NYCC EXCLUSIVE: Willingham Unites Heroes in "Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure"

There's nobody better at bringing disparate characters and genres together than Bill Willingham. Since the debut of "Fables," Willingham has expertly guided and added characters from across folklore and fairy tales to his longrunning series -- but the writer will branch out in January 2014 when Dynamite Entertainment debuts "Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure," a seven-issue limited series by Willingham with art by Sergio Fernandez Davila. "Legenderry" brings a new, steampunk take on some of Dynamite's most popular licensed characters including The Phantom, Green Hornet, Vampirella, Red Sonja, the Bionic Man and more in an adventure story that unites many characters and many worlds. The title marks Dynamite's third big announcement leading up to this weekend's New York Comic Con.

In order to shed some light on Willingham's new world-building endeavor, CBR News spoke exclusively with the writer, who discussed the core concept of "Legenderry," how he came upon the assignment, putting his own spin on some of Dynamite's most popular licensed characters, the origin of the Legenderry world and more.

CBR News: Bill, tell us a bit about the core concept for "Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure." What's the basic premise and who are the key players?

Bill Willingham: "Legenderry" is a seven-issue limited series. The name of the book is also the setting, so it takes place in the world of Legenderry, a world in which legends live. It's a steampunk story, and this is my first foray into steampunk. I like it as a genre -- I suppose I like everything about it except its name. Steampunk means steam engines, airships, no automobiles, still horse-and-buggy -- sort of a Holmes-ian era London as an example, though not quite that. The only name we have for the big city in the world is The Big City. It's London, it's New York, it's the giant, Gotham-esque type of city. There are seven or eight characters that are currently within the Dynamite stable of licensed characters all existing in this same world, but brand new versions -- or brand old versions: newly created versions of old characters. For example, the steampunk version of The Phantom will be a little bit different than the one you know, as with Red Sonja and Vampirella and a few of the other characters that show up.

As a matter of fact, that was the whole reason for the series. I talked to [Dynamite publisher] Nick Barrucci and said, "Sure, I'd like to do some non-creator-owned work on something as long as it remains fun to do." The other condition I put on it was, "and I don't want to have to tie in with a bunch of other stuff." If you have 17 different "Red Sonja" books out, I don't want to have to worry about continuity doing my version of it. He came back with the idea: "Why don't you just create new versions of all these characters and put them all together?" which was a wonderful idea! I jumped at it. I get to use these old, beloved characters, many of whom I loved for a long time, but get to come up with my own versions of them so no one else can [limit] them. It's an entirely new history, sort of like going to another dimension and finding another dimensional version of someone you know in this one.

"Legenderry" is the latest in a series of licensed crossovers from Dynamite. What sets it apart from something like "Masks" or "Kings Watch?"

Well, it might sound a little egotistical, but the only thing that really matters on what sets a story apart is who's doing it and what the story is. The story itself is what one hopes sets it apart. I don't know if there's a term for it, but there should be -- it's one of those types of stories where the story is handed off from one issue to the next, from one character to another. The MacGuffin or the story device is something portable, so different characters come into contact with it and need to move it along at different phases of the story's development. In this case, the MacGuffin is a young lady who is looking for her lost sister. There's all sorts of nefarious characters on her tail, and it's a mystery. She seems to be just a normal, demure, shy, unadventurous woman of the city, and yet entire forces of vast villains are arrayed against her for some reason.

She stumbles into Vampirella's nightclub -- because of course in this city, Vampirella would own and run the swankiest night spot in town. It happens to be on a night when not only is Vampirella there, but millionaire newspaper tycoon Brit Reid is also there. They of course get involved in what her troubles are and then it's a running story from then on. Our heroine will travel from there to the sky ships over the big ocean to the jungle, encountering The Phantom, to the futuristic -- in steampunk terms -- city called Landing, which is the crash landing of Flash Gordon's spaceship. It goes from one adventure to another, and slowly putting the pieces together as to why all these forces are arrayed against her.

I just hope they haven't told that story yet.

You've had ample opportunity to deal with characters from different stories and genres crossing over in "Fables." How does "Legenderry" stretch different creative muscles for you?

For one thing, it's a guest spot. I can't walk away and keep these characters with me. But that said, it is similar to "Fables" where all the fairy tale and folklore characters get together. It's similar to "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" where all the literary characters are shoehorned into the same fictional universe. It's another one of those stories where -- it's like a buffet of a story. You go to the buffet, you pick up the dishes you like and leave those you don't. That's your meal. I'm serving up a meal of a lot of the characters that I liked, or thought had potential to tell good stories with or just touched some point of my history in a nice way. We have the Six Million Dollar Man in this thing, but of course this is the steampunk version, so he's the Six Thousand Dollar Man, and people are astonished that that much money could be spent on a single mechanism. It's that idea of picking and choosing those wonderful toys I want to play with and having fun with it.

The other difference, of course, is that here, once my Christmas wish list of characters was assembled, we had to get permission to use them. But that came pretty nicely, quickly and forthrightly.

What was the challenge of adapting these characters into different versions for the purposes of "Legenderry?"

It was a challenge in the sense of, "These aren't my characters." Even if I create a new version of them, they're not really my characters. Like I said, I can't walk off with them. There's a sense of not wanting to do too much to change the character, but at the same time, change them up to the point where they're really a creature of this world and no one other. So, it's finding that balance between the two. You don't want to piss off readers by removing some aspects of the story that they find beloved. The problem is that there are a lot of readers out there and to paraphrase something Paul Levitz used to say, the worst DC character out there, there's some reader out there for whom that's their favorite character. The minutest part of history for some of these characters that I use -- there's someone out there who says, "Oh, I can't believe you missed that, you ruined it for me." You can't use the fear of doing that to paralyze you and keep you completely from not doing something new and hopefully interesting with the character, but you need to keep it in mind. You need to at least attempt to practice good stewardship. Change for change's sake or trying to turn one character into something completely different from what he or she was -- if you're going to do that, you might as well make a brand new character from the ground up.

Back in my "Shadowpact" days with Detective Chimp, he was a goofy '50s chimpanzee who solved crimes. It was very innocent and very lighthearted. I turned him into a recovering alcoholic, a little bit cynical, a little bit snarky version. I heard from one source that [character co-creator] Carmine Infantino looked at the new version and really, really liked it and another that he just loathed it. I never did get to find out which was true. But that's the danger of doing stuff like that. That's the danger of updating and changing stuff like that. By doing it, you take out that ephemeral thing that makes the character beloved. That's really the challenge in doing this -- do a rip-roaring adventure yarn that is true to the spirit of these characters, but does indeed recapture them so they are creatures of this specifically new environment.

In terms of world-building and uniting all these worlds, discuss creating a continuous link between all these different worlds. It seems like it would be fun, but certainly a challenging prospect.

The world of "Legenderry" and I think we're publishing a map of the world with the first issue -- like many in this business, when I'm goofing off and not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, I draw maps. I draw maps of worlds that don't exist just to see if some kind of story starts to project itself as this world takes shape. I drew the world of Legenderry as an exercise some time ago. I liked making a point of the generic aspect of it. By generic, I mean the big city was simply called the Big City, it didn't have its own name. The sea is simply The Sea. The island, which plays an important part in the story, is just The Island, the jungle is just The Jungle, etc. -- just to see if you create a world in which every feature of it is in some way the archetype of all things, that instead of truly genericizing [sic] it, what you do is look at it beyond that, make a strength out of what in normal circumstances would be considered a weakness. I mean, who writes a story in which the city isn't named or an entire continent isn't named? That was the goal I set for myself.

When it was time to get back to real work and at least attempt to meet a deadline once in my life, I set it aside for a little while and let it percolate in the back of my head. Then, flash forward when Nick and I were talking about ideas for getting all these characters together in their own steampunk world -- and that's how it was presented to me. He came up with the idea of, "Why don't you use all of them?" Put them all together in their own steampunk world and do new versions of them. I thought it was a wonderful idea and almost the first thing that occurred to me was, "What is this steampunk world they're in," and there was my map of this place named Legenderry as if I had known I would need it at some point and had it ready-made.

World-building is fun. Even when I'm supposed to be working on other things, that part of the story is just terrific fun.

Have you gotten a chance to see any of Sergio Fernandez Davila's pages yet?

I have and it's gorgeous. I had the inevitable -- when the first pages of a new project come in, I want to go back and re-write the first issue's script just to make them good enough to deserve the great art that's coming in. My nefarious plan is the ride on the back of these wonderful artists. People get confused thinking that the story is what's good when I'm obviously just taking terrible advantage of these gifted artists.

It's slow beginning, obviously, so we'll pick up some speed. In the early pages of a story like this, every single new page is also a design page. It takes a while to get momentum into the deeper end of the story. Once we establish all those things, I'd imagine pages will be coming in more fast and furious. I also have to get all the scripts done, which is always an open question.

What do you think makes his art a good fit for "Legenderry?"

That's a good question, and to some extent it would be presumptuous of me to try and guess, other than it's wonderful art that tells a story. The things that make a great comic artist a great comic artist take a lot of work to perfect, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize. Can he draw well, can he put figures in an environment well, but most importantly, can he visually tell the story with clarity? Sergio hits on all cylinders and I'm pretty damn happy with that.

What else can readers look forward to in "Legenderry?"

This is a story designed for me to have fun and I hope that will translate to the readership. A fun adventure doesn't mean it won't be important in the sense of "Will you care about these characters?" or "Will you care about the outcome of the story?" I hope that that's true, but more in the sense of going on a nice, wild ride. Hopefully you're too busy hanging on and screaming to worry about the structure of the story. If you survive at the end of it and say, "Well, I wonder what made that an interesting afternoon." In any case, it's a good, fun adventure story.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on "Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventures" and other announcements from New York Comic Con.

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