Lauren Beukes Explores Rapunzel And The Far East In "Fairest"

As "Fables" creator Bill Willingham's first "Fairest" arc comes to a close, the Vertigo Comics spinoff of the popular fairy-tale comic book series begins a brand new arc by South African writer Lauren Beukes beginning in October with #8.

Beukes, an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner and television writer and novelist for years, gained international recognition in 2011 for "Zoo Story," her hardboiled detective novel set in an alternate fantasy version of Johannesburg. Now making her mark in comics, Beukes is penning a Rapunzel-centric "Fairest" story, taking the hairy heroine away from familiar Fables and into Tokyo where she must deal with the ghosts and monsters of Japan.

Combining elements of everything from J-Horror to traditional Japanese folklore, Beukes spoke with CBR News about her upcoming story, explaining why she chose to explore the Eastern Fables and her experience transitioning from novel writing to comics.

Cover art by Adam Hughes

CBR News: How did you become hooked up with Vertigo, Bill Willingham and "Fairest?"

Lauren Beukes: Through sheer luck and because Bill Willingham is not only brilliant, convivial and generous but also very obstinate. I happened to meet Bill at WorldCon in 2009 and we got on brilliantly -- he liked my debut novel, "Moxyland," and at the end of the Con, he said I had to go meet his Vertigo editor, Shelly Bond, on my way back to South Africa. I tried to get out of it; I didn't have anything to show her, nothing to pitch and I didn't want to waste her time, but he absolutely insisted. You don't say no easily to Bill Willingham.

Shelly and I hit it off over shoes and bespoke toys and cool comics and they asked me to put in a pitch for an arc on Rapunzel. They loved the proposal, but I still had to do an eight pager as an audition for Vertigo's "Strange Adventures" #1 to prove I could actually write a comic.

Were you a comic book reader and fan of "Fables" before becoming part of the creative team?

I've always wanted to write comics. I grew up on "Tintin" and "Asterix," graduated to "ElfQuest" and "Misty," a British horror comic for girls, and "2000AD Monthly" got my first exposure to Alan Moore. Then on to "Sandman," "Swamp Thing" and "Watchmen" and then Mike Carey, Paul Pope and Jeff Smith. Then more Moore, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison and, natch, Bill Willingham.

I'd actually just got into "Fables" about six months before I met him when my book cover designer bought me the first three trades as a birthday present. I think I went out and bought the rest of them the same weekend.

I loved the contemporary reinvention of folklore, the sneaky lit references, the brilliant characters (especially the women -- Snow, Rose Red, Goldilocks), the dialogue, the world, this huge, sprawling epic story with heart and guts and the big bad wolf.

What can you tell us about your story? Why is Rapunzel heading off to Tokyo?

Eek! Spoilers! The story is set a few months before the events of issue #1 of "Fables," so it's a prequel. Rapunzel is living under the harshest restrictions in Fabletown, the hidden community of magical refugees in New York City, because her hair, very inconveniently, grows so fast ordinary humans might notice. She goes to the movies a lot because she can hide in the dark and has to get her hair chopped off four times a day by Joel Crow. From what we've seen of her before, you get the idea she's quite lonely.

There's a melancholy dogging her steps -- but also a very dark past she thought she'd left behind. Until a flock of origami birds burst through her window bearing a message written in kanji, "Your children." She knows it's from the Hidden Kingdom, a world believed lost to the Adversary, and she has to get to Tokyo to find out what it means.

Cover art by Adam Hughes

What appealed to you about telling a Rapunzel-centric story rather than concentrating on a different Fable?

I originally pitched on Goldilocks because she's such a wonderfully demented psychopath, but at the time in 2009, Bill had other plans for her and I think he and Shelly were already scheming up "Fairest" as an offshoot.

Rapunzel was a character fans were intrigued by, from that one brief story she featured in and because she was such a cipher -- there was a lot of space to play. Why is she lonely, what secrets does she not confide in her hairdresser, how does the curse of her hair actually work, what exactly happened between her and her "mother," Frau Totenkinder, who chucked her out of the tower calling her a "slutty little girl" way back when before the exile?   

The Tokyo part of your story incorporates a lot of Eastern mythology; what can you tell us about the Japanese fables and myths who make an appearance?

I really am trying to avoid spoilers, but I drew on various sources from fairytales and ghost stories to the "Hundred Demons Night Parade" to Haruki Murakami's novels and Miyazaki's films. Many Japanese yokai [supernatural monsters] are able to disguise themselves as human, which was a useful device, although I wasn't able to go in as authentically as I would have liked -- for example, the mischievous tanuki have huge testicles they beat like drums. If that happens in my series, they're definitely inflating them off-panel.

You can expect to see vengeful yurei [spirits], scheming kitsune [fox-spirits], sumo-wrestling kappa and a little shout-out to "My Neighbor Totoro."

You live in South Africa -- what made you want to tell a story playing with the Japanese Fables and Eastern folk tales rather than do something closer to home with African or South African folk tales and myths?

It was the hair. It features so prominently in Japanese ghost stories and J-horror, it felt like a natural fit for Rapunzel. I was curious why we hadn't seen any Eastern Fables before, even during the war and I've always loved the culture. Researching the comic gave me a great excuse to dive back into all the Murakamis (writers Haruki, Ryu and artist Takashi), Sei Shonagon's "The Pillow Book," "The Tale of Genji," re-watch old yakuza movies and Takashi Miike films -- "The Happiness Of The Katakuris" made my brain hurt a lot, but "The Audition" is still my favorite horror of all time. And of course, it was a great excuse to drink Japanese whisky and eat lots of sushi. Just to get into it.

That's not to say I wouldn't love to do a story around African Fables. Anansi is only the tip of the spider web.

What is it like working with artist Inaki Miranda? Was it a challenge to adapt your novel writing style to work with a sequential artist?

I've worked in animation for five years, so I'm used to writing for an artist. What did my head in was the sheer flexibility of the layout and how that can change the pace, action and drama of a moment.

Shelly and Inaki really like to push it. There are very few straightforward grids happening and I had to learn my way around that. They were both really patient with me, and with my lack of understanding of perspective ("But whhhhy can't you see a wide on the khoi nibbling at the dead floating samurai floating in the water among cherry blossoms and the whole of the celestial palace burning in the same shot?").

Inaki blows my mind every single time. It's always even cooler than I'd imagined it in my head when I was putting down the words. There are at least five panels per issue I want to have framed. I love the collaboration, how he interprets the words and makes the story richer and deeper and more interesting. The best moments are when something he's drawn gives me an unexpected perspective on the story. In a look Rapunzel gives Joel, for example.

How does writing for comics differ from your prose and novel work?

You can be a lot more wordy in novels. I love dialogue and it's tough keeping it tight and snappy -- to convey in a sentence what could be a three-paragraph monologue in a novel, with the same emotional heft and resonance.

Do you feel the ideas and themes influencing and interesting you in your prose writing career also influenced your story for "Fairest?"

Definitely. Stories are a way of exploring all the things I'm interested in or enrage or delight me about the world. That leaks into everything from the work I do on kids cartoons for Disney through to my novels and this comic, too.

Has writing "Fairest" given you the comics writing bug and an interest in doing more in the genre -- either with Vertigo or on your own?

Novels will always be my first love, but I'd like to be polyamorous with the mediums I play in. I would love to have a career where I write comics and books, screenplays and video games.

Lauren Beukes' Rapunzel story begins with "Fairest" #8, on sale October 3 from Vertigo Comics.

Tags: vertigo, fables, lauren beukes, fairest

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