Happily Ever After: Bill Willingham on the End of Fables

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For the last 14 years, the majority of Bill Willingham’s professional existence has revolved around the triumphs and travails of fairy tale characters. The author of Vertigo’s Fables since its conception in 2002, he has spent long hours at the writer’s garret working out the roles of every distinct piece of folklore imaginable in his comic book universe. Everything is accounted for: “How does Santa Claus factor in?” What about Russian folklore? American “tall tales”? One Thousand and One Nights?

Willingham has incorporated all of them, and so many more, over the course of Fables’ thousands of pages and 150 issues … but now the series is coming to an end. The closure of Fables with the Fables: Farewell trade paperback on July 22 will be the end of an era in the comics industry, the rightly deserved and satisfying conclusion to a singular, ongoing story rivaled by only a handful of other titles. Fables is retiring on par with say, Vertigo stablemate The Sandman in both critical adoration (a ridiculous 14 Eisner Awards) and commercial success, an immediate entrant into the comics hall of fame. Not bad for a series at least partially inspired by The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, by Willingham’s own admission.

“There were inspirations for Fables spread over most of my lifetime,” said the now 58-year-old author and artist. “But possibly the first were those ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ segments from Rocky & Bullwinkle. That’s certainly the stuff that started my love of folklore and fairytales. When the idea came together, I thought it would be one more thing I’d work on for a while, hopefully get a little bit of critical attention and when sales didn’t prove out, I’d move to the next thing. It was all part of my serial attempt to not get a real job.”

The central concept and story of Fables, Vertigo’s longest-running creator-owned series, revolves around a group of fairytale characters who have been driven out of their homeworlds by a tyrannical foe known only as “The Adversary,” taking refuge in the human or “mundane” world, where they build a secret magical community in the heart of New York City. If that sounds oddly familiar, and perhaps a bit like the concepts of NBC’s Grimm or ABC’s Once Upon a Time, it’s not a coincidence—both networks initially intended to produce adaptations of Fables before presumably realizing that the scope and ambition of Willingham’s work far exceeded their own. The two shows that network TV audiences received each borrow elements of the Fables universe, but neither comes close to the complexity of its story arc.

Issue196Cover.jpg It was a complexity almost fully formed when Willingham took the concept to Vertigo editor Shelly Bond in 2002, although it wasn’t the concept Willingham expected to walk away with as his career-defining work. But according to Bond, now the executive editor of Vertigo since 2013, the series’ potential was immediately obvious.

“Bill’s not the kind of person you can forget,” she mused as we reflected on the legacy of Fables. “I started working with him in 1988 and had been shaking him for script pages ever since. I think he’s one of the great storytellers of our generation. And I remember that on the day he pitched Fables, he’d pitched me a number of other ideas on the phone and I thought they were only okay. So he said he had one more, but ‘I don’t think you’re going to like it; it’s about fairytale characters from the olden days living in modern times and going through the trials and tribulations of modern life.’ And I knew in my bones immediately that it was going to be a game-changer for Vertigo. As an editor, you just have to trust your instincts. We just had to convince our boss at the time to go along with our scheme.”

In fact, Bond already had an artist in mind for Fables as soon as she heard the idea. Although he didn’t handle the series’ first story arc (that honor goes to Lan Medina), Bond’s plan was to re-team Willingham with artist Mark Buckingham as soon as possible—the two had previously worked together for a one-off in the Sandman universe called Merv Pumpkinhead: Agent of DREAM, which she also edited, seeing the seeds of a long-term partnership in the pair.

“I’d always loved working with Bucky, and I thought they shared similar passions for classical literature and storytelling,” she said. “From panel one, they clicked. It was pretty obvious that relationship needed to continue.”

Buckingham likewise agrees that the chemistry was immediate and powerful. The decision to step in as the series’ full-time artist was an easy one, especially after Bond dangled one opportunity that the artist had been seeking for quite a while.

“The second Fables arc was going to be called Animal Farm, and that’s what I’d been craving for years, to draw more animals,” Buckingham said. “I actually prefer drawing animals to people. And then the moment when I got into Fables and started working on it, I fell in love with everything about the series and begged to be the regular artist.”

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Fables #8 Cover by James Jean

The resulting comic immediately set itself apart from anything else on the shelf, even among stablemates at Vertigo, an imprint specifically intended for more “adult,” mature or inventive stories. Its art was beautiful, but it was the variety in story structures that attracted critical acclaim and the eyes of readers—including my own as a college sophomore just discovering comics for the first time. One quickly discovers that the experience of Fables is not the same from story to story. The series launches initially with a murder mystery, and then segues through almost every comics genre imaginable. There are war stories. Romance stories. Espionage and spy stories. Crime capers. Short asides are sprinkled in, revealing character backstories or twists on classic fairytale material from the Fable homelands. It’s difficult to imagine a comics reader who wouldn’t find at least one Fables storyline tailor-made to her or his tastes.

And as a result, Fables may well be a perfect introduction to the comic art form itself. I admit that I have personally used the first Fables trade paperback, Legends in Exile, to introduce multiple readers to comics for the first time, some of whom have gone on to become full-on readers. Most of those first-timers were women, individuals who had never picked up a graphic novel before, nor even imagined why they might want to.

The fact that Fables appeals to female readers is no coincidence—the comic will also go down in history as a significant feminist work for the medium. From the very beginning, it was remarkably egalitarian, with an equal number of prominent roles going to both the men and women of the Fable community. Leadership positions are likewise equally spread, as are capabilities. In fact, the women of Fables may very well be the most powerful—from the community’s resident witches to central characters such as Snow White and her sister Rose Red (whose titanic sibling rivalry finally comes to a head in the series’ final storyline), to some of the female villains they’ve faced along the way. Despite many characters being based on classic damsels in distress, these princesses are all of the kick-ass variety, even getting their own spin-off series Fairest, which had 33 issues of its own as well as the miniseries Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love.

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Fairest #1 Cover Art by Adam Huges

And yet, when you talk with Willingham, the author brushes off any specific intent or credit for that feminist aspect of Fables. In fact, if anything he seems a little bashful about the subject, insisting that his role as storyteller is simply to tell compelling tales without the limitations of gender-bias.

“Our goals were never to show men or women in any specific way, I just wanted to tell good stories,” he explained. “What shows up in Fables is just how I see the interaction between men and women. The inherent conflict, battle, resolution and the ongoing treaty, that we have to find some way to work together, is infinitely interesting so of course we’re going to explore those issues of gender in detail. To ramp it up to a magical stage is just a way of heightening that.”

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Behind the scenes, the core of Fables has stood on the long-lasting partnership between author, illustrator(s) and editor, and every member of the team has been decorated accordingly. Cover artist James Jean, who worked on the series from the beginning until Fables #81, went on an unbelievable streak of Eisner wins, taking home Best Cover Artist for every year between 2004-2009. Both Willingham and Buckingham have won Eisners as well, and the series was also nominated for Hugo Awards four years in a row, from 2009-2012. It was a series that blossomed into maturity after a few years of those principal members growing together, as Buckingham observes:

“I think the reality is that when you work with someone for an extended period, they push you to try new things and learn new skills,” the illustrator said. “Early on, I remember complaining because I didn’t like drawing large crowds and double-page spreads, but by the middle of the series that’s all I was craving, these big scenes and giant battles to be playful in. I guess my strengths still tend to be the intimate interplay between characters and family moments between say, Snow White and Rose, but my style has evolved as a result of the partnership.”

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Fables #71 Cover Art by James Jean

Bond, meanwhile, describes her role—series’ editor—as a “Jill of all trades,” a bit of a sly reference perhaps to Fables own character, Jack Horner, or “Jack of the Tales.” She calls editing a comic book “the greatest job that nobody knows about,” a polymath’s blend of art director, copy editor, psychiatrist, schedule-maintainer and cheerleader. “The best editors,” she says, “they ask the right questions, because ultimately you want the creators to look their best on the page and our job is to bring their vision to life.” Of course, a big part of that is finding the right creators in the first place.

“The genius of Bill Willingham is a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “Fairy tales and fables have been told and retold over the eons, but Bill has always had a very specific way of capturing nuance and breathing new life into perhaps familiar characters. He’s all about the unexpected. One of his greatest tricks of the trade that he’s shared with me many times is that he loves creating characters he thinks he knows and then doing the absolute worst thing to them to see how they’ll get out of it.”

And make no mistake, the characters of Fables have survived (or occasionally perished) in some true calamities. Taking the full arc of the series’ story into account, it becomes easy to see that Willingham, Buckingham and Bond had no desire to ever see it end. The initial storyline of the protagonists vs. The Adversary ultimately lasts through only 75 issues, half of the series’ eventual run. Willingham admits that this was as far as he ever initially conceived for the story, but when they began drawing close to that point, there were still so many untold stories that he decided to press on.

“Certainly in the beginning of Fables, I thought the story would end with the defeat of The Adversary and his signing of the Fabletown Compact, but later it became a milestone instead,” Willingham said. “It had already been pushed back. The problem is that the longer you sit on stories, the staler they become, so with Mark I began asking, ‘Is there any way we can have our cake and eat it too, to tell the last story but then continue on?’ And I think it worked out pretty well. As I explained to the fans then, Fables ends all the time. It’s not a story so much as a setting where lots of events take place.”

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Fables #150 arrives next week as a unique volume, an “issue” in name but 150 pages long, a full-on trade paperback in length. In it, Willingham puts to rest a final, cataclysmic conflict between sisters Snow White and Rose Red, along with tackling a dozen other plots and characters from across the full breadth of the series, most of whom receive definitive conclusions or “happily ever afters.” Bond, as editor, challenged the writer to “wrap it up in style” by making Issue #150 an unprecedented volume, which was easier said than done. Simply tying up 14 years of loose ends and unresolved questions was a daunting task that invaded Willingham’s head even while he attempted to get some sleep.

“I know there’s this series of anxiety-based dreams wherein you need to leave somewhere and you’re under a deadline, and you need to pack and can’t get everything into a suitcase,” he said. “I have a lot of those dreams. It’s the feeling of being unprepared for the life you’re leading. The anxiety associated with ‘Oh dear God, what if I’m forgetting some major thing that I’ll regret for a long time? Most of that anxiousness landed on Mark, really. I would speak to him constantly, saying ‘Can you think of anything else we’re not addressing?’”

As a result, the two actually decided to physically sequester themselves from the world while planning and plotting the content of Fables #150. According to Willingham, they took a retreat to Orcas Island, a small land-mass off the coast of Washington State “in the middle of nowhere” for the specific purpose of escaping from the world and wrapping up all of Fables’ complex plot-lines adequately … while simultaneously confronting the pressures of concluding the project that had made them both huge names in the comics industry. That, and to enjoy the pleasure of working together one last time.

“I think a lot of it was just about being friends together,” Buckingham said. “Being relaxed and together in a place that was raw, primal, away from everyone. It helped us get in touch with the purity of the storytelling. Just being in each other’s company, it’s amazing what comes up without even trying to write anything. I think that was extremely helpful for us. All of my favorite working relationships have tended to involve moments like that.”

Now, with the date of the finale’s public unveiling fast approaching, Willingham, Buckingham and Bond find themselves grappling with the same mixture of relief, apprehension, nostalgia and slow realization that it really is ending. For Willingham, the key moment was sending out his final script pages and realizing that the rest of the product was finally out of his hands. For Buckingham, it was understandably in the ritual of drawing all his favorite characters for the last time.

“I get so lost in the plot and the moment that I didn’t really contemplate the finality of it for a while,” the artist said. “What was most poignant in the last few months was sitting at my desk drawing the issue and thinking ‘I just drew Flycatcher for the last time,’ or ‘I just drew King Cole for the last time and said goodbye without even realizing it.’ Those were the moments where I got emotional. Suddenly this thing that has held us all together is coming to a close. Because you know, one of the things that is so special about Fables was that it wasn’t just Bill and I sticking together all that time but Shelly and Steve Leialoha on inks as well. There was nobody on this book who was new.”

Says Bond on the same topic: “There’s a synergy that happens within a team of comics creators, which is one of the reasons that I have the best job on the planet. One of the most satisfying moments is when you get a pitch from a writer that you just adore and then find the perfect partner in crime to join forces on paper to create a masterpiece. When it works, there’s nothing like it.”

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Of course, just because they’re reflective, that doesn’t mean any of the Fables team will soon be idle. Bond has plenty of other titles at Vertigo to keep her busy. Buckingham looks forward to a reunion with Neil Gaiman on Miracleman at some point, a return he’s been putting off for 22 years. And Willingham says he took off a grand total one one day after finishing his last work on Fables.

“I don’t know, after one day dinking around, I felt like I should get back to work on something,” he said sheepishly. “Many big ideas have been on hold for a long, long time. I just know they won’t be called Fables. And I guarantee they won’t be 150-issue epics.”

A prevailing theme of Fables, however, has always been the fact that the classic stories inevitably return. Try as one might to suppress them or forget about them, they tend to reappear with a life of their own. So who’s to say if Fables might return some day, down the road? Buckingham already seems to be mulling the idea, somewhere in the back of the mind where all stories spring from.

“Of course I want to have another project with Bill some day, how could I not?” he said. “Fables may be ending, but my love for the stories will never end.”

Fables #150 will be out July 22 in comics shops and July 28, everywhere books are sold.


Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he found his first copy of Fables in a university library in 2006. He’s been enchanted ever since. You can follow him on Twitter.

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