This March, Vertigo Comics expands the world of “Fables,” the Eisner-Award winning monthly comic book series, with “Fairest,” a spinoff series designed to explore Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and many other characters from the popular and long-running fairytale comic.
Announced at last year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego by “Fables” creator Bill Willingham, “Fairest” will have a rotating roster of artists and writers. The first arc focuses on Sleeping Beauty is written by Willingham and drawn by “New X-Men” artist Phil Jimenez, followed by a Rapunzel story arc by South African novelist Lauren Beukes and “Fables” artist Inaki Miranda. While the creative teams and characters for the rest of the series are still unannounced, “Fairest” will also feature a Cinderella installment by returning “Cinderella: Fables Are Forever” writer Chris Roberson and artist Shawn McManus, and a story revolving around an unnamed character by writer Sean E. Williams.
Taking a break from his busy writing schedule, “Fairest” creator Willingham spoke with CBR News about the spinoff, touching on his upcoming Sleeping Beauty story, the reasoning behind which “Fables” characters will appear in the series and details about the all-ages book he considered doing instead of “Fairest.”
CBR News: “Fairest” is out this March. I know Shawn McManus and Chris Roberson are going to be doing another “Cinderella” miniseries as part of “Fairest.” Was the success of the previous two “Cinderella” miniseries partly the inspiration for “Fairest?”
Bill Willingham: Well, sort of. I had two ideas for a “Fables” spinoff, and one was to spinoff the cubs for an all-ages book. I still think there’s something there; I still think that “Fables” is probably the most all-ages book that Vertigo does. There are some adult matters addressed, obviously, and I do wince a little bit when I hear someone say, “My fourteen-year-old daughter started reading ‘Fables.'” I’m like, “OK, I hope there’s someone there to answer questions!”
So that was one idea. Vertigo was not terribly open to the idea of confusing the brand, that if we teach kids that anything in Vertigo you can pick up, they’re going to get into some trouble. But the other alternative was to pick up on what Chris and Shawn were doing with Cinderella and expanding it to, well there’s not just the one character Cinderella that we can take a more detailed look at. That’s, when all’s said and done, the stronger idea — one because if it was the cubs I’d have to write each and every issue because I’m very particular about where they go, the direction of these characters. And there are just some wonderful writers out there, many who are terrific and proven writers in different venues. Sean Williams is coming up with — well I can’t say who the character is! — but [Sean’s] from Hollywood and screenwriting and that, whereas Lauren Beukes is doing a Rapunzel arc in “Fairest” and she’s from the novel world. As a matter of fact she just won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So it’s these wonderful writers from other fields coming to ply their comic skills for the first time, and “Fairest” was a venue where that could happen, so I think we made the right decision. But it definitely is, “Let’s get some great artists and great writers into the “Fables” camp to show their stuff!”
Are these stories in “Fairest” going to be different tonally and structurally since you have such diverse voices coming in?
Yes, I think so. Let’s understand that the tone and the diversity will come from the writers themselves because we’re not assigning them stories. We’re not saying, “Here, do a Cinderella story and have this, this, and this happen to her.” It’s more, “Do you have a Cinderella story?” Of course with Chris and Shawn, not only were able to answer yes to one of those, they were able to answer yes to many of those. That’s the same template with the others. Lauren Beukes had a very particular Japanese mythology-based, folklore-based Rapunzel story in mind, which answers the question, “Where does the wishing well come from?” and it answers it nicely with a very sound folkloric base. We said, “Yes, of course that has to be what that story is!” These are different characters; we want them to be considered wildly different. We don’t want a bunch of cookie-cutter beautiful female leads, we want vastly different ones, so having different writers is obviously the way to do that.
Along the lines of not wanting cookie-cutter leads, the image in the official solicitation that Adam Hughes did now shows not just Rapunzel and Snow White but a larger variety of characters under the “Fairest” title. On the Clockwork Storybook site you named a several of the characters on that cover, including Nurse Spratt and Ali Baba.
You’ve said before the choices for “Fairest” would surprise people — how did you go about choosing which characters you wanted to explore?
Well, the premise of the book is she — or perhaps he — is the fairest in all the land. The funny thing about “Fables” is, in an individual fairy-tale you can get away with that: this character is the fairest in all the land! But “Fables” posits that all fairytales not only are true but happened — not in the same neighborhood but maybe in adjoining neighborhoods, and all of these are now thrust together in a small community. One fairest in all the land is possible — when you get thirty different characters who are all supposedly the fairest in all the land then some interesting things can be explored there. The one choice for who gets to have their story told is, “Can you make a case that this character is, or aspires to be, the fairest in all the land.” That’s a pretty wide-ranging, open door policy. Without going into any details, down the line we’re going to have one of the Animal “Fables” characters get a story arc in “Fairest,” because that particular animal is the fairest version of that animal, so that fits into the premise for the series.
The Adam Hughes cover image shows plenty of the other characters, but you’ve just mentioned one that obviously isn’t depicted. For you, is there an end point in mind that you know you’re going to tell the stories of X many characters and then you’re done? Or is it an ongoing series of miniseries with no distinct stopping point in mind?
I don’t have a distinct stopping point in mind. First thing that happens is this is going to be a venue for working with writers I want to work with. That’s absolutely the first consideration. So and so is a great writer — would he or she like to do a “Fables”-esque story? The very first question asked under these circumstances is, “Is there any character who you would really like to tell a story about?” One of the things we’d like to do if this thing turns out to have legs is, just as Chris Roberson and Shawn McManus have kind of staked out the Cinderella character so when she comes back, if it’s at all possible, we want them doing her, I would not be opposed at all if some of these other writers and artist teams staked out their particular characters.
For example, I’m not saying this is actually happening, but for example if anytime we do a Briar Rose or Snow Queen story, well Phil Jimenez has to come back and draw because he’s established that this is her. I would love that to be the case. I would love for “Fairest” to be this empire made up of tiny little kingdoms staked out by these wonderful creators who would come back every once in a while. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of stories. The idea that you can run out of stories to tell is a completely alien concept to me. I’m not even sure how to answer that question! You know what my preference is? To go on forever! But that’s my preference with everything.
Because you brought up Phil, you two are working on the first Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty story and you’ve spoken very highly of him before — for you, what does Phil as an artist bring to the character and the story of Sleeping Beauty?
A temptation to get religious because I should thank someone he came along, so why not thank god? I mean the guy is a godsend, if there’s any way to define that term, just wonderful. The quality of his work speaks for himself. He just nails it. He brings a certain amount of perfection where, just like the most wonderful meal, it had to be that, and when it’s done you don’t want any more. You’re exactly as full as you want to be. That’s what he brings. Oh, and he draws well!
As you mentioned, “Fairest” is an endless concept and there are very deep well of characters to choose from. Why did you want to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty in this very first arc rather than, say, Spratt or any of the other characters?
Well, interestingly enough I didn’t think about Sleeping Beauty — if I was to be one of the regular returning people in this rotation I was going to go with Thumbelina. The idea of a tiny character in a very big world appealed to me and I think there’s a lot you can do with that that hasn’t been explored yet. But Thumbelina couldn’t really be the first arc in this because one thing we discussed is, if we are going to do this we’ve left poor Briar Rose sleeping away for years if not forever. So the very first thing we have to do with “Fairest” is get her awake and back in action, and we thought it was politic to kick off the series with me doing the first arc. So that’s why those two combined together. We have a very specific place where all three of those characters — Ali Baba, Briar Rose the Sleeping Beauty and the Snow Queen — are going to be left in at the end of this arc. But they’re places where other writers can pick them up and run with them if that turns out to be the case. My job is to kind of get these characters in the right place to be part of the whole “Fairest” rotation, the whole “Fables” rotation again, and hopefully tell a good story in the process of doing that. And if I come back I think, I suspect Thumbelina. Now those plans could always change, the most wonderful writer could come along and go, “That’s the character I need, I need little Thumbelina,” and we’re not going to dig our feet in.
Even though each of these stories functions as its own miniseries exploring different characters, are they going to be self-contained or will there be threads from the main “Fables” storylines crossing over into the “Fairest” brand?
That’s a very good question, and the answer is sort of both. We’re going to try and have our cake and eat it too. We’re going to be very aware of what’s happening in the main “Fables” storyline. And I don’t even really feel terribly comfortable calling it the “main” Fables storyline, implying that the other one isn’t as important. But yeah, they all do inhabit the same fictional world, so you don’t want a lot of contradictory stuff going on.
That said, with “Fairest” if you want a particular creative team doing something you’re going to have to work with their schedule so there’s going to be some jumbling around to make things link up. We want the “Fairest” stories to be as self-contained as possible in the one sense that you do a character, you do an arc, this has to matter. The character cannot be the same person at the end of the arc that she or he is at the beginning. You have to tell a significant story. But there will be threads that carry over. There will be characters almost like what we did with “Jack Of Fables” where Jack eventually built up his own kind of character ensemble and those continued on and we saw them again and again. There will be characters native to the “Fairest” series that eventually pop up, because that is the nature of the beast, whom we will want to continue on. So when a new team comes in to take over a character or bring a different character to the forefront, you still might see continuing aspects with some of the other character’s situations. Ideally we would be able to do all of it, and we should. I want to wallow in every fun aspect of doing this kind of story.
Is there any chance we’ll see Phil Jimenez crossing over to do “Fables” art?
Don’t let him know this, but Phil does not understand his career is over in the sense that he’s a “Fables” artist now — if we can have our way we’re never returning him back to the rest of the world, we’re keeping him! He may not go along with that, but you know artists have better careers if you don’t give them too many decisions to make about their own lives!
All joking aside, Phil Jimenez can, for the rest of at least my career and for as long as “Fables” and “Fairest” last, at any time drop back into our family and say “I want to do something” and we’ll get him something immediately. He’s just that terrific. He has a lifetime membership, if he wants it!
To wrap things up, it’s been a little over ten years of “Fables” as an ongoing Vertigo series, you’ve had multiple Eisner nods and wins, and you have the “Fables” video game still on the table — in short, when it comes to modern comics you are the guy synonymous with “fairytales.” What is it about fairytales that originally captivated you as a storyteller?
Several things. One of the, I don’t know if you’d call it faults, but one of the aspects of the way I write stories that I don’t think is as strong with me as it is with other writers is I don’t feel I introduce characters well. It takes me a while to get to know them. With using characters that have already been established, everybody’s read and knows a little bit of, “Well of course I know Snow White, at least I know this much about her.” That kind of awkward, ice-breaking introductory moment at the beginning of this kind of storytelling is bypassed. We can move right beyond that into the meat of it. Sure there are some introductory aspects in that, sure this isn’t the Snow White you thought you knew and this is what’s happened to her lately. But that’s not quite the same, because that builds more intrigue. The reader interest is already written into the equation. You don’t have to romance the reader into liking that character. That’s one aspect of it.
The other aspect of it is just the idea that these are folktales in every sense of that. They’re not just public domain characters that anyone can use because of vast collective ownership. If everyone owned every 100% piece of this character in some kind of multiple universe overlap kind of way, everyone who wants to can come along and do their own Snow White. That kind of just absolute freedom — it’s like the universe of a million previous authors and writers and story-spinners has left this to you in their will. Why not make use of these treasures that have been handed down to you? Interestingly enough they left it to everyone else too, but that’s OK! It’s having a treasure trove where you can play any kind of game you want. How could I resist that?
Finally, what do you think will surprise “Fables” fans, both about “Fairest” and your first Sleeping Beauty story?
You know, I don’t know. Surprise is valuable, I suppose, because no one wants to write a story where you know everything that’s going to happen. So certain surprise is an important element of storytelling. But if it was the only element people would never want to watch the same movie twice; “I’ve seen a blockbuster where things get blown up, I don’t need to see one of those again, I only want to see one romantic comedy,” things like that. Instead we often want more of the same, only different. There’s not just one love story in the world, there’s billions, so let’s see a few more. That is what we’re offering, which is the old saw that there are only eight real stories that are told again and again — people change the number a bit — but it’s all about how you tell it, the devil is in the details. We’re going to spin the best stories we know how to tell. Heroism, adventure, romance, black-hearted betrayal, all of that which is the oft-visited building blocks of story are going to be there again and again, but a little differently this time. History doesn’t really repeat, but it does re-set; here are the same pieces — let’s see what you can do with them. That set is what I hope the readers will find, where you simultaneously get that sense of adventure and that sense of home, the familiar. If we can pull both off at the same time, we’re doing pretty good.
“Fairest” issue #1 hits stores March 7.