CBS’ hit television series “The Big Bang Theory” managed its largest total audience ever on January 10, boasting 19.78 million viewers amongst the all-important 18-49 demo. That’s good news for “Fables” as the multiple Eisner Award-winner received a massive endorsement when Stuart, the owner of the fictional local comic book shop on “TBBT,” recommended Vertigo’s own hit series to female characters Penny, Bernadette and Amy because “the artwork is sophisticated, it’s intelligently written and it doesn’t objectify or stereotype women.”
Not that “Fables” is hurting for readership — the long-running series, written by Bill Willingham and illustrated by Mark Buckingham, is always a top-seller when a new trade collection is released and individual issues sell a more than respectable 16,000-plus copies each month.
But just in case there is a bump in interest in the coming weeks, new readers will be arriving arrived just in time. To celebrate the title’s landmark 125th issue, Snow White — the female lead of “Fables” — receives the first-ever arc dedicated to her. And while that’s good for fans of Snow and the series, it’s too bad for Mrs. Bigby Wolf since every time an arc is named for a specific character, said character gets put through the proverbial ringer. Willingham told CBR News nothing is going to change this time around.
The fan-favorite creator shared his thoughts on Snow White, including reasons for including her as the first lady of “Fables,” why her relationship works with the Big Bad Wolf and how the Brothers Grimm-inspired character has grown into a heroine unlike so many others we’ve seen in the past.
Willingham also discussed tweeting about the death of Bigby and the forthcoming departure of Vertigo’s Executive Editor & Senior Vice President Karen Berger and the promotion of longtime “Fables” editor Shelly Bond to Executive Editor.
CBR News: Before we explore Snow White and her forthcoming arc in “Fables,” I want to discuss the leading ladies at Vertigo over the past 20 years: Karen Berger and Shelly Bond. What was your reaction to Karen stepping down as Executive Editor & Senior Vice President of Vertigo and Shelly’s promotion to Executive Editor?
Bill Willingham: Unfortunately, the news came out about the moves while I was in transit so I wasn’t able to really comment on it in public the way that so many others were. And I missed a couple of calls from Karen and [DC Entertainment President] Diane [Nelson] in California to let me know that this was happening. A lot of the speculation in the public was that Vertigo is done because Karen is leaving. And I know that was said and intended to be complimentary to Karen because she’s an instrumental, can’t-live-without-her person, which is a nice sentiment. But I was a little concerned that people were underestimating what Karen had built. She built an imprint that was more than able to survive her departure. You build good structures and they last a while. And I think she has.
Shelly stepping in as Executive Editor I think was a natural choice. She’s been with Karen all along. And I think it was a good choice.
I think Karen is going to go on to some pretty extraordinary things. Whoever it is that said that there are no second chapters in life was wrong. Maybe right generally but wrong in many, many particulars. I think we’ve not heard the last from Karen Berger.
In the meantime, Shelly is a good person to step up into that slot.
And Shelly has edited “Fables,” I believe, since Day One. Will she remain in that role moving forward?
The first conversation I had with her once I heard the news was would she be handing “Fables” off to other people? And she said, “No.” That’s the assurance I wanted. Regardless of her expanded duties, I have no idea what those expanded duties are but they will include continuing to edit “Fables.” And the “Fables”-related material, which is something, I am afraid, that I sounded a little insistent on when I was on the phone. [Laughs] But she said she had already planned it that way. So that’s good.
Let’s go back to the beginning of “Fables” because this upcoming arc is about Snow White and I wanted to know how you came on choosing her as your leading lady?
Snow White was an easy choice. The consideration for female lead in “Fables” was based on a few things. First off, she had to be a well-known character. You don’t start out affairs like this with more obscure characters. I love the more obscure fairy tale characters but you want to build an audience quickly in the comic book business because it’s a tough business in which to find an audience. So check off that box. Everybody has heard or read the Snow White story.
Secondly, and this was just a personal preference, I am a fan of the pale face/dark hair look and that’s part of her origin story: “Skin as fair as snow, lips red as blood and hair black as night.” In a strictly aesthetic sense, she appealed to one of my favorite types of female characters.
And the third thing is that she had to be a strong and commanding character for the plans I had with “Fables.” That was a bit problematic because in the fairy tale, “Snow White,” she tended to be one of those characters where things happened to her rather than taking things in her own hands and resolving them, which was typical of many fairy tales. Women were thought to be completely passive in the sense that you would occasionally get a clever one but they were the focus of what terrible bad things happened to people in fairy tales.
And perhaps justifiably so because in our less-than-honorable history, women have traditionally been in the role of terrible-bad-things-happen-to-them when bad things are afoot, be it in the woods or wartime or what have you. But we needed someone a little stronger. And even though today, new versions of Snow White are built a little tougher, a little more proactive, carrying their destiny in their own hands, that was not the case in the original tale.
Luckily though, the “Snow-White and Rose-Red” fairytale — which as a kid I thought was the same character, but it is actually two different characters in the original German tales — but she was a little more clever, a little more leading the story rather than the story happening to her, so combining the two characters gave me kind of the sliver of justification for her being a strong, take-charge woman.
But also, it was the fact that these were immortal characters. That was one of the premises of “Fables” — that they have been around for a long time. A lot of smart, strong, take-charge people become that way because they have had too many experiences in the past when they allowed things to happen and things didn’t go well. For Snow White, a lot of people who loved her, betrayed her and she starts off “Fables” being very weary of any notion of true love and when she counted on other people, she dipped into dire straits a lot, so one obvious reaction to that is coming to the decision that: “I should start running my own life and not counting on people.”
That’s how we get the Snow White that started “Fables.” Maybe a little too insistent on running her own life and a little too slow to accepting in any outside help and I think there was probably as much cause of that from the friction between her and Rose Red, even though Rose Red was a wild child and a party girl and all that, but it was just the fact that Snow White was incapable of letting anyone get close to her. The barriers were up and some of what Rose Red was at the time was probably in reaction to that.
What about her relationship with Bigby because that, I assume, was not as easy a choice?
Well, Bigby was the only choice for the male lead of this will they/won’t they ever get together kind of question. And by the way, everyone — or many often complain — that so many stories are built around a couple that you know has to end up together but they string out the will they/won’t they thing and the reason that is done so often, I think, is because it just works so well. People are naturally shippers — that is a term I have learned from my readership. Old, doddering fool that I am I did not know that it was a term that meant not packaging them up and sending them somewhere but getting two people together in a relationship.
People just want those things to occur so if you have one of these “are they ever going to get together?” situations set up, you have a majority of the readership on your side and as a storyteller, it’s really nice to get a majority of the readership on your side and trying to pull in the same direction that you are.
With that said, of course, we established that Snow White has a newly found autonomy. She thinks self-reliance is the only way to go now and as a matter of fact, at the beginning of “Fables,” she’s giving a little lecture to Beauty and the Beast about how self-reliance should be their thing, as well. “Don’t count on the Fabletown government to give you stuff. Work out your own problems yourself,” which is what she thoroughly believed.
In order to break that down, you need someone big and tough and strong enough to do it. And Bigby, who is the Big Bad Wolf turned into human form, and you also need someone from the wrong side of the tracks. Part of Snow’s problem is that she was always going for the handsome princes who would come up on white horses and take her away from all this, and she’s done with that. She’s done with the castles and the kingdoms and handsome princes and she does not want to be taken away from everything. She wants her life as she’s structured it. How much more opposite can you get in the handsome prince category than a scraggily ruffian definitely from the wrong side of the tracks? And it would have to come as a surprise. It would never occur to her to look for her true love and all that in a bedraggled peasant creature like that.
So we have Bigby and he is definitely not a handsome prince. He was definitely the bad boy writ large. I wanted to use the Big Bad Wolf as a recurring character primarily because he was my favorite fairy tale character, maybe competing with the Pied Piper of Hamelin and that’s just because it was based on a real incident, but I guess I like the villains. The problem with villains is that if you have a villain as a recurring character then the story is really about heroes that are inept. If the villain hangs around too long — Doctor Doom is always available to come out and say “boo” every once in a while — the real story is about how the good people are not able to put an end to terrible villains. They have somehow dropped the ball. And who wants to read a bunch of stories about inept heroes?
The only choice is to have a villainous character as a main, recurring character you can either have him be very villainous once or maybe twice and then you have to end it and let him get his comeuppance in some way or you can redeem him. I chose the let’s reform this guy approach only because then I could do more with him than those one or two appearances, after which I would have to let him go. And I like stories about reformed bad guys.
Some of the most patriotic Americans are the ones that come here as immigrants because they were not born with all of these freedoms. They have to actively fight to get them and as a result, they’re much more adamant in their appreciation and insistence on protecting those freedoms. Well, in the same way I think a reformed villain is a better hero in a sense that he had to do a complete internal makeover to get there and he’s not going to give that up easily. And Bigby fits that role there too.
That is why they were the top two choices for our opening point of view and it was only inevitable that we had to find someway to get these guys together.
On Halloween you tweeted that Bigby is dying in four issues, which would take us up to next month’s issue. Do we see the death of Bigby in this arc?
Maybe? Or maybe I’m just a scurrilous liar as a tweeter. Either of those may be the truth.
No one lies on Twitter, do they?
No one lies on Twitter? [Laughs] I should post that because it would, of course, win for the biggest lie ever on Twitter.
Ambrose tells Snow White’s story in this arc, correct?
Yes, we establish early on that Ambrose — the child of Bigby and Snow, not the King of Haven — was a bookish sort of fellow and inevitably, and now we’ve shown, that he grows up to be the kind of guy who writes histories and stories about his life and his family. And it’s a pretty nice device in that you have a known character, writing the stories we’re reading now as histories from some unknown point in the future. And the nice thing about that is that the only thing that’s guaranteed when you do a story like that is that the narrator survives to tell the tale.
If you were to have Snow White or Bigby doing the narration for the upcoming story, right away you’d be signaling to the readers, at least on a subconscious level, that she or he survived to tell the tale and I did not want that to be the case. I’m not saying that Snow and Bigby are doomed, I’m just saying that now that we have one of their sons telling the story from a considerable distance that there is no guarantees that Snow or Bigby or whoever it is that occupies the center stage of the story lives to tell the tale.
Traditionally, when you do these longer arcs focused on a single character, it doesn’t go well for the featured player. Is this arc a tough ride for Snow?
I imagine in the green room where these characters are waiting for their stories, waiting to go on stage, one of them, in this case Snow White, is getting the bad news. “Sorry, Snow. The next arc is named after you.” And most good stories, and certainly in “Fables,” it is not good luck to get a story arc named after you. It means you’re going to go through the meat grinder.
We named an arc after Rose Red but we put her through the emotional meat grinder. She was basically in bed and depressed for most of the story — it was told in flashbacks. We’re not going to do that one twice. Snow White is not a take-her-to-bed-whilst-depressed type. Perhaps she might have been back when, but now she is made of different stuff and she’s going to go and interact with whatever is causing the woes in her life. I’ll promise at least that much. It’s going to be a very active set of trials and tribulations for Snow.
Does Bigby play a role in this arc?
Maybe? [Laughs] Let’s do a list of characters and we’ll see. Without giving away the story, there is a villain. I noticed a few people online have guessed who the villain will be this time but since not everyone has guessed, I’m not going to reveal who.
Snow White is obviously front and center. Although, at this point, Snow White does still not know where her two kids are. We have not quite had that scene from end of “Cubs in Toyland” where an older Therese comes back and says, “Well, this is what happened, mum. Let’s have a talk.” We wind the clock just a little bit to a week or two before that scene takes place.
With Snow White wondering where her two lost children have gone to, Bigby and her decide one of them stays with the kids and one of them goes to find them. “We don’t wait for happy news. We go and make it ourselves.” Bigby takes off looking for the two lost cubs.
In the first arc of “Fairest,” we establish that Briar Rose has inherited this nifty sports car that can go anywhere and she lends it to Bigby, who is going to learn to drive. Right away, there is peril because when Bigby Wolf tries to learn to drive, the universe should shudder. And he goes off, learning to drive, in this magical car that can go anywhere to find the cubs. He has a road partner with him, because, of course, someone needs to teach him to drive and it turns out that Stinky Badger up on the Farm is a really good driver of tractors and trucks and stuff like that, not to mention, he was the only choice available. We end up with a bit of a humorous buddy story here too. Stinky the Badger trying to teach Bigby the Wolf to drive and hilarity ensues.
There will be some things that happen to Snow White while Bigby is away. Part of the jeopardy she gets into is not having a big, bad god of all monsters there to protect her at all times. It turns out she has to relearn how to do the protective job herself again.
And I think I’ve told too much so that’s it. Oh, and King Cole and a few others are in it too.
And for those readers that were carefully keeping track of the calendar, the Blue Fairy is due to come back and either take Geppetto into custody or Beast has to go and be her slave for something like 777 years. That’s come due, as well, so the other plot, how is Beast going to get out of this, because Geppetto has definitely not agreed to go willingly with and be punished by the Blue Fairy, so how he gets out of that is the other story we’re telling in this arc. And that’s going to be pretty fun, we hope.
Last year, you launched “Fairest” and you released the “Werewolves of the Heartland” OGN too. Any plans to expand the “Fables” Universe in 2013 with a new special project or two?
There are always new special projects in the works. [Laughs] I don’t think there is anything we can mention yet, but yes, there are things in the work.
Finally, how are plans coming along for the Fabletown and Beyond convention?
Yes, from March 22 to March 24, we’ll be hosting the Fablestows and Beyond convention in Rochester, Minnesota and its purpose is to talk up and celebrate the mythic fiction movement in comics, meaning titles like “Fables,” “Sandman,” “The Unwritten.” It isn’t grown men in tight suits jumping off of buildings but it is heroic action adventure type of stuff. It also includes talking animal books, particularly featuring mice with swords, which seems to abound amongst comics right now.
I think it’s the strongest collective movement in comics since superheroes took over and dominated the medium for 50 years so I’m excited about it and we decided to have a convention specifically dedicated to it. It should be a delightful weekend of talking about the books we love.
“Fables” #125 by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham goes on sale January 23.