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Interview: Bill Willingham Talks FABLES, Werewolves and Putting Characters in Tough Places

For over ten years, FABLES has been non-stop quality and entertainment.

FABLES is one of those comics that has prestige. There are certain comics people know are really good, regardless if they've read it or not. FABLES takes the idea of fairy tale characters and places them in adult situations. By 'adult situations,' that doesn't necessarily mean the naughty stuff. Having these characters hiding in the real world, trying to survive and fight their enemies has been a fascinating journey these past ten years. And that is the amazing thing, Bill Willingham has been writing these characters consistently for those ten years and (thankfully) there doesn't appear to be an end in sight.

With the recent releases of FABLES: WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND, FAIREST Vol. 1 and the upcoming trade of Cubs in Toyland, we took the opportunity to talk to Bill about the world he's created and characters he's fleshed out.

Comic Vine: When does WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND take place?

Bill Willingham: In series continuity, or in the FABLES timeline, it takes place just as Fabletown had lost their big battle with Mr. Dark. They were in the position of having to abandon the Farm. They hightailed it out and just as they were doing that, King Cole sends Bigby Wolf on a mission. He says, "Look, we're down to our last refuge. We don't want to have this and no other possibilities. So go find us another place to possibly rebuild Fabletown or just to hide out."

During this time, Bigby wonders the land looking for another place to possibly build another Fabletown in America that is remote enough to survive. The original founding of Fabletown was back when New York was still New Amsterdam and it was still just a single settlement huddled on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. So they went up to the Upper West Side and said "This is remote enough. We'll be left alone for centuries here." Of course people spread out much faster than you expect. History rushes along much quicker than you hope for and they found themselves surrounded by New York City in almost no time at all.

The original idea was, let's be remote and aloof from the rest of the world. They're revitalizing that idea. Bigby goes to the heartland, to the American midwest because…well, it's remote in many key places. The small towns of the midwest are dying because people are flocking to the cities and the coasts. The agrarian America is replaced by industrial America and now, electronic age America. The midwest is getting abandoned to a great extent. I think if we did replace Fabletown somewhere, it would be in one of these places where you can now go and buy the entire town just because it's dying. You could pick up the entire place all at once, which is one of my ambitions by the way. I would love to just buy a town someday.

Bigby's wandering the heartland looking for places when he comes across Story City, Iowa, which is a real place, and it is not dying but for reasons that can only be explained by reading the book, seems to be inhabited entirely by werewolves. Which is where we get everything promised by the title, Werewolves of the Heartland. Bigby has to figure out why they're there and how they came to be. It turns out to, without trying to spoil too much, have something to do with his past.

CV: Why did you choose a story with a specific time frame as a separate graphic novel?

BW: The time frame is just here's where I can do it. Here's a place in the longterm plans we had for FABLES, here's the time in which I could get Bigby off by himself at this a moment. We have such specific plans for him so those times are rare. It was just the best time to do it. We wanted to do Bigby solo adventure for some time. It was just a matter of finding the place. One of the disadvantages of planning FABLES so far in advanced is that you do have to look for those niches of time and place in which to take a character off if you want that character to have his own adventure.

CV: With an original graphic novels, do you write it differently knowing it will be read in its entirety rather than spread across issues?

BW: I'm sure I do. I try to make sure each issue justifies itself because this is a serial medium. The readership is not too often put in a place of "Yeah, nothing happened in this issue but it sets up things for later on, so just bear with us." That said, I don't think that's entirely an illegitimate thing to do if everything is all the height of payoff and resolution in every issue, then you don't have the careful building of tension that really make the dramatic moments pay off. You have to have your highs and lows or you have to have times when it doesn't look like much is happening but then when the big payoff occurs, you look back and say, "Oh, so all of that was important." We try to balance that. I know the collection will be around much longer than the individual issues, the one that's going to have to stand the tests of time, so probably my goal is more geared towards that. Ultimately though, with any story, the proof of it is, do they feel they got their money's worth and not feel cheated at the end of however many pages you give them?

CV: Do you have thoughts of other original graphic novels focusing on other FABLES characters?

BW: Constantly! Much more than we could ever get to. Which is part of the reason of starting FAIREST. Since we can't get to all the things that can be done with these characters, why not invite some other teams of writers and artists in to try their hand at some of it.

CV: What's your full roll in FAIREST? How much control do you have in characters used and direction of the stories?

BW: I suppose a lot of control. We've never gotten to the point where a writer wants to do something with a character that I don't want and DC says, "You know what? To Hell with you Willingham, we're gonna them do it anyway."

The process of who does write a story for FAIREST starts with them kind of pitching the idea to me. I'm the first level of filter. That said, I'm trying not to rule this with an iron hand. It's more a case where people are trying certain stories and I get to pick the best, most compelling one amongst several possibilities. And that's a nice way to do it. Because inevitably, the deciding factor is which one of these do I most want to read as a reader and enjoy? The problem is, on one hand I want to control everything to make sure they don't go too far off the rails in what is essentially my sandbox. On the other hand, I want to remain ignorant as to what's coming up so I can see them as any other reader does to be surprised and fascinated by them. It's kind of an ongoing conflict between those two extremes.

CV: With the first trade of FAIREST plus past series such as the CINDERELLA ones, what's it like seeing stories from your world being written by others?

BW: It's nice. The whole reason I write FABLES is this is the kind of story I enjoy. Any opportunity to see other people writing stories in this great big sandbox where I get to approach them as a fan and as a reader, I'm all for it.

The prose novel world has been revisiting fairy tale literature for some time so I get a good deal of that. I get to enjoy things like Once Upon a Time on TV that's not FABLES. They're taking these same characters in different ways. I get to say, "Ooh, I wish I would have thought of that" or "Ooh, I wouldn't have done that."

CV: You recently did an eight part story in FABLES ("Cubs in Toyland"), do you approach the writing differently knowing you have more room to tell the story rather than try to fit it into 2 or 3 issues?

BW: Absolutely. There are some constraints. When we were doing The Good Prince, I think that was like a ten-parter, there were those moments when Shelly and others at DC/Vertigo asked "How much longer is this going to go on?" They did give me the room and the leeway. There were also some readers who were wondering when this was going to get wrapped up. I think those concerns are something that, in the individual issues, are a concern. But when they're collected into a big collection, like the one that's about to come out, it's not really that important.

The story takes as long as it's going to take. There's very few times when someone's in the middle of a huge novel that they're thoroughly enjoying, and I'm being very arrogant here by the assumption that people are enjoying FABLES, but in the middle of a novel, people don't say, "This is great. I'm having a great time. I just wish there weren't so many pages left because I want it to be over soon." If they're anything like me, they get towards the end of a novel and they get sort of this regret over running out of pages. You just want it to go on.

That said, I take as a general rule, as much time as I want with a story. Cubs in Toyland being the most recent example of possibly doing it an issue or two longer than some folks would have liked. But it was those two issues that I needed. Even with these sprawling epics, near the end of them, I wish I had more room. There is that battle between getting to the point and having the room and the luxury in which to do it.

CV: Your next arc is focusing on Snow White. She's always been an incredible character under your guidance, what is it about her that sets her apart from the other Fables?

BW: Snow White was the very first character to be introduced in FABLES. Granted there was that one-page interaction between Jack and Bigby but it was Snow White that had the first sustained scene that we see okay, this is what she's all about. This is the way she's definitely not the Snow White you last heard of from the fairy tales. Because of that, I thinks she's rightfully earned her place in the forefront of the Fables story outline.

But Snow White has never really had her story arc. She's been an important part in many story arcs but this one is hers. The whole purpose of the arc is to really see what she's made of. In most dramas you find out what people are made of by putting them a tough place. And Snow White is in perhaps in the toughest place she's ever been in which is she has two missing children, which is a carry over from the 'Cubs in Toyland' story arc.

On top of that, her husband, Bigby, is away looking for said missing children. So she does not have him to rely on. It's very easy, I would think, to be a tough piece of business like Snow White is when at the snap of your fingers you have the greatest of all monsters at your beck and call to back up your plate. One of the things we wanted to do was get rid of him right away. There's no better way to do that than doing what a husband and father should do is if your kids are lost, one of you should stay home in case they show up and the other should go out looking for them. She's on her own.

In addition to the missing children, some hardships come along, some challenging things and she does not have the opportunity now just to turn to the monster she's married to. We're going to see what she's made of in an emotional, tactical and a physical sense.

CV: How many issues will this arc be?

BW: Five. It's going to be pretty quick and deadly.


CV: You're about to hit issue 125 and have been working on the series for ten years now, what is it about these characters that has kept you working on the series?

BW: One thing is it's a sprawling cast. You don't have to stay interested in any one character. So much of FABLES is a matter of taking one character aside and saying, let's see what we can do with him. The "him" could be like in The Good Prince story arc, a character that was intended to be a one-joke in the background mopping the floor. We can say, well, what could be made of him once we put the pressure on him?

Fairy tales have an endless supply. Apparently we're re-discovering new ones. There's been this cache of a hundred or so fairy tales re-discovered. We're not going to run out of potential characters. The rest of it is people continue to be interested. You fall in love and stay married to the same person for years at a time because that person continues to be a joy and delight to be around for a long period of time. I just think it's the nature of you like exploring new characters but you also like being with old friends with whom you're familiar. FABLES is in a position to capitalize on both of those.

CV: I hate to ask this but in the last ten years, did you ever think of taking a break from FABLES?

BW: Apparently the official view from Vertigo is 'no.' The other answer is, of course. But even though you and the readers get FABLES once a month every month for ten years, it's not really done on a regular basis. I do a lot of things, a lot of different stories. I take breaks from FABLES all the time. The way that works is, like with the Snow White story arc, for example, I'll do a bunch of issues of those all at once over a week or a few days. I'll get ahead for a few issues and then take a break or extended break, which I did in this case, to go to Italy and finish a novel. There's nothing like going somewhere and writing a novel, staying away from FABLES for more than a month and then come back fully refreshed. I said, "Whoa, I miss these characters and stories and I want to get back into it." So it remains fresh in many ways because I'm able to structure the writing and take breaks from time to time.

CV: That's great to hear. We're absolutely looking forward to the next arc.

BW: Well thank you. Thank you very much. We are too. With any arc, I think we earn our readers back every time. We don't get to rely on them always being there and I hope that they'll find the Snow White story arc to be exciting and frustrating and compelling.

FABLES: WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND, FAIREST: WIDE AWAKE are on sale now. FABLES VOL 18: CUBS IN TOYLAND is on sale January 16 and FABLES #125 is on sale January 23.

11 Comments Refresh
Posted by fables87

I love Fables and always will love it. One thing that keeps me read it is the female characters. Has some of the best for comic books that don't make them look like sex objects. That comic knows how to treat their characters. It's one of the few I really like every one.

Posted by Renchamp

I have really got to start reading these. Great interview.

Posted by NewKid

the most consistent ongoing ever...

Posted by pspin

I love Fables but there are so many trades catching up is hard and expensive; that isn't even counting the spin-offs.

Regardless, it is a great series and Willingham is great.

Posted by kennybaese

I do love me some Fables. It's the book that I introduce friends to more so than any other book I read, superhero or otherwise. That said, I found Werwolves of the Heartland to be kind of a bummer. The writing was fine, but it wasn't as good as the main series consistently has been and the art was incredibly off putting to me. It felt unfinished or something in a lot of spots.

Posted by Miss_Garrick

If Bigby needs to find a decent sized area to move everybody, He should check out Wyoming. There's MILES of nothing for miles around!

Posted by lykopis

A great series that stays great.

Looking forward to all the new books and having Snow on her own sounds good to me.

Posted by longbowhunter

I really want to read the Bigby GN, but I so far behind in the main series.

Posted by G-Man

@pspin: Just pick up the next trade whenever you can get one. Little by little, you'll catch up. It's great reading in chunks.

@kennyshat: I love FABLES but that wasn't my favorite story. Parts of the art were off for me.

@longbowhunter: I say get caught up on the main series first.

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

Vertigo's strongest book right now, in my opinion. And of course Willingham kills it and will continue to do so.

Posted by kennybaese

@G-Man: Exactly. I think there were two artists on the book. One was alright, but the other had I style that was similar just a lot simpler. As a result, all of that art felt rushed and unfinished. Plus, the inking felt really light and the colors were super drab. I think they were trying to make it look less cartooney and more serious, but it just ended up looking kind of rushed and boring.