The Bill Willingham Interview (part four of four)

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


Never-Ending Stories and Crank Theories

DEPPEY: You’ve got a fair amount of leeway in dealing with the story. On the one hand, Fables seems to be going in a very specific direction, and there really seems to be an overarching story behind it. But on the other hand, you’re playing with a concept that’s so elastic that you could make this thing go on forever.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah. Fables was another thing that when I offered it to Vertigo — actually I didn’t offer it, I wasn’t going to, and then Shelly heard me talking about it and insisted I did. But one of the people at DC said, “You know, this is interesting, but maybe we should do it just as a miniseries, because I can’t see how you can get more than a single story out of this,” which flummoxed me. But hopefully, I’ve shown now that there is no end to the stories. Neil Gaiman, at the San Diego show a few years ago, very kindly and succinctly, being able to put things better than I can, said that what I’ve created here is a storytelling machine. It’s a device that you can now produce any kind of story you want to tell from it, which is what he tried to do with Sandman and did it rather successfully. So yeah, I can imagine people getting tired of it and eventually it doesn’t sell well enough to continue, but I can’t imagine running out of ideas to continue with it.

DEPPEY: I seem to recall seeing interviews with you where you’ve been asked this, and you’ve said that you’ll basically do the story for as long as you can, but will there come a point where you’ll either have to just basically tell the ending to the story or… I’m phrasing this badly and I’m not entirely sure I have a coherent question here…

WILLINGHAM: Are you asking, “Is there an end story in mind?”


WILLINGHAM: There is, in the sense that I have a vague, not-too-many-details idea of what the end story will be, should we need to get to it. I’m hoping that the series will last long enough to where my idea for what the end story will be will have to change just because of things that have developed along the way, which wouldn’t be bad at all. But yeah, as of this point, I sort of have a vague, “if we have to wrap it up, this’ll be the final big story” in Fables with lots of room for changes, should they be needed.

DEPPEY: Speaking of Neil Gaiman, you’re actually coming out with a book sometime soon called Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which sounds eerily similar to the book that Neil Gaiman did.

WILLINGHAM: Endless Nights.

DEPPEY: Yeah, Endless Nights, in that you’re essentially writing for a whole bunch of different artists and you’ve got a fairly decent list of illustrators here.

WILLINGHAM: Sure, in many senses… and possibly, I should have avoided this simply because Fables gets a little too much comparison to Sandman than I’m comfortable with, only because, you know, there is that egotistical part of me that I want the credit and/or blame for this myself, rather than sharing with someone who’s not really working on the series. So coming out with an original hardback that is a compilation of different stories that, in format and design, will have to be compared to the Endless Nights hardback, maybe that wasn’t a great idea, but, that said, the stories that actually make up the hardback are completely different, so I think that anyone who actually reads the thing, it won’t stand up to the previous disposition that “oh, this is just another Sandman-type of project.”

DEPPEY: Now from a pure marketing sense, the Endless Nights book sold incredibly well in bookstores, specifically.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, that is one worry. That was my one note of caution in a conversation with Karen Burger when we were first talking about this: that Endless Nights sold just tons of books and that “if you’re thinking that there’s any chance that the Fables thing has that same cachet and that it will repeat that success, cancel the project right now because it’s not going to.” I mean, I’m hoping it will do terrific, but terrific is a pretty sliding scale when you’re talking comic books and if their one measure of success is that it repeats what Sandman: Endless Nights did, then it’s already, I think, going to be a grotesque failure.

DEPPEY: Well, I can’t imagine it doing as well as Endless Nights, but Fables really does strike me as the one currently published title that DC has that that has the likeliest chance of doing well above and beyond the regular comics market. And they tend to rush it into collected form fairly quickly.

WILLINGHAM: Yes, I’ve been very lucky that way.

DEPPEY: Do you get any impression that the book has traction above and beyond the comic shops? For example, without discussing specific numbers, do you have a general idea how it does, for example, in bookstores as opposed to in comic shops?

WILLINGHAM: I don’t have that kind of breakdown other than just assurances from Vertigo that yes, it sells pretty good in bookstores. I did just do the Book Expo America in Washington D.C. last month, and it was my first occasion doing something like that, and they brought me out to sign free Fables collections for bookstore owners and librarians. Bookstores as in book-books, not comic shops. I was a little worried about that because I did not know then how big an imprint Fables has made in bookstores and libraries. But they turned out in droves, said lots and lots of wonderful, complimentary things about Fables, and for an hour or so, I just signed books for bookstore owners and hot librarians (and there are still quite a few of those out there) and was quite pleased with at least that anecdotal evidence that maybe we were making a pretty good inroads to bookstores and such. That raised my confidence for 1001 Nights that maybe we will get some good bookstore attention. Plus, DC’s doing things that they haven’t done before, such as coming out with galleys in time for bookstores and book distributors to decide to order them, which is one of those ways that comics are being dragged into the way real publishing works. So I’m optimistic.

DEPPEY: I know Fantagraphics has become a believer in printing up advance samples. You know, they printed up something like 400 paperback galleys of Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting.

WILLINGHAM: Oh really?

DEPPEY: Yeah. I’ve got one of those, and it’s definitely a sign of a changing industry. And there’s no question in my mind that the industry is certainly in a time of great change.

Bill Willingham, circa 2005.


WILLINGHAM: I think it always is. It’s probably a little more volatile now. We’re certainly at a stage where we can notice the changes much quicker than we seem to have been able to in the past and maybe notice them in time to do something about them if they’re not going well. It’s kind of a strange situation where comics right now are in [as it says in] the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, “the best of times and the worst of times.” The industry’s certainly the best it’s ever been, at the same time, sales overall are the worst they’ve ever been or are pretty close to the worst they’ve ever been. And what a mixed blessing that is to have such a great industry as far as the types of stories we’re getting out that can actually find readership now and aren’t just throw-away little things that never get attention. But at the same time, general readership is in a terrible state.

DEPPEY: I’ve developed a sort of crank theory as to what created that dichotomy, which I was able to dish out in our 30th-anniversary issue.

WILLINGHAM: Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. Mine will get me hooted and hollered at by anyone legal, so go ahead.

DEPPEY: OK, well mine is the fact that, essentially, there’s no middle ground. You know, after the whole Diamond debacle or, you know, the whole Marvel/Heroes World thing and the nonsense of the 1990s, the casual reader basically just got chased away and what was left was this sort of a what I’ve taken to calling a “tiny nerd culture war” between the superhero set on the one side and then the art-comics set on the other. And since then, it’s been very, very difficult for anybody who is not part of those two opposing poles to get any kind of traction in the comics market. Because there’s no real way to get that sort of traction in the Direct Market, there’s no way to build a fan base and an economic base from which to make the leap into other markets, for example, the bookstore market. I have yet to walk into a bookstore and not see titles like Bone and Strangers in Paradise, but that’s partly because they got in before it was too late. And I really think that lack of a middle group is the Achilles’ heel of the comic industry right now. You know, to bring the dreaded M-word back, one of the reasons that manga just beats the living hell out of most American comics in bookstores is the fact that there are science-fiction manga. There are mystery manga. There are horror manga. There are romance manga, you know? You’re not slave to this lame-ass binary pole that we’re stuck with in Western comics.

WILLINGHAM: Right, but at the same time, we’re at this point where comics, for the first time, is no longer a literary embarrassment. At the same time that door’s almost closed, you know, we may have gotten a foot in it just in time to start opening that up again, because now bookstores are no longer a bastion against comic books. And libraries: I mean, in my career, the idea that libraries would carry comic books was just a ridiculous notion. And once they are in all these spots, maybe a new readership can be trained to enjoy them again. So I suspect it’s one of those cases where the patient almost died, but maybe not quite yet, and at the same time, we’re keeping the patient on life support. We’re developing new technology that may, in the end, cure us.

But my big crank theory is that it’s more of an overarching problem of education: that we as a culture are not required to read any more. Year by year, we’re graduating students that cannot read. I know this is just an anecdote, but back in my studio days, the Coventry years where I was basing characters on actual people, I had this pretty girl come in who was going to be a character coming up in Coventry, I suppose: shooting her, just doing head shots. You know, “Give me your happy expression, your sad, etc., so I can base a character on you.” It turns out that she just graduated from high school. During a break, while I was changing film out, she’s looking at my shelf of books and she turns to me with this pensive look on her face and she goes, “Now fiction and nonfiction, what’s the difference between those two again?” [Deppey laughs.] Absolutely serious question. You know, thank God she was gorgeous because…

DEPPEY: She’d be totally screwed otherwise.

WILLINGHAM: [Laughs.] You think? [Deppey laughs.] I think that’s just an illustration that is amazing enough on its own, except for the fact that I think everyone knows stories like that. We just aren’t turning out people that read. And, you know, people that read for pleasure are always going to be a subset of those who can read, and people who read comic books for pleasure are always going to be a subset of that. So just playing the numbers game, we don’t have a universal pool to draw upon for our potential comic readers. I think the only solution to that is just a dramatic, cultural reversal or change to fix our schools, and the only way that’s going to happen, of course, is to get rid of the teacher’s union in whole and elect real conservatives for about the next 40 years to try and reverse it. That’s the point at which I expect readers to start griping and screaming at me for being an idiot. [Deppey laughs.]

DEPPEY: I actually wonder if there isn’t a free-market solution in the works as well. I mean, back in the ’80s and ’90s, there really was no competition for sheer attention with things like television and videogames and movies and whatnot. But one of the things that I’ve really noticed about the Internet is that it’s made literacy valuable again.

WILLINGHAM: Oh, I’d love to believe that. Have you seen the state of literacy on the Internet?

DEPPEY: Oh, absolutely, but I think that predates the Internet itself. One of the things that the Internet is good for though, is that it provides a venue where people who are literate, and people who can think in paragraphs actually have an advantage over the people who can’t.

WILLINGHAM: Oh sure, sure. They’re definitely going to be the ones running the engine, but that’s been the same in history throughout. I mean, back when no one was reading, it was the few clerics that did preserve language and writing that really were running the engine that drove the world. I think that’s always going to be the same. What I despair about is the percentage of those guys running things as opposed to those who are just being carried along. I’m at a despairing stage of my life right now to a great extent because of the Internet, encountering people that are just subliterate. In realizing that our pool, our hunting grounds are just being depopulated as far as who we, as writers, can draw upon as our readership.

Dirk Deppey is an online editor for The Comics Journal.


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