The Bill Willingham Interview (part four of four)

Posted by on April 30th, 2010 at 12:06 AM



DEPPEY: Let’s go ahead and move on to Fables. How did the concept come about?

WILLINGHAM: Fables was one of those things that I, as I’ve said before, I think I’d been circling in on for many years. As a kid, I loved… ever seen The Bullwinkle Show with the “Fractured Fairy Tales”?

DEPPEY: Oh, yeah.

From chapter four of Fables #50, “The Israel Analogy,” penciled by Mark Buckingham and inked by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy; ©2006 Bill Willingham & DC Comics.


WILLINGHAM: I think if anything is a genesis to Fables, that is, because as a kid, I was astonished that they could get away with this. The whole concept of “Fractured Fairy Tales” was that they were redoing fairy tales in funny and mocking ways and completely just changing things up so that your beloved characters are completely different in the way they tell them. As a kid, I couldn’t believe they could do this. I mean, this is the story of the three pigs and the big bad wolf. How can someone come along and say it happened differently, even for funny purposes? At which point, my mother carefully explained, “These are folk tales. Anyone who wants to do any other kind of version of them can,” which was an astonishing revelation to me, the idea that, “Oh, this belongs to anyone, and I could even use these characters in my own stories,” and I guess that stuck with me.

More recently, I did a fill-in book for the Sandman spinoff, The Dreaming, called The Further Adventures of Danny Nod. Basically, a kid that’s running around in the world where books are real. That lead to doing Mysterly River. And I asked DC if they would like a follow-up series about this because I really liked it. The idea of a kid that actually exists in the world in which the stories are told. And they said that “it was an interesting concept for one story, but I can’t see how you can get more than one story out of this,” which I found astonishing in the sense that how could you not get just a wealth of stories out of that concept? So I did Mysterly River, but Fables, I think, also grew out of that. A tweaking of the idea, not using Sandman characters, obviously, and just using all of these tale and folklore characters that are around for anyone to use anyway. I think it was originally gonna be characters from mythology, like old pantheon-type Mount Olympus, but I though that was a little too well-trodden ground these days. And then the other natural group was fairy-tale characters.

DEPPEY: In an interview that you did for a website called Pop Culture Shock, you equated the basic concept behind Fables to the Jewish Diaspora; you’ve got characters who originally lived in the Land of Fable and then a great adversary rose up and drove them out, and now they kind of live in little ghettos in pockets around our world. I’m wondering if that was an intentional building block from the beginning, or did the metaphor rise up over time as you developed the concept?

WILLINGHAM: No, that was there from the beginning. As I said, I was raised in a pretty conservative family. My parents were both Scoop Jackson Democrats, which by today’s standard would make them, you know, horrid old conservative Republicans. The other aspect of that was that my mother, for reasons that still I do not understand, was rabidly pro-Israel. The only big trip she even wanted to take in her life but she never got to was to go to Israel, and I didn’t understand it as a kid, but growing up, the whole story of how the modern nation came about with the partition and the wars and all that — and just this whole story of the tiny little country with being surrounded on all sides by these vast, vast nations dedicated to its extinction — I guess it appealed to my mother’s sense of “root for the underdog” and if there’s any underdog in this world, Israel’s it. So I think I just absorbed my mother’s love of Israel. Politically, I’m just rabidly pro-Israel and so that, as a metaphor, was intended from the beginning. As a matter of fact, since this interview will be coming out after issue #50, there’s a scene in which it’s actually stated as fact that Fabletown’s battle against the vast Empire, the Adversary, is very much like Israel against the Arab nations. A scrappy little country full of stiff-necked bastards who, the only way we’re gonna protect our existence is to make sure that anytime you do anything bad to us, we’re going to make you pay horribly. I use that as a formal analogy for the existence of Fabletown and their relationships to the Empire. So that’s a roundabout way of saying that yes, that was in there purposely.

DEPPEY: We’re talking about conservative politics, and one of the things that I’d noticed in reading Fables is that, compared to other people who, well, other writers who have strong political opinions, you really don’t try to insert those politics in a straightforward fashion.

WILLINGHAM: Certainly not in a didactic way.

DEPPEY: Right. I mean, Fables is really more a series of morality plays than it is any kind of political grandstanding or anything. You generally tend to deal more with first principles than with whatever the issue of the day is.

WILLINGHAM: Well, I don’t care what political background you’re coming from, if you get that heavyhanded with your preachifyin’, the results are automatically stupid. I don’t know of any other way you can come out with it. Someone much smarter than me said, “The purpose of art is not to tell your readers what to do, but to show your readers who they are.” And so, as much as politics are going to intrude in Fables, that’s as far as I think I’m willing to go. It’s impossible to keep that out entirely. We’re all political creatures whether we cop to it or not.

DEPPEY: Oh sure.

Sequence from Fables Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers, art by Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha; ©2003, 2004 Bill Willingham & DC Comics.


WILLINGHAM: And every once in a while, something does get in. And what I enjoy is… there was one scene, in The March of the Wooden Soldiers, where I took a shot at young Republicans. And to this day, I get conflicting gripes from readers about that. Like “How dare you attack Republicans and conservatives like that?” Whereas, on the other hand, other readers are writing in, “How dare you snipe at liberals like that?” And I think it was perfect scene just because of that. For one thing, it was funny. That’s the ultimate filter: If it’s not entertaining or funny, it doesn’t go in at all. But I got to get some nice jabs in that performed the exact function of showing the readers where they’re coming from rather than lecturing them on what they should be doing. Yeah, it’s not going to be a political tract. It never will be, but at the same time, it’s not going to shy away from the fact that there are characters who have real moral and ethical centers, and we’re not going to apologize for it. I mean, Fables and the homeland Empire and all that is enough fantastic elements to where if we’re going to talk about Israel, in this case, we’re certainly not going to create some fictional Israel substitute land so as not to overtly offend anyone. You know, it’s already loaded up with too many fantastic elements.

DEPPEY: I suppose you could kind of weave some global war on terror metaphors out of Fables, if you squint hard enough. Things like, you know, the secret detention of Baba Yaga, for example.

WILLINGHAM: [Laughter.] Yeah. You’re right.

DEPPEY: But you’re not really commenting on real-world events so much as the motivations and the kinds of things that happen in those kinds of circumstances. You have Boy Blue, who runs off and goes on this covert mission in the homelands and comes back and has to pay a penalty for having broken various Fabletown laws, despite the fact that, essentially, the mayor sent him out to do it. There’s a lot of conflict in Fabletown between the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law.

Jack of Fables, doing his duty. Panel from Fables Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers, art by Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha; ©2003, 2004 Bill Willingham & DC Comics.


WILLINGHAM: Sure, I think, in that sense, I’m trying to reflect real life too. I have just enough of an ego that I hope the stories here will be timeless enough to where they shouldn’t be linked to specific events. There’s never going to be my substitute story for the war in Iraq and what I think about it. But my opinions will get in there on just the defining qualities for why we do stuff like that. They’d be mentioning, “Anyone can tell you that the first thing you have to do is guard your own territory,” just those first principles that lead us to doing things like supporting or rejecting the war in Iraq, that type of thing. Snow White, whose defining purpose is making the community work and run: “We’ve invested our effort in this and I’m just gonna make it survive because this is my people, my tribe,” all that kind of stuff. Those things will show up and occasionally, some of my personal opinions about what defines these characters, or should, what I find virtuous will get in every once in a while. I think… God, what was it I just wrote… oh, it was for an issue of Shadowpact, a throwaway statement that “no sane society allows mad dogs to continue to live.” Things like that that I think are obvious points that should be made and perhaps others will disagree.

DEPPEY: But even there, you allow for a little ambiguity. I’m thinking of, for example, Snow White’s seventh child. The zephyr that everybody else is hunting down and trying to kill and she just manages to make contact and tells it, “No, you shouldn’t be killing people like that. Run away quickly now.”

WILLINGHAM: Oh yeah, and part of that is, this is what I do, this is what I believe, I’m a rule-of-law kind of person, but when it comes to your own child and your own family, well of course, we’re just hard-wired that way. You look out for your own. And that definitely trumps higher-level virtue and morality. Certainly it trumps anything that’s codified.


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