The Bill Willingham Interview (part two of four)

Posted by on April 28th, 2010 at 12:06 AM


Life in the Grothel

DEPPEY: How did you hook up with Fantagraphics?

WILLINGHAM: I was living in Lake Geneva at the time in a studio with Keith Parkinson and Larry Elmore, two paperback-cover painters. A friend of mine, Steve Sullivan, who was also into comics and used to work at TSR, let me know that there’s some new publisher that he’s trying to get in with called Eros Comics. He was talking to them about doing a book [The Time Wankers], and they weren’t quite sure they wanted to do his book, but they decided that if they got me to do the covers for them that they would take them. Remember when Eros first started, and this is before your time, but when Eros first started they had sort of a fictional editor board.

DEPPEY: Was that Ryder Wyndham?

Willingham did the covers for this early Eros project, ©1990 Bill Willingham.

WILLINGHAM: No, Ryder Wyndham’s a real person and he was not the first editor. The fellow before him was Larry Pike. I was talking to him on the phone about doing the covers for the sex-spoof comic, Time Wankers, and, at some point, I think he asked, “So when are you going to pitch a book to Fantagraphics or Eros,” or whatever, and some way, I still don’t quite understand, other than this fellow was just very deft at this, the conversation turned into my doing a book for Fantagraphics at some point. And then it turned into my doing a book for Fantagraphics really quickly. And that’s how it occurred.

DEPPEY: Was Ironwood originally conceived as a porn series, or did you adapt that concept to that purpose later from something that you’d developed earlier?

WILLINGHAM: I was thinking of doing just a strict, well, not serious fantasy series because it was going to be humorous, but yeah, I was going to do a non-explicit thing at some point. But, you know, in this wily conversation, it turned into the Ironwood that was eventually published.

DEPPEY: One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of the fantasy work that you do is that there always seems to be references to more of a world than you really include in the story. For example, there are constant references to modern Earth in Ironwood.


DEPPEY: You get the feeling that the lead character, Dravigon I think his name was, refers to having been to modern-day Detroit, for example, but it never otherwise shows up in the story or really gets explained. Was there a bigger world built, or were you just adding details for spice?

WILLINGHAM: A little of both. I tried to do at least some reasonable outlines of what makes up the world if I’m doing an other-than-our-world kind of story. In writing, it’s sort of just the most basic due diligence that you put in that amount of work to it so you know what the world is you’re talking about. So yeah, in this case, I knew that this place was, wherever it was, whatever world it was, it was contemporaneous with our world and that some lucky few are able to travel back and forth between them.

From Ironwood Vol. 2, ©1996 Bill Willingham.

DEPPEY: At some point, you didn’t just work for Fantagraphics, but you actually landed in Seattle. What brought you here?

WILLINGHAM: Well, as we mentioned before, I had this wanderlust. Once I’m in a place for a year or more, I start to get this “grass-is-greener” syndrome calling me on. So that was one contributing factor. The other was the break-up of Comico and this fellow, Andrew Rev, buying the rights for The Elementals from me. He screwed me on the last check. The rights were in, I think, five different payments and once, at a convention, when he thought I still might sign on with the new Comico — I should have known it was coming, because one time in his hotel room, he explained his attitude about paying freelancers, and the thing is, if you know you’re not going to get another job from the freelancer, always screw him out of the last payment since he’s not going to work for you any more anyway. He was very candid about this. I think he thought he was impressing me, as far as his business acumen. So I was kind of prepared for it when he stopped payment on the last payment check, but it left me in a bad situation, money-wise. I was in Austin, Texas, at this point, and the option was to stick around in Austin and get, like, a real day job or continue doing comic work. And at that point, the only offer on any table was the thing at Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics had moved up to Seattle by this point, and I’d lived in the Seattle area, starting to feel nostalgic for it, and I guess with the combination of things, I decided to load up my van and head out that way.

DEPPEY: Did you do anything with Fantagraphics above and beyond the comics? Did you actually work, like, a staff job with the company or…?

WILLINGHAM: No. I was… because I was terribly poor at that point and arrived in Seattle with little money in my pocket. I got one of those rent-by-the-week hotel rooms, a really, really scummy place in a bad part of town, and I was doing issues of Ironwood pretty quickly at that point, because what little Fantagraphics could afford to pay up front, meaning on delivery of a particular issue, was just enough to pay for my rent by the week, but not enough to save up to get a real place at some point. That kept me going, but I wasn’t able to save anything and I hit on the idea of, at one point, talking to Gary [Groth], seeing if they would be interested in having me work there in the office at night as kind of my studio. In return for that, for very low studio rent, you know, “Now you’ve got a warm body here all night as almost kind of a night watchman thing,” and that way, during the daytime, I was sleeping in my van and not paying the rent-by-the-week hotel so I could save up enough money to get a real apartment. So for a while, I was working at the Fantagraphics facility in the sense of doing work on Ironwood there at night and sort of keeping an eye on the place, and they had a shower and all that kind of stuff.

The next step I took was when Gary lost, I think it was Kim Thompson moving out, got himself a girlfriend who later became his fiancé and later his wife. He wanted to fill that room at the “Grothel” and just asked around if I knew anyone that might be interested in an apartment. So I grabbed that up. So I was never officially on staff with Fantagraphics, although about as close, I suppose, as a freelancer can get, but not actually take that final step.

DEPPEY: It actually surprised me when I found out that you had rented a room from Gary because the two of you just strike me as total opposites. I mean, Gary is a hardcore liberal. You tend to be more conservative and…

WILLINGHAM: An Attila-the-Hun-conservative Republican and Gary Groth is a notorious liberal. It just… it seemed like just the right thing to do.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] Well, I mean, I’ve rented a room from him for several years now and I’m more of a Goldwater conservative myself, but we get along just fine, primarily because we stay the hell out of each others’ way. But, you know, you and Gary are both kind of gregarious and talkative and I was wondering how well did you get along, living together?

WILLINGHAM: Like everyone else, before getting to know Gary fairly well during that time, I had opinions of him formed by his writing in the Journal. Naturally, I assumed that every conversation with Gary would be on this high literary plane and all that, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he was kind of a guy who loved doing guy stuff and found I got along with him quite well. The rest of the people in the comic industry were flabbergasted to find out that I was sharing a house with Gary. I can’t remember who I told this to — it might have been Heidi MacDonald — who just seemed terribly surprised, but someone was asking me at some convention, “How can you and Gary possibly get along?” and I spun out this tale about how, well, every night he works and I stay home and work at the house, but every day before he’s about to drive home, he calls up and hands me the subject matter for discussion tonight and that I’ve got a little time to read up on it. I’ve gotta hold my own in this ongoing conversation, and he would come back, and there would almost literally be a college-type quiz. And I’m spitting this out not thinking that anyone would take it seriously until I realized that the people that I was talking to were taking it absolutely seriously, that, “Yes, this is exactly what Gary Groth would be like. I knew it all along.” [Deppey laughs.] I had to kind of let them know that in actuality we watched movies together, we argued about that, we barbequed on the porch and pissed off the upper-porch rail. Basically guy stuff. And the Gary that was the writer offense for The Comics Journal just never entered the picture. I don’t know that we ever even had a political discussion the entire time I was there.

I was quite often having to bite my tongue, especially at the parties out there. And Gary and the Grothel did throw some mighty wonderful parties. When I was there, the first war in Iraq, the Operation: Desert Storm and all that took place. And I think, maybe a year after it, Gary and I had one conversation, which is where he said, “I didn’t agree with doing it, but when we did we should have gone all the way and gotten rid of the guy.” To which I agreed as well… but when it was just starting and it was sort of de facto that everyone at Fantagraphics was opposed to going into Iraq the first time, there was an absolutely lovely woman working downstairs in the taking-orders-and-shipping-things-out department. And she put up a poster inside the offices, seeing if we could get together to rally against the war. I can’t recall her name now, but if I was ever to have any shot with her whatsoever, it was killed by putting up my pro, “let’s invade, let’s start the air bombing today” poster right next to it to try and get anyone else to sign up on my side. It was done jokingly, of course. I was the only one I think in the office at that point that had that attitude.

Tentacle monster sex in Ironwood Vol. 2, ©1996 Bill Willingham.


DEPPEY: I gather that this would have been the early to mid-’90s, when there was still something resembling a thriving, for lack of a better term, art-comics scene here in Seattle. Did you associate with them at all?

WILLINGHAM: Well, yeah, as much as a freelancer can. You know, the more sociable you are, the less you’re actually getting done. And Ironwood was making just barely enough money to survive if I got it done quickly, but it wasn’t paying enough in advance or generating enough royalties for me to sit on my laurels there. As a matter of fact, I think the reason the first, like, six or seven issues of Ironwood came out as quickly as they did was simply because I had no other option. When they started actually selling enough to produce royalties, it was probably why the later issues were as late as they were — simply because I had the option of taking more time to do them. In any case, yeah, I socialized with the art-comics crowd in Seattle, but there was always this distance, automatically, because just about the first thing any of them would say is, “Well, you were someone that actually got paid for doing mainstream comics. What could you possibly be wanting to do here?” So there was a lot of socializing, but only on an insubstantial level.

DEPPEY: Yeah, it wasn’t like you were part of the secret club or anything.

WILLINGHAM: If there was a secret club, I was certainly not part of it. But you know, I really strongly suspect that there wasn’t. Viewed from the outside, you can posit a big cabal of these types, but the very nature of someone who’s going to draw comics and write them for a living is someone who sort of grew up socially inept and staying alone in his own basement anyway. My suspicion is that affected other people than just me and I’m not the only socially awkward fellow out there.



Sidebar: Why We Fight

DEPPEY: I think I’ve had exactly one political discussion with Gary, and it convinced me not to do it again. [Willingham laughs.] We were talking about the war in Iraq, and I was arguing that Saddam Hussein, even if he didn’t directly support Al Qaeda, he was actually supporting terrorism in the Middle East up to and including giving money to the families of suicide bombers in Israel. And Gary just shot back with something along the line of, “What’s the problem him giving money to people who get their homes bulldozed?” And I just stopped for a second and realized that Gary and I didn’t share enough common definitions in order to discuss the subject at all.

WILLINGHAM: Right, and I think that was possibly it that in order to even have a conversation like that, there would have to be weeks of setting the ground rules, you know, defining terms and things like that to make, you know, actually trying to have that conversation almost not worth the effort.

DEPPEY: Well, I mean, it never struck me as a Gary thing as much as a Seattle thing, almost. Maybe it’s just that Gary’s been settled in here for so long that I can’t tell the difference anymore. But I haven’t been able to seriously talk politics with anyone since I’ve moved up here. I once talked about my support for the war in Iraq with some random guy who described himself as “kind of conservative” at a party at Kim’s place, and I sat there and said, well, I thought they actually had a chance for improvement and democracy in Iraq now. The guy looked at me and said, “Seriously?” With the kind of tone in his voice and look in his face as though I’d said, “You know, I’m a serial cannibal. Would you like to join me for a meal?” [Willingham laughs.]


Next: Coventry, Robin, superhero decadence and more!


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