Just as Rapunzel spun straw into gold, Bill Willingham spins childhood stories into adult drama filled with action, romance, and intrigue. In his series Fables, published by the DC Comics imprint Vertigo, he brings fairy tale characters into the modern world, sets them up in a struggle for survival against a dark adversary, and pairs them off in odd ways that don’t always hew to tradition.
Since 2002, Fables has been running as a monthly comic, and it has been collected into 18 trade paperback volumes, with the 19th, Fairest in All the Land, due in November. In the story, the familiar characters of childhood fairy tales have been driven out of their native land and now live in Fabletown, a hidden enclave in New York City; the talking animals are exiled to a farm upstate. As the series opens, Snow White is the deputy mayor of Fabletown and really runs the show, and Bigby Wolf, the reformed Big Bad Wolf, is the sheriff. Prince Charming is a serial adulterer (Snow White left him after he had an affair with her sister, Rose Red), and Goldilocks is a leftist revolutionary and magical-animal-rights activist. These are not your grandmother’s fairy tales.
Fairest in All the Land is a collection of 31 short stories by 21 different artists, tied together loosely by the theme of beauty. The book is also a murder mystery—a fair-play murder mystery, in which the reader sees the same clues as the protagonist. That’s tough in a world where magic exists, Willingham says, but he found the challenge “irresistible.” The Magic Mirror is the storyteller in the framing tale. “He can see all, but he can’t do much of anything,” says Willingham. “He’s kind of the helpless reader surrogate in the sense of ‘I know who is hiding behind the curtain—look out, look out,’ but he can’t be heard. It’s a frustrating role for our poor Magic Mirror, but in some ways he does get to contribute to the solving of the mystery.”
The individual volumes of Fables contain single story arcs that can be read on their own, although they all add up to one larger story. The series has generated many spin-offs, including Fairest, which focuses on the female characters, and 1001 Nights of Snowfall, a book of stories that is a prequel to Fables. The next few months will see a flurry of new books, including the 19th volume of Fables, as well as The Fables Encyclopedia, the short story collection Fairest in All the Land, and a paperback edition of the graphic novel Werewolves of the Heartland. DC is also publishing deluxe editions of Fables, and the seventh volume of these came out in August.
Fables brings together Willingham’s two childhood loves, comics and fairy tales. “I loved comics as a kid, and I could always find one older sister or another to read them to me,” he says, “so by proxy I was reading comics at a very early age. I liked fairy tales, but they didn’t explode in my mind into something wondrous and terrific till I discovered the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show with ‘Fractured Fairy Tales,’ and I was hooked forever.”
The idea of crossovers, in which a character from one story appears in another, also spurred Willingham’s imagination. “That was the whole bread and butter of the two big comics empires, DC and Marvel,” he says, “so imagining that characters in one story would show up in another story was already second nature to me when I discovered fairy tales. The big crossover in my mind was that the same Big Bad Wolf appeared to vex poor Little Red Riding Hood and also blow down houses in the Three Little Pigs. There is nothing in those stories that led me to believe that those were different wolves.”
Willingham has only two criteria for including a character in Fables: “Is a character in the public domain and do I want to make use of it?” As the story grew, the cast expanded to include characters from many traditions; the first volume of Fairest, for instance, stars Ali Baba, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), and the Snow Queen. Getting these disparate characters to work well together is simple, Willingham says. “You, as a writer, say, ‘They go together. Here they are.’ A writer carries a lot of authority that way. He has the wonderful gift of the fact that readers come to him hoping he succeeds. No one picks up a book and says ‘I hope this is a piece of crap.’ As a result, they are willing to place a lot of authority in the writer. When you realize that, you realize things are more realistic the less you try to explain.”
Willingham discusses the ongoing Fables story in a weekly call with the chief artist, Mark Buckingham. While it’s not always possible to have such close collaboration with guest artists, he does try to match the story to the artist when possible and usually picks artists who are already familiar with the series. Willingham says that the artist does “at least half the storytelling, perhaps more.”
Other writers often collaborate on the spin-offs, and Willingham prefers to guide them with a light hand. “I’m prepared to [say], ‘Here’s the direction we should be going,’ but I don’t think a writer or an artist should just be a tool in someone’s hand,” he notes. Often the writers propose new stories themselves, but even when Willingham comes up with an idea, he lets the writer flesh it out. “Why work with wonderful writers and not hear what they have to say?” he asks.
The Fables Encyclopedia is an illustrated guide to the characters of the Fables universe, compiled by librarian and scholar Jeff Nevins. “Since I had the advantage of knowing where I got everything from, it was a nice little challenge to see if he could indeed unearth all I did,” Willingham says. “He did a good job of it. In some cases, he dug up some stuff I did not know even when I was researching these characters originally.”
Although Willingham’s stories are set in the modern world, in a way he is also bringing them back to their roots. “Long before they were written down, these were stories about what was happening to people [in their present],” he says. “They weren’t charming little tales about what life was like in the old days. Right now, if you don’t obey, you will be eaten by wolves or baked into a quiche or sent out to starve in the forest. So we want to bring fairy tales, folklore, into the this-is-happening-right-now that fairy tales lost just by virtue of time passing.”
“I don’t believe we’ve had anyone baked into a quiche yet, but short of that I think we have captured a lot of the dark and sinister aspects of it. Nothing is more fun to a young reader, or to an adult reader, than stories about a dark and dangerous world out there. A bright and happy world—okay, that’s great, but we kids love the dark stuff.”