The Power of Fables: An Interview with Bill Willingham, Part 1
In which we discuss Bill Willingham's long career, his versatility in many genres, and his perspectives on various comics matters.
For nearly 30 years, Bill Willingham has been a key player in the comics industry, both as an artist and a writer. Today, he concentrates primarily on the writing, working on two of DC Comics/Vertigo’s biggest publications: Fables, the Vertigo series he created in 2001, and the iconic Justice Society of America, the very first—and possibly greatest—superhero team of all.
Bill was gracious enough to speak at length about his work on Fables, which includes the new prose novel Peter & Max (the first prose novel ever published by Vertigo), and what he has planned for the Justice Society, as well as what he’s learned and experienced as a veteran of the industry. The interview was so big, in fact, that we had to split it into three parts to make it easier for you to read. The topics covered were wide-ranging and insightful, so without further ado, here’s the conversation.
This must be a pretty exciting time to be working on Fables, with the new Deluxe Collection and your new prose book, Peter & Max.
It is an exciting time. And I’m one of those who don’t trust good news. So I’m waiting for some sort of hidden ax to fall. But yes, it is an exciting time.
Fables is now in its eighth year and it’s still going strong. Why do you think it’s had such a long life and resonated with so many readers?
I don’t know. And that’s not an evasive answer. I really would love to be able to pin down exactly the formula that resulted in this being a successful series and package it and use it again for future projects. Or maybe sell it at far too much a markup to other people who would like a reasonably successful comic series. But my suspicion is that it was a combination of the right timing and some old-fashioned dumb luck. I think the timing was just one of those things you can’t plan for—that maybe the readership was ready for such a thing. Part of that is I believe we’re in a stage in comic books that, even as our sales are dwindling horribly overall, the reception of readers to try new things in comics is as great as it’s ever been. It feels like the opening line from A Tale of Two Cities: It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. Simultaneously.
I think the ground was well prepared for what is essentially a fairly quirky premise that would not have flown earlier, when the two types of comics were superheroes or underground artsy-fartsy stuff, and that’s it. Now there’s kind of no limit on if a comic books flies or doesn’t or sells or finds an audience or doesn’t. It’s not because it doesn’t fit into some easily understandable niche. The pathology has to be for some other reason than that. You can start a comic about anything now, and I love that environment that we’re in at the moment. And you know, with Vertigo, the publisher, they had just reached the end of several of their key series [when Fables debuted], and maybe those loyal Vertigo readers were looking for something new right about that time. And I think both Fables and Y: The Last Man were able to step into that station and say, Here’s something that might be worth taking a look at. Who knows, all in all? I would certainly love to have the mathematical breakdown on why it took off the way it did.
When you say sales are dwindling, do you mean for monthly comics issues?
Certainly. We haven’t found a really good way to measure. Comics were always a periodical business. Monthly sales [were] the way we measured the success of a company. We are now changing over to more like a book publisher, where the collections or the original graphic novels are the thing, are the anchor of the companies and the publishing. But we haven’t switched over our measurements of that success. I take particular delight in the ICv2 monthly reports on the results of periodical sales of every comic book, or top 300, I guess. Looking at those, Fables is just holding steady or perhaps dwindling a little. But that doesn’t take into account that it’s been around, as you said, for eight years. New readers are not coming onboard and hunting up those individual monthly issues in order to catch up. They are buying the collections. And we’re adding new readers all the time. Even though we can’t afford series demographics and market research on that level, the anecdotal evidence is pretty convincing that the readership of Fables is expanding.
Is there a tracking, an internal one even, of trade-paper collection and whether they’re attracting a larger number of your readers, more than the individual issues?
You know, I don’t know. They certainly keep track of a new collection when it first ships, how many we sell in the initial orders. Those are also announced in the top 300 graphic novels. The problem is you don’t have ongoing tracking of that. You can’t really measure how many people are buying Fables for the first time other than looking through those top 300 lists. I’ve noticed that every collection of Fables sells enough to make it on that list every month. There’s always another 500 to 1,000 of the previously published graphic novels that make the list. Of course, DC tracks the overall [sales], because if they didn’t, there’d be a real problem with royalties since how many of those they sell in the long run have to be accounted for. So I imagine they do. I don’t often remember to ask. I suppose I could pick up the phone and ask, all told, how many of the very first Fables collection have we sold? And they’re very accommodating; they’re very helpful in that. They would assign some person to put all those numbers together if I asked. Maybe I’m being superstitious in not asking. Either my imaginary number’s too high or too low. If my imaginary number’s too high, I’m just going to be disappointed. But we’ve done well.
You’ve been in the industry for quite a while now. What’s your perception of the industry now? Do you still have as much enthusiasm? Do you still enjoy it as much as you always did?
Sure! I absolutely still enjoy the industry. And as much as I’ll kid about being one of the tired old men of comics, I still feel like a kid trying to break in. And part of that is there’s a psychological syndrome that they call Impostor’s Syndrome, or Fraud Syndrome sometimes. The idea that people believe in some way that all the success in their careers is completely based on being a fraud and, at some point, they’re going to be found out and kicked out of whatever they do. It’s a fairly common thing. As a matter of fact, any time I describe it to a friend, he goes, “Oh! That’s what I have!” So there is that part of me that thinks at some point a group or committee from the mysterious back office that runs everything is going to approach me and say there’s been a terrible mistake. You were not intended to be given this career. We have to take it back and give it to the person who was supposed to get it. And I kind of enjoy feeling that way. You can’t believe that and be complacent about the career you’re in—any career you’re in. So hopefully that will translate into I will keep trying and never get to that point where I feel, “I know how to do this; I’m okay.” So yeah, I do feel very much like that guy who’s still trying to break into the comics business because of that. Or at least to deserve being in here.
That said, I’ve been in the business long enough to know when I first got into it—which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t all that long ago—it was a stage when comics were still looked upon not just as kind of distasteful genre literature, but just idiots’ literature, kids’ stuff. And not even just kids’ stuff, but for the developmentally disabled kids. It just really was kind of a tawdry profession in the mass culture. And comics were not available in real bookstores and in libraries. They stood like a bastion against them: “Those filthy rags will never penetrate the perfection, the glory, of the library system, which is the fortress of literacy.” They were the medieval clerics keeping that light alive during the Dark Ages. And in just the space of my career, that’s all changed. Now comics are absolutely an accepted part of mainstream culture, even though it’s niche in the sense that sort of everyone realizes it’s hip and they love the idea of comics even though the vast majority of those people would never pick one up and read it. But I think that’s a part of just the greater pathology, that the vast majority of people just don’t read. Reading for pleasure is itself a minority occupation now. But yeah, we’re accepted.
In culture, you know, comic-book movies are now not a bright new thing but just one of the standard things. It’s a western, it’s a war movie, it’s a comic-book movie, and more popular than westerns and war movies because those are trends that have come and gone for the most part. And we’re in libraries. Not only are we in libraries, but the gold standard of being in libraries is circulation records. How often are these things checked out? And comics and graphic-novel collections always head the list in those. So not only are we allowed in libraries, but we’re golden. Were the princes of the city in the library system. So that complete turnaround has happened in the course of my career, and it boggles me to look back over how things have changed. And I appreciate it. But overall, at the same time, sales are going down.
You seem equally comfortable in all those different genres. You move back and forth between superheroes and more literary fare.
Well, yeah, I want all of it. I was speaking to the professor of this class I spoke to at Colorado University, and we were talking about the differences between genre and literature. Almost the definition of genre precludes that it become literature. And maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. I don’t think it is. But regardless, I want to wallow in all the genres, as tawdry as it may be. I just want to wade in and splash and have a great time. And in anything superheroes, I wish western comics were still viable. I sort of got to scratch that itch by doing the three-issue arc with Jack of Fables that’s a western. I think any genre or category has its strengths and its weaknesses and both are wonderful things to play with. Explore the strengths; overcome the weaknesses if you can. It’s terrific to do. I suppose you could categorize things as superheroes, literary, this or that, and those categories matter to people that those categories matter to, but not to me, other than one delightful toy is different from another delightful toy. But boy, I’m sure glad I’ve got both of them in my toybox. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?
Part 2 of the interview | Part 3 of the interview