‘Fables’ writer Bill Willingham finds a happy ending despite ‘that damned Shrek’

Jan. 17, 2010 | 5:06 p.m.


Over the last decade, one of the most consistently compelling comic-book runs has been writer Bill Willingham’sFables,” an intricate tapestry that weaves together familiar characters from fables, fairy tables, literature, children’s rhymes and folklore. It’s a great time to revisit the Vertigo series — or discover for the first time — with the recently released hardcover “Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book One,” which collects the first 10 issues of the dark refugee epic that chronicles the very unexpected modern-day adventures of Bigby (aka, the Big Bad Wolf), Snow White, Jack Horner, Mowgli, Geppetto, Old King Cole and many, many others. The 53-year-old Virgina native has also recently published “Peter and Max: A Fables Novel,” which takes his franchise into the prose novel sector with a tale of Peter Piper and his brother Max.

Fables deluxe

GB: It must have been interesting for you to go back to the 2002 issues and the very beginning of “Fables.” When you look at those earliest stories, what do you see?

BW: Well, two things really. I mean, this was a good excuse to go back and revisit the early couple of chapters. I suppose, like any writer, I look at the early stuff and I can only really see the mistakes … the things I wish I’d done a little more deftly back then. Or the things I wish I’d anticipated — the story events that were gonna come up later. And the other problem with the ninth hardback collection is that it was much harder to carry my copies of it upstairs to the library. Other than that, I think it’s wonderful. [Laughs.] It’s a great package and it’s going to last for a while and I suppose, like any writer, that’s what I want most. Stories that are going to last.

GB: In those moments when you did wince, was there it a particular character or storyline that you wished you could erase and start over with? 

BW: In broad strokes? No. In details? Yes. There’s a few things in the murder mystery that begins it that I would like to have done differently. Especially doing a fair-play mystery; leaving clues, being a little more obvious in some places, maybe a little less obvious in others. And perhaps I would not have gotten rid of Shere Khan [from Rudyard Kipling’sThe Jungle Book“] so early as a villain … ’cause I thought he made a nice villain. That is, substantially, why we brought him back as a ghost. If we can’t have him in whole, at least we can have his kind of angry, conniving spirit roaming around somewhere.

GB: This may be indelicate, but when I hand a copy of “Fables” to people who aren’t familiar with comics and sometimes they say, “Oh, so it’s like ‘Shrek.'” Do you hear that quite a lot?

Fables 1

BW: Oh certainly! I hear that all the time. As a matter of fact, when I initially pitched “Fables” to DC, they accepted it rather quickly. It was a good thing too, because just about one week later I saw the very first advertisement for the first “Shrek” movie. And my heart fell. All I could see in it was everything I could want to do with “Fables.” And of course “Shrek” was comedy, and I was going to play it rather seriously, but look, all the characters and a lot of the material, it was right there in the trailer. And I thought, “That’s it. I waited too long.  ‘Fables’ is done.” I actually called DC and said, “Well, I suspect that now that you’ll want to withdraw your acceptance of this because, you know, ‘Shrek’ is beating us to it.” And they said, “No, don’t be silly.” They essentially viewed it with the idea there’s no such thing as new ideas, just different executions. So they sort of saved me from my worst instincts.

GB: If you had heard about “Shrek” earlier in the “Fables” conception process, what would have happened?

BW: Had I waited another week to submit “Fables” or had they taken longer to accept it, I’m certain I would’ve talked myself out of doing it. Simply because of, well, that damned Shrek. At the same time, several years have passed now and there are 90 “Fables” comics and there are three “Shrek” movies, and now I think the similarities aren’t quite as acute as I first thought they would be. But every once in a while I do wince when, you know, some snarky reviewer — and the Internet is full of them — says something along the lines of “’Fables’ is Wolverine in the land of ‘Shrek.’” You know, getting another cut in about my character Bigby being too close to Wolverine. So, yes, it’s wince-inducing every once in a while. But I think “Fables” has established its own voice, its own world view. Either it comes through as that or it doesn’t.

Fables 2

GB: Well it’s all about execution, isn’t it? “Twilight” and “True Blood” only sound similar to people who haven’t seen both. “The Sopranos” and “Analyze This,” they have essentially the same set-up — a gangster goes to a therapist — but you don’t see a lot of people get them confused.

BW: That’s funny. Yeah, things do feed on each other and the only justification for that is, “Can you do something new and interesting with it?” And if you have, then you don’t … no need to apologize, and if you’ve failed, then you’ve probably already as a story regardless, so who cares what influenced you to go fail so wonderfully.

GB: Well, if John Ford could find, what, 50 or 60 westerns to make, I think there’s plenty of room in the storybook sector. …

BW: Yeah, right, or look at Howard Hawks, who made basically the same movie with the same stars three times over with “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado” and “Rio Lobo.” “Yeah, let’s do the same movie again and we’ll just change a couple of names.” So it can work!

GB: Tell me a bit about the research you did to get into this massive story tapestry. Were you always immersed in fables?

BW: I was and I’ve almost grown to love the word “research.” It’s such an important, scholarly word. And I feel a bit of a fraud since what I do is just, well, read stories. I’ve always loved to read. I’ve been reading this stuff since childhood. Now I guess I can sort of justify it. But it still goes no deeper than just reading and rereading the stories I’ve loved for so long. As far as “research,” I jot down notes if there’s something interesting in them that I can use. And that’s the extent of it. And yet lately, over the last few years, I’ve been referred to — and this even by, you know, pointy headed academic types — as a folklore scholar. And, well, gosh, that’s kind of nice. If I’d known that that’s all it took to become one of those, I’d have become a scholarly type long ago.

— Geoff Boucher


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Credit for “Fables” images: Vertigo/DC Comics


3 Responses to ‘Fables’ writer Bill Willingham finds a happy ending despite ‘that damned Shrek’

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