The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)

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


Just Find Something You Like and Start Reading, You Idiot

DEPPEY: Before we get into college, I want to talk about what you read as a kid. I assume that you read comics as a kid?

WILLINGHAM: I absolutely read comics. Even before learning to read, comics were a very important part of the culture we had in the military. I had no idea if it was the same with kids outside, but we all had comics, and I had plenty of older sisters to read them to me. But we placed no intrinsic value on them other than: Had we read them or had we not? And almost daily, at least weekly, we would pile our comics up on our wagon, or in a box, and just go from house to house with the other kids, and swap comics. The only decision was, “Had I read this yet or not?” There was no value placed in one comic over another. It was a one-for-one swap or [if] it was the double-sized issues, then it was a two-for-one swap, and that was it. We did it constantly.

DEPPEY: So I would assume that you read a wide variety of comics.

WILLINGHAM: Sure. Anything, and in any order, too. I can’t recall that there was any realization that it was important to read some of the stories in a certain order.

DEPPEY: Well, there probably wasn’t. I mean, we’re talking the late ’50s, early ’60s, so there probably wasn’t a lot of continuity-dependent comics coming out at that time.

WILLINGHAM: True, most of the comics were every issue you get three separate, self-contained stories, anyway.

Right: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books influenced Willingham. Cover to this edition by Richard Powers.


DEPPEY: In your novel, Down the Mysterly River, you made no secret of your love of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I get the feeling that it was his books that basically taught you a level of reading.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah. I had learned to read by then and read in school, but for pleasure reading at the time, it was comics or nothing. We had kind of a standard deal with my mom, pretty much standard with very big families, which is: “If you’re sick, you stay home, you get better, but the most important thing about staying home is that you stay out of my way. I’ve got a lot of work to do in the day.” She was a homemaker and did her own bookkeeping work at home (freelance for various small companies), so she pretty much had a full day. Anytime we were sick, the standard agreement was, “If you stay in bed and you stay quiet and don’t annoy me, when I run my errands, I’ll pick up comics for you.”

One day, she just broke the agreement. No forewarning, nothing. She decided, “You know, you had enough of these picture books for a while. I’m gonna get you a book book to read,” and bought me The Return of Tarzan, which was the second in the Tarzan books. I thought it was this gigantic betrayal. It was just a horrible, horrible thing for Mom to do. I have to confess, a couple times, I stayed home, wasn’t really sick but faked it because it was about time to get some new comics, and this was one way to do it. So yeah, she screwed me over pretty bad by bringing home this Return of Tarzan in a big-print kid’s edition. After pouting the day away, most of the day, I reluctantly… You know, she wasn’t gonna give in. She wasn’t gonna go get comics. She wasn’t gonna let me get up and watch TV instead, so out of desperation or boredom, I finally started to read it and found out it was pretty good. I mean, for that age, it was as good as I thought writing could get.

DEPPEY: So did it lead you to reading more by the same author, did it lead you outward to reading other books or other authors?

WILLINGHAM: Absolutely. I didn’t think I was a fan of Tarzan because — you may have read in the bio [on my website] — my father used to golf with Johnny Weismuller back in California just before we went to Germany. I guess people are teamed up because of handicap and things that I still, to this day, don’t understand. But in any case, they were teamed up for a while, and at one point — this is not really direct memory, but just one of the oft-told tales in our family — they piled us in the car and said, “We’re gonna go meet Tarzan.” We went out to the golf course, and he was just this big guy with long, gray hair. No one wore their hair long back then: This would have to be ’59, something like that, and apparently, he just scared the hell out of me. Later on, I saw the Tarzan films he made. Part of that didn’t interest me, because he was just this kind of grunting guy, and I was surprised to find, in the books, that he was anything but that. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote him as this intelligent, well-learned, multilingual, sophisticated-when-he-needs-to-be character, and it was so different than what I thought the character was. I think that was part of the realization, “Oh, what a wonderful thing.” My attitude was pretty much, “Well, I’m gonna read books now, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only writer worth reading, because this was a wonderful book, and why even try any author as long as there’s another one of his books to hunt down?” You probably realize how prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs was, so for a long time, there was not a chance in the world I was gonna read any other writer if there was one more of his books lurking out there that I hadn’t found yet.

DEPPEY: So, generally, what kinds of books did you wind up reading as a kid, aside from Burroughs?

WILLINGHAM: After Burroughs, it was kind of anything, looking to re-ignite that magic. Unfortunately, it was kinda like one of those first-love things that, I don’t care how good the writer is, nothing’s gonna quite ignite that first instance of “reading is a wonderful thing and not a chore,” but I read pretty much anything I could find. Robert E. Howard and Heinlein and anything genre. I’m trying to remember how soon in life I started reading things outside of genre. It had to have come along. My mother was a voracious reader. We were surrounded with books all the time. So, at some point, when I’m whining about not being able to find something to read, she just pointed to the wall and said, “There’s thousands of books here. Just find something you like and start reading, you idiot.” So, somewhere along the line, I just started reading anything.

DEPPEY: Did this affect how you read comics at all? Did you continue reading comics? Did comics start looking kind of like juvenile literature compared the more important stuff you were reading?

WILLINGHAM: A little bit. First, I went through a phase where — I guess this is a time I would probably be getting out of comics — DC started the Joe Kubert Tarzan books, and Neal Adams started doing the Green Lantern/Green Arrow, so just as I starting to get disinterested in them, a little mini-renaissance went on, especially when DC started grabbing all the Burroughs stuff. I thought that was just a wonderful time, so I guess I held on to them a little longer because of that and then got out of them for a while. But then, sometime in the middle of college, I decided to pick ’em up again.

DEPPEY: And why did you decide to pick ’em up again?

WILLINGHAM: That’s a good question. I suspect just because I was in college… this would probably be around my sophomore year, so I was at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and I could barely afford to go. In addition to working all summer, I was working three jobs during the school year: one of ’em full-time, so I didn’t have a lot of money. My idea of entertainment would be to take a walk and just go burn off energy, and I passed the first comics-specialty store I’d ever seen. It just amazed me that there could be such a thing. It surprised me that a store could sell comics and nothing else. In retrospect, it was just the bottom floor of some guy’s ratty old house, but even that, it was surprising enough that I went in, found some comics I’d liked as a kid — sort of “I remember reading this” — and that probably re-ignited my interest.

DEPPEY: This store also featured new comics?

WILLINGHAM: God, you know, I don’t think it did. Not the first one I saw. More of a guy’s private collection on a bunch of ratty shelves, not even in comic boxes, just sitting on shelves, more or less in whatever way he decided to organize ’em. They were organized by title and things like this. Yeah, I think just back-issue stuff.


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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. […]