As Bill Willingham tells it, when he was younger, he chased all across the U.S., trying to break into comics as a writer and an artist, creating barely remembered titles like Ironwood, Coventry, and Elementals. Over the past seven years, he's worked largely for DC Comics, scripting Robin and Shadowpact, writing the limited series Proposition Player and the Sandman spin-off Thessaly: Witch For Hire, and contributing to DC's recent Infinite Crisis crossover. But Willingham became a force to be reckoned with in comics five years ago, when his ongoing series Fables launched. An epic, beautifully written story that places "Fables," familiar characters from folklore, in the mundane world after a mysterious Adversary conquers their homelands, the series has proved tremendously popular, spawning (to date) 10 graphic novels and the ongoing spin-off series Jack Of Fables, co-written with Matt Sturges. Just before the San Diego ComicCon, where DC announced the upcoming Sturges/Willingham project House Of Mystery, Willingham spoke to The A.V. Club about his history, his future, his terrible attempts at pitching projects, and how growing up as an Army brat prepared him for a lifetime of chasing soon-to-be-defunct comics companies across the country.
The A.V. Club: To start with an obvious question, where did the original idea for Fables come from?
Bill Willingham: That sort of grew up over a long period of time. Remember the old Bullwinkle show, with Fractured Fairy Tales? Well, when I was a wee little tyke, I'm watching that one day, and I couldn't believe that they could take such liberties with the established tales. I asked my mom about it, and she explained the whole concept of public domain, and how these characters are kind of owned by nobody, and anybody who wants it can make up anything they want about them. It was a very revelatory conversation. I think it's kind of been percolating since then. I've been slipping folklore and fairy-tale reference into all my work, all along. I think Fables is just finally letting that other shoe drop. I guess that's what I'm interested in writing about.
AVC: People have said that your Coventry series was an early version of Fables, but can you pin down exactly when you decided Fables was going to be its own title?
BW: Yeah. I was living in Vermont at the time, and heading into what I think was about my third Vermont winter. Winter is real nice, and I moved there specifically to get back to places that had four seasons, but these things are pretty severe. It was just a matter of having a whole lot of time to stay home and work, and come up with new comic ideas. I was trying to get a comic book going with DC/Vertigo. They were very kindly letting me write a lot of this and that that would get some kind of critical attention, but would sell in the low dozens. So I was trying to find something that might work.
It was then that I finally decided to do Fables. The idea first was to do some kind of hidden community of something, somewhere. I suppose I was influenced as much by Jack Kirby's Inhumans as anything else. Just the idea of this society who's living right amongst us, that we never knew. I played with the idea of making them some kind of pantheon of gods, but that kind of stuff had been done to death. At some point in that mulling-it-over process, I thought about fairy-tale characters. Then I just started working up the proposal. I was not going to pitch it to DC, simply because it wouldn't fit in their whole superhero universe. I didn't think it was a really good Vertigo book, since all of their books kind of had a universal look at the time, of pouty teenagers with lots of face shrapnel and tattoos, railing against The Man. It really wasn't that kind of book, so I just assumed they wouldn't be interested in it.
I was talking to Shelly [Bond], my editor at Vertigo at the time, about another project, about the possibility of doing a female detective agency. That was one of her ideas that she wanted someone to pitch her on. We spoke about that for a while, and then I just mentioned that I had to hang up to work on this other proposal for another company. She sort of forced me to tell her the idea of Fables. I sort of reluctantly did, saying, "This is not something you'd be interested in." She basically set me straight, and said, "No, no, no, you're not pitching that to anyone but me, so I expect it tomorrow." So, I finished it up and sent it in.
AVC: So it was more "Here's what I'm thinking?" than an organized pitch?
BW: Well, it's never an organized pitch. I write the worst proposals for projects, in the history of writing, or proposals, or projects. They're all a mess. There's almost two things you have to do to work in the business. You have to be good at getting the job, and good at doing the job. I've never been good at getting the job. Just by the nature of the fact that I was involved in it, it was a disorganized mess. I would cringe to look at that original proposal now, but they seemed to like it. It caught on. Jeanette Kahn was still at DC at the time. She was on her way out as the publisher of DC, and heading to Hollywood. She got a look at the proposal at this early stage and said, "This could be a good movie property, so, yes, we're accepting this." The rest was history.
AVC: What year was that, do you recall?
BW: Well, let me count back. It must have been 2001. I sent in the proposal about a month before the very first television ads for Shrek. Two or three days before the first ads appeared for the Shrek movie is when DC formally accepted the proposal. Then I saw those ads, and said, "Okay, there's every idea I had. DC is going to be calling me any minute now and canceling me, saying, 'Sorry, the Shrek people beat you to it. This is a dead, old idea, now.'" They didn't call, but I've been a little chastened by that ever since.
AVC: Did they ever mention Shrek, or any other fairy-tale related modern work? Was there ever an editorial concern to the effect of, "Don't be too much like this," or, "Hey, this is a hit, be exactly like this"?
BW: No. I kept waiting for them to call and say, "Okay, someone beat you to the idea." This happens a lot. There's people out there right now working on ideas where six other people are working on pretty much the same thing, so I'm used to that happening. I expected DC to call, so finally, I called them and said something along the lines of, "You know, with Shrek coming out, you may want to reconsider, because maybe this is a used-up idea now." I'm sure they put it very well, but the crux of what they told me was "Don't be a pussy. We're going ahead with this, and don't worry about it."
AVC: What's your background? There isn't much out there about your history, apart from your Army stint and your early comics.
BW: God, what is my background? I went from high school into college. I got about three years into college, where it was a combination of student loans, and having to work several jobs to get through. It just kind of caught up to me, and I could no longer keep all those balls juggling in the air. I went into the Army for three years, came out, worked for one year in the art department of TSR, the Dungeons & Dragons people. I quit after one year, because all that time, I was working up art portfolios for the funny-book business, which is what I wanted to be in. I finally quit TSR, moved to New York to break into comics, and didn't quite make it as an artist. I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. This was at the time when all of the independent companies were starting up. An outfit called Noble Comics was going to publish my work, so I started work for them. Before they published anything, they went under. I then moved to Houston, Texas, because Texas Comics was going to take all the properties that Noble Comics went under trying to publish, and do them. They published one annual of my Elementals work that was actually a backup in another property, then they went under. Then I ended up at Comico in Philadelphia. I was killing comics companies right and left there for a while, trying to break into the business. I also did some work for First Comics, and of course, they've gone under, too. Comico has since gone under. I'm waiting for DC to get the axe at any moment, now, for having the temerity to publish my stuff.
I did a lot of kicking around, just sort of working on the periphery of the comics business. I did Elementals for a while, that was popular for about 15 minutes, but that didn't last. Then I did just this and that, little bits of piecework, until Fables kicked off.
AVC: What was your college major?
BW: Well, I was studying history and anthropology, for no better reason other than in my first year of college, I sort of lucked into getting good professors in those courses, and kind of followed that. I had no idea what sort of career that would make, but it turned out to be pretty good, because they're very good things to study if you're going to write for a living, which I really had no notion that I was going to do, at the time.
AVC: So you moved all over the country trying to break into comics. Was there ever a point where you said, "To hell with this, it isn't working, I should just do something else"?
BW: Sure, daily. At the same time, I was raised an Army brat, so early on in childhood, I got used to the fact that you lived in a place for a year, maybe two years, and then you moved on. That sort of stuck with me, because I had a case of wanderlust and grass-is-greener syndrome that could choke a vicar, for all of my life. Writing and drawing comics is the perfect job for that, because you don't really have to live anywhere. I just got into the habit of moving every once in a while.
AVC: What's the worst job you ever had trying to support yourself so you could create comics?
BW: Pretty much since I started doing comics, I never did anything else. I mean, I was very content to live poorly, even to the extent of, at one point, living in my van, parked in a shopping-mall parking lot every night, rather than get an honest job. Since I started doing comics work, I've never really done day-job things. I took a one-year break at one point, because I thought I could make it in Vegas as a professional poker player, and moved out to Vegas on very little funds. I did it for about a year, six months of that as a proposition player for a casino out here, and then six months of just freelance playing in whatever game suited me. I made just enough of a living to scrape by in the very, very worst part of town. Having proven something to myself, or not, I decided it was time to get back into funny books. That was it, that was the only non-comics job I've taken on since getting into comics.
AVC: How did Fables develop between your initial pitch and the first issues coming out?
BW: It's kind of a weird back-and-forth. Any publishing company, any big one, the first thing they do once they accept the idea that they're going to do a series, once they're committed to it, they panic. They break into this huge panic and say, "Oh my God, what have we done? We've agreed to do this," and start second-guessing everything. There was a lot of back-and-forth about, "Why don't we just make this a six-issue miniseries, because we're not entirely sure you can get more than one story out of this concept." I said no to that. "Why make the Big Bad Wolf an important character? That doesn't seem very smart." Things like that, just questioning everything, from format to how many times a month. It's just the nature of the beast, I guess. For example, they were really concerned, I guess because this was Vertigo, that this not be a bunch of elves and unicorns in the happy little enchanted forest, which I assured them it wouldn't be. They wanted to make sure everyone knew this was gritty, urban stuff. The proposal included various possible storylines, and they said, "This murder-mystery thing that you've got as about the third or fourth storyline, why don't you move that to the front?" I said, "Yeah, no problem." That's the kind of thing that they did. It's kind of boring. There's not a lot of preproduction in comics the way there is in movies, or anything. When they accept a proposal, the next thing you really have to do is sit your butt in a chair and start writing it, so that's what we did.
AVC: Obviously, they didn't make it into a six-issue miniseries or boot Bigby Wolf, but were there suggestions that you did actually compromise on?
BW: I think the only thing that they really wanted was to make sure that the murder-mystery was the first story, which I was happy to do. I'm kind of heightening the sense of second-guessing and panicking, but in this case, more than any other series I've pitched, there was less of that than ever before. So, no, there wasn't much. They wanted to make sure that there was a cityscape, or something urban on every one of the first five covers, which was fine with me. There were things like that. Their main concern was that they wanted to make sure that people knew that this was something that takes place in modern New York City.
AVC: Since the series has been launched, has there been any editorial pressure affecting the way you tell the stories?
BW: Not really. This is a Vertigo book, so it's all mature readers. This is subtle, it was never quite overtly stated, but the pressure, if there was any at all, was, "Can't you make this a little more adult? More cussing, or more sex scenes, perhaps?" I knew, even at the proposal phase, that I had a pretty good idea for a book, so I think that translated into my being willing to put my foot down and say, "No, it's going to be this way. It's going to not be that way," more often than in other cases. But no, for better or worse, Fables, as it comes out, is pretty much the way I want it. There's no one else to blame.
AVC: Do you actively do research for the book? Do you sit around reading folklore or children's literature?
BW: Yeah. Pre-Fables, I used to read all of that stuff, too, but now I get to kind of justify it as work. It used to be reading, before, and now I guess it's called research, but it's still the same thing, just reading lots of folklore, fairy tales, anything in that line, and looking for little sparks of something. "Maybe I can get a good story out of this, this character is interesting." Plus, since I started Fables, friends will send me… "I found this stuffy little fairy-tale collection in some store somewhere, and thought of you," that type of thing. People do send me more things along those lines. So, yeah, lots of reading in that field, which I'm perfectly happy to do. It's not like work at all.
AVC: Alice from Alice In Wonderland crops up as a character in Jack Of Fables, even though her story isn't a traditional fairy tale. Is there any kind of firm line in your mind determining what constitutes a Fable, and what doesn't?
BW: It's probably not as firm as you might think. My standards are, "Is the character in the public domain, and do I want to use it?" That's the absolutes. Some fairy tales and folklores sort of cross over, slowly, into traditional mythology, and I try and stay away from that. I try and stay away from formal gods and goddesses, and this pantheon kind of thing. Mostly, any kind of fairy tales or stories along those lines that I'm able to use is a potential thing. In Jack, I do remember one thing that they were a little concerned about was when we introduced Sam, based on "Little Black Sambo," as a character. There was a little bit of editorial concern that that might be pushing the objectionability line too much, but since the story he was in was concerned with the fact that some fables and their stories are considered so objectionable that we need to make the world forget about them, he was obviously the perfect character for that. Even that, it wasn't so much a "We can't do this," as an "Are you sure you want to do this?" That type of thing.
AVC: Were there any complaints about it?
BW: None so far. Obviously, because comics don't have letter pages anymore, we don't really have a direct pipeline into reader reaction, but since we've introduced him as a character, at panels at conventions and things, no one's ever brought it up as, "How dare you do this?" Although, from time to time, I see online that there's still readers that want to know who this character was supposed to be, so maybe we were too subtle in it. But no, no complaint yet. None about him, but we've had lots of complaints online about the misogyny of issue 50, where Snow White actually kept the line, "Love, honor, and obey," in her wedding vow, which apparently is a pretty high crime these days. That, I get complaints about a lot.
AVC: You've come under fire for the series' politics at times, like that Snow White line, or having Bigby Wolf lay out the parallels between Fabletown and Israel. Does it surprise you when people get upset about these things? Do you see them as controversial when you're writing them?
BW: The wedding-vow thing, I didn't think was going to be controversial. That did surprise me, simply because my point was that these are immortal, traditional people, and they've been alive for thousands of years, and we've shown already that they tend as a community to cling to old ways. So I assumed every reader was going to see that and say, "Well, that's not the way we would do weddings today, but these are folksy, old people. So, okay, I guess that's what they're doing." Having readers actually upset about that did come as a surprise.
The Israel analogy, probably at the time I was writing that, I thought it would be controversial, because just the mention of Israel in any context is a hot-button issue. But once again, I thought even the people upset that that analogy was used understood the analogy. Bigby made his point of the little guy with vast forces arrayed against him. Some wackos online who don't sign their name to what they write have said that I'm a mouthpiece for Israeli propaganda, and things like that. A paid mouthpiece, which would be wonderful. I haven't gotten any pay yet, but if any of my Israeli commanders are listening, the checks arriving would be a nice thing. So, yeah, the controversy on that didn't surprise me, the Israel thing. A little more heated than I expected, but then most things are.
AVC: You've said in the past interviews that you're unequivocally pro-Israel. Do you think of Fables as communicating a political message, or as being persuasive in any way?
BW: No, I actually thought that that would be the best example in politics today to use as an example. Maybe my fondness for Israel helped in deciding that that was a good example to use, but no, Fables is not didactic in any way. At least, not intentionally. I don't expect people to read that issue, bop themselves in the head, and say, "Oh my God, I've been so stupid about my politics in Middle Eastern affairs. I'm going to change my tune right now, because, Bigby would want me to." I don't expect anything like that, and I wouldn't put that line in almost any other character's mouth, just because I couldn't imagine other characters thinking along those lines. Whereas Bigby was a guy who we've already established that historically, he went to war several times, and was involved in World War I and II. He would be the type of character who would think along those lines.
AVC: Do you regret anything that you've put into the comics? Does controversy make you rethink how you'd handle things in the future?
BW: No, it's not the controversy I regret. The things I look back on are just this line and that line that are so clunky and undeftly done that I'd love to be able to redo them. But no, I don't think there's anything in there that I would take back.
AVC: When you're considering something like the Israel analogy, or Little Black Sambo's identity, or the histories of some of your more obscure Fables, how do you find a balance between stating something overtly so everybody gets it, vs. expecting people to go work it out for themselves?
BW: When I was a kid, I was constantly looking things up that I found in the comics to find out more about them. The best example is reading Thor comics as a kid. I had no idea that this was an actual character from some mythology somewhere. My brother mentioned to me at some point that this was a real character that was in the encyclopedia and everything. I think just to prove him wrong, because my brother was, and is, an idiot, I had to go to the encyclopedia to show that he was just stupid, because no character from comics would be in the encyclopedia. That's the day I discovered Norse mythology, and just how wonderful it was. I guess part of me likes the idea of sending readers scurrying to look things up, but at the same time, it's not always easy to figure out where the line is, whether the story works without specifically stating who this character is. If it still works as a story, the funny bits are still funny, and the dramatic bits are still dramatic, then we've told enough. If you can't understand the story without knowing exactly who this person is, then we'd probably better reveal a little bit more about them.
AVC: You said earlier that you avoided using gods like the Norse pantheon. Why limit yourself from that kind of mythology?
BW: I think it's in many ways an arbitrary line. These characters over here fall into fable and folklore, and if you move too far over to this side, you're into ex-religions and mythologies and things like that. I guess part of it is to just avoid getting into mythology in comics, because, well, that's been done to death. And now, fables and folklore are being done to death in comics, and that's fine, too, but at least I staked out my ground in timely enough fashion to not have to stay away from that.
AVC: You said that the primary things that determine whether you use somebody in the series are whether you want to, and whether they're public domain. Have you ever run up against copyright issues where can't include a character because of the ownership rights?
BW: The most well-known example is that I wanted the Adversary to be Peter Pan. Even when I was a kid, I couldn't understand why he was considered the good guy in these stories. Basically, he would come to our world and steal our kids. That just seemed pretty sinister. I thought, "Okay, we'll do a little turnaround on that, and make Peter Pan the evil Adversary, and that means that Captain Hook and his pirates were really were a crew that were going to Neverland and rescuing these kids, and they were painted as pirates only because Peter was doing the press releases." That was, I thought, a pretty good idea that we didn't get to do, because even though I carefully worked out that Pan was in public domain in America, he's still under copyright in England, because the Parliament did a special extension of copyright because all the income from Peter Pan books went to the Ormond Street Hospital for kids. So to keep the hospital having their income, they extended the copyright, and since we were going to sell Fables in England, we couldn't do it. That's why we had to come up with a new villain, who, in hindsight, I think was much better. That worked out pretty well.
We discovered that right away, even before the first issue even shipped. DC went down a list of every character I planned on using, to make sure they were in the public domain. We had a long phone call with the legal department, and character by character, vetted each one. I would love to use the Narnia material, from C.S. Lewis, and I've hinted at it a couple of times, but I can't come out and say "This is that character," nor can I do any extended storylines with any of those characters. Which is too bad, I'd love to do it. You have to just kind of live with your frustrations in those cases.
AVC: How much of Fables do you have planned out at any given point?
BW: Right at this point, we have a lot, simply because we decided to move things along pretty aggressively. I have the storyline that I thought was going to be the very last Fables storyline if we ever got to do that someday, and I was beginning to become a little frustrated that I might never get to that storyline, because hopefully the series will never end. So I worked out a way to use it anyway. We're moving a whole lot of stuff up. Probably for the next two years, the plots are locked in fairly solidly.
AVC: How did the Jack Of Fables spin-off come about?
BW: Well, we did the "Hollywood Jack" story in Fables, where he goes to Hollywood, makes a movie, finds a way to screw it up, and ends up out on the road, thumbing a ride with his briefcase full of money. He had been told by Sheriff Beast at the time, "Don't ever show your face in Fabletown again, or I'll have to chop your head off," so I just added that little caption at the end, "And he was never seen in Fabletown again," which is a little indication to the readers that we are indeed willing to completely shake up the status quo in Fables. Having done that, I almost immediately started thinking, "Well, how can I keep Jack in the book and not have him ever be seen in Fabletown? Well, there's plenty of ways to do that." At about the same time, Shelly, having read this, said, "Now that he isn't going to be in Fabletown, isn't this a good character that we can spin off?" I thought, why not?
AVC: How does the collaborative process between you and Matt Sturges work?
BW: It's actually pretty wonderful, because Matt is this new, young, eager writer who is very good at meeting deadlines. Since I've only ever been so-so at meeting deadlines in my career, and have often been very bad at meeting them, that part of it is great. He's pretty insistent on getting things done in a timely manner. It works pretty well. One of the reasons I wanted to bring him in on this is that we definitely didn't want Jack to sort of be a Fables-lite, or Fables Jr. kind of book, that we wanted it to have very much its own character. And part of the way to ensure that is to bring another voice into it. Plus, I've known Matt for some time. He was on the short list of just terrific writers I know who weren't getting a lot of work, because they were even worse than I am at getting the work. We brought him in, and it works pretty well. He lives in Austin, I live here in Vegas. We spend a lot of time on the phone together. The way we do Jack is that he'll take the lead on one story arc, while I'm taking the lead on another story arc, and so he'll do the first draft of one issue, and send it to me to mess all over it. I'll be doing the same with him. We're almost swapping story arcs, as far as who the head writer is, and who the junior, gofer, "let me grab coffee while you're doing this" writer is.
AVC: Is there more potential for future spin-off series? Could you ever see Fables as something like Sandman or X-Men, spawning dozens of titles by different writers?
BW: [Laughs.] I hope not. I could see different characters where it might be great for that character to have his own book, but I don't want to do it. I think as much Fables stuff as I can do, I'm doing already, and I don't want to release any more control of it to anyone else. So the answer is no, but at the same point, these are all public-domain characters, so anyone who wants to use these same characters in whatever different ways they can think of, I'm fully supportive of them doing that.
AVC: What can you say about your upcoming House Of Mystery series?
BW: It's a revival of the old House Of Mystery series from DC. Matt Sturges is actually the main writer on it, as a matter of fact. It's his series. I'm sort of fiddling with him on the very first story arc in it, because DC has this idea that you want a well-known writer to hand it off to one who isn't that well-known, which I personally think is not all that necessary. But then, I'm not the one whose fortunes are tied up in this, and who are in that stage of second-guessing everything. Anyway, it's Matt's series. The premise is about the House Of Mystery from the old series, the one that Cain inhabited right next door to the House Of Secrets with his brother Abel. One day, the house goes missing. Cain is at his brother's house having some afternoon tea, he walks out the door, and finds that his house is gone. The series takes off from there, and it's all about where it ended up, and how the house is in this weird place between places, and how it keeps several people captive inside it, while others can come and go as they will. It's a big mystery, the idea being that it's a mystery whose solution is going to come along in the course of the book at some point. The series is about the nature of stories and things like that, as well, so even though there's going to be an ongoing storyline, there's also going to be inset stories as told by the patrons of this place. So in the first story arc, I'm writing the inset stories, and Matt is doing the ongoing storyline. It's a very wonderful series. We've just gotten all the art for the first issue, and it's probably the best first issue of something I've ever seen. I'm pretty happy with it.
AVC: Will it be close to the old horror-suspense tone of the original title, or is it going to be more like Cain and Abel in Sandman?
BW: We're trying for something completely different. It's not going to be horror, it's going to be mysteries, and it's going to be several embedded mysteries where some will be solved right away, and there'll be an ongoing über-plot where you'll get hints to what's going on slowly but steadily. With the proviso that unlike Lost, or The X-Files—or I guess Twin Peaks was the first perpetrator of this type of thing—all the mysteries do actually have solutions, which will arrive at some point. It's not a, "We're making this up as we go along, and we have no idea what the grand mystery behind everything is."
AVC: How active are you as an artist these days?
BW: Very inactive. I've gotten terribly slow. I'm still drawing things, but I think the art side of my career is now, I'll do an issue of something, or a standalone story, and when it's entirely done, I'll go look for someone to publish it. I just couldn't keep up as an artist on a regular book at all.
AVC: As an artist, do you do visual scripts, sketching out for artists what you want to see on a page? Do you draw things for them, or storyboard anything?
BW: I don't. I think that would be a little too presumptive, to tell them their own business. At the same time, I hope it translates to the scripts having what the artist needs, and not calling for things that can't be done. The perennial complaint about new comics writers is that they ask for more than one action in a single panel without realizing that you can't show both cause and effect in one image, or that there are some things you just can't fit into one page. Hopefully, I tend to avoid that kind of stuff.
AVC: Are there any plans, in the wake of Fables' success, to bring your older titles back into print? Ironwood, and Elementals, all of the small-press stuff?
BW: Well, I guess Fantagraphics keeps Ironwood in print in collected form pretty consistently. When I left Comico, I sold the rights to Elementals to Andrew Rev, who bought out the old Comico and formed his own company called Comico. He screwed that up, and he's dropped out of sight for years now. The chances of ever seeing that in print again are as close to absolute zero as we can get, I think. I did a book for Vertigo called Proposition Player, and it sold all of six issues. It was going to be an ongoing series, but when we got the sales in, they were horrible. We pretty quickly retroactively decided that this was a six-issue miniseries. That, Vertigo brought back into print. They collected that. I don't know that it's done that well. My impression is that whatever is working with Fables doesn't necessarily apply to the other stuff. Certainly Robin, when I took over that book, sales went up a little, then started declining again. Shadowpact is not exactly ripping up the charts, so I don't know if there's any crossover of cachet there.
AVC: Proposition Player does really read like something that was intended as an ongoing series, but that got wrapped up abruptly. Do you think that there's any potential for reviving that, as you get better known?
BW: I think that the main character's problems and adventures are just beginning. Having achieved that, how do you actually run everything? It seems to me just rife with story ideas, so I wouldn't mind continuing at all. At the same time, I doubt that there's a lot of interest at DC in doing it. There's a fellow, though, that I met at San Diego a few years ago, that is determined to make a movie out of it. He's been fiddling with it and shopping it around for some time. If that ever happens, then maybe some interest might be revived in it again.
AVC: Do you have any interest in going into the film industry?
BW: I suppose I do, as much as anyone. I mean, every industry in the world is exotic to people looking at it from the outside. I think that's part of the same reason, right now, that film people are so fascinated with the comics industry. They're not inside it, and they don't see just how dull and soul-draining it can be. Like everyone else, I'm interested in it, but at the same time, the few dips into that pool I've had have not exactly been encouraging, in the sense that I still have not the slightest idea how anything can get made in Hollywood. We've been shopping the Fables movie rights around for many years now, and at many times, there's been great interest at a certain studio or whatever, and then three months into that process, so-and-so leaves, or gets fired, or gets a better job at a different thing, and then the project is killed there. I have no idea how it works, and I guess I find that fascinating. At the same time, I'm kind of overworked now, so even if I could get into that racket, I wouldn't know how I'd find time.
AVC: You talk about the industry not being what people expect… Have comics lived up to your expectations? It sounds like you spent your life struggling to get in, and now you're there. Is it what you hoped it would be?
BW: Well, yeah, it's mostly what I expected it to be. There's pitfalls and unexpected turns in everything, but the joy of doing comics is still there. The outsider's fascination with what the industry might be like is, of course, all gone. I've been in this long enough to know precisely what the comics business is like. There's that part of me that wants to go explore other things that there's still that nascent excitement about.
AVC: You've written a number of prose novels that are out of print. Are those likely to ever see the light of day?
BW: Maybe. I've got one or two standing offers to write book books, which I am interested in doing, because I enjoyed it. It's such a different type of writing than for comics. If I pursue expanding into any other type of storytelling, then that'll be it, and it's probably for selfish reasons. That's the one area even more than comics that a writer controls, absolutely, the story. Whereas if you go into the film thing, there are legions of people that are going to second-guess every decision the writer makes, so that 's probably not the right direction to go for someone that's as selfish as I am, that wants to control the story as much as possible. So yeah, more prose work in the future.
AVC: Do you have any interest in continuing Coventry?
BW: If I do, maybe as prose novels, because it spun pretty wildly out of control when I was doing it as comics. At the same time, that's one of the examples I was alluding to earlier, that it's all kind of well-trod ground now. I mean, the idea of a comic, or a novel, or even a TV show about every monster-related thing that you've ever believed in is actually true, and it's all encapsulated into this city is being done to death now. I'm not entirely sure it's fresh enough ground to warrant taking it up again.
AVC: Has Fables given you more cachet as a writer, when it comes to projects like the Dr. Fate one-shot, or writing Robin? Do you get more offers?
BW: Yeah, I suppose so. It's pretty nice that Fables has caught on, and it's getting lots of critical attention. I just found out in an e-mail yesterday from someone at Newsarama, that Walter Mosley, from the Easy Rawlins books, he likes my work. That's pretty nice. I guess I get more job offers.
AVC: Is it harder to be invested in stories with characters that you're not originating, when you've got your own hit books going on?
BW: I don't think so. It's certainly harder to get my own way. With writing Robin, it had to fit into all those other Bat-books. I mean, there were like 12 Bat-books coming out a month, and you couldn't write anything that contradicted all of those. There was a lot of coordination with the editors, to the extent that there's more editorial coordination and less, as a writer, getting to make up any thing you damn well please. That was a little frustrating, but I don't think it was less of an emotional investment. You hear sometimes that people who create their own stuff save all their good ideas for their own properties, and don't spend them on the company-owned projects. I disagree with that. My personal theory is that we've all got this bucket full of good ideas, and if you just hold onto them, your bucket never gets fuller. There's only so many you can hold at a time, but as fast as you use them up, it fills up again with more good ideas. My notion is to spend everything you've got coming through your head as fast as you can, and you're guaranteed to get more good stuff. So while writing Robin and stuff like that, if I had good ideas, I'd try to pitch them and run with them. Sometimes it backfired. It was my idea to make Spoiler into Robin, just before she died horribly. I thought that would be a good thing for the character, but it turns out that legions of female fans now detest me for doing that.
AVC: With the bucket thing in mind, are there any company characters out there that you'd really like to have a shot at?
BW: Well, sure. Right now, with Marvel and DC at a stage where everything company-character-wise is plotted in these intricate, company-wide crossovers, the most obscure character you can only remember from a book way back when, someone has a multi-book crossover lined up for that character. It's pretty severe, in terms of finding somebody who's available to do things with. The ideas that I would have for a character would take them out of having to coordinate them with every other book in the world. It's a bit frustrating right now, but at the same time, I almost have no time left to do that kind of stuff, so maybe it works out.
AVC: To continue that thought, what was it like being involved in the Infinite Crisis crossover?
BW: It was pretty interesting. In that situation, they sort of divided the DC Universe into four corners, and they said, "You've got the whole magic thing." I had a lot of freedom, just coming up with anything I wanted, within the stretches of, "You have to involve Spectre, he's wigging out. You have to have Eclipso in here," that sort of thing. Every once in a while, someone would call me up and say, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, you have to make this happen to this character by such-and-such an issue." Once again, there was coordination with all the other books coming up. It was kind of interesting in the sense that you're running a race while people are throwing obstacles out and you have to deal with them, and that makes kind of an interesting life.
AVC: One of the things that gets people into your books is that they're so different from all of the superhero stuff out there. Do you still get excited by superheroes?
BW: Sure. We're in a stage, which is partly my fault, that's been described as the age of decadence in superheroes, where they're not very heroic anymore. I grieve about that a little bit, because in the effort to grow superheroes up, make them more relevant today and all of that, I'm among those who think we may have lost touch with some of the canon aspects of it, one being that superheroes should be heroic. The example is that I couldn't have envisioned a day that Captain America would be running around apologizing to Middle East terrorists for America being a prosperous nation. It just doesn't fit. Or the new Superman movie, where apparently they're embarrassed about, "Truth, justice, and the American way," so we'll just edit the "American way" out of that famous line. So, yeah, I still think things can be done with the genre, although possibly some of the things that can be done right now should maybe go back to retrieve a few of the things that we've lost along the way. Everyone wants controversy and excitement in your books, but right now, if you want controversy, take real chances in a story. Have an American or European white businessman in charge of a huge corporation that isn't out to take over the world. A religious priest character that isn't molesting young kids back in the nave every day. That kind of thing. Go in that different direction, a little bit, rather than the standard tropes that we're sort of caught up in today.
AVC: Part of what makes Fables so popular is that it gets away from a lot of comics clichés. Is there a philosophy to that? Did you ever sit down and say, "Let's make the anti-superhero comic"?
BW: Mostly, it's just trying to make a comic that interests me and talks about the kind of things that I feel like talking about. At the same time, it shouldn't be a book of valuable life lessons for the readers. As nice as people treat this material, we should never come to the conclusion that we're doing important stuff here. This is just entertainment. Along those lines, yeah, let's just do the things that entertain me or that I think would be interesting. If we avoid some clichés along the way, all the better.
AVC: There are certainly Fables fans out there who have never read your superhero stories. Does it work the other way around? Do you have people coming to you at conventions wanting you to sign Shadowpact or Robin books, and saying "What's this Fables stuff I keep hearing about?"
BW: Sure there are. Even online, when I, like everyone else, do the occasional ego search, I see people on message boards saying… usually it's kind of a complaint. Like, "His work on Shadowpact is such crap. Everyone says I should read Fables, but no way, if this is the kind of stuff he does." While writing Robin, since that's such a popular DC character, and very iconic, there were plenty of readers that weren't Fables fans. A lot of people resisted starting Fables, because it just sounds so hokey. Even I can't quite understand why people would willingly read a book about talking moocows and stuff. I expect the readership to collectively wake up one day, pop themselves on the head, and say, "What the hell have we been doing?"