The Long Game: Exclusive Interview with “Fables” Creator Bill Willingham

Ultimately, it was easy to get into a relaxed conversation with Fables creator Bill Willingham. Perhaps a little too easy, perhaps a little too relaxed, since we don’t get into the question of fame until nearly two thirds of the way into the discussion. My question about fame is the usual question about fame. It is the second act of Don Quixote, when the fame asserts itself and the Don finds himself recognized in his travels and already beloved, Bob Dylan-esque folk hero. My question is the usual question. How has fame changed things for you; changed the artistic process, changed your level of access, changed the story you’re telling? But if my question is ordinary, the stakes raised by my question are anything but. Fables is simply unprecedented in the history of comics. It is the one creator-owned book that has lasted longer (it’s already run for more than 10 years) and spun off into more mini-series than any other in the history of DC Entertainment.

In that light, the question about the effects of success is wildly important, and probably one we should have gotten to earlier. But we’d gotten into too relaxed a pace, far too easily. Willingham is simply a giant in the industry, and conversation with him paints him thus. His thoughts are far too cogent, far to accessible to just dismiss with the wave of a turn in interrogation, and then to head for gold dust of interaction you think may be out there. There’s a meditativeness to Bill’s responses, and a measuredness. He begins by contextualizing himself. He’s had a history in the comics industry going back to the early 1980s. The much-chronicled shifts in self-esteem of the industry itself, moving comics as an idea from “pulp fiction” to viable literary “medium”, also played into Willingham being able to attempt and succeed at a work the sheer scope of Fables.

But when we finally do get to the question of both critical and commercial success, the conversation takes a personal, almost confessional tone. “I do live in the world”, Willingham begins. He speaks about how he is sensitive to the idea that Fables has been successful both as literary work (received well by critics and reviewers), and as popular fiction (time and again hitting bestseller lists and ringing true for fans). Willingham tells me that interactions with fans at the Cons do convince him of this success. As do the well-received reviews and reports of sales figures. But, it’s with a kind of psychic resilience that only true artists can master, that Willingham offers a turn on exactly that thinking. It doesn’t feel real, or lasting, or stable, Willingham admits. It doesn’t feel as if it couldn’t end at any minute. Just like all the projects from the Bad Old Days, before comics became respectable. Before we good see Willingham clearly for the giant he is.

Willingham’s uncertainty and the hesitation stems from a deep respect for the idea of the fans being the final arbiter of his art. His own dismissive wave of his hand at his skill as storyteller and world-builder, makes of him a deeply enduring literary master. Not Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Thompson, but a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky, a Chekov or a Blake. Willingham, who seems uniquely positioned to wrestle with questions on the longevity of his art, instead enters the conversation by viewing the unprecedented success of Fables as something of a happy accident rather than the direct product of his skill. If anything, for me at least, this turn of polite character only makes his skill as a thinker and as a writer that much more apparent.

“In Cubs in Toyland,” Willingham offers, talking about the newest volume of Fables, volume 18, released earlier this week, “We have a story about two of the cubs–of Bigby Wolf and Snow White’s–who end up in Toyland. But it’s a very different Toyland than the happy place of my childhood. And I’m not quite sure where I first got the idea to make Toyland a grim and unhappy place. Other than–whichever wit said, ‘You spend the second half of your life, getting over the first half’? So maybe I’m still trying to fix my childhood. Or what have you. But Toyland is not a happy place.” There’s enough time for a chuckle as Willingham references a grand theme, the theme of “fixing” your childhood, in a dismissive manner that over the course of the interview, at least in my mind, has proven usual for him. It’s this way of treading lightly around the grand issues that makes Willingham accessible as a human and as a writer.

He continues, “Two of the children get lost there. One of the things I wanted to do with Fables eventually is tackle the Fisher King mythology, that was part of Arthurian legend to a certain extent. Just part of Western myth and folklore to a certain extent. Because I always found that particular legend to be difficult. In the sense that I wasn’t sure what it was for. The Fisher King always had certain elements to it, but there was never any scholar, or never any book that you’d say, ‘Well this is what this means, absolutely–this is who this character is, this is what this represents.’ It was always couched in possibilities that the Fisher King is possibly a Christ-figure, however, and then it would go on to lay out all the other possibilities. And because of that, because of its infuriating nature, to where there’s no easy encapsulation of what it’s all about, I’ve always been fascinated by it. And found out, just like with fairy tales, there were many, many more versions of these legends than I’d originally thought.

“So Cubs in Toyland is also my way of saying, I think I’ve been in Fables long enough to say, that I am competent to tackle this very vexing legend, and to try and make some sense out of it. And to attempt to do what no one has done satisfactorily for me, which is to say, ‘This is what I think the legend is about, and what it’s for.’

“And so, we have cubs going off to Toyland. Therese, one of the cubs, is kidnapped to be the new Queen of Toyland, but it seems to be not a benevolent act at all. As opposed all those benevolent kidnappings that do occur.” There’s another well-placed chuckle, timed perfectly to another slightly dismissive, slightly self-deprecating jab by Willingham at his own way of framing his answering of interview questions. It’s a fun way of interacting, and deeply rewarding to have a conversation with a superior literary intellect, that is also so grounded. So I chuckle at Willingham’s own jabs at himself. But in chuckling I drop the ball.

It’s only during the research done after the interview that I begin to spot what a missed direction this was. Willingham is about to talk about Peter Pan, and “benevolent” kidnappings. It is a theme that is deeply meaningful to his work with Fables. We launched into Fables way back in 2002, in media res as it were. Fabletown was already established, goings-on and internal political strife was already underway, the Fables were already exiled to the Mundane World.

But crucial to the stories of the Fables, and their exile in the Mundane World is the question of how they came to be exiled in the first instance. Years after the release of the first collection, we reach a point in the story where the full backstory can come to light. The Adversary, the one who’s name dare not be mentioned, the prime antagonist who drove the Fables from their storybook world, is Geppetto. The famous woodcarver who carved Pinocchio and who, by a dark road, became a tyrannical, imperial figure with expansionist ambitions.

While the Adversary was mentioned early on in the series, his actual story wasn’t introduced until much later on. And Geppetto carried a beautiful, tragic character arc, easily worthy of the kind of enemy you’d anticipate being able to carry the full complexity of a character named the Adversary. But, Geppetto was not the first choice for the character who would become the Adversary. The first choice was Peter Pan.

It’s easy to imagine now. Peter Pan flying in out of nowhere, appearing suddenly in children’s bedrooms, then luring them to Neverland. And what adventures they’d have! Only, imagine Peter Pan, in Willingham’s skillful hands, being supercollided into Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Imagine that each adventure in Neverland would turn the kidnapped children harsher, and meaner, and more and more, ensure that they’d never be able to return to human society. Imagine Captain Hook as a sober, ethical, caring man who is deeply opposed to Pan’s campaign of robbing these children of their lives. Imagine Hook as the only man who has the strength of character to oppose Pan, to physically and militarily intervene.

Imagine that Peter Pan growing darker, and consistently darker, until he becomes the Adversary who drives the Fables from their storybook existence. I couldn’t, because at the time of the conversation I didn’t realize the significance of Peter Pan to Willingham’s thematic process. But ultimately neither could Bill himself realize that vision of Peter Pan as the Adversary. Because, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and the entire Neverland scenario isn’t in the public domain, and still subject to copyright. Due to legal considerations therefore, the choice was made to cast benevolent, old Geppetto in the role of the Adversary. And while things have worked out well, there is a sense of loss when it comes to Peter Pan, and to the idea of the “benevolent” kidnapping of children.

I couldn’t understand the import of what Willingham said next. But now, you can. “It’s certainly that being Queen of Toyland is not really all it seems cracked up to be. I mean little girls and little boys want to grow up to be important people, kings and princesses and such. The reality is, if you become such a person, you just have a boatload of stuff dumped on you. And that’s what this story is about. And it’s about the nature of duty versus desire, and self-sacrifice and things like that. It’s probably the darkest story we’ve told, in its aggregate, from beginning to end. There wasn’t too much of a way that this was going to come out wonderfully. Even the first storyarc [all the way back in 2002, -Ed] which promised immediately that there wasn’t going to be any Happily Ever After, ended up not a happy ending, but at least a livable one. This one is fairly dark…”.

There’s an interjection from my side at this point and we talk about how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping might come to bear on a reading of Cubs in Toyland, as well the myth of Demeter’s daughter Proserpina getting stolen to Hell and being force to wed Hades. Even on the fly and unscripted, Willingham’s insights prove deeply cogent. Then we continue “I’ve been…ever since seeing Peter Pan as a child that starts off with basically kidnapping, but is seen as a lovely, benevolent thing. I’ve been sort of ‘anti-‘…sort of ‘No, it’s not a good thing and it never is!’. So this story definitely belongs in more Orpheus-type territory and Demeter-type territory, than in Peter Pan. Wherein, as soon as you’re taken away from your parents, you life is wonderful. Yeah…”.

Willingham’s voice trails off and he enters a self-enclosed meditative space. For a moment or so, we share a silence–Willingham lost in his thoughts, and I in mine. And then he picks up the discussion again.

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