The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)

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


Adventures in Cultural Anthropology

DEPPEY: Now, you studied anthropology in college, am I correct?


DEPPEY: In your interview in David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview magazine, you mentioned that this actually involved you spending some time in Mexico, in the Yucatan jungle.


DEPPEY: Was this just part of the educational experience? Did all of the anthropology students wind up going out into the field?

WILLINGHAM: No, well, for one thing, I was interested in anthropology and went into cultural anthropology, for which there’s almost no applications in the world other than to teach cultural anthropology, or maybe work for the giant oil conglomerates on how to keep local native tribes from killing your oil workers or something. I have no idea. I took a class that sounded interesting and got one of those incredibly charismatic teachers early on. I suspect if he’d taught basket- weaving, then that would’ve been what captured my imagination. He was one of those kinds of teachers. So the physical anthropology students would go work on digs and things like that, and the cultural anthropology students… I got into this program that coordinated with the University of Mexico in Mexico City to just go out. You go through a training camp first to physically camp out in the forests and woods and jungles, in my case, and then you go to your assigned area and do the things you’re supposed to be doing. You bring a lot of books with you — your reading list and that kind of stuff — but at the same time, you’re studying your host village and all that and doing the silly cultural anthropology: “Are these people different from us? Here’s why.”

DEPPEY: So how much time did you spend in the Yucatan?

WILLINGHAM: Maybe about six months, total. There were a couple weeks in Mexico City, classroom-type stuff, then there were two weeks spent at jungle camp run by a missionary organization called the Wycliffe Bible Translators. It’s basically where they send people over there in two-man teams and live out in the middle of nowhere for extended times. So apparently, they put a very good camp together on just the practical aspects of being out by yourself, or just with one other person in the jungle. We had to slaughter a cow, we had to learn to pilot dugout canoes that were like two and three pounds each. We had to stand up in them to pole them up and down the rivers and give each other shots and give yourself shots. Sleep in hammocks that had their own kind of mosquito-net rigging.

DEPPEY: Uh huh. Sort of an anthropological boot camp.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, and cooking and all the standards of just how to keep yourself hale and hearty while you’re off on your own.

DEPPEY: Did you bring anything away significant from the experience?

WILLINGHAM: Well, [laughs] I got really sick. I was sent with one other fellow, I believe his name was Wayne Browder, if I remember it correctly, to a village called San Diego out on the Yucatan. It was in Quinanto Roo, which is just below the Yucatan. All grass huts, thatch roof, that kind of thing. They had one thatch-roof building that had a cement floor, which was the local church, but other than that, it was just dirt and grass huts, and I got very, very sick during that time. In a way, that embarrassed me enough to where I wasn’t telling anyone about it, but it didn’t kill me. Every once in a while, I’d get a reprise of it after I left Mexico, but yeah, that’s the only real thing. You know, I had some wonderful times there, had some difficult times there. Lost a lot of weight — you know, the one time in my life when I was actually skinny and learned some stuff and I would not repeat it today because there were times there when it was like “What was I thinking? I’m living almost by myself out in the middle of the jungle for an extended time,” and people who don’t have to do that shouldn’t.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] You mentioned that you had been working as a graphic artist for various local ad agencies in Oregon. Had you had any art training up until that time?

WILLINGHAM: Well, you know, the stuff you get in public schools, which is pretty bad. But none other than that. Yeah, when I found the comic store, he was running an ad… remember the Superman vs. Spider-Man thing that came out that was, like, the big thing for a while?


WILLINGHAM: He ran a flyer for a store that was basically copying the cover. And naïve little me, I thought, “Well, this guy had to copy this cover in order to have a flyer for his store. He’d probably like something original instead.” So I worked up an original flyer for his shop, which is called the Fantasy Stop, I think; something like that. I proudly trucked it on down to him, and he politely explained to me, “Well, this isn’t of any specific character.” And I go, “Right, so you didn’t copy anything.” He goes, “Well now, my customers want to see Superman and Spider-Man instead. So no thanks.” I tried to sell it to him for 10 bucks or something. It frustrated me enough to where I, you know, just went around to other places to see if I could make a little extra money on the side doing that. And I ended up doing a little bit.

DEPPEY: Did you know how to draw?

WILLINGHAM: Sort of. I thought I did. I look back at that now, those things I was doing then and would scream. But at the time, I was pretty proud of it.

DEPPEY: Did you draw as a kid? Was it something that you just did constantly?

WILLINGHAM: Oh yeah, as soon as I can remember, I was trying to do my own comics as a kid. As a matter of fact, one of my best friends in Newport Hills — and we had to have been about 8 or 9 when he started trying to do it, we came up with our own comic company, did our own characters. His name was Bruce, I was Bill, so we started B&B Comics. I tried to do a character called Mantis-Man, I think, just horribly, badly drawn. We would sit around, hand-draw a comic in a day, and then, every once in a while, since there was no Xeroxing of anything else back then, we would just get carbon paper, like for typing, and then trace our comics, the ones we’d drawn, so we’d have a hand-drawn, one-at-a-time way of mass-producing ’em. We’d sell ’em to the neighbor kids. Finally got tired of copying and, instead, we would hand-draw our issues and rent ’em out in a library kind of thing for a while. But yeah, I wanted to do comic books as long as I can remember and kept trying to for a long time. I probably only gave it up about the time I went to college and decided, “Maybe I’d better pursue more adult things.” How that led to cultural anthropology, I have no idea what I was thinking, there.

DEPPEY: When you were working as a graphic artist in college, did you do exclusively illustration or did you do the kind of paste-up and design stuff for print as well?

WILLINGHAM: Well, I wasn’t doing paste-up because I didn’t know what that was. I was in touch with nobody who knew anything. I would go into local ad agencies, thinking that they could find me places to do ads where I wasn’t blindly walking into a shop saying, “Here’s a flyer I did for you. Would you like to buy it from me?” It taught me a few things. You know, if you’re gonna design an ad, don’t have too many type-styles on one page — just little rules like that. I guess I picked up some stuff along the way, and I got a few jobs from those places. Mostly flyers, did some flyers for local bands and things, but a few prints, like such-and-such a store doing a fashion thing in the newspaper. Almost no money, but, eh, interesting experience, I suppose.


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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. […]