The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)

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


Inside TSR

DEPPEY: So you went from the Army straight to TSR, then?


DEPPEY: Which, as I recall, was in Wisconsin?

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. About an hour’s drive north of Chicago and about 30 minutes south of Milwaukee.

DEPPEY: Now I seem to recall that your art was appearing in TSR modules from fairly early on, around the time when they essentially went nationwide and started with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and all of that. Were you able to see TSR before, you know, serious money started coming into gaming?

WILLINGHAM: It probably started just a little bit before I showed up, where they realized that they had a real serious business on their hands and not just, you know, an amusing hobby that turned into a business. By the time I showed up, they had separated the business side of things and the artistic and creative side of things into two separate buildings. And yeah, the big money was starting to pour in just then. The biggest growth spurt was, luckily, just as I’d joined, they offered employee stock purchase to buy shares for a discount. I was able to scrape enough money to buy that just before TSR went big and their stock, I think, multiplied about 10 times its value in one year. Which was nice; it gave me my “if these guys turned out to be idiots, I could afford to quit at any time” money.

Click for larger version.


DEPPEY: What was the atmosphere like around there? What was it like to work for TSR?

WILLINGHAM: It was almost two companies in the sense that those of us that were in the downtown building, the creative side, which, you know, did all the art and the writing and the editing things, were pretty much left on our own, within certain guidelines. Once again, bringing back the… the sort of scam days of my military career, I got there and found out that the art director — even though he wrote me a letter offering me the job and so I got out of the Army and went to Lake Geneva, there was another guy in town that wanted that same job and so, while I was in transit, he decided the job was between me and this other guy. I had to do a whole new portfolio and basically draw this, this, this and this, and I was in competition with this fellow. He was asking all sorts of things like, “Can you do paste-up? Can you do keylining? Do you do four-color work?” All this kind of stuff, to which I just said, “Yes, yes, yes,” right down the line, and had no idea what any of that stuff was. Since I had more experience with the graphic aspect of it, I got the job. But I knew I was a complete fraud.

The whole art department was split up into several, two-man working rooms, and since I was the odd man hired at the time, I got an office of my own. It was off the beaten path, and I was still used to doing the midnight Army shifts, so for the first three months, all I did at TSR was show up, punch in, go to my room and sleep on my art table, knowing I was able to wake up if I heard anyone approaching. I don’t know if that’s indicative of the whole atmosphere, but it was very informal. We had a time-clock, but no one worried too much about it. We’d draw, we’d game; it was not a job for grown-ups.

DEPPEY: Right, it sounded like a really cool job to have in your early 20s.

WILLINGHAM: Sure. The problem was, even then I thought I could draw, the stuff I produced then, looking back at it, was just wretched. He should never have hired me.

DEPPEY: Now, as Dungeons & Dragons exploded in popularity, did this affect the company? Did the place change as time went on?

WILLINGHAM: Sure. It got big and business-like. You know, any company that gets to the point where it has a marketing department and marketing people is my template for, “This is getting big enough to where the fun and joy is going out of it, and that’s real business and the creativity is getting quashed.” I have to confess, I was using my time at TSR just to get drawing experience to get a good comics portfolio together, anyway. I was already out the door when I had shown up, but the time at TSR… those days were pretty much numbered from the beginning.

DEPPEY: How long were you at TSR?

WILLINGHAM: I think just about a year, or maybe a little less.

DEPPEY: Generally, when most people think of your work at TSR, unless they were there buying the modules at the time, most people that I know associate you with the ads that appeared in Marvel. In fact, in that comics interview that you did for David Anthony Kraft, they ran a random Marvel Dungeons & Dragons ad and, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t even your artwork. You weren’t the first person to draw those, correct?

WILLINGHAM: No. Myself and a fellow named Jeff Dee were the two artists in the art department that were very into comics. We’d even gotten to the point of getting a meeting with Gary Gygax to try and convince him to start a line of comics, TSR-published comics. He gave that idea to the Dragon magazine person, who just hated comics and everything about them and who said he looked into it and it’s not viable. So we were kind of disappointed that we’re both frustrated comic artists working at TSR. And TSR’s ad department, which is completely separate from the art department, did a deal with Marvel Comics to run ads in the comics and they did this little comic-strip ad. They hired some outside person to do the first one, who knew nothing, turned in this wretched first episode or whatever you call it.

DEPPEY: Yeah, it was ugly.

WILLINGHAM: And yeah, Jeff saw that before I did and went storming to the other building, pointing out, panel by panel, everything that was wrong with how they did what they did. And rather than fire him, they said, “Well, that all makes sense. Why don’t you do it from now on?” He did the second one and did a wonderful job and then — I cannot recall why — either he got bored with it or decided not to do it. I took it over with the third one, attempting to draw like Jeff Dee, who’s a terrific artist, whereas at the time I was anything but. And I think the results are pretty obvious for anyone who looks at that stuff now.

DEPPEY: Somebody posted all of the Marvel Comics ads on your message board, and I got a chance to look through it, and you could actually see your style improving from ad to ad.

WILLINGHAM: Oh really? I can’t.

DEPPEY: Really?

WILLINGHAM: All of that stuff just… I can barely look at it, it’s so embarrassing to me.

DEPPEY: The story stopped in midstream; was that because the ad department had done something or was that because you had left TSR?

WILLINGHAM: No, actually, I left TSR before those stories ended, and they kept… Steve Sullivan was writing those things, I was drawing them… and they kept us both on on a freelance basis to continue doing them, but at some point, we’d finished up one little storyline and were just starting another, and someone in some other department or whatever had decided, “You know, maybe running comic-strip ads in a comic book is not the way to go.” Which I agree with, by the way. You want your ad to stand out. It’s like, if you run comic-strip ads in a magazine that isn’t comics, it’ll grab your attention, but why see a commercial that’s just more of what you’re reading anyway?

There were a lot of restrictions. TSR was getting very weary about the bad publicity it’d been getting. Remember when James Dallas Egbert disappeared in the sewers at some point, allegedly playing Dungeons & Dragons, and all that?

DEPPEY: Yeah, and somebody did a very bad after-school movie on it.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, Mazes and Monsters with Tom Hanks. TSR was getting a lot of bad publicity then, even though it turns out he didn’t disappear in the sewers playing D&D, that he had decided to hitchhike to Texas to see his dad. His parents were divorced. But, you know, that’s not a sexy story. Any case, TSR was very worried about, you know, “We don’t want to get a bad rap.” Some of the religious groups were saying this was promoting magic and demonics, so there was a lot of rules. We have this group going to the dungeons: Don’t ever show them actually killing anything; don’t ever show a cleric doing anything because that will get the religious people upset; don’t show them grabbing gold because we don’t want to promote greed. [Deppey laughs.] Very sort of silly, silly rules. So if you’ll go back and notice, a lot of the comic strips are… you know, they’re wandering through the dungeons, some animal leaps out at them and then that’s the cliffhanger ending. Then the next strip will pick up later, after they slay the jackalwere, or that type of thing. We showed a lot of what happens between all the interesting things happening. But at some point, I think someone in the ad department just decided, “This isn’t going anywhere, we’re gonna try a different tack,” and canceled it mid-story.


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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. […]