‘Fables’: Bill Willingham lets ‘Werewolves’ loose, plots a con

Nov. 14, 2012 | 5:00 a.m.

"Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland" is the new original graphic novel from "Fables" creator Bill Willingham. The cover art is by Daniel Dos Santos. (Vertigo)

A page from "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland." Art by Jim Fern, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder and Mark Farmer. (Vertigo)

A page from "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland." Art by Jim Fern, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder and Mark Farmer. (Vertigo)

A page from "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland." Art by Jim Fern, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder and Mark Farmer. (Vertigo)

A page from "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland." Art by Jim Fern, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder and Mark Farmer. (Vertigo)

"Fables" No. 122 finds Ambrose Wolf, a cub of Bigby Wolf and Snow White, as an adult writing a history of Fables in our world. In it, he narrates the first of a two-part story about the Big Bad Wolf, a sorceress and fate. Cover art by Joao Ruas. (Vertigo)

The first collected volume of "Fairest" arrives in comic stores Nov. 21. Cover art by Adam Hughes. (Vertigo)

Bill Willingham can trace his love of mythic fiction all the way back to his childhood, when he first became fascinated with comics starring a certain hammer-wielding Norse god.

“I assumed Thor was just another Marvel superhero made up just like Spider-Man…. But one day my brother insisted that Thor, in his terms, was ‘stolen’ because the same character is in the encyclopedia,” Willingham said.

Determined to prove his brother wrong, he checked the encyclopedia. “And sure enough, there was Thor, right there, wonderful mythological character. That just kind of opened my mind and probably started my love of folklore and mythology right there, just the realization that these modern stories we’re reading can be drawn from old sources, and that those old sources are wonderful…. That stayed with me forever, the fact that just normal guys like me can read and learn these legends and then keep them legendary by spinning new tales.”

READ: Cover | Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9 | Page 10

Willingham has spent decades spinning new tales, making and remaking classic myths through writing his long-running popular monthly series “Fables” and overseeing its recent female-focused companion “Fairest” for DC’s Vertigo imprint. He’s built a career exploring, subverting and reconfiguring fairy-tale tradition by placing familiar figures from legend in the modern world.

“Fables” creator Bill Willingham. (Michael Jara Photography / DC Entertainment)

It’s a tradition he’s continuing with his new original graphic novel, “Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland,” which finds the beleaguered Bigby Wolf stumbling upon a community of much worse wolves in Iowa, and he’s also expanding his realm of influence, plotting next year’s Fabletown and Beyond convention. Although Willingham has been a guest at countless conventions over the course of his 30-year career, the inaugural Minnesota gathering next March will be the first he’s hosted.

“One thing I quickly learned is that good convention hosts must be just a little bit suicidal because, boy, is it a lot of work to put one of these things on,” the Eisner Award winner said in a phone interview. “I did not realize that. The best conventions, the ones that seem to run seamlessly, have to be this seething pile of chaos behind the scenes, because this is not something I would wish on anyone.”

The hardcover “Werewolves of the Heartland,” in comic-book stores Wednesday and other bookstores next week, sees Willingham on far more comfortable ground. Bigby Wolf is searching for a new home for Fabletown in the real world after the destruction of its longtime New York location, and his quest takes him to Story City, Iowa, but trouble quickly ensues. The self-contained story, the author says, offers new readers “a single, enclosed, hopefully adventurous, exciting story full of drama and action and violence and sex and regrets and betrayals and courage.”

It’s true that teeth are bared and fur does fly. The tale has its beginnings in the “War Stories” two-parter Willingham wrote about seven years ago, which showed Bigby’s clandestine service in World War II and first introduced the possibility of what Willingham terms “Nazi killer werewolves, which are the best kind, really.”

“One of the best or most frustrating aspects of writing ‘Fables’ is that every story seems to inspire one or more additional stories that I’d like to get to down the road,” he said.

Willingham recruited artists Craig Hamilton and Jim Fern, who previously worked together on “Fables” No. 86 (“Boxing Days”) for the project. Hamilton made his “Fables” debut with the 2004 one-shot “The Last Castle” (with P. Craig Russell); Willingham said the “Fables” team considered him “just the right guy for a more epic-length single story.” He’s again paired with Fern, whose work Willingham first noticed with the 1993-1994 DC series “Scarlett.”

“What they do together is pretty lovely,” the writer said.

“Fables” No. 122. Cover art by Joao Ruas. (Vertigo)

“Werewolves of the Heartland” opens with talk of fate — a subject that’s at the heart of the current two-part story in the “Fables” monthly series. There, readers see one of Bigby and Snow White’s cubs, Ambrose, as an adult and recounting a “lesser-known” tale of the Big Bad Wolf and a sorceress. Fate is presented not as hard-and-fast but, as Willingham puts it, something “that can be bartered and changed and switched around, almost like a commodity, like a treasure.

“Fate in the overall sense is probably like the way magic or power works in the ‘Fables’ universe,” he continued. “I know how it works and from time to time we reveal little dribbles and drabs of how it works to the readers, especially when it can make a story more frustrating, engaging or mysterious.”

On Halloween night Willingham managed to be both frustrating and mysterious when he tweeted possibly ominous news about the future of his universe. He wrote on Twitter, “Secret # 1: Bigby dies in four issues. Secret # 2: The Snow Queen is not in fact based on someone I know, even though she thinks it is.” That was quickly followed by, “At least one of those preceding two revealed secrets are true. The other one? Maybe perhaps quite possibly, not so much.”

Asked about the statements, Willingham said, “Well, I was up to about three vodka gimlets by then, which loosens my Twitter-y tongue, apparently.”

But he stands by the tweets. After hearing them repeated back to him, he said, “See – that’s exactly true, and one of those two is, in fact, absolutely true. We’ll see.”

He was somewhat more forthcoming about the upcoming five-part story titled “Snow White” that begins in “Fables” No. 125. Willingham promises that the wolf’s wife and den mother will “go through a bit of a wringer” with things “swirling chaotically around her.”

“It’s one of the natures of ‘Fables’ so far that it’s pretty bad luck to get a story arc named after you,” he said.

In the story, it’s Ambrose writing about his mother, and Willingham says it will show her from the perspectives of characters including King Cole, bridge troll turned security guard Grimble, Briar Rose and her sister Rose Red, who spent much of her time depressed in bed in the storyline devoted to her.

The first collected volume of “Fairest.” Cover art by Adam Hughes. (Vertigo)

Also this month, DC is set to release the trade paperback edition of “Fairest Vol. 1: Wide Awake,” which Willingham wrote, with one story by frequent collaborator Matthew Sturges (“Jack of Fables,” “House of Mystery”). Although he has plans to return to the series with a story about the dryad Princess Alder (former bodyguard to Geppetto) to be drawn by Barry Kitson, he conceived the title with the idea of turning it over to other writers. South African novelist Lauren Beukes took Rapunzel to Japan; Sean E. Williams will write the next major “Fairest” arc, which introduces a new character and is set in India.

Instead, Willingham will turn his attention to the upcoming Fabletown and Beyond convention, set to take place March 22-24 in Rochester, Minn. “Fables” artist Mark Buckingham will be the guest of honor, and “The Unwritten’s” Mike Carey and Peter Gross, Beukes and “Mice Templar” and “Powers’” Mike Oeming are set to appear.

The programming is being designed to avoid product-based panels and presentations and to instead foster an environment in which attendees and guests can “talk about the meat of storytelling and what makes it up and what’s good and what’s terrible and what’s wonderful about it.”

One idea Willingham is particularly excited about is seeing guests with very different backgrounds interviewing one another with an eye toward sparking unusual, intriguing conversations about unexpected ideas.

“We’re going to put [together], ideally, two guests whose work are as far apart from each other as possible, who might not even know each other,” he said. “It’s either gonna be a terrible disaster or we’ll get two interesting personalities drawing all sorts of secrets out from each other. I’m hoping for the latter.”

– Blake Hennon


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