‘Fables: The Wolf Among Us’: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Oct. 10, 2014 | 2:30 p.m.
fableswolfamongus1cover Fables: The Wolf Among Us: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Bigby Wolf, seen in Chrissie Zullo's cover art for "Fables: The Wolf Among Us," the debut Digital First series from Vertigo, is the series' star. The comic is written by Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus. [Warning: The last image of this gallery is grisly.] (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

fableswolfamongus1p3a Fables: The Wolf Among Us: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Bigby, as sheriff of Fabletown, responds to a disturbance. The series, like the game it's based on, is set before the first issue of "Fables." (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

fableswolfamongus1p3b Fables: The Wolf Among Us: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Bigby busts his way into a bad situation in the first issue of "Fables: The Wolf Among Us." The series' artists are Stephen Sadowski, Shawn McManus and Travis Moore. (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

fableswolfamongus2p3a Fables: The Wolf Among Us: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Bigby faces off with the Woodsman in "Fables: The Wolf Among Us." (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

%name Fables: The Wolf Among Us: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

Snow White and Bigby uncover a grisly sight in "Fables: The Wolf Among Us." (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

Just as Bigby Wolf is a fable no matter whether he’s in the mundane world or more mystical realms, so is his story “Fables” no matter what format it’s in.

That’s the thinking that guides “Fables: The Wolf Among Us,” an upcoming Digital First comic series written by Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus, which is based on TellTale Games’ well-regarded “The Wolf Among Us” video game — itself a prequel to Bill Willingham’s lauded and long-running Vertigo comic “Fables.”

Sturges, who has a fabled past writing the spinoff “Jack of Fables” with Willingham, and Justus will be joined by artists Stephen Sadowski (“Fairest”), Travis Moore (“JSA All-Stars”) and Shawn McManus (“Fables,” “Fairest”), with Chrissie Zullo (“Cinderella” miniseries, “Fairest: In All the Land”) creating the covers. The series, the debut Digital First title from Vertigo, DC’s imprint for mature readers, will launch in December, and print collections will follow next year.

Like TellTale’s episodic game release, the new series will be set before the beginning of Willingham’s multiple-Eisner-Award-winning myths-in-modernity series and follow Bigby, sheriff of Fabletown and erstwhile Big Bad Wolf, on a murder investigation.

Sturges and Justus couldn’t be on hand at New York Comic Con for the announcement of “Fables: The Wolf Among Us” during Friday afternoon’s Vertigo panel, but the writers discussed the relationships between their series and the game, between Bigby and Snow White, between wild card Jack Horner’s past and future selves, between how Willingham plays the game and how they’re writing the comic, between dropping F-bombs in video games versus in comics, and much more with Hero Complex in an email interview.

“Fables: The Wolf Among Us”: Cover | Disturbance | Coming in | Fight | Old foes | Crime scene

Hero Complex: TellTale’s “The Wolf Among Us” is a moody, hard-boiled, profanity-laced detective story. What sort of tone do you want for your series?

Matthew Sturges: It’s a darker tone to be sure, and we’ve kept that tone for the adaptation. In the same way that “Jack of Fables” was a tonal departure from the main “Fables” book, it makes sense that this story has its own look and feel. There’s no point in trying to do something just like “Fables.” It’s moodier and a bit darker, but it’s not such a drastic departure that readers wouldn’t recognize it as “Fables”-like. Our take is to keep what’s already there in the game, which is fantastic, and weave our own sensibilities into that fabric. I think we’ve also raised the amplitude of some of the various emotional dimensions of the story: We’ve added some humor, some horror, some romance. In other words: It’s like the game, only more so.

As an aside: A weird thing about profanity is that it really leaps out at you on a comic book page the way it doesn’t in a movie or a video game. I’m not sure why that is — maybe something about encountering an F-bomb in a word balloon makes you see the word as well as hear it in your mind, and it feels somehow louder. So for that reason there’s less salty talk in the comic than there is in the game, but that shouldn’t be taken to imply that Dave and I are not exceptionally foul-mouthed in real life.

Dave Justus: Heck darn butts. As you noted, this is above all a detective story, and it takes Bigby (among other characters) down some very dark alleys, both literal and psychological. Matt and I have, in several cases, talked about taking the next few steps down those alleys … the steps that the game doesn’t take, no matter how many times you mash the “W” button. We want to explore the game’s world, and see where it leads us.

Bigby Wolf, seen in Chrissie Zullo's cover art for "Fables: The Wolf Among Us," the debut Digital First series from Vertigo, is the series' star. The comic is written by Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus. [Warning: The last image of this gallery is grisly.] (DC Entertainment)

Bigby Wolf, seen in Chrissie Zullo’s cover art for “Fables: The Wolf Among Us,” the debut Digital First series from Vertigo, is the series’ star.  (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

HC: The game’s inciting incident is the murder of a fable prostitute. Can you give readers an idea of how the Digital First series might open and how the series as a whole might follow or depart from or build on the game’s general narrative?

MS: Our series starts out precisely where the game does, with Bigby Wolf answering a domestic disturbance call at Mister Toad’s apartment building in Queens. Things quickly go badly when it turns out that the disturbance is being caused by Bigby’s old nemesis, the Woodsman. The opening of the game is excellent, and we didn’t see any reason to change it. I imagine when people are adapting a work sometimes they might feel compelled to change things just for the sake of making their mark on it, but we felt like if something worked in the game and we could make it work in comics, there was no need to reinvent it. Of course, there are plenty of things in the game that just don’t work in comic book form, so we’ve ended up taking quite a few liberties out of necessity.

A question I imagine people will be asking themselves is, “If I’ve played the game, will this comic book show me anything new?” and the answer to that is an unqualified “Yes.” We’ve added a great deal of depth and characterization and back story, which we’re able to do in comics because it’s such a nimble medium. In a comic you can go anywhere and do anything and you don’t have to worry about your narrative bogging down gameplay. Of course, in the comic, the audience doesn’t get to tear anyone’s arm off, like they do in the game. You have to imagine what it’s like to tear off the arm, which is far less visceral. It’s a trade-off.

HC: How do you approach writing Bigby Wolf? (And will he, as in my experience with the game, be dying several times each issue?)

DJ: Bigby — in the early days of “Fables,” at least — often came across as sort of a reluctant hero, a guy who couldn’t quite believe he was in charge of policing this community, when he sometimes had trouble policing his own emotions or instincts. That’s very much the tone we’ve tried to capture for him here. As Matt said, the comics format gives us opportunities that aren’t available in gameplay, so in making Bigby the POV character, we quickly agreed that his internal monologue was going to help drive the narrative. It’s certainly in keeping with the “noir” sensibilities of the mystery — but moreover, it gives us the ability to explore his feelings about Snow, about the Fabletown community, about his role in that community, about the balance he’s striking between man and beast.

That, and he’s got a bone-dry sense of humor, so we get to incorporate that as much as possible.

Our Bigby doesn’t die very often. We needed him to make it through the story alive, so we’ve cut his number of demises down to a manageable level. That’s not to say, though, that every character we meet in the story is going to be so lucky.

MS: I’ve written Bigby before, in “The Great Fables Crossover.” Of course, for a lot of that, he had been turned into a chimpanzee, and a little girl for a while, and also possibly an elephant if I recall correctly. So maybe that experience is not as helpful as it could have been.

Bigby will be the gruff but lovable character that you know and love from “Fables” but in a situation that’s darker in some ways than what you’re used to seeing, so you might see a darker side of him. That said, it’s not like the book is nothing but Sturm und Drang. It really covers the emotional spectrum. One of the things I learned from working with Bill Willingham is that by varying the tone of your work, each mood heightens the others. A funny scene in a horror story makes the scary parts that much scarier. A dramatic moment in a comedy makes the humor that much more biting. You can see that everywhere in Willingham’s works: They’re never all one thing.

Snow White and Bigby Wolf are seen on Mark Buckingham's cover for "Fables" No. 125. (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

Snow White and Bigby Wolf are seen on Mark Buckingham’s cover for “Fables” No. 125. (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

HC: A dozen years and 140-plus issues into “Fables,” its readers have seen the relationship between Bigby and Snow go through some dramatic changes. Is there any challenge in writing them back at this stage? What do you see as key to getting those characters’ interactions right?

DJ: Bill Willingham has, let’s face it, written one of the great love stories of our time with Bigby and Snow. Because we’ve been witnesses to that relationship for all these years, it felt entirely natural to decide on what their interplay might have been at this stage. Matt and I have long been fans of a well-done “meet cute” moment, and while Bigby and Snow aren’t meeting for the first time here, obviously, there are still plenty of those little touches to their interactions. You’ll get those fleeting glances, those subtle double meanings, those tiny actions that might mean nothing, but that get thought about from every single angle in order to tease out any possible hidden meaning.

MS: That aspect of it — the relationship between Bigby and Snow — is probably the thing we’ve talked about most in our conversations about the book. More so than even the plot of the mystery. Their relationship is the emotional heart of “Fables” and we’re catching them at a very tender, nuanced time in that relationship. It’s a lot of fun to play with.

HC: Can you talk about the art — does it use art from the game, or is there new art in the game’s style?

DJ: The art being produced for the comic is based on the game’s style but is completely original, and is being handled by three fantastic artists: Stephen Sadowski, Shawn McManus and Travis Moore. They’re each bringing something unique to the table, but it’s a testament to Vertigo’s sharp eye for detail that they’ve assembled three artists whose styles complement one another so readily. Matt and I have been blown away at every turn — and, honestly, the caliber of the art is prompting us to take chances in the storytelling that are enormously satisfying and that, we think, elevate this well above the level of a simple game adaptation.

MS: All three of these guys are absolute pros. Whether it’s Sadowski’s bold lines and excellent figures, or it’s the depth of personality in everything Shawn draws, or it’s the ingenious compositions that Travis Moore seems to generate without effort, you’re getting a lot of great art here. Like most Vertigo books, you could buy it just for the pictures and not even read the words. But you should read the words.

The Woodsman and Bigby struggle in "Fables: The Wolf Among Us." (DC Entertainment)

The Woodsman and Bigby struggle in “Fables: The Wolf Among Us.” (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

HC: New-to-“Fables” characters pop up in the game. Are there any that especially grabbed you, and if so, why?

DJ: Without giving too much away for those readers who haven’t yet played the game, I’ll say that there are a number of new characters whose stories moved us — and as we continue to pen the comic scripts, I know there are more we’ll get to play with in later chapters that I’m looking forward to as well. Personally, I was really taken with the back story of the murdered prostitute and her family life in the Homelands, so what’s summarized with a few lines in the game becomes a much bigger part of the comic. I think you’ll see more of that as we go along.

MS: This question is hard to answer without spoiling anything, but I will say that a few of them are characters where you see them and think, “How is this character only just now showing up in the ‘Fables’ universe?” I will say that there’s a pair of characters that appear early in the story and when Dave and I were reading their back story, we learned a new word, “enantiomorph,” that made us stop and think about what a weird job we have.

HC: Any classic “Fables” characters you’re happy to get a (or another) crack at writing?

MS: I always thought it would be a lot of fun to write Bluebeard, but Bill offed him so early in “Fables” that I never got a chance. That’s the beauty of a prequel: You get to go back and revisit places and characters you thought you’d lost forever.

As it happens, Bluebeard’s look is based on a mutual friend of ours named Brad. The version of Bluebeard in the video game looks so much like the actual Brad that it’s kind of unsettling. Like, way more than he does in the comic. Imagine that you’re playing “Half-Life 2” and Alyx Vance looked just like your sister. It’s weird.

Jack Horner is seen on the cover of "Jack of Fables Vol. 3: The Bad Prince." (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

Jack Horner is seen on the cover of “Jack of Fables Vol. 3: The Bad Prince.” (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

HC: Jack Horner appears in the game and, of course, Matt, you co-wrote the entirety of “Jack of Fables” with Willingham, and showed the character at various points in his legendary life. If Jack is set to appear in the Digital First series, can you speak to writing him at this particular stage and to being around that rascal again? And, Dave, to what you see in Jack?

MS: Jack does indeed appear in the story and he actually poses a real challenge. The Jack Horner we meet in the first few issues of “Fables” isn’t quite the same narcissistic maniac that he became in “Jack of Fables.” He kind of evolved away from his roots. The bigger-than-life Jack who breaks the fourth wall and snarks at everything and is basically an id with legs and amazing hair? That guy doesn’t work in a noir detective story. He sticks out like a sore thumb. So it’s a question of writing him in a way that’s true to both presentations of the character, which is nearly but not entirely impossible. That guy always was a pain in the ass.

DJ: The fun of writing Jack is that you’re writing about the fly in the ointment … and you’re making the readers root for the fly. I like Jack because my first reaction in a situation is often the wrong one, the least appropriate or helpful thing to think. In real life, I do my best to stifle that; when I actually open my mouth, I’m there to help. But Jack is an agitator. He doesn’t stifle anything. The more inappropriate, unhelpful, out-and-out insulting thing you can put in his mouth, the better. It can be enormously appealing to indulge those baser instincts from time to time.

HC: How have any discussions with Bill about writing this series gone? Any guidance he offered that you can share? And, just curious, have you discussed “The Wolf Among Us” with Mark “Bucky” Buckingham, “Fables’ ” continuity cop?

MS: Bill has been nothing but supportive throughout the endeavor. We talked some about the choices that he made while he was playing the game — it seems like if any choices would be “canonical” it would be those made by the guy who created the thing it’s based on. But then you kind of also got the sense that Bill was mainly taking the most violent possible path at every decision point out of some atavistic urge to kill and destroy, and so verisimilitude was secondary to that. Which is understandable; it’s hard not to want to attack everyone when you’re being Bigby Wolf. It’s almost like Bigby’s struggle to keep his animal nature locked inside is a metaphor for some aspect of the human condition. Dave and I probably should have thought about that. Hm.

DJ: Bill has said some hugely encouraging things along the way, letting us know when we’ve tapped a story vein that he’s interested in watching bleed. Unlike Matt, I haven’t written these characters, or played in this world, before now, so every crumb of praise from Bill is a meal to me. Maybe he’s just fattening me up for Bucky’s slaughter.

"The Wolf Among Us," based on "Fables," is being released this weekend by Telltale Games. (Telltale Games)

“The Wolf Among Us.” (Telltale Games)

HC: A comic based on a video game that is itself a prequel to a comic might strike some people as odd – even though the game (and presumably your series) is all “Fables” canon. How did your writing this series come about – if the possibility was suggested to you, what was your initial reaction?

MS: Once the comic is done, we’re going to write a musical based on the comic, and then create a film version of the musical. It’s like “The Producers,” only with more dead fairy tale characters.

And yes, the comic is canon. The game is technically canon, but it’s canon in this strange quantum-mechanical, indeterminate way where several different outcomes are canonically all true at once until you as the player have observed them and forced the story to choose an outcome. Our comic is purely Newtonian: It collapses the narrative waveform and gives you the macro-level canonical events without all the weird simultaneously-dead-and-alive cats.

DJ: The project was in Matt’s hands, and during one of our chats he was expressing some trepidation at taking on this large-scale project on top of his other work. I sort of flippantly said, “I’ll do it,” as underemployed writers sort of flippantly say, in hopes that someone will see through the sarcasm and take them seriously. Matt took me seriously, and I can honestly say that the work we’re doing together here is better and tighter than anything either of us would have produced alone.

HC: What works about your collaboration?

DJ: Matt and I met, what, seven or eight years ago, and almost immediately realized that our tastes in comedy ran to very much the same things. I think that’s been the basis of our writing partnership ever since — even when we’re not writing comedy. The fact that we can agree on why a setup works, how a punch line could be sharpened, where to place a callback for maximum effect … all of that stuff is applicable to collaborative writing, regardless of genre. I’ve learned Matt’s strengths and how to bolster his many, many weaknesses. And we’ve learned to sneak in references to the “U Talkin’ U2 to Me?” podcast when no one is looking, so that keeps us happy.

MS: Likewise, I’ve discovered how to get the most out of Dave’s great skill at dialogue and characterization while shielding the work from his panoply of deficits both as a writer and as a human being.

The truth is that Dave and I set the bar very high for each other, and each of us is always trying to impress the other. I know that if I try to pass something half-assed off on Dave, it won’t fly, and vice versa. In the same vein, I know that if I can impress Dave, then I’ve done something genuinely impressive. When you have a very talented co-writer, you always bring your A-game.

HC: What are the challenges and advantages of writing for the Digital First format?

DJ: We’re writing for the half-page, which is a whole new set of skills to learn. What you see on your computer screen is Page 1A, then Page 1B. But when the print issues come out, those have been combined into just Page 1. So we’re having to be very conscious of how pages will look when they’re laid out for print. Making sure that cliffhangers are being placed on the “B” pages; making sure that we’re not cramming 10 panels on a page because we’re thinking of it as two five-panel pages. And, where we can, trying to come up with ways to let the “A” page and the “B” page interact with one another to make a larger image.

Every one of our artists has been a champion as far as this goes. We’ll have a seed of an idea of how to bleed one panel into another, and they’ll make it blossom in ways that go above and beyond what we could have envisioned. I think that when readers check out the print issues, they’ll find plenty of impressive bits of composition that they missed entirely in the digital format. (Which is my subtle way of saying that it’s worth buying twice!)

Bigby busts his way into a bad situation in the first issue of "Fables: The Wolf Among Us." The series' artists are Stephen Sadowski, Shawn McManus and Travis Moore. (DC Entertainment)

Bigby busts his way into a bad situation in the first issue of “Fables: The Wolf Among Us.” The series’ artists are Stephen Sadowski, Shawn McManus and Travis Moore. (Vertigo / DC Entertainment)

MS: It’s a bit strange to be forced to view each page through two separate lenses: digital and print. But one of the beauties of comics has always been its imposed structures. You can get frustrated by the fact that the pages are all the same size or that the issues are all the same length, or you can try to find ways to have fun with it. Having this split-page structure for the digital comics is just another formal limitation to try to mess around with.

It also provides you with all kinds of new opportunities. For the longest time, comics have been primarily presented with the page in portrait orientation. That orientation suits certain kinds of panel layouts better than others. But with the Digital First format, each “page” has a landscape orientation, which means that you can do landscape splash images, which to me seem a lot more natural. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyway, it’s fun learning a new thing; it’s exciting and inspiring.

HC: Anything else readers should know about “Fables: The Wolf Among Us”?

MS: I know that some people’s initial reaction might be, “Yeah, right. A comic based on a video game based on a comic?” And I can understand why those people would be initially skeptical. But keep in mind that “The Wolf Among Us” isn’t just any video game. It’s an extremely well-written game that’s heavily focused on narrative, that has gotten rave reviews from just about everyone. So it’s not like we’re writing an adaptation of “Flappy Bird.” The source material here is very strong. And Vertigo is putting serious artistic talent on this thing. When it comes to “Fables,” they don’t mess around.

Now I’m trying to figure out how Dave and I would do a “Flappy Bird” comic. What would that even be about? I feel like we’d really have to delve into the character of Flappy Bird to find out who he is. What are his strengths? What are his flaws? What does he desire most in life? There are big questions you have to consider when adapting a side-scroller. That’s why we haven’t done one yet.

“Zaxxon,” though? I’d do it for free.

DJ: The thing I’d like to emphasize is that this story matters. It makes a difference to the characters, and to the world of “Fables.” I’m not a video gamer; before this, the last game I’d played to the end was “Tomb Raider 2.” As a reader, I would be wary of a video game adaptation, unless I truly believed it was going to stand on its own. So maybe what I can offer is this, to any “Fables” reader uncertain of whether to check out “The Wolf Among Us”: There’s no reason to be wary. We love these characters, and this world, and we — and the amazing team of artists — are going to take very good care of them. Don’t worry.

I mean, worry about whether everyone’s going to make it out alive. But don’t worry about the ways in which we’ll kill them. We’re pouring our heart and soul into every last plunge of the knife.

Blake Hennon | Google+ | @LATHeroComplex


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6 Responses to ‘Fables: The Wolf Among Us’: Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus on the case

  1. Kat says:

    "As a reader, I would be wary of a video game adaptation, unless I truly believed it was going to stand on its own. So maybe what I can offer is this, to any “Fables” reader uncertain of whether to check out “The Wolf Among Us”: There’s no reason to be wary. We love these characters, and this world, and we — and the amazing team of artists — are going to take very good care of them. Don’t worry."

    Uh, and fans of the game??? (well in my case, both, but first and primarily the game)

  2. abdallasyam87 says:

    great man!

  3. Chub says:

    Make another game!

  4. TellTaleIsBest says:

    make WOlf Among Us Part 2 PLS

  5. Rod Rodkey says:

    Such intelligent work and reporting!

  6. Rod Rodkey says:

    That would be great game. just love to play it!

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