The Bill Willingham Interview (part three of four)

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


Robin, or “Goddamnit, Not Manga Again!”

DEPPEY: You started writing Robin and Fables at roughly the same time, did you not?

WILLINGHAM: Fables first… well, we worked Fables pretty far in advance and Robin, by the time I was offered that, they sort of needed a new issue right away, so they probably came out closer to each other than in actual working time.

DEPPEY: Let’s go with Robin first. I’m gonna editorialize here. Your Robin is a well-written superhero comic. I mean, it’s essentially nothing more than teenage wish fulfillment, but when you get down to it, that’s a worthy goal for a Robin comic, and the book’s more than able to satisfy it. What really surprises me about the series is that the book is totally suitable for children, which is probably as back-handed a compliment as I can issue, but these days that’s fairly rare. I mean, Robin is really presented as something of a Boy Scout. He respects parental authority. When his dad orders him to stop being Robin in issue #125, he obeys. He’s not the rebellious type and he’s also presented as someone whose main quality, whose main admirable quality is his intelligence and his ability to suss things out. He’s really maybe a little more grown-up version of Max the Wolf from Mysterly River. Were you quite conscious of writing a comic that was accessible for children?

WILLINGHAM: You know, I don’t know. That being said, I suppose the answer is no. I was more conscious about writing a book about what is essentially a kid learning the superhero business. I think it was already established that Tim Drake character was more of the goody-two-shoes of the three iterations of Robin.

From Robin/Batgirl: First Blood, written by Willingham and Andersen Gabrych and drawn by Damion Scott, Alé Garza and Jesse Delperdang; ©2005 DC Comics.


DEPPEY: Well, there’s another theory gone out the window.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, he was definitely the “everything should be right and you don’t rebel, you don’t have that kind of cocky mean-streak” kind of character and, considering so little is appropriate for children any more, maybe it just by default becomes that simply because it didn’t have so many of the things of contemporary superhero comics in it, which is that mean streak but also that cynical, stretching-the-limits-of-what-we-can-get-away-with kind of thing going on.

DEPPEY: I’m not entirely sure I fully understand the definition of the word “postmodern,” but I’m awfully tempted to use it to describe superheroes these days. “Decadent” is another word that I use.

WILLINGHAM: Decadent is a perfectly good word that I think something like postmodern is intended to cover up, to decorate. Decadent is exactly, I think, the word for today’s comics.

DEPPEY: Which is really full circle for you because you’d started doing a “let’s take this as far as we can” kind of superhero book with Elementals at a time when most other comics were relatively played safe. And here you are, 15, 20 years later doing Robin, and the situation is neatly reversed.

WILLINGHAM: Well maybe it was also a case of that instinct to try and push the envelope, although I hate that term now because it only applies to fighter jocks, and comic-book writers and artists may be many things, but fighter jocks and rock stars and so many other metaphors, we are not and never will be. But that said, you know, an edgy, dangerous, kind of flirting-with-controversial-material comic book nowadays would not be what we’ve got because that’s not a standard: It’s a norm. You want to do real controversial material in a comic book? Have a superhero family that gets along together, that is not a dysfunctional family. Have a supporting character that’s a priest that isn’t screwing little boys and the fundament of all evil in our society. For that matter, have a large corporation that isn’t the secret destroyer of the world and the sponsor of today’s “who’s gonna fight Iron Man this week for global domination.” I mean, that’s the way to stretch the boundaries now, which is to go back into things that we’ve abandoned long ago.

DEPPEY: I suppose it’s indicative of the fact that the audience for — for lack of a better term — mainstream comics really does tend to be guys who’ve been reading comics for 10-20 years.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah, that’s a self-correcting problem in the sense that we aren’t immortal, so, sooner or later, the overly aging comic readership is going to disappear. I don’t know if anything will take its place, but…

DEPPEY: Oh, I think something already has risen to take its place. Ten years from now, comics will be sold in $10 paperbacks and they’re read from right to left.

WILLINGHAM: [Laughs.] You think that’s going to last? Well, maybe so.

DEPPEY: The kind of storytelling values that comics, in some ways, used to have can only be found in manga. Goddamnit, one of these days I’m going to do an interview or have a conversation about comics and not bring up manga. [Willingham laughs.] I swear to God.

WILLINGHAM: You nearly made it.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] I’ve become the “manga guy” at Fantagraphics. It’s kind of pathetic. Avoiding that subject for the moment, the modern superhero comic has become a victim of novelty. The things that everybody was doing that were edgy 15 to 20 years ago, your Dark Knight and your Watchmen and whatnot, has really become the standard and it seems to me that modern superhero comics are currently driven by attempts to cater to the tastes of people for whom that has become the norm. I really worry that it’s just driving comics into a cu de sac.

WILLINGHAM: Well, to a certain extent, it’s what every entertainment medium does when you become popular for a certain thing. You know, the chase scene in The French Connection got so much attention that for the sequel to that they just had to do a bigger, longer, more extraordinary chase scene. And fairly quickly in anything like that, you begin to eat your own tail. Comics, during the Watchmen and Dark Knight days, hit a point again that had been missing for many years, which is that people around the comic shops were discussing this in terms of “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did this.” Or “Can you believe what happened in this issue of Watchmen?” Or, I distinctly recall about the same time, Walt Simonson actually had the audacity to turn Thor into a frog for two issues. And that’s pretty inviting to get that kind of response. So naturally you’re gonna say, “Well, let’s see if we can get that again,” and do something bigger and meaner or more grand or grotesque in the next issue.

As a result, I think, we’ve got now, as our standard, this big, decadent world of superheroes because we fully went that way, and that’s all it is now. And with decadence, there really is a limit on how far you can go, like I said. I think if you want to recapture that same excitement in readers that “I can’t believe that they actually had the audacity to do such and such” you have to go in a different direction. That maybe you do have the heroes that act like heroes again. I suspect there was a conscious part of that in some of the Robin work. He was the good son. I mean, there’s one sentence to describe him, whether speaking of his relationship to Batman or to his own father. My big regret in that was that I was gonna have his relationship to his father, his real father, play out over a long time until I found out that his father was slated to die in Identity Crisis. Therefore, if you’ve got any big stories to do with him, you better get them out quick. [Deppey laughs.] So we got a pretty truncated version of that. But if there was any conscious “this is the character that this character is,” that’s what he was. He was the good son, in all cases.

Also from Robin/Batgirl: First Blood, ©2005 DC Comics.


DEPPEY: Did you get feedback one way or another from DC over the fact that you were writing a fairly virtuous superhero comic?

WILLINGHAM: Not really. The problem with all of the Batman books is there’s just tons of them. So I think all of the editorial energy was completely sucked up by “Let’s just have as few things contradicting other things in the Bat-books in this issue as in these other issues,” and all that kinda stuff and that kinda big mess, plus we’re doing the big crossovers and the War Games and this and that. To stop and really ponder the real nature of the stories we’re telling, I think, took very much a back seat to “We’ve got so much coordination to do to make these trains run on time and not hit each other going out of the station,” if I can abuse that metaphor. I don’t know. Maybe there was contemplation along those lines in the editorial offices, but they weren’t really communicated. What was communicated was “You can’t have Robin do this in this issue because that contradicts what’s going on in Batgirl this month,” etc. That was almost the sum total of coordinating things with the editor.

DEPPEY: So you didn’t have anybody sitting there and telling you, “Make it darker” or anything like that?

WILLINGHAM: No. What I wanted to do, I think the only real unique thing about a Robin series, was to show the process of someone learning the superhero business. So that’s what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, Tim Drake, in the Robin series, was established pretty thoroughly as someone who can be out on his own and almost came into the job fully formed. So I resisted that and I wrote as much as I could against that. And some readers didn’t like that. I suspect that if this kid is your hero, you don’t want him needing to learn anything from any mean old adult or something like that. That’s the impression I got. That was the kind of feedback I got, but not from editorial.

DEPPEY: It was just more readers complaining.

WILLINGHAM: Yeah. Then again, that’s just on the Internet. There’s no letters pages anymore. And the unfortunate thing about the Internet is you hear from the people that are upset much more than the people that like what you’re doing. So that kinda gives greater weight to the negative feedback, but yeah, I think there was some resistance to the kind of Robin I wanted to do.


Next: Fables, crossover fever, magic in the DC universe and more!


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