Willingham Talks "Fables: Cubs in Toyland" and Beyond

Winner of 14 Eisner Awards, "Fables" by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham is one of the most highly-decorated comics in the history of the industry. And yet, after 121 issues, the story of Bigby Wolf, Snow White and the rest of the residents of Fabletown somehow keeps getting better.

In "Fables" #121, in stores now, Willingham and Buckingham closed an epic eight-issue arc titled, "Cubs in Toyland," one of the most powerful and moving stories told since the series debuted in 2002. Primarily featuring Therese and Dare -- two of Bigby and Snow's cubs -- the arc fulfilled key parts of the "Fables" prophecy originally revealed as a one-page story at the 2009 Comic-Con International in San Diego.

As the story began, Therese received a Christmas gift from an unknown admirer, a red plastic boat, which takes her on a deep and disturbing journey through Toyland where she eventually becomes Queen. As the young girl became a young woman and was forced to do unthinkable things at the behest of her subjects, her brother Darien made the ultimate sacrifice for her salvation.

Willingham spoke to CBR News about the choice he and Buckingham made for the Cubs and shared insight into where the Vertigo-published "Fables" is heading over the next year, revealed the title of the next major arc and outlined how the upcoming graphic novel, "Werewolves of the Heartland" will tie into the ongoing series. He also confirmed that he has no plans to end the series anytime soon, citing the 300-issue run Dave Sim and Gerhard completed on "Cerebus" as the benchmark he's aiming for.

CBR News: First, congratulations on the new website -- it looks great.

Bill Willingham: Yeah, it does. [Laughs] Of course, I didn't do it. I had to find people to do it for me because my computer skills are non-existent.

Ever since you released the "One Summer Afternoon" one-page tale at CCI in 2009, I've been waiting to see the children of Snow and Bigby move to center stage. They were featured players in the "Inherit the Wind" arc, but "Cubs in Toyland" was the Therese and Dare show. That was pretty powerful stuff.

Thanks. And yes, certainly "Inherit the Wind" was the first real step for dealing with those prophecies that were revealed first on the one-page giveaway for the San Diego show. But "Cubs in Toyland" was a big two-fer that took care of two of the items on the prophecy list, and not in a loving and pleasant way -- at least for the characters involved.

Was that a story you've been building towards for some time or did it come about organically?

A little of both. The first notion that I would want to go to Toyland someday was when I did a comics and folklore convention in Italy. That was three, maybe four years ago, now. I was there, seeing all the old towns and ancient stone -- even their new towns would be older than anything we have in the United States. I just thought that I have got to set a story in something old and stony someday. As often happens, two ideas that aren't really related get jumbled together, so the idea that these old places would be inhabited by toys instead of people crept in. Toys in an ancient town or an ancient city or what it eventually became, an ancient island, was just sort of percolating in the back of my brain for a while.

Of course, it would have to be Bigby's and Snow's kids that eventually go there, because kids go to Toyland. That's what kids want to do. The twist, of course, is that this is the Toyland that no child should want to visit, which is entirely my fault. [Laughs] Here is the dream -- how can I subvert or twist it? So yes, it came about eventually over a few years.

The idea that it would tie into some points about the prophecies for these kids was just a natural as soon as we came up with the idea of doing the prophecy.

Assuming "the third child will do an evil thing" is Therese, I'm not sure I have been more upset about a turn of events in "Fables" than when she savagely devoured Lord Mountbatten in "Fables" #119. Can you talk about Therese's transformation from young girl to savage queen of the Toyland?

In our minds, Therese was always the pretty spoiled one. The other two females are pretty as well, but not quite aware of it as Therese was. She wanted to be in the nice dresses. She wanted the tiaras. She wanted the special attention and all that kind of stuff, so taking that spoiled child to the next level and the next level and the next level down naturally follows that digression.

Or, it's been argued that children come into the world spoiled barbarians and we need to civilize them. That's probably an accurate description of what child rearing is. So under that rubric, Therese is the child where it didn't quite take. She didn't quite get civilized or humbled or settled down a bit. She still was a collection of, "It's all about me," which is exactly what a baby is -- a bundle of need at first, until other things begin to set in.

Evil is another step entirely. Depending on any two people you ask, you'll get two different, three different, four different definitions of what evil is or could be, including the notion popular these days, possibly for the first time since the dawn of civilization, which is that evil doesn't exist. Which I think is a silly notion. There is just too much evidence to the contrary.

She's a spoiled child, and we had to turn one of them and sorry, Therese, if you had been a little bit nicer, we wouldn't have picked on you.

At the close of the arc, she returns home to Snow and Bigby, but she's changed and aged. Will you continue to explore her story in future?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In fact, following "Cubs in Toyland," we have a two-issue sort of history lesson at the same time we take a peek into the future of Snow and Bigby's family. I would say it's a digression, but it's not. It's setting up what's to come.

Our next major story arc, which is called "Snow White," is the trials and tribulations of the Wolf family through [Snow's] perspective. We wind the clock a little bit before Therese shows up and says, "Here I am. This is what happened to Dare. Oh, where's Dad?" and show what led up to the moment when Snow White opened the door and saw her much older daughter standing there.

So yes, it becomes a very important part of what's to come. I don't know if we'll take a really, long look at the intervening years, the years of Therese as a young girl who finds the sacrifice that Dare makes for her and the woman she grows up into. Suffice it to say, many years pass, and she was forced to grow up rather hardened and dreary. But what happens to Snow and the kids, how they carry on once a sister that was your twin and of the same age suddenly shows up as a woman almost as old as mom herself. We do, indeed, in the "Snow White" arc see what happens as a result of that.

Equally powerful was Dare's ultimate sacrifice. Was that painful to write, because I found it quite upsetting and didn't think you'd go through with the Fisher King analogy.

Of course something like that is painful to write. One rule Mark and I have pretty much set for ourselves in "Fables" is that when we center a dramatic death on someone, we won't just create characters to show up and die. They have to be an important character. And that's true in this case. Of course we cared about Dare. He was the most fleshed out of the male cubs, except for maybe Ambrose, who we have a special fondness for, chubby, bookish character that he is. [Laughs]. Every once in a while, Mark sets down some absolute rules: You will not kill Flycatcher, for example, and you will not kill Ambrose.

The choice then comes between Dare and Conner, and Conner isn't very well fleshed-out yet, so the choice was Dare. I'm not saying Conner lives and has wonderful adventures and nothing bad ever happens to him, but at least we're going to get to know him a little better before we start putting him through the wringer.

Right up until the time we did it, we were both second-guessing it. Pardon the pun, but we asked ourselves, "Dare we do this?" The fact that it bothered us so much to pull the trigger on that last page is what made it essential that we did.

Do you relish giving characters like Dare a chance to surprise readers? Because I don't think I would have given Dare that much credit to consider making that kind of sacrifice, let alone making it.

In my sense, it was always what Dare was about. From early on, he was the leader of the pack, he was told by his father -- and you've got to understand that Bigby as a father is a giant figure in any kid's life, imagine living up to a man that is the son of the North Wind, a king in his own right, probably a god in his own right, if he'd wanted that, the god of wolves, and so much else -- "Son, it's your job as pack leader to look out for the others." You either rebel against that because it's too much weight for a kid to have on his shoulders or you, literally in this case, kill yourself trying to live up to it. And that's obviously the route that he took. I will leave it up to the readers to decide if that was the right thing for him to do, but in no way did he ever consider that it wasn't the right thing to do. It was always a matter of, "Can I do it? Do I have enough bravery as a young kid to do the hardest of all possible things?"

I want to ask you more about Bigby and his upcoming solo graphic novel, but first, will the Bufkin and Lily's "Revolution in Oz" co-feature, illustrated beautifully by Shawn McManus, move back to the main story at some point?

Sort of. We've run it as a three-page series of chapters at the back of "Cubs in Toyland." We always knew that we were going to, during "Cubs in Toyland," keep up with what was happening with Bufkin and the revolution, and I knew it was going to be light-hearted. And believe me, when you tell a tale as grim as "Cubs in Toyland," you want something light-hearted to break that mood every once in a while. But we thought it might be a little to abrupt to just fold that into each issue itself, "And now, after all that terrible, terrible stuff has been happening, here's a little light-hearted moment from Oz..." [Laughs] So we separated it out as a backup. And I think that was the right thing to do, because when we collect it, we can collect "Cubs and Toyland" as its own thing and the Bufkin adventure as it own thing. It worked out to 13 chapters, eight take place in the "Cubs and Toyland" arc, they also appear in the next two issues, which contains its own little story, and then "Fables" #124, which is the wrap up of the whole Oz thing. It contains the concluding three chapters of the Oz adventure, plus an 11-page story of what happens in the life of Bufkin after that Oz adventure.

And without answering you, "Does it tie back into the main story," I will say that the answer is to be found there.

And then the "Snow White" arc starts in "Fables" #125?

And then, yes, "Fables" #125 will be the first issue of the "Snow White" arc, which will be five issues long.

Right before the start of the Snow-centric arc, Bigby is off on a solo adventure too, in your upcoming graphic novel, "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland." Do the events of the graphic novel tie back into the series?

Yes and no. It is its own stand-alone story. We've tried to make this as much of a stand-alone as possible so that if all the "Fables" you ever want to read is Bigby and a bunch of werewolves, then you can pick this up, get the gist of it, get everything you really need and have a rollicking good time. You really do get enough in the story to suss out what you really need to know about Bigby's relationship to the others.

But for those "Fables" readers, it does indeed tie into the series. In fact, it ties in on two levels. First of all, it takes place just at the point that Fabletown was having to abandon the Farm to go live in Haven for a while when Mister Dark was on their heels and King Cole sent Bigby out to find a new possible location for Fabletown. So it starts off during whatever happened to Bigby when he was out on the road doing that. As a matter fact, it basically takes place during Bigby's absence from the rest of the Fables.

Then, of course, it sets up a situation by the end -- again, without giving up anything that happens at the end -- that will tie right back into what goes on in "Fables" during the "Snow White" arc. And it has repercussions in the issues beyond that that ripple on for at least the immediate future for Bigby and Snow.

You won't tell us how it ends, but can you at least give us a tease of what happens at the beginning of "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland?"

Since the cover gives a lot away, I'll tell you this much. Bigby finds a small town that's populated by werewolves and the cover seems to imply that they don't get along very well.

The other thing that I want to point out from the cover, which is painted by Daniel Dos Santos, who is this wonderful painter that painted the paperback version of "Peter and Max" for us, is that Bigby is fighting off a bunch of werewolves, as you can see, and he is holding this lovely, lovely blond woman in his arms as he does so. That is not Snow White. Snow White does not decide on a lark to dye her hair blond and then faint into his arms.

The question I would ask, but I am not going to answer -- but the book hopefully does -- is, what's with the blond hussy in his arms? [Laughs] Is that the thing that's going to have repercussions with Snow in the issues to come or is it more involved than that?

Before I let you go, I see you are giving Bucky a bit of a breather as Gene Ha draws the next two issues of "Fables." While "Fables" isn't "Fables" without Mark Buckingham, do you enjoy seeing what other artists, especially heavy hitters like Gene Ha, bring to the table?

Yes, and it's just lovely work that Gene is handing in. I am going to go to my grave as the top Mark Buckingham fan of all time, but with that said, there are some just terrific artists out there and we are fortunate that so many of them are interested in doing some "Fables" stuff here and there.

Gene Ha and I have wanted to work together for some time, and have in little bits and drabs, but this is the first extended story we've done. And it's terrific.

Along with all the other things this two-part story does, it tells the origin of the business office for those that were just dying to know, and it introduces a new character to the "Fables" cast that is not only one that is well-known to those readers of folklore and mythology but is also a new and important character that will be very important in the years and issues to come.

And that is?

I'm not saying.

Finally, and here's your chance for a big plug, isn't Gene Ha a guest at the Fabletown and Beyond conference next March in Minnesota?

That's a wonderful segue! [Laughs] I'm glad you asked. Yes, Gene will be among the stellar guests at Fabletown and Beyond, which is a convention next year on March 22, 23 and 24 celebrating mythic fiction comics, which includes comics like "Fables," "Sandman," "Unwritten," "Mouse Guard," "Mice Templar," "Kill Shakespeare" and all sorts of other great books that are that corner of the industry that deals with fairy tales, folklore, talking animals, literary figures and things like that.

"Fables" #121, written by Bill Willingham and illustrated by Mark Buckingham and Shawn McManus, is available now.

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