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Bill Willingham’s Storybook Beginnings

Jan 05, 2010 Issue #30 - Winter 2010 - Vampire Weekend Bookmark and Share

Perhaps no comic book series in the 2000s achieved the consistent quality and creativity of DC/Vertigo’s Fables. Launched in 2002, the series about fugitive figures from folklore has not only garnered a legion of fans as it nears 100 issues, it’s spun off an ongoing series (Jack of Fables), a graphic novel (1001 Nights of Snowfall), a novel (Peter & Max), and two affiliated miniseries (Cinderella, The Literals).

“All of the folklore and fairy tale characters from the stories you know so well, Cinderella, Prince Charming, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf…are still alive today, living in our world, after having been chased out of their own very magical worlds by the vast armies of a wicked conqueror known only to them as The Adversary,” explains series author Bill Willingham of the initial premise. “Now, these refugees have banded together in an underground community in New York City.”

Originally slated to end around issue 75, Willingham and principal artist Mark Buckingham have kept it going, finding further veins from those classic stories to mine for their own clever spin.

“This is not at all a static tale,” says Willingham. “Any number of dramatic changes and upheavals have occurred in the odd lives of our cast. That said, I don’t want to scare new readers off…every single issue of Fables is still in print and available, collected into 12 (and counting) graphic novels.”

At this point, Willingham sees no sign of the series stopping. “I wouldn’t be unhappy at all if this turned out to be my life’s work,” he says.

Willingham may have seemed to burst onto the scene with Fables, but, in fact, he’s a veteran writerand artistin the field. The Elementals, his series from the early ‘80s, published by the now-defunct Comico, is still held in high regard by many fans. Many subsequent pre-Fables projects exhibited Willingham’s desire to incorporate fairy tales, mythology, and/or folklore into his stories, such as Pantheon and Coventry.

“I suppose it was only a matter of time before I realized these were obviously the types of stories I was interested in telling,” he says. Willingham explains that from his earliest days, he’s “been a listener to fairy tales and folklore, long before I could actually read them for myself.”

Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment, in fact, deserves some credit for setting Willingham on the path to Fables. “I was confused at how the cartoon was allowed to take such gross liberties with a story,” he recalls. “Apparently I expressed my dismay out loud, because my mother explained the concept of folklore to me: that it literally meant these were stories owned by folkswhich meant every folk, including me. Folklore meant that any of us could tell the stories any way we liked. That was a startling revelation. If there were any single moment where the seeds were planted that I would be a storyteller, that was it.”

His love for those stories was expansive. As a child, favorites included The Arabian Nights, Norse mythology, “anything with the Big Bad Wolf,” the Pied Piper, “all of Kipling’s work,” and “far too many more to list.”

Fables became a concrete idea when Willingham concluded that, “what little job security there is to be found in this very unsecure business would come by writing a stable ongoing series.”

“I settled on doing some sort of comic story involving fairy tale characters, taken entirely seriously (even though there would be funny bits to leaven the drama) and the rest just fell into place, all in a rush,” he shares.

While he had been working with Vertigo on other projects (Proposition Player, some Sandman tie-ins) it didn’t occur to him to pitch Fables to that imprint; he assumed it wasn’t of interest. He mentioned it to his editor, Shelly Bond, who quickly dispelled him of that notion.

Nine years later, they’ve created an enduring legacy. There was even a television series in the works, but Willingham says that’s no longer the case. It’s also out of his hands. DC owns the media rights to Fables, which they bought from Willingham early on. While the company occasionally keeps him in the loop, “they don’t need to include me in any TV or movie plans,” he says.

Willingham reveals that he’s reserved some of his favorite characters for future storylines, specifically Kipling’s Riki Tiki Tavi, whom he says he’s “saving for something really big down the road.” Other plans include a brief return to penciling for a backup story in Fables’ 100th issue, for which Buckingham will write the prose.

Beyond that, Willingham’s passion for the source material is as strong as ever. “For the first time in my life I get to spend hours reading every sort of folk tale, fairy tale, and myth, and justify it all because now it’s part of my job,” he says. “In the past it was always what I was doing instead of getting my work done. How wonderful that is. I’ll never stop looking for new material, new stories I wasn’t familiar with before, or which I hadn’t visited in far too long a time.”


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