Tony: You've worked with a lot of licensed characters in the years you've written comics, but this is possibly one of the most radical reinterpretations of established canons you've done.
Bill: Oh yeah. Every character was changed in some way to suit this world and this genre. Some changes were deep and radical, while others only had to be altered in more subtle ways.
Tony: How much of a challenge was it to change them to fit the story, yet at the same time keep them recognizable to the reader?
Bill: We'll see, won't we? Ultimately it's up to the readers to judge if I rose properly to the challenge or if I fumbled the ball. That said, I had a blast refocusing each of these characters through the prism of a new world and new interpretation. This series really shows new and alternate world versions of beloved characters. Those original alternate versions still exist out there, but these shadow versions (to borrow a term from the great Roger Zelazny) exist now too, as legitimate as their other-world doppelgangers.
Tony: Were there any characters that you weren't able to use, but would have loved to have placed in the story?
Bill: I wanted to work The Shadow in too, but there wasn't story room to do so. It was a choice between The Shadow and The Green Hornet, since both would occupy the same big city in which our story begins, and both would serve the same basic purpose of moving the tale from point A to point B. Using both would have been redundant, so I reluctantly went with Green Hornet, since he loomed a wee bit larger in my personal mythology.
Tony: Characters aside, how much of a challenge was it to design the world of Legenderry?
Bill: A big and wonderful challenge. World building is one of the things I love most about working in the fantasy genres. Oddly enough though, I built the world of Legenderry before I knew I'd be working with Nick and Dynamite. I wanted the world to exist so I built it, knowing I'd find a story to fit it someday. When Nick called and started outlining the notion of creating new steampunk versions of existing characters, all sharing the same world, I had to interrupt him and say the world already existed, almost as if I knew he were coming.
Tony: What can readers new to Dynamite expect from this series? And what can the long term fans of these characters look forward to?
Bill: The long term fans will (hopefully) see that I handled each of their beloved characters with love equal to theirs, and devotion to the elemental, unchangeable core of said character. Every change made was done for the good of the story, without sacrificing the heart of the original version. For all readers, potential and committed, I promise what any story has to deliver: my best shot at crafting a great story, full of high adventure, low comedy, and moments of unapologetic heroism.
Tony: What else are you up to at the moment?
Bill: Well, by this time the news has broken that Fables will be wrapped up in just a bit over a year from now. I'm working hard on making sure it ends well, including many of the qualities mentioned in the answer just above. I'm also working on two new prose novels. One is written and in the cleaning-it-up stage, while the other is just begun. Then there's that other secret thing…
Legenderry #1 is due out in January from Dynamite Entertainment.
Besides doing this interview, Tony Lee is also working on a comic for Dynamite, Starbuck, with issue 1 in stores now.