The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)

Posted by on April 27th, 2010 at 12:06 AM

 

Originally recorded in 2006 for The Comics Journal #278.

Part One ♦ Part TwoPart ThreePart Four


Willingham’s cover art for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module The Secret of Bone Hill, ©1981 TSR Hobbies, Inc.

 

Bill Willingham is one of the foremost comics fantasists working today. Beginning at the dawn of indy comics with The Elementals, he’s slowly and painstakingly built his career at the intersection between myth and reality, from the pornographic Ironwood to current Vertigo cult hit Fables, with stops in places like Coventry and Bludhaven along the way. In the real world, Willingham has studied indigenous people in the Mexican jungles, served as Military Police in Germany and sat in on Las Vegas poker games as a proposition player. He even became one of Dungeons and Dragons manufacturer TSR’s most recognized artists when the game first hit it big in the early 1980s.

Willingham’s status as a natural-born storyteller made this an easy interview, as he provided a ground-level look at the early heyday of the Direct Market and the life of a struggling comic-book cartoonist in engaging detail. The interview was recorded over the phone in late June of 2006 and has been copyedited by the participants and Michael Dean. It was transcribed by Sam Robards.

– Dirk Deppey

 

DIRK DEPPEY: I went to your website to try and get some background information on you. First of all, your website sucks.

BILL WILLINGHAM: [Laughs.] Yes, I guess we can agree on that.

DEPPEY: I learned everything I needed to know about you up until the age of 7 or so.

WILLINGHAM: Well, you know, I started working on the biography and… I’ll get to it… someday.

DEPPEY: Anyway, I have you as having been born in December ’56 into a military family. You were born in Washington D.C….

WILLINGHAM: Fort Belvoir, Va., actually, but… yeah, for all intents and purposes, it’s the Washington D.C. area.

DEPPEY: Yeah, your earliest years were in California and then you moved off to Germany. Now, how old were you when you were in Germany?

WILLINGHAM: Let’s see… I was 2 when I left and 5 when we returned.

DEPPEY: Do you have any memories of that time?

WILLINGHAM: Sure.

DEPPEY: Really?

WILLINGHAM: Oh yeah. Yeah, for some reason, I’m cursed with early memory. There are vast swaths in-between that I seem to have edited out, but yeah, the early years are pretty clear.

DEPPEY: If you had been born a little later, I would have been tempted to ask you about the contrast between Germany and the United States as a young child, but I would assume that Germany was really what you remembered first. Now this was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when…

WILLINGHAM: Yes it was. I found out afterwards. Obviously, at that age, as a kid, they were keeping that kind of thing from us, so my memories of Germany are all pretty good. I mean, it was a wonderful place. We lived just off-post in military housing. I assumed my dad ran the Army, because when we’d visit him at work, he was a Master Sergeant, and he was pretty much ordering everyone around his office, so I just assumed that was the case for the entire Army. Plus, I assumed that he also ran Hollywood, because back then we didn’t have video recordings or anything, if anything came on movies or TV, I, as a kid, believed that was the first time it was ever on. And Dad would always do things like guess what was coming up or comment about something coming up, which I found amazing, and then would wryly say, “Oh, yeah, well back when I made this movie, that’s what I decided to have happen.” Things like that. I kind of took ’em at face value.

So, Germany was fine. It was wonderful. He retired while he was in Germany, and then we went back to the States… and afterwards, found out it was the Cuban Missile Crisis that prompted that retirement. I guess all the war scenarios were that if this came to shooting, Germany was gonna be the heart of it all, and…

DEPPEY: He didn’t necessarily want his wife and children to be smack dab in the middle of it.

WILLINGHAM: Apparently not. [Deppey laughs.] This was all learned after the fact. At the time, I was completely unaware of it. I said, “Dad got tired of running the Army, and so now we’re gonna go back to the States.”

DEPPEY: Growing up in a soldier’s family, did you ever get the impression that you were raised with more, I don’t know, discipline than the kids around you? Was that even anything you ever thought about?

WILLINGHAM: All around me at the time, of course, were also military families.

DEPPEY: I was thinking more about after you got back, actually.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, when we got to the first neighborhood I clearly remember, as a kid outside of the Army, I couldn’t understand why the other kids in the neighborhood did not have to call their dad “Sir,” did not have a whole regimen of chores and things like that that they had to do every day before they had any time for their own. So that’s when it became obvious that the military rugrat upbringing was probably a little different than what the standard was.

Dad was tall, very larger than life. And weirdly enough, the other neighbor kids, I mean, he would order them around, too, and they’d do it because he was that guy in the neighborhood, I guess.

DEPPEY: Speaking of which, you basically grew up during the ’60s. Culturally, it must have seemed kind of alien, having grown up in a relatively neat and disciplined family, and having the culture around you suddenly grow long hair and decide to smoke dope and get laid every day.

WILLINGHAM: To a certain extent, but it was also a big family. I had lots of older sisters, one of whom, my oldest sister Barbara, was the rebellious one. I mean, she would hear about a protest of anything miles away and go to it because that’s the protest that was happening today. From time to time, she would drag me along to those, so I have a taste of the other side of the ’60s culture, but certainly, my biggest memories of the ’60s were watching the protests, things like that, on TV and hearing dad’s commentary, which was, of course, “Every one of them should be shot,” and “How dare they use our tax dollars developing rubber bullets when real bullets would work just as fine? Then they wouldn’t be protesting any more.” Things like that. So I got a little bit of both sides of it.

DEPPEY: You were a young man at the time, and the counterculture of the period promised all the kinds of freedom that young men really craved. So where did you fall in at that time? Did you kind of dip into the counterculture at all?

WILLINGHAM: I’d go along with my sister when she would be willing to drag us along to things like that. Maybe dipping into it is exactly the right term because it was just sort of, you know, going to the University of Washington to see the protest there and take part: They often use little kids, you know, have the little kid hold the sign and that way, there’s likely to be a camera on. That was about the same as going to a movie or going to a zoo. I had no ideas of my own about what was going on.

DEPPEY: Just for context purposes, this took place in Seattle, I take it?

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, we were in the Seattle area. Bellevue, Washington. Little residential place called Newport Hills that, I guess, is now, I understand, one of those areas you can’t buy into for less than a fortune because of all the Microsoft people.


Right: Beezil, an imp that escaped from Hell, from Coventry #2, ©1997 Bill Willingham.


 

DEPPEY: After you came back from Germany, did you move immediately to Seattle?

WILLINGHAM: Apparently, my father’s younger brother, Uncle Bob, was already out there and was going to set him up in business and things like that. So, yeah, we moved directly to the Seattle area and lived there while both parents, who were initially raised on farms, took a few years talking themselves into buying a farm again. They finally did it when I was in high school. Father’s business had paid off. He ran a janitorial and carpet-cleaning business. He’d started with one truck and ended up running several crews. So it was really taking off, and I was beginning to suspect that we were slowly growing into being, if not rich kids, upper-middle class. Until one day we came home and my parents said, “We fired the maid and sold the boat and most of the cars and sold the house and bought an asparagus farm.” In my junior year of high school, we moved to eastern Washington to grow asparagus.

DEPPEY: Wow. That must have been quite a change.

WILLINGHAM: Definitely radical change.

DEPPEY: I know just enough about rural life to know that farming is no fun, essentially.

WILLINGHAM: It’s absolutely wonderful to anyone looking at it from the outside, thinking, “What a peaceful, lovely agrarian life.” Having to do it was just a complete change in life, as I thought we were growing into being…

DEPPEY: …just a standard, middle-class, urban family.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah.

DEPPEY: I take it you wound up working a great deal on the farm.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, yeah. Farming itself is bad enough, but asparagus is basically a weed. During the growing season, you don’t just harvest it once. You harvest it every day — every day and early because you don’t want the sun getting to it. You’re out there doing the entire field, hand-cutting them. They never worked out any machine way to do it. So yeah, it was a lot of work, all of a sudden.

DEPPEY: I would imagine that you really looked forward to college and getting the hell away from there.

WILLINGHAM: I kinda did. You know, I thought I was gonna hate the farm. I actually kind of liked it. The work was hard, but, eh, what are you gonna do about that? I liked the town. In my early childhood, we’d moved around so much that I was beginning to wonder, “When are we going to move again?” We’d just do that on a regular basis. I’m infected with the “grass is greener” syndrome. There’s always some place that’s gonna be better. That affected the move. I liked it because it was all completely new.

The unfortunate thing about college is that, on paper, our family was worth pretty much as much as it was back in the Seattle area, but it was all tied up. I mean, farms have no liquidity, so it was tough getting loans and basic grants and things like that. College was fine, except I still had to come back and work my butt off all summer just to make sure I could go the next time.

 

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One Response to “The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bill Willingham, Dirk Deppey. Dirk Deppey said: @BillWillingham Hey, Bill: In case you didn't know, we're serializing your TCJ interview on the website right now. http://bit.ly/diu0k3 […]