After 14 Eisner Awards and multiple years on the best-selling list — and having inspired fierce loyalty from comic book nerds and bookstore moms alike — Fables is ending this week.
The hit Vertigo series by writer Bill Willingham wraps up with Fables #150, a graphic-novel sized finale that features artwork by multiple artists, a prose story, two gatefolds and a whopping 150 pages of content.
Since the monthly Fables comic started in 2002, it's grown into an entire franchise for DC's Vertigo imprint, with Willingham also writing or overseeing multiple spin-off series, graphic novels and even his tie-in prose novel, Peter and Max. Just in the last two years, besides the main Fables series and spin-off Fairest, DC published the graphic novel Fairest in All the Land and the Fables Encyclopedia, while Telltale Games released a Fables video game titled The Wolf Among Us (which led to DC's current spin-off, digital-first series, Fables: The Wolf Among Us).
Despite all the success — and the constant attention from producers hoping to make a Fables film — Willingham shocked fans in 2013 by announcing that he and regular Fables artist Mark Buckingham had decided to end Fables in 2015.
As Fables #150 wraps up the stories of the many beloved characters within the fairy tale universe — telling the "final tale" of everyone from anthropomorphic animals to Snow White and Bigby's cubs to the ever-adored Boy Blue — Newsarama talked to Willingham and Buckingham to look back at the years of Fables stories, to find out more about the 150-page finale, and to ask whether readers can expect anything else from the pair within the Fables universe.
Newsarama: Bill and Mark, I read the final issue — which is more like the final graphic novel — and I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes through most of the last chapters. I did not want it to end.
Mark Buckingham: That's because we impregnated the paper with pepper. I don't know if you noticed. [Laughs.] If you scratched your eye at any point in the reading process, I must apologize.
Nrama: That must have been it. But now that the story has ended, looking back at the overall arc, do you feel like there's one theme in Fables?
Bill Willingham: Boy, I thought every interview we'd do would all ask the same four questions, and this is one that no one has asked before. So first of all, thank you.
Part of me wants to fall back on what Orson Scott Card said, which is, it's up to the pointy-headed academics who come after us to figure out the themes (or something like that). We just have to tell a good story.
That said, if anything occurs to me as an overall theme, or universal theme, which would be more appropriate to the question, it's…. you have to look out for the people you care about. I mean, that's something that transcends the magical setting and the fairy tale aspect.
Most of the stories revolve around that on some level. Don't you think, Mark?
Willingham: [Laughs.] He babbles! He just goes on and on!
Nrama: I think his answer is pretty accurate. The only other ongoing theme I would have guessed was surrounding the idea of hope. I'd like to say is that Fables stories show that there's always hope, but you also make it very clear — especially in this final story — that hope isn't always a good thing. You even had a physical manifestation of "Hope."
Willingham: Yes, and Hope didn't come across very well in this very last issue.
Nrama: True. And I think there's also a theme in there about stories living on, which came across best in the Fairest finale, which just wrapped up earlier this year. We talked a lot about the ending of Jack of Fables when you announced its finale. But we haven't really talked about the Fairest finale much.
Willingham: Yes, I tried something with the last issue, which is to have it kind of loop back as a prequel to another story, the Fairest in All the Land graphic novel, trying to find some way to illustrate, in actuality, that these stories — they're a cycle. And hopefully, because of that, they can continue past the fact that the issues are coming out.
If there's any direct-to-the-reader message within the final issue of Fairest, it's that there's no such thing as a "final" story.
I think we actually have a character say it, right in the middle of the issue, that stories come to an end and stories never end. It's some kind of weird dichotomy that both can be true.
Yeah, that's my take on it. To sort of say, to those people who are going to miss the series, you know… "Buck up, little cowboy! The stories go on even if you're the one telling them, inside your head."
No one walks out of a movie and just dismisses everything — they go on, like, what do you think happened to these characters? And do you think the two got married at the end? That kind of thing. The stories do go on.
And I was just sort of trying to call attention to that.
Nrama: And now I'll ask a question that I'm sure you've heard before, although I hope it's still a good question — and I'll direct this toward Mark, since he was so succinct in his last answer. Out of all the characters, who started out as a favorite then you ended up not liking them, and vice versa — who emerged as surprise favorites for you, either the process of drawing them, or the character itself?
Buckingham: There have been a number of — not just characters, but also places that have gone up and down in my affections along the way. I always had a problem drawing Fabletown, the original streets and the Woodland Building. There was always something about that. I couldn't quite nail it down to understand its dimension.
So I managed to persuade Bill that we needed to blow it up, which worked out very well. Except for the fact that Bill then said, "Oh, you can now replace it with a castle, and it can be any design you like."
And of course I made it so ridiculously complex I then wished they could blow the castle up as well. Sometimes these things come back to haunt you.
Character-wise, I've mentioned before that I was never particularly fond of Jack, so I managed to persuade Bill it'd be a brilliant idea if he had his own series, so someone else could draw him every month.
Another character I didn't really like for a long time was Prince Charming. And we then sort of built up toward this big story arc where terrible things were going to happen to him, and the funny thing is, I then fell in love with the character the moment he wasn't in the book anymore. I got to that perfect kind of point with him where he'd become one of my favorite characters in the book.
He started to develop qualities that I admired, and I think he just suddenly became a hero, and he became someone whose heart was in the right place, just at the point where we had plans for him. And I think that was the thing that hit me. You know, "I'm very fond of you now that you're not going to be in the book for a bit." So yeah, it happens all the time.
My affection for the characters tend to come not from whether or not I get pleasure in drawing them, but actually how I feel about them as people.
I actually invest, emotionally, quite a lot in the characters that I draw, which is probably why I turned Rose Red into my wife Emma, because that made me connect with the character more than any other character in the series.
And there's a lot of myself that I poured into Flycatcher for similar reasons. I just identified with and loved that character.
Willingham: But for actual ease of drawing, your favorite character is….?
Buckingham: Mister Easy-to-Draw, which is the alternative name for the Fat Yellow Bird.
Willingham: The Fat Yellow Bird!
Buckingham: There was a splash page in "Mean Seasons," where we first see the North Wind. And he was surrounded by a number of beautifully and exquisitely and realistically drawn birds that were kind of fluttering around him, and I just reached one point on the page where I think I had to get it into a box and send it out with FedEx in that moment, and there was this big sort of space on the page that was supposed to have another very exquisitely drawn bird in it.
And I just drew this Big Yellow Bird. The Fat Yellow Bird was a great solution a big space on the page I had to fill quickly, and then I fell in love with him and stuck him in backgrounds and on pages ever since.
I'm amazed we didn't get around to "The Last Story of the Fat Yellow Bird." Obviously, we're going to have to do another Fables series now, just so we can resolve that issue.
Nrama: I vote "yes" to that idea.
Willingham: At one point, when we were really up against deadlines, we should have just done the epic of the Fat Yellow Bird — a five-issue arc — just so that you could draw the entire issue in a day. Just the Fat Yellow Bird.
But knowing you, you would do that and then do the most intricate background in all of history.
Buckingham: You say that, but hey, you write the scripts. I know what would really happen. It would be, the Fat Yellow Bird floats merrily through a nice little green space, and then on pages two and three, he meets the Barbarian Hoard and their monster friends. And there would be these creatures pouring over the horizon. And it would be an intense battle over the five issues.
Willingham: The entire thing, I promise, would have been the Fat Yellow Bird goes to the world of All Yellow Balloons and is trying to find his way out. That's it!
Buckingham: I would have loved that. That would have been perfect.
Nrama: Bill, it's occurred to me, looking at the Fables characters, that what we would assume they would be from their fairy tale story is usually the opposite of what they end up being. For example, Prince Charming was indeed charming, but hardly a dream man. And Cinderella, the damsel who'd been rescued by the prince, is actually a powerful super-spy. Was that on purpose, to defy expectations?
Willingham: To a certain extent it was on purpose in the sense that the requirement for every single character is that they can't have just been holding still since the last time we saw them, way back in the original story.
So no one can quite be the same person. They've been around for thousands of years. They had to have had a lot of stuff happen to them in the meantime. And that's how I was able to get away with, well, last time you saw the Big Bad Wolf, he was a monster and now he's a good guy. And yeah, Cinderella super-spy.
I'm not sure why it had to be Cinderella, other than, she was introduced early as she was taking fencing lessons from Bluebeard.
Nrama: All these characters became so beloved by fans as you rounded them out, but at the heart of the story always was Snow and Bigby and their family — with Rose Red as well. When you first told the story of Bigby and Snow White, did you have any idea the family would emerge as being so central to the story — and also so popular with your readers?
Willingham: I can't speak to the popularity. You know, I can guess at why certain characters are popular. But essential, just because it was — and looking back I can see they were anchors of the series.
The plan was to make it an ensemble cast where no one is the star, and occasionally, the readers will let you know that that plan just ain't gonna work, and you need to get back to work on what we want.
They were all very vocal about it.
Vertigo editor Shelly Bond kept wanting us to get back to Bigby and Snow and by relation, Rose Red.
After awhile, it was just a process of Mark and I realizing they were right.
Willingham: They were the important anchor characters in the story.
But also, if the plan is to end the story, there were things about their characters that needed to be resolved, more importantly than any other.
We needed to know if Rose and Snow were ever going to be — one way or another, are they going to get together and be beloved to each other again? Or be enemies and destroy each other? We had to resolve that.
The other thing is that, we made reference to the fact, throughout the series, that Rose Red and Snow White are very magical, but we never saw much evidence of that. So to answer that question of, like, in which way are they very magical? And it turns out that they were very potentially magical — they had all the power. They didn't have the capability to express it for a long time and, well, now they do.
So there were big questions that had to be answered that kind of forced them to be the important, end-of-series characters. I think.
Nrama: Are you Ambrose Wolf? And Mark, are you, as you implied, Flycatcher? Is there a character that represents you within the story?
Willingham: Neal Adams has said that I am Ambrose, and that's why he drew Ambrose in the story he did for the last issue as me.
Certainly, I get to be the one who writes this down. The historian gets the final say.
Mark thinks he's Ambrose the king, but I think he was Geppetto all along.
Buckingham: Bill seems to think I'm actually the evilest person on the planet, but I just hide it extraordinarily well. But I actually identify with Ambrose the king. I wish I was as good as him. I think his desire to always find a peaceful solution to conflicts, to always be trying to find the diplomatic way is not a bad quality, and that his heart is in the right place.
And his primary motivation is love, and I think that's a good thing — love for family, for friends, for Red Riding Hood. The people that mean most to him. And his desire to make the world a better place. Those are all qualities I admire immensely.
Willingham: And yet, as we have revealed, it turns out that Mark has been able to manipulate me into doing many things in Fables — blowing up the Woodland building would be one; exiling Jack to Hollywood at first and then out of the book entirely was Mark's scheming; and various other things like that.
And that's a puppet master behind the scenes pulling strings. That's Geppetto, my friend.
Buckingham: Alright. Well, I can aspire to be someone else; it doesn't necessarily mean that I've achieved it.
Willingham: I would have to go with the idea that you're Ambrose's characterization too, all kidding aside.
Buckingham: Thank you.
Nrama: For people who haven't read the issue yet, you do bring most characters' stories to a close — some quite pleasantly, and some not so pleasantly. Was it difficult to finish off the folks who didn't make it?
Willingham: Absolutely. In every case where we've done a difficult death, the requirement was we couldn't kill anyone we didn't love. That's why the death of Boy Blue turned out the way it did. The death of Dare, the kid, or the cub — that was one where, right up until the moment we finally did that last page, we were still questioning whether or not it was the right thing to do for the story.
And then there are a death or two that take place in the final issue, which I will not reveal, that had to happen, just because Mark and I love both characters involved. You'll figure out what I'm talking about when you read the issue, readers.
Nrama: So it had to be done because you loved them so much?
Willingham: I think so. You need a certain amount — we couldn't have an all-happy ending. We couldn't have an all-sad ending.
Nrama: With print time, you've probably been away from these characters for awhile now. Do you miss it enough yet to return to Fables? Would you even consider it? Are you already thinking… someday?
Willingham: There are no plans, but…
Buckingham: But we have a great fondness for this world that we've created, and a huge admiration for each other. And we take great pleasure in working with everybody that's been part of the Fables family.
So certainly from my point of view, I think it would be very sad if we didn't do some things together in the future. The succinct answer to this — which will make Bill laugh — is… no, we need a nap.
Willingham: We do!
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about the final issue?
Willingham: We want to say, first of all, thank you for being along with us to get to the final issue.
For new readers, the number of collections of Fables might seem daunting at first, but at least now you know, well, once you dip your toe in, there is an end game. You will not be lost in the rapids of this — to extend the water metaphor — forever.
But for those that have been with us awhile, who are dreading or anticipating the final issue? We hope you like it! We think it is a definitive ending, for at least most of the characters.
As I said before, Mark will translate that into English and say it better.
Buckingham: I think we gave Fables the send-off that it required and deserved. I think being able to have the space to tell not only one final, expansive tale that wraps up the major plot ends, but also to have so many of our collaborators who have been part of the Fables family over the years come back to join us to tell all those little stories that kind of wrap up the lives of all the other cast of the series as well, was a great delight.
And I just think it's a lovely final work. It's one I'm really proud of.
I must admit, when you're busy with a series, it's hard to realize that something has ended, because you're so busy racing along, getting things done, and supervising the corrections and checking that everything's fine and doing the interviews and the follow-up material that needs to be done on the series — you almost forget that it has actually ended.
But I must admit that, when we received our complimentary copies of the last book in the mail a few days ago, it suddenly hit me that I'm actually holding the last book. As I was drawing those sort of final episodes, it was very sad every time I drew a character and realized it was the last time that I would be working on them.
So yeah, it's a very strange sort of bittersweet moment. But I really think this final Fables book is something special, and I hope that the readers will embrace it and love it.
Nrama: We should mention that it has a few extras — and gatefolds!
Willingham: We have a gatefold to fit every single Fables character on it, which I thought was a wonderful bit of work from Nimit Malavia. And we got a gatefold interior, which I don't want to give away, other than… the last moment of Fables is big — in size, and perhaps also in scope.
Nrama: Again, I was so sorry to see it end. As Mark said, it's bittersweet, because it's a beautiful last issue, but it is a final issue.
Buckingham: But you know, as long as you love a character, they always live on. The stories aren't going away. We're taking a little rest from making new ones. But Fables will live on. I certainly hope it will live on forever.