Before Willingham appears at Stumptown Comic Fest this weekend, we were able to speak with him to discuss why he doesn't mind TV producers making very similar versions of his stories, the challenges of writing for a likeable character who eats flies, and what obscure fables are too weird even for him to wrap his head around.
WW: In the past couple of years, it seems like there's been a resurgence of fairy tales in popular culture, with shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time and movies like Snow White and the Huntsman. Why do you think that is?
Bill Willingham: I have a few theories, but I am fully prepared to think that my theories just don't hold water. The thing that moved me toward fairy-tale stories: One, it's a group of characters and stories that we all own. Every single person in the world owns all of these characters and stories outright. We're all born with an inheritance that we can take advantage of. I think those of us who are doing fairy-tale-based stories are the ones who are sort of cashing in on our inheritance. But that's the idea, is that they're easy stories to be allowed to tell. You do not have to get anyone's permission to do a new version of Snow White, for example. And we're social people. We get ideas from each other. Lately, some things have come out based on fairy tales, and other people say, "That's a thing now, let's go with that."
Two shows in particular—Grimm, which is filmed in Portland, and Once Upon a Time—have been compared to Fables. You've mentioned in multiple interviews that you don't think either show is overly similar to Fables or that they stole any ideas. Has there ever been a time when you've been like, "Well, I might have done that a little bit differently" or "Why didn't I think of that?"
First of all, I don't know whether or not that I've stated substantially that they're not similar. Obviously, they're going to be similar when you grow up on the same characters and the same situations. Even if you do other stories, there's going to be points of similarity. But were they stolen? No, of course not. You can't steal what you already own. I can't keep anyone from using Prince Charming and Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, etc. And nor would I. I wouldn't want to. The other part of the question.... I make my living telling stories. It's impossible to forget any other story and turn that part of your mind off, kind of evaluating and weighing what you're looking at and wishing from time to time, "I wish I'd thought of that." That happens to me constantly. Obviously, there are times when I would look at something and say, "I would have done that differently." So, yes, Grimm and Once Upon a Time are both fine TV series, and I'm just arrogant enough to watch them from time to time and think, "Yeah, I could do better." That is not to say that I could have, but just like every other writer, I think I can.
For people who haven't gotten into Fables but are thinking about it, what should they know before starting the series?
I don't know that you need to know a lot. These are characters you already know. The premise of Fables is that every one of their old stories is true—in some cases, they're various versions of any individual character-developed story, and in those cases I've taken the version that I like best. But with all of those old stories being true, you know these characters already, but you haven't seen them for a long time and now you see them in modern times and see what they've been up to since the last time you looked in on them.
Fables has been going for 10 years, and it weaves a lot of character arcs together throughout the series. Is there any arc in particular that has been especially interesting or difficult to write?
There's the Fly Catcher story, which is called the Good Prince. Fly Catcher is the Frog Prince who is called Fly Catcher because even though he's human, now he still has that taste for flies and samples them from time to time, which people find a little odd and disgusting. So as a background comic character, we decided to just make it an important story and delve into Arthurian mythos that revolved around him. And that was a large, epic, sweeping story. And it has the good grace to turn out, in fact, very close to how I imagined it in fancy.
A more recent one was called Cubs in Toyland. It takes the sons and daughters of Bigby Wolf and Snow White—yes, they get together in the story, and I'm sorry for spoiling it for you folks—and it takes some of their sons and daughters off to the magical world of Toyland, which turns out to be a pretty grim place. I wanted to do that story, in addition to doing a kid-adventure story that turns out pretty mature and sophisticated, at least on one level. I also wanted to explore the Fisher King legend, which has been around; it also appeared in Arthurian stuff, but not originally. It was this very obscure set of legends that I'm not entirely sure I understand. And that ability to allude my understanding has always been intriguing to me. It's always the treasure you can't quite get that you need most.
For Fables, you've sort of reimagined the lives of a lot of these fairy-tale characters that we all know. What is that process usually like for you?
The sinker of this process of reimagining characters is not to, [but] to instead take the characters exactly as you found them. Start with the original story. And let's say the villainous Big Bad Wolf you want to be a hero because then you can have him around longer—what are the incidents along the way of his life that could have legitimately led to that turnaround? Because we're imagining people who could literally be thousands of years old, we would assume that there's all sorts of changes that could come in their lives. I mean, look at the amount of changes in any person's life over a much smaller period of time.
What's next for you and Fables?
For me, what's coming up next is a long period—one hopes—of getting a lot of writing done. The previous year, since I did a thing called FableCon, took a giant bite out of my work life. It had its costs. I'm happiest when I'm writing stories, so my personal plan is to do much more of that in the year to come. In Fables, we're finishing up the Snow White arc in which a bunch of things happen to her and her family that flows out of Cubs and Toyland, where a bunch of things happen with her and her family. Things were pretty dark and dire. So I have been promising readers that the next story arc beyond that is going to be a little more hopeful, and I intend to do what I can to keep that promise.