The Bill Willingham Interview (part one of four)

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


Villains and Vigilantes

DEPPEY: Now, from here, the next place you pop up is at another role-playing games company, Fantasy Games Unlimited. Did you go immediately from one to the other?

WILLINGHAM: Fantasy Games Unlimited was in Minneola, N.Y. Jeff Dee and I quit TSR about the same time, both coming to the conclusion that it was getting a little too businesslike, a little too unlike a game company for us. I wanted to go break into comics. They pretty much knew since I got there that I was just biding my time until I could do that. As a matter of fact, while I was working at TSR, I was constantly doing sample pages, usually Marvel-type characters, and sending them off to Marvel Comics. John Romita Sr., who’s a wonderful, wonderful human being that I will never be able to thank properly, was the art director at the time. I did not realize that the art director at Marvel Comics really meant that he was running the production department, things like that. But I kept sending to him… you know, you have art samples, you send ’em to the art director. I did not realize that you should be sending to individual editors. He would get me on the phone or write me long, detailed letters of “Here’s what works in your pages, here’s what doesn’t.” Just a wonderful amount of attention he’s paying to some kid he’s never heard of before, and then I would do new samples based on his criticisms and send in more stuff. I guess he was impressed at the time that, usually, people don’t turn around new samples that quickly.

But I desperately wanted to do comic books, and so, at one point, I flew out there on my own dime to Marvel and visited the offices and showed my stuff around to editors and ran into Mary Jo Duffy, who was still going by Mary Jo Duffy, at the time and was the assistant editor at Epic Illustrated. She really liked my stuff and took me from editor to editor, and just went on and on about how great my samples were and I’m gonna get work right away. Unfortunately, I heard “I’m gonna get work right away,” meaning, “She’s offering me work.” She’s an editor; I don’t know one editor from another and that was the biggest impetus for me. I pretty much flew home, gave notice to TSR and decided I was moving out to New York. Jeff Dee quit for some other reasons and he went out to work as the art director for Fantasy Games Unlimited. I moved out to New York, got an apartment with Jeff out on Long Island and showed up at Marvel to see Mary Jo and say, “OK, I’m here. I’m ready to work. What’s my first assignment,” and, of course, she didn’t know me from Adam. [Deppey laughs.] You know, like, “Who are you again?” And, “Oh, you’re that guy who flew out here. Well, now that you live in the area, you can get jobs from editors on your own. And basically, that’s all I can do is show your stuff to the editors, anyway.” I was a little devastated, thinking I’d had a job and didn’t, so that kicked off about a year of doing things on a freelance basis for Fantasy Games Unlimited.

One of Willingham’s Villains and Vigilantes modules, featuring characters that would later appear in Elementals; ©1982 Bill Willingham.


DEPPEY: Now, correct me if I’m mistaken, but the first module that you wrote and illustrated for Fantasy Games Unlimited for their superhero game, Villains and Vigilantes — if I remember correctly, Deathduel with the Destroyers — actually came with the original book, in the boxed set.

WILLINGHAM: I believe so.

DEPPEY: I believe the game had actually started long before you’d gotten there because the first module actually has two sets of character rules. Were you involved at all in the creation of Villains and Vigilantes? You wrote two modules for the game, and I seem to recall your artwork was included in the revised rulebook, as well, although I could be mistaken in that.

WILLINGHAM: Jeff Dee and Jack Herman wrote that. They originally wrote it when they were high school and got Fantasy Games Unlimited to publish it, and then almost immediately started working on revising the rules, doing for Villains and Vigilantes what D&D did, which was coming out with their advanced, sophisticated version. So when I got to TSR for that entire year, one of the things I was doing was play-testing Jeff’s new rules for that. Then he went to FGU to work as their art director and to bring out, finally, the advanced version or the revised whatever they called it. Since it was gonna be a box set, they wanted the rule book plus a module in there. I don’t think it was originally gonna be mine, except I got mine finished in time and the other wasn’t, or something like that. So they packaged that as a part of it, and I got into some heroic arguments with Jeff on how things should work with his games and all that, but other than play-testing, yeah, I wasn’t really part of designing the game itself.

DEPPEY: Those first two modules that you did had a lot of early characters that would eventually wind up in The Elementals, and I was wondering how long you had been cultivating these characters and this setting.

The Villains and Vigilantes: Death Duel with the Destroyers version of the Annihilator, ©1982 Bill Willingham.


WILLINGHAM: I came up with what I thought was a good villain group just for the module. Came up with a storyline with them and all that. At this time, I’m living on Long Island, trying to break into comics, and I realized then that I was just one of billions of people that showed up at Marvel’s offices trying to get their first job. At the same time, a lot of independent companies were just starting. Pacific Comics just started. First Comics was making some noises that they were about to come around. Capital started publishing Nexus and Badger, I think. So I thought, “OK, if I can’t make it at Marvel yet, I’ll try some of these independents.” I thought I should try to come up with samples that were not Marvel characters to send out, and since I wasn’t going to do individual samples for every company, I thought I’d come up with a generic set of pages, and that’s where I came up with The Elementals. I had not planned to publish them as a group, I just wanted something to draw to show I could draw and sent those out as samples. One of which was to Noble Comics in Grand Rapids, Mich. They got excited by that and said, “Come on out here and do comics with us.” They were doing a thing called Justice Machine. And I moved out there to do some work and that’s what I was going to be working on. And Mike Gustovich, the head guy at Noble Comics, kind of got this concerned look on his face, and said, “Well, you’re gonna be doing this book you pitched to us, these Elementals things.” And that’s when I realized, “Oh, I wasn’t just pitching myself as an artist, I was pitching an actual book.” So I had to come up with a first issue and so many of these things are done, sort of falling ass-backwards into them. The need to come up with a first issue, I needed someone for these guys to fight, but I knew nothing about them because they were just generic art samples at the time. But I grabbed the old supervillain team from the Destroyers module to use, updated them a little bit… very, very, seat-of-the-pants, making-this-up-as-I-go-along kind of beginning to my comic-book career.


Next: The Elementals, Willingham’s entry into the comic-book industry and more!


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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. […]