With “Fables” reaching its landmark 100th issue today, CBR News connected with creator Bill Willingham to discuss his multiple Eisner Award-winning Vertigo series in full detail. Joining in the celebratory conversation was Matt Sturges, the co-writer of “Jack of Fables,” the “Fables” spinoff series that draws to close in February with its fiftieth issue.
For Mundies unaware of what we’re talking about, “Fables,” launched by the DC Comics imprint in 2002, follows the epic adventure of a number of the most famous characters in the history of fairy tales and folklore, including the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Prince Charming and Jack Horner. These Fables were forced out of the Homelands by a nemesis known as The Adversary and, for a time, lived in a magically-hidden community in New York City known as Fabletown.
With the Adversary now living amongst the Fables as a member in good standing, a new threat – Mister Dark – has pushed the Fables from their home once again and now a witch known for baking children for breakfast must face off against him in a battle for the ages.
Willingham and Sturges shared their thoughts on many of the major players living within the “Fables” universe, teased what’s to come for some of them, and revealed why “Jack of Fables” was coming to an end. (It’s Matt’s fault!)
CBR News: What better place to start than the beginning? Bill, can you take us back to when you first pitched “Fables” to Vertigo?
Bill Willingham: The long and the short of it, I was working on things like “Fables” for some time. I always liked fables, folklore, fairy tales and mythology and that type of thing, to the extent that it kept working its way thematically into the other books I was doing, “Proposition Player” being a good example. And to plug a book that’s coming out soon early next year, a novel I wrote called, “Down the Mysterly River.” Anyways, those things kept showing up, even in the superhero comics, so I guess it was just a matter of time to finally admit that this was some of the stuff that interests me and I might as well come fully out of that closet and do a book about fairy tale and folklore characters.
Sturges: And you know that I love it when you bring this up. But no, what had happened was I was going to get a Master’s degree in Theology because I had essentially given up on writing as a career at that point. Bill and I had worked together in the Clockwork Storybook writing group for several years prior to this, and I had written some short stories and this novel that I couldn’t sell. I had been pitching ideas to Vertigo for quite some time at this point, and just before “Jack of Fables” happened, I thought, I had always had this interest in religion, so I’ll go and try that. That was an utter fiasco for a lot of reasons, but suffice it to say, I never actually made it to Duke. During the midst of that fiasco, that’s when I got the call from Bill, saying, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this book, ‘Jack of Fables’?” I said, “Hell, yeah.” That definitely swerved the direction of my life in a pretty major way. And of course, the fact that it was something as seedy as Jack coming right on the heels of my botched attempt at going to Divinity School was certainly one of my life’s great ironies.
I want to circle back to end of “Jack of Fables” and the forthcoming 50th and final issue, but first I want to talk about “Fables” #100 a bit more. Two characters that have been front and center heading into this historic issue are Snow White and Rose Red. Why was it important to focus on these two in particular in the arc leading directly into “Fables'” milestone issue?
Willingham: The estranged relationship between Snow and Red was there from the beginning. I knew, I think from the beginning, that it would go through its permutations and eventually lead to reconciliation. That said, I didn’t know exactly when it would happen. Obviously, the first couple of stories, “Legends in Exile,” which people often title the “Who Killed Rose Red?” storyline, was predicated on the notion that Snow and Rose Red were not getting along very well. That got exacerbated in “Animal Farm,” where it came to the point where they were strapping on guns and going against each other. So yeah, that was there from the beginning.
Why? Sibling rivalry is always an area ripe for good story conflict, I suppose. I was raised in a big family, so being mad at one’s sister is something which I’m quite familiar [Sturges laughs]. It’s the old adage that you write what you know. Not getting along with siblings, that’s something I know very well.
I was always interested by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Snow White and Rose Red” being two separate fairy tales. In the German, they weren’t really the same characters, even though both translated as Snow White, which gave me the idea that Snow White appeared in two different fables. The challenge to find a way to reconcile these two completely different fairy tales that were irreconcilable was there from the beginning, as well. I knew someday I would want to show how both original fables could have taken place. I thought I did a pretty good job of it, all things considered.
Bill, you mentioned earlier that you had to change who the Adversary was going to be. Some readers may not know that you had originally conceived the book’s first major villain as Peter Pan and not Geppetto but had to make a change due to a public domain issue. Was it always your plan to have the traditional good guy, Peter Pan, be the bad guy and have the traditional bad guy, the Big Bad Wolf, be the good guy?
First off, I never thought of the original Peter Pan as being the good guy because he’s basically this diabolical character from another world that comes into our world and steals people’s children. I don’t know any way in which you take that as the operating premise and say, “OK. He must be the hero.” Peter Pan, in my personal mythology, has always been an evil fucker. I used to have nightmares as a kid that he would come into our bedroom window and take us away to this place. I’m all for going to strange lands where you can fly and meet lovely Indian princesses as much as the next guy, but the whole idea of being stolen forever from your parents, that’s not a good thing. So it was not a choice of: “Let’s do a turnaround and make the good guy bad and the bad guy good.” Peter Pan as the Adversary was bad through and through from the get-go.
The Big Bad Wolf was almost a cold-hearted calculation on my part. He was one of my favorite fairy tales characters of all time and I thought if I cast him as he has always been cast, as a villain, I could use him maybe once or twice in this series. But if I cast him as a hero, as Bigby, then I would get to use him more often.
The one thing that I dislike in long-term series fiction is the villain that’s so good that he never goes away. Every ten months or so, he’s jumping out again and saying, “Boo” and “I’m back,” which happens in superhero fiction a lot. As a result, in order to keep this beloved villain, you have heroes that are basically impotent. They are unable to keep this guy off the streets. “We can’t get rid of this one guy, so what good are we?” So, I knew from the beginning, in order to use the Big Bad Wolf as an ongoing character, he would have to be reformed in some way. That presented an interesting challenge. “OK. How do you get this bad guy to go through a legitimate transformation to a decent bloke?”
Matt, you didn’t get Bigby but you got Jack to launch the spinoff series, a hugely popular “Fables” character in his own right. What was it about Jack that allowed him to work so well as a leading man?
Sturges: It would have been, I think, much more difficult to do a spinoff, especially that early in the game, with a character that wasn’t Jack because he’s such a larger-than-life figure anyway. He really can carry a story for quite some time. He’s really funny, he’s fun to play with and he’s a jackass, so you can do bad things to him and it’s funny. We used to hurt him physically all the time at the beginning. I was going back and re-reading some of the earlier issues, and we would do something horrible to him in every issue. We would impale him or have him set on fire, every single issue. It was great fun!
But, no, Jack was great and he was one of my favorite characters. While he was this selfish, narcissistic egomaniac, he had a code. And I love a character with a code.
Willingham: He does have a code, but did we ever have a scene where he basically says, “This is what I believe in,” or, “This is what I would fight for?” I don’t think we have. So you have to kind of read between the lines to get what his code is. With that said, he was a scoundrel. We agreed right away that we weren’t going to reform him. Or if we did, it was going to be in a way to just set up a sillier fall for him.
Sturges: Or he might think that he reformed, because even when he’s doing something good, he’s doing it for the wrong reasons.
Willingham: I don’t think it ever occurs to him that he’s in need of reform. My favorite Jack moment is when he creates, in himself, the rank of six-star general. Then somehow he talks himself into believing it’s a legitimately achieved rank because he goes through the rest of the series saying, “Look. There’s never, ever been another six-star general. Patton wasn’t a six-star general. MacArthur wasn’t. They were only fivers. I’m the only one that ever made six-star, therefore I am so obviously greater than anyone else.” And long after he’s gone from being any semblance of a guy in a war-like situation, he’s still spouting that as a resume item. I love that about him.
Sturges: He had that great t-shirt with the star and the six on it.
Willingham: Yeah, Jack had been seen many times with that t-shirt with the star on it, but after he pronounced himself a six-star general, a six just started appearing in it, courtesy of [“Jack of Fables” artist] Tony Akins.
Sturges: We’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to talk about how Tony made that book. So much of the humor and charm of it and what makes Jack likeable is Tony’s ability to draw humor. He never made it too cartoony. He never went too far. He always knew how to play a joke. And he always knew how to keep Jack’s head held high while constantly doing bad things to him.
Willingham: He draws exactly the kind of Jack who can’t believe all of these contradictory things about himself.
Interestingly enough, Tony was making a name for himself on the “Fables” book or at least as fairly as well known as Buckingham was, as the regular artist, but he could not quite keep up with the pace of doing 22 pages, 12 times a year. From time to time, I don’t like to call them fill-in artists because that implies that the story of which other artists come on board aren’t important, and I don’t think they were unimportant, but anyway, Tony was turning into the go-to-guy for that position. Part of the consideration in whether or not to even do a spinoff was to create a book where Tony was the lead guy, because he created that position for himself. He really did. And when we went looking for an artist on “Jack of Fables,” the list was exactly one person long, which was Tony. And if he turned it down, then we’d go back and figure out other options. But Tony Akins was the be-all and end-all of that particular calculation.
Sturges: Here’s a factoid. My first-ever paid comic work was an inventory script I wrote for “Fables,” which was never published but it was drawn by Tony. It was about Jack, and that was two or three years before the idea of “Jack of Fables” ever came up.
Willingham: We’ve probably nullified anything that could possibly be used in that inventory story now.
Sturges: Yes, continuity completely overtook it. But it was a lot of fun.
Matt, the solicitation for “Jack of Fables” #50 promises “this is where it all happens.” That sounds pretty big.
Sturges: Yes, everything gets paid off in “Jack of Fables” #50. Everything.
Willingham: We make a pretty good attempt to show every character that’s been in “Jack,” at least every character that’s still alive enough to merit an appearance. We pretty much wrap up every dangling plotline. At least, I think we have.
Sturges: We went through everything. I want to say everything that we had room for, we tied up with a nice little bow. I can’t imagine that there are any significant plot threads that weren’t ultimately consummated by the end.
Willingham: Oh, except that the final issue of “Jack” is a 48-page book. We, through a miscommunication, thought we had 48 pages of story in which to do it, and as it turns out, we only had 40 pages of story. So we were going to do a 40-page Jack story and an eight-page Babe story where he finally gets more than a single page to strut his stuff. Because of that miscommunication, we’re going with a 40-page main Jack story. After the “Jack” series is all well and done, we’re having a one issue Babe special. So, 20 pages or so of just Babe. I think he is the only character whose final fate is not resolved in the big “Jack of Fables” #50.
Sturges: Here’s a spoiler. He’s one of the characters that doesn’t die.
If Jack is also one of the characters that doesn’t die, is there a chance we’ll see him back in “Fables” again?
Willingham: We’re going to hold to the promise that Jack is never seen in Fabletown again. But since Fabletown kind of no longer exists, we’ve created kind of a loophole there.
Sturges: [Laughs] You never know what might happen.
Willingham: At Fables Central, we are more than willing to destroy an entire section of New York City to create a loophole in order to get us out of past promises.
Another character from “Fables” that we presume is dead, although we never saw his body, is Prince Charming. Is there any chance of seeing him again?
Willingham: Readers have asked from time to time, I guess because they died sort of close to each other, is Prince Charming or Boy Blue ever coming back. My answer so far has been, at least one of them is definitely dead forever. No hope of reprieve. Of course, that allows me to be evil by not saying which of the two that refers to. That’s not an implied promise that at least one of them is alive. So the answer to your question is, “No comment.” Although I could have said that without commenting and I did.
But now we have the tease that one of them might return, and once he does, we’ll know the other one will not.
Willingham: Possibly so, yeah. But we could use the “Deep Space Nine” maneuver wherein you had Dr. Julian Bashir, who was basically a shapeshifter for an entire season. Then they went back and said, “No. He’s actually been out of the series since such and such a time.” That’s my “Star Trek” geekiness rising to the forefront. So if we bring Prince Charming back, and it turns out he was some kind of weird doppelganger the entire time, you would think that implies that Blue is dead, but then maybe not. There is no end to the trickery and evil.
Speaking of trickery and evil, I do want it stated, without answering whether Jack lives or dies in the final issue, that the death of the “Jack of Fables” series is entirely Matt’s fault. I want it stated for the record. He called me and said, “Look. It’s time to put an end to this nonsense and silliness.” And although I had to agree, it was Matt’s idea, it was Matt’s fault.
This is why he wanted you on the call, Matt.
Sturges: [Laughs] To lay the blame squarely at my feet. No, I think anyone that has been reading “Jack” up to this point will feel that #50 is the appropriate stopping point. And after having read it, everyone will agree that there was no other way that it could have ended. It had to end when it did.
Willingham: Hopefully our storytelling is strong enough to where the last page of “Jack” #50, readers will say, “OK. I can’t see how it would be a great idea to keep the series going on from here on out.” One hopes we structured this thing and executed it well enough to where we leave each reader with that feeling of good, absolute closure. I think we’re going to be aided by the fact that Tony is drawing this and it’s on an epic scale. We’ve actually put a little mechanism into this issue to ensure this thing is huge and grand.
In “Fables” #100, we get the final confrontation between Frau Totenkinder and Mister Dark, a battle you’ve been building towards for more than a year. To create that kind of big ticket pay off, how far out do you plot “Fables?”
In broad sweeping terms, “Fables” is plotted out to #200. About there.
And that’s not the end, right? That’s just how far out you have it plotted.
Willingham: Right. That’s how far I have it planned out. That doesn’t mean that every line of dialogue and every plot twist is done, but the overall grand architecture of “Fables” is kind of locked in well in advance.
Can you give us a tease of the next big villain the Fables will face?
Willingham: I can’t even hint about that. Mysterious, huh? It’s decided. I’ll let you know that. But hopefully readers don’t think that every “Fables” story is now built around the big villain they’re fighting against at any given time. Some times the badness and the conflict is going to come from within.
Geppetto is now a member in good standing of the Fabletown Fables, so it would be very easy for the rot to come from within at this point. Or it may just be a case of chickens coming home to roost.
We have one instance where Beast made a deal with the Blue Fairy that he will have Geppetto ready to surrender when she shows up in a couple of years time, and if not, she takes [Beast] instead. Now that’s a definite Faustian bargain and those things never seem to turn out well.
I may be in the minority here, but I love Geppetto. He is my favorite character, and the way he is depicted in each appearance is always memorable. Is he a favorite of yours?
Willingham: He didn’t start that way because I never much liked the Disney version of Geppetto, that kindly old woodcarver type. In reading the original story, I was very much delighted to find that he was actually a cranky, old, piss-hat of a guy, which is a type of character I love. I love that even when he’s trying to get along in Fabletown, he will occasionally spout out something like, “Behead that woman.” It’s kind of a natural impulse. He doesn’t even think about it. Is that the right thing to do? Is that what a villain would do? No. But he’s Geppetto and he’s used to having his commands obeyed and it would never occur to him not to say things like that. I love that aspect of him that I hope that will never soften. But yeah, cranky, old bastards are incredibly fun to write. How can they not be?
I hate to segue from cranky, old bastard to Mark Buckingham, but we’re coming to the end here and I wanted to ask you about what he’s meant to “Fables” and the relationship that’s grown between the two of you these past hundred issues.
Willingham: Mark has been a godsend to “Fables.” I don’t know if the series would have lasted without him. The original idea was along the lines of “Sandman” and “Hellblazer” and things like tha,t where we would get different artists for different arcs and never have an official long-term artist. Mark changed that by coming aboard for the “Animal Farm” arc and asking to stay on. When we agreed to change our plans and just make him the regular artist, it was the smartest thing we ever did. He has just delighted us with his storytelling ability and has added so much to the series. So many of ideas that we are playing with now are things he contributed along the way.
And you got to draw for him as he wrote a prose story for “Fables” #100.
Willingham: Yeah, when we first came up with the idea, it was more of a clever stunt. Then I began to think of it as an act of penance, because writers really can be evil bastards to artists in this business. It’s very easy to write a scene like: “Two-page spread – army comes roaring down the hills and thousands engage in battle.” That’s just one line and it’s very easy to write. That poor bastard of an artist then has to draw these vast armies sweeping down into the valley and all of these battles starting to take place. That’s days out of the guy’s life you’ve just taken by writing that one line. So when we talked about doing the turnabout where he would write and I would draw, my first expectation was that he would use this as an opportunity to get very well justified revenge on every terrible thing that I’ve forced him to draw. But he actually took it pretty easy on me. So I thank him for that.
Maybe he’s waiting for “Fables” #200?
Willingham: Maybe. I hope not!