A special panel was convened at C2E2 2011 in Chicago to celebrate the 100-issue milestone of the comic Fables and its creator Bill Willingham. A rather intimate affair, Willingham was joined on the dais by only DC Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham for a discussion that Cunningham framed as an imitation of Inside the Actor’s Studio.
While a slideshow of Vertigo Comic’s editor Shelly Bond’s favorite Fables covers flipped by on the projector screen Cunningham asked about Bill’s own reading habits and their origin. Willingham explained that he was always reading a young child, but more often he, having five older sisters, was often read to instead. Growing up as an army brat on a base in Germany, there weren’t many entertainment options and he always remembers his sisters reading him stories.
On a particular favorite that he read repeatedly, Willingham told the story of the massive quantity of comics that circulated around the American housing at that base in Germany. At that time no one collected comics, they were constantly being traded one-for-one in what Willingham described as a “Brownian motion.” It was rare if he ever read a single comic twice. Joking that his parents, also lacking in entertainment options, spent a lot of time making kids, so that there was an arrangement made between the children and their mother. If any of them had to stay home sick from school, as long as they didn’t bother her, she’d buy them some comics while she was out running errands.
This process continued for years until Willingham’s mother broke the arraignment and bought young Bill, estimated to be at about age 8 at the time, a prose novel instead: The Return of Tarzan. After getting over the shock of this ‘betrayal’ and his own dislike of the Tarzan character, young Bill ended up liking that book and all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’. However, he retained his dislike for Johnny Weissmuller’s portrayal of the character, sharing a story of his young self meeting an aged Weissmuller, not recognizing him as the Tarzan of films, but instead mistaking his long hair and size for an agent of biblical justice straight out of epic religious movies. An ensuing freak-out ruined his father’s regular golf game with the former film star and swimming champion.
Cunningham then asked what was the turning point from reading to writing for him and Bill described a two-hour long language arts class that he had in Junior High, in which each week the students were required to write in a journal for 30 minutes. Uninterested in the assignment, young Bill aped a story from a book he heard about his from a friend and started to blend fictitious elements about his father being a pod-person. Encouraged by a teacher for his creativity, other members of his family became monsters in his journal, in a way similar to The Munsters. When asked if he still has this journal, Bill lamented that he none of his personal documents from his youth anymore.
On what was the “hopefully fantastic” story behind the conception of Fables, Willingham said that it was the result of a long process. Key elements that aided in the endeavor were the cartoon Fractured Fairy Tales and The Mighty Thor. Of the former, after explaining to those unfamiliar with it that it was a part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show where classic fairy tales were turned on their heads for a humorous result, Willingham said that opened his eyes that fairy tales weren’t “owned” by anyone, and that if someone changed them nobody would come after that person. Thor was a similar situation, after being told there was a Thor before Marvel Comics. Finally working with the Vertigo imprint he knew he could tell the kind of story he wanted to.
When asked what it feel like to get to issue #100, Bill said it is very humbling, he keeps expecting to wake up and be back at issue #4, fielding the call from Vertigo Comics editor Shelly Bond that the book has been cancelled.
On if he has his characters’ arcs and evolutions planned out in advance, Willingham said that in many cases they are "locked in," adding that some of them have their last lines already written, but there are characters, like Blue, that weren’t planned out. Blue was added to the comic just so Snow White could have someone to talk to in the business office. Flycatcher was a one-note joke about him still liking the taste of flies. Bill then used Frau Totenkinder as an example of a character whose arc was almost entirely and purposely obtuse. At first it just seemed that she was a grumpy old woman you wouldn’t want to cross, but the resulting revelations that she has for the length of the series been paying off a debt she felt she owed to Snow and Red for rescuing her from her oven all those centuries ago. Even though she knows she would of eventually gotten out herself, she wanted to do all she could to even ‘the books’ with the sisters. To that end, she aided Fabletown because that’s what she knew Snow wanted. She also helped Red with her situation recently when she knew the time was right. Bill explained that she didn’t want to own anyone anything and didn’t believe in half-measures, liking it to the “Butler Bet” with DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio that concluded with Willingham serving as Dan’s butler for the Saturday of C2E2. Bill played the part to the hilt, complete with uniform, leaving no doubt that his obligation was paid.
John Cunningham then inquired if there was something Bill wished he didn’t do in the first 100 issues. Lamenting that there were quite a few, but focuses on how he felt he poorly used some villainous characters, like the Pied Piper, but in particular Shere Khan. In the Animal Farm arc, Bill said that he had to have a terrifying villain for Snow to overcome to prove her mettle, but he now wishes he could have a character like him back, and not just in ghost form as he appeared in Haven.
On the prospect of 100 more issues, Bill exclaimed that “[he] would be tickled to do [Fables] forever.” When pressed on how he would end the series, Bill explained that it ends all the time, but another story just starts up again afterward.
In lieu of fan questions and with the panel and C2E2 itself ending, John fired off a series of short questions, that nonetheless got some thoughtful answers from Bill. Favorite word? The answer of “Royalties” was met with laughter and applause. Asked his least Favorite word, Bill lamented that some of the worst things that have happened to him happened after someone told him “Yes.”
Bill's biggest turn-on was initially given as Jennifer Connelly, but it was really readers who were evangelical about the book and not just collectors. Bill’s turn offs include stories told so badly that the teller has forgotten what they wanted to say, referencing the plot of Lost and the ‘skeevyness’ of the premise verses the execution of How I Met Your Mother. Bill’s favorite curse world is ‘Dastard,’ as it sounds dirtier than ‘bastard.’ On what else he may have done with his life, Bill wanted to be a cop for a few years, but now would like to be a professional SCUBA diver, but never a butler. Finally, on what he would like to here as he approached the Pearly Gates, Bill joked that it would have to be: “We’re sorry, but because of a clerical error you have to stay in the girl’s dorm for a while.”