Writer Kurt Busiek Tells "An Odd And Ironic Fairy Tale"
It ain't easy bein' mean.
Think of that as one of the messages of The Wizard's Tale, the graphic novel by Astro City writer Kurt Busiek and the award-winning painter of the illustated Hobbit, David T. Wenzel.
Yet the story of the story has had a winding road of its own, jumping from Eclipse to Wildstorm, and now to IDW in a brand-new, remastered format. Newsarama sat down with Busiek to discuss the titular wizard, working with Wenzel, and the long journey to this OGN.
Click here for a preview! Newsarama: So Kurt -- for those who don't know anything about The Wizard's Tale, tell us a little bit about your so-called "evil" wizard, Bafflerog Rumplewhisker.
Kurt Busiek: Bafflerog is an evil wizard out of tradition. His father was an evil wizard, and his father before him, and so on into the misty past. It's a family thing, a grave responsibility to live up to, and Bafflerog feels the pressure to do his best. But his heart's just not in it. He's essentially a kind and helpful man trying to be a stinker. His spells go wrong because he doesn't really want them to go right—and they're often sabotaged by his "wrecklings," sorcerously-conjured manifestations of his own will. So his subconscious is pretty directly undermining him, poor guy.
He's supposed to be the guy who crushes all hope in the Land of Ever-Night forever. But he's not a bad guy at heart...and that's what makes him his world's only hope, in his oddball, stumbling way.
Nrama: You know, it's funny to see this inversion of the malevolent sorcerer, in the fact that Bafflerog has such a tough time actually wreaking havoc. How did the idea of this character come about to you?
Busiek: He's got two fathers, essentially. He comes in part from a project David Wenzel was working on before he and I ever met, that David was calling The Magic Book. There was a wizard in that who had all these goofy-looking creatures as minions. When he and I started working together, I was trying to take the characters he'd created for this book and find a story for it, because the one David had been trying to do just wasn't working. He'd been partnered with another writer, but the story the other writer came up with kind of shoved Dave's characters to the side, and made them a frame for a different story entirely. Me, I wanted to take the characters Dave clearly liked the best and put them front and center -- and that meant this friendly-looking, bumbling wizard needed to be the lead.
That made me think back to a story I'd written back in college, called "Derring Doings," where I was playing around with fairy-tale tropes and finding ways to turn them on their heads. The story was about an evil wizard who doesn't want to be evil, so he goes on a quest to become a hero. I took that character, fasten him to Dave's Bafflerog visual, and replaced that quest with something less obvious. And the story and characters just kind of unfolded from there. One of those stories that just kind of happens, without a lot of hard work building it. Everything fell smoothly into place. After that, we had to do all the work of turning the outline into a finished work, but the beginnings of it went smoothly, at least.
Nrama: In many ways, The Wizard's Tale seems like such a departure from your more well-known work, whether it be Marvels, Thunderbolts, or even your more cerebral stories in Astro City. What made you decide to go for a fantasy epic? Do you feel like there are sorts of stories you can only tell in this particular genre?
Busiek: I wouldn't call The Wizard's Tale a fantasy epic, myself. It's pretty solidly a fairy tale. An odd and ironic fairy tale, maybe, but still a fairy tale. As for why we did it that way, well, part of it was that when I came aboard, Dave had already worked up all these fairy-tale visuals, so it wouldn't make sense to do it as a detective story of a superhero adventure or science fiction. It was going to be fantasy, because that's what Dave wanted to do.
Plus, I may be best known for superhero work, but I've written fantasy and SF and horror and Mickey Mouse and more. I like writing lots of stuff, and wouldn't want to stick with only one kind of thing. So I don't need a reason to tell a story that's not a superhero story. Why not? I like fairy tales and fantasy. I'm glad to write historical fantasy like Arrowsmith, or post-apocalyptic high-adventure like Jonny Demon...here's another kind of story we can tell, so lets tell it.
Nrama: Just to get a sense of what this story is about -- are there any other fantasy series (or any other bit of literature, for that matter) that you feel influenced or informed The Wizard's Tale?
Busiek: When I wrote that "Derring Doings" story, back in college, I was trying to do something that had the playfulness and irony of James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks. His approach to fairy tales, whether there or in The Wonderful O and The White Deer, is rich and strange and fascinating, full of warm characters and astounding wordplay. So that was my starting point, and I'm sure I was influenced by T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Natalie Babbitt's The Search for Delicious and Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three and other books like that. And of course fairy tales themselves, which I devoured as a kid in all the multi-colored Andrew Lang fairy tale compilations.
I could go on -- The Light Princess, the "fanciful tales" of Frank R. Stockton and plenty more. I just soaked in this kind of stuff when I was a kid, and had it all to draw on when I wrote The Wizard's Tale. It's not an imitation of any of it, it winds up as my particular distillation of what a fairy tale world feels like, filtered through my brain.
Nrama: Pulling back the curtain a little bit, The Wizard's Tale has had a long and varied publication history, going from Eclipse to Wildstorm, and now to IDW. Can you give us a quick rundown of what led you to make these jumps?
Busiek: Necessity, in a lot of cases. It was originally commissioned by Eclipse, as a project to keep Dave busy after he finished The Hobbit, while they were trying to negotiate the rights to do Lord of the Rings. But only a couple of weeks before The Wizard's Tale #1 would have been printed (back then, it was going to be a three-issue mini-series), Eclipse went bankrupt, leaving the project stranded, along with most of their other books, and in particular, all the original art was at a color separation firm in Hong Kong, and they didn't want to give it back until all of Eclipse's overdue bills were paid.
So that put the project in Limbo for a while. We owned the artwork, not Eclipse, so the color separator couldn't really hold it hostage forever. But it took a while, and eventually, with the help of HarperCollins UK, who still had rights to the Hobbit adaptation, we got the artwork back. At that time, I was bringing Astro City over to Homage Comics, so I asked them if they'd be interested in The Wizard's Tale. They were, and so we got it into print at last, this time as a standalone graphic novel. We went through a hardcover printing and two paperback printings, which was very gratifying.
And eventually, it went out of print, and Dave and I got the rights back. We knew we wanted to get it out in a better edition -- for all that we were happy to have gotten it into print through Homage, there were a lot of production problems we wanted to fix -- so we shopped it around, and IDW wanted to reissue it, and Scott Dunbier was on the same page we were in terms of the kind of remastering we wanted to do. And so here we are, third time around. The book did well back in the Nineties, when there was far less of a market in bookstores for comics, and not as much interest in fantasy or fairy tales in the comics shops. So today, we think we have an opportunity to reach out to a much larger audience, and hopefully do even better.
Nrama: In certain ways, you've been fortunate with this book, as you've had an opportunity already to hear people's reactions to it. Are there any reactions that have really stuck out to you? I'd imagine that a book like this would draw different readers than your typical superhero fare.
Busiek: Yeah, where superhero books are often about adrenaline and thrill rides and power fantasies, The Wizard's Tale falls pretty solidly into the "heartwarming" category. We hear from a lot of women readers who like it, a lot of parents who read it to their kids, and tell us how the kids fall in love with the story. It's not like superhero fans shun it -- a lot of the people we've heard from who've liked it are superhero fans, too, but they like it for different reasons. It has an appeal that has very little to do with what people like about X-Men or Justice League.
Nrama: Speaking of people you've worked with on this -- how about working with David T. Wenzel? Having worked on the illustrated version of The Hobbit, he's quite the catch -- how did you two meet up? Can you describe to us what your collaboration with him has been like?
Busiek: It was Cat Yronwode who introduced us. I was leaving my staff job at Marvel in the very late 1980s, and looking around for writing work. Cat was looking to keep Dave busy even after he finished The Hobbit, and she knew Dave had this fantasy project he'd designed characters for, but the story wasn't working. So she put me and Dave together, figuring that I could supply what was lacking in the project, a story to go with the characters. So that's how we started working together; it was an arranged marriage.
Dave and I are both New Englanders, both Red Sox fans, so whenever we talk, we generally start out talking about the Sox -- these days, about the latest trade rumors and hot stone deals in the offseason. But we got along well right from the start. I loved Dave's character designs, he liked my story. And I promised to give him room to really stretch out and show off with his art, instead of having to handle seven- and eight-panel pages like in The Hobbit. In fact, because he'd been cramped on The Hobbit, I specifically designed The Wizard's Tale to always have a full-page panel on every left-hand page, just so Dave could really go to town and play illustrator. It gave the book a very stately, measured rhythm that I think serves it well, but the reason to do it in the first place was to give Dave room to play.
We just get along well creatively. Dave's full of great ideas and has a terrific visual sense, and for some reason he likes my stories. There are other projects we're hoping to do together, so I hope we'll get the chance to keep going, and collaborate more.
Nrama: Are there any particular strengths you feel Dave really brings to the project? Have there been any flashes of genius or surprises in the final version that you can attribute to him?
Busiek: A lot of the tone of the project is set by Dave. His characters are warm and accessible, but a little oddball, a little battered looking. There's something that looks a little comic about all of them, which gives the book its light tough. Plus, he's great at mood, at faces, at emotional attitudes, and he fills up the pages with lots of observed detail, with those wrecklings at play all over the place, creating an infectious energy that not only makes it fun to read the stories, but also keeps you finding new stuff every time you reread the book.
And he paints like a dream.
Nrama: Wrapping up a bit -- with the colors being remastered and you and Dave adding in a new epilogue and a new book design, what are you most excited about with this new release? Anything you can say to those who might still be on the fence?
Busiek: I'd say, "Just look at the book! Read a few pages!" I'm proud of the book, and confident of its ability to draw people in.
But with this new edition, I'm all the more proud that we've been able to take the time to do it right, to do the book the way we wanted it to be in the first place, or even in some ways better than we'd intended. IDW let us do it oversized, to give it the feel of a picture book as well as a comic, and to show Dave's art off well. We had the whole book relettered and redesigned, to make up for the murky, fussy-looking original, which was packaged to try to sell it as high fantasy rather than a fairy tale, because "fairy tale" was not a good sales idea back then. The color separations were bad, the printing was bad, and the paper was so thin that you could see art bleeding through. This time, it's on much bette paper, it's all been color-corrected by Dave, and given an airier, more open design by John Roshell of Comicraft. It's been a thrill, working with John on the book design, making sure the book won't just be a good story, but will also be a beautiful object, a great physical package to show off the story and art, to showcase it the way we wish it had been all along.
The book's been rethought and remastered from the bookflaps to the page numbers. There's even a kind of story going on in the book design, in the chapter breaks and even the endpapers. It's rare that in this field, you get a chance to lavish that much care on a book design, and I'm thrilled we've been able to do it. It's going to be a very sweet book.