Fables creator Bill Willingham has plenty of experience reinventing existing fictional characters and placing them into new, magical worlds. Beginning in January, readers will get to see his latest reinvention — a genre he calls "steam-pulp," which mixes the adventurous spirit of steampunk with the heroic licensed characters from Dynamite Entertainment.
Announced in the build-up to New York Comic Con, the seven-issue series, which features art by Sergio Fernandez Davila, is titled Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure (although Willingham is lobbying for an actual change to "Steampulp"). As readers will find out over the course of the series, the world of Legenderry features brand new versions of Dynamite characters like Vampirella, the Phantom, Flash Gordon, the Green Hornet, Red Sonja, and even the Bionic Man — but with a Victorian era, sci-fi twist.
Willingham has even come up with a story reason that the land of Legenderry is "steampunk" — explaining why the characters have all these fun, sci-fi gadgets, despite everything else being more like the 1880s.
Willingham is well known in the comics industry for his Vertigo title Fables — a consistent best-seller for the imprint — for which Willingham has also written several spin-offs, graphic novels, and even one Fables prose novel. But Willingham has a long bibliography of other novels and comics as both a writer and artist.
With Legenderry, Willingham is utilizing the same type of world-building that won him acclaim on Fables, but has also created a story that incorporates a very diverse cast of characters into one era. Newsarama talked to the creator to find out more about Legenderry: A Steampunk Adventure.
Newsarama: Bill, this seems like something that's both new for you, being steampunk, and yet it's a project that utilizes skills you have established in other work, with so much world building. Let's start with the "steampunk" part of this. Was that something you've been wanting to do?
Bill Willingham: I think the steampunk aspect of it was something that Nick Barucci suggested, and he asked if I'd be interested in doing it.
I like steampunk because it replicates science fictiony elements a time when being a member of the upper crust did not mean just lazing around, but doing things like betting someone that you could make it around the world in 80 days, or heading off to locate the Nautilus and whoever it is who seems to be sinking ships. It was an adventurous age. It was an age when a good deal of the world remained unexplored, so we knew there were fantastical things out there to find.
I don't know that the upper crust setting off on adventures was the status quo at the time, but it was celebrated. It wasn't subversive in any way. It was boot strap, march to the beat of your own drum, become the captain of your own destiny. So it's an exciting genre in which to place some action-adventure type things.
I've enjoyed steampunk — everything except the name. The "punk" addition to the word isn't as accurate in this case as, say, "cyberpunk." That word perfectly describes what they were trying to do — a bunch of cyber-proficient ass-hats who were basically just brats who think they're cooler than anyone in the room. So that justified the word "cyberpunk," and the word "punk" being part of it. And that's also one of the reasons I never warmed up to that genre.
But "steampunk," which I think started as a joke take on cyberpunk and then caught on, is not that. These are gentleman and gentlewoman adventurers in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. There's nothing "punk"-ish about it.
Unfortunately, after we settled on the title Legenderry: Steampunk Adventure, in the Twitter exchange with Chris Roberson this morning, I came up with "Steampulp," which would have been more perfect title, since it encapsulates what we were trying to do.
I think it's not too late. I'm going to try to get Dynamite to tweak the title a little bit, and call it Legenderry: A Steampulp Adventure. We'll see if that works, if it catches on. I know why they want to use the word steampunk; it's fun. But anyone who understands that term will immediately get why I changed it to pulp.
Nrama: How does this steampunk genre and this approach help you bring together all the Dynamite licensed characters?
Willingham: It opens the door to using the characters that I've grown up loving, but having the advantage of not having to take all of that continuity with each character, because these are new versions of those same characters.
Nrama: Can you describe how you're mixing such diverse licensed characters?
Willingham: Well that's the challenge. And I think that was the fun aspect of just trying to put them all together.
Some fit in pretty easily. Vampirella, you can easily think of her as a Victorian era character.
The Green Hornet? A little bit more difficult, but not much more. Swap out the sleek roadster with a horse and buggy, and a few gadgets that would be considered wondrously high tech for the time, and you've got an interesting character.
Someone like Flash Gordon, who flies in space, is a little more difficult, which is why, basically, his origin into the world — he's one of the two characters (the other one being Ming the Merciless) who are not from this world, but who crash landed on it. The Renaissance of high tech and science city that sprang up around the place where he crashed — which is literally called "Landing" — that's the capital, the gravitational center, of all the new and wondrous technology that is infesting this world.
In this world, there actually is a reason that you have a Victorian era setting that has all the trappings of steampunk, which is wild inventions and guns and airships and things like that, that we didn't have in the Victorian era. They have them because of stuff from Flash Gordon's crash landing that gradually filtered into the world at large.
And then you have — and the toughest for me, but the funnest for me, I think — the Six Million Dollar Man. Nick asked me if there's any way I could get him in there. And a steampunk version of the Six Million Dollar Man. So what we have is Steve Austin, the Six Thousand Dollar Man, which everyone astonished that you could spend that much money on a single set of prosthetics.
Nrama: It sounds like you're not only re-inventing the characters to fit into this setting, but you're creating a vast landscape of different settings that go with your characters. And giving it a physicality?
Willingham: Well, of course! Because world building is the most enjoyable part of creating a new thing like this — or at least it is for me.
Oddly enough, I had started to build the world of Legenderry long before Nick and his idea came up.
I was building it for some as-yet-to-coalesce story that I would get to someday in the future. Sometimes you jot down ideas and just let them percolate for awhile, until the reason for having done this — the fully fleshed out stories — present themselves.
In this case, I had written the map of the world Legenderry, with The Big City, The Forest, The Jungle, tTe Island — everything with a generic term. And I thought, well, that's interesting. A world in which there is one of everything, where you don't need to give specific names to them because you're only dealing with one of them. If you are talking about The Big City, you're only talking about one city. It is Victorian era London, New York, Paris — it's every big city of its day crammed into one, but it is the place. And then, you know, the sea is merely called The Sea, because thee's one; why do you need to name them?
So I started jotting down this map and filling in places like that, and set it aside. And I'd been talking off and on with Nick for a long time. And I had one problem with the Dynamite books, in that they had all these wonderful characters I could use, but I'd have to use them in conjunction with, you know, if I wanted to do Red Sonja, it would have to coordinate with the other books people are doing with Red Sonja. And it was the same with every other character. There was someone else using them. And I do not begrudge that. You don't have those wonderful toys and not let people come in and play with them, holding out for someone better to come along. I'm glad that Nick and his crew are the types not to just hold out for what they perceive to be, you know, the star of the moment, because that comes and goes.
But we had a dilemma, because if I was going to do some kind of work, I wanted to not have to coordinate with all that kind of baggage that comes with each character.
So it was his idea to say, do different versions of that character. I think we can get permission to do it, which they have. I was skeptical about that part, that they would be able to work with the license holders, that they would allow, in some cases, radically different versions of their characters. But do different versions of the characters that they're your own — in the sense that no, you don't own them, but you get to make up anything you want for them — and put them in a world together.
And in the middle of that conversation on the phone, I said, "I've got the world! It's already ready!"
Nrama: We've seen some art from Sergio Fernandez Davila. What was he able to do with the direction you gave him on the creation of this world?
Willingham: Oh, his art is lovely. The storytelling is top-notch. You know, I'm experienced in comic books enough to know that whether a story can fly or not depends almost entirely on the strength of the artist. So as a result, I tend to work tests in very early in every project. In this case, the test for our lovely and wonderful artist was written into the second and third page of the first issue, which is a double-page spread. I called for all this information within the double-page spread, to see if he could pull it off. Not just for that… I mean, it moves the story along well.
But it's the interior of Vampirella's club in the middle of The Big City, and of course her club happens to be the place where you need to see and be seen. And from the big band to the subtle different bouts of activity going on at several different tables — everything, every detail was in there.
And that's when I knew, as soon as I saw that page, I knew that we were going to do well together.
Now, he may loathe me, with good cause, because — except for the time in the Elementals when I asked Mike Leeke to include a thousand sharks in one panel, and he literally gave me one thousand sharks in one panel — I don't think I've been as abusive to an artist and called for all these different things in one spread. But he seems to do well. So maybe he thinks I'm a terrible human being, which would be fine, as long as he continues to do such wonderful art.