The Bill Willingham Interview (part three of four)

Posted by on April 29th, 2010 at 12:06 AM


Inside DC

DEPPEY: Can I assume that you started working for DC around this time?

WILLINGHAM: Yeah. By this time, I was back in Austin, Texas. I was back there because I had an opportunity to share a house very inexpensively with two friends; both their situations were such that they needed to get out of their places. In any case, I’m back in Austin, Texas, and I’m doing piecework for DC again. This time, for the first time, writing some things for ’em because Shelly Bond, one of the editors of Vertigo — in fact the number two editor now — was one of the last employees that was hired by Comico before the big Comico self-destruction. As a matter of fact, when Diana Schutz and Bob Schreck left, she was hired as an assistant just before that, and suddenly, the entire running of Comico from then on was on her shoulders. Her very first job out of college, and because, by that time, everyone knew the writing was on the wall that Comico was not gonna recover from this latest disaster, myself, along with others, treated Shelly Bond pretty badly. I mean, she was there at the right time and the right place to get all the crap heaped on her, all the frustration that Comico was dead and it’s just a matter of time now. So I didn’t think I’d made a very good impression on her.

Years later, I’d found out that she was working at Vertigo, but I never got to speak to her about it. But she called me outta the blue. She found my phone number in Austin, called me, and said, “Why don’t you pitch something to write at Vertigo.”

I gave her a big speech about how DC Comics is just not able to make decisions on new series or new ideas or pitches on anything in a timely fashion. If you ever saw the series Hammerlock, that was an eight-year pitch [by a friend] from the time they first proposed it to DC to the time to DC finally agreed to do it. Eight years. I just couldn’t imagine keeping my enthusiasm for any project alive that long, much less finding something to do to pay bills while DC spent eight years making their mind up on whether or not they wanted to do something. So I gave her this whole speech on how “I’m glad that you still think fondly of me after all these years, Shelly, but this is why it’s just not gonna happen.”

And she just boldly said, “You pitch something, and I guarantee you within 30 days you’ll have a yes or no answer. No beating around the bush at all.” I pitched something just, I think, to call her bluff. I also gave her the “I’m a professional writer” speech, “and I’m no longer gonna write proposals because that’s free writing and people look at it as free writing. It being worth exactly that much.” So she also said, “Do anything. Speak into a tape recorder. Whatever.” So my first pitch there was for Proposition Player, and I did it. I spoke it into a recorder, didn’t write anything and all this just, I think, to teach her a lesson about calling up and making these kinds of silly promises. And to give her credit, within 30 days, they agreed to do it.

DEPPEY: So Proposition Player was your first steady gig, so to speak, at DC.


DEPPEY: It’s a really dour look at human nature. There seems to be… rather than protagonist and antagonist, it almost seems to divide up humanity into wolves and sheep, which, I suppose, given the poker-based theme, is apt enough.

WILLINGHAM: Wolves and sheep or successful wolves and less-successful wolves. Yeah, it’s very bleak. Well, I wanted to do a redemption story. I’ve never done one before, which was the story of Joey Martin, the central character, based around poker-playing and based around the real premise of one of the fellows that I said I moved to Austin to share a house with, a wonderful guy named Earl Daegel. At one of our poker games, we were talking about superstition because I was living in Las Vegas just prior to that. I was talking about the superstitions of many players: how there was one guy that worked in the poker room I worked in that couldn’t play unless he had his little porcelain green frog there in front if him, and he would always move it facing different positions in every hand, and it took me almost six months to scope out his code, which was he was pointing the porcelain frog at the player that, I guess, he thought had the best hand, the one he was really against in this hand. That type of thing.

This sequence from Proposition Player #1, penciled by Paul Guinan, was based on a true story; ©1999 William Willingham.


DEPPEY: Just so we establish this for our readers, you actually worked in Las Vegas as a proposition player.


DEPPEY: Which is to say you were there to… well, I’ll let you describe it.

WILLINGHAM: Everyone knows what a shill is. A shill is a guy who pretends to be a player, but he’s using the house money. He wins at different games to kind of gin up enthusiasm for those games. You can shill at 21 or any of the other table games, because you’re playing against the house, so if you win a lot of money from the house, then you’re paid to play and then later on you settle up and give the money back, and that’s a shill. Well, poker can’t use shills because you’re not just playing against the house, you’re playing against other players, so the house can’t pretend to lose a lot of money to you. It’s just not set up that way. So they have what they call proposition players, which is where you’re paid by the house to play in their room, but you are using your own money, putting it at risk, and either winning or losing on your own just like any other player. Because poker’s also a game that you can’t play unless there’s a minimum number of players, you’ll fill seats when the game isn’t going very well. They don’t want to close a game down. They want to keep it going as long as possible, because other players will decide to sit down if there’s a game going. They won’t wait around for you to start one. So anyway, your job is, when the games are cold, to sit and play and then when they get hot and you might actually make some money, you usually have to give your seat up to a customer because now the game is full. It’s being a low-rent poker player for the house you’re working in.

So we’re having a weekend game, or whatever day of the week it was, and talking about the superstitious nature of so many players. And one player that won’t raise a bet if her cigarette smoke is blowing across her cards as opposed to away from them, things like that. Ridiculous stuff. And Earl, God bless him, says, “Well, they’re ridiculous. I don’t have a superstitious bone in my body. I would never be that silly.” That was like a challenge to me. I had to probe that a bit. I had to prove to him that, you know, I think everyone’s superstitious to a certain extent, so I offered him a buck for his soul, and he goes, “Oh no no no no. I’d need more than that for my soul,” and of course, everyone laughed because then I had proven my point that everyone has some superstition. Earl was put on the spot and so he did, he signed his soul over to me on a napkin to try and prove that he wasn’t superstitious. Even though, on the napkin itself, he added the addendum that I don’t get it until he actually dies. [Deppey laughs.] But it was a fun moment. I’d proven my point at poor Earl’s expense, and we went on with our game. That gave me the idea for the proposition player, a guy that basically does what I did to Earl on a silly bar bet and ends up buying a bunch of souls and it spirals out of control from there. But yeah, it was a mean story, and I had to start with a really mean, cocky, self-important, self-loving protaganist that is anything but a hero, because you have to start with a scumbag to get to the nice guy at the end if you’re doing a redemption story. In my plan, it was gonna take a lot more than six issues to get him to that point, but Proposition Player sold roughly no copies at all. The people that read it seemed to like it. I got some critical attention from it, but could hardly give those things away, and so I think the ongoing series got cut down to eight issues, and they then kind of re-evaluated, “Well, no, make that six issues if you can wrap it up,” which is too bad. It might have been fun to pursue that a little longer.

DEPPEY: I actually found it quite interesting. Although we only had the first five of six issues here at the Journal, so I have no idea how it ends.

WILLINGHAM: Really? Oh no!

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] Did he actually find redemption?

WILLINGHAM: Yeah. They did finally collect it when Fables hit, so I’ll send you one of the collections. The break between five and six is an abrupt two-year jump, which was the only way to get in the ending I was heading towards, but now had to occur in issue six rather than issue whatever down the road. So it’s kind of an abrupt transition between the fifth and sixth issue, but yeah, it did end, and he did end up, if not a fully redeemed fellow, at least someone who realized, “Well, that’s the direction I want to go in.”

DEPPEY: I was just fascinated in the way that you portray men and women in this series because Joey is… he really is seen as sort of an alpha-male jerk. A very specific type: the sort of person who would just take full advantage of women, and his girlfriend Lacy is seen as this sort of person who essentially chases after men like that. There’s one point in the series, where another dealer basically tells her, “The biggest lie all of you women tell yourselves is that you like nice men when in fact we bore you silly.” He gives her a little speech and eventually just says, “Fuck you very much.” And that’s actually a fairly astute observation. I’ve seen both men and women like that who just absolutely play out the stereotypes.

WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s a dirty little secret that stereotypes don’t get to be stereotypes for being rare. For better or worse, the horrid old cliché gets that way simply because “there’s plenty of examples.” Yeah, that speech was, I think, one of the better parts in the Proposition Player series and one that, in a perfect world, I would have been able to give to certain young ladies in my life, but you don’t really ever get the chance to make a good speech like that. [Deppey laughs.] But you know, as writers, we can do in our fiction the things we didn’t get away with or weren’t able to, didn’t have the opportunity to do in real life.


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