The 150th issue of "Fables" (or volume 22 in the series of collected graphic novels) is the last in the series. It ties up the loose ends and offers us final glimpses of the characters we've fallen so firmly in love with over the last 13 years of comics reading. It was haunting and beautiful and bittersweet, and you can read my complete review of it at Huffington Post. This space is reserved for an interview I conducted with writer Bill Willingham and series artist Mark Buckingham.
Big Shiny Robot: How does it feel? Is it a relief? Is it bittersweet? What's it like having the whole thing on your shelf?
Bill Willingham: It is a relief and it is bittersweet. Both. It feels like there's a giant weight lifted off, but at the same time it feels like there's something missing. Why am I not getting up to work on "Fables" everyday. So, all of that. I suspect Mark is similar.
Mark Buckingham: I'm definitely in the same camp as Bill in that it's very strange for it to not be there anymore. We're all missing working together as a team, we had an amazing crew we've been together with for the last thirteen years, so we're missing all of that. It's very sad that we've said goodbye to all those characters and it's not easy to let them go. But at the same time and you sit and look at the shelf bending with 22 volumes of "Fables" material, plus all of the spin-offs that existed, it's a huge body of work and it's something we can take a lot of pride in, that we managed to create such an expansive and exciting universe over all these last few years. I'm sure I was going to make another point that has escaped me completely...
BSR! Could you two tell me how your work relationship evolved? Mark, you came in for the second arc and then never let go?
MB: Yeah. I was approached quite early on to be a part of the series and Bill always said Shelley [Bond] was very foolish because she made the mistake of giving me a choice because they thought they could only get me for a single story arc, because I had commitments elsewhere. Shelly said, "Well, which story would you prefer to draw?" And I had been craving organic environments and nature and animals and plants and other things than people to draw for many years and so I just plumped for Animal Farm, which caused a huge problem of, "Oh, hell, we actually have to find someone for the first arc now." But the reality is that once I'd started working on that story, I fell in love with the book so much I rang up and said, "Can I just have this as my regular book?" And, as you say, I never let it go. And I'm glad I didn't. It's been a joy from beginning to end.
BW: You should realize that 13 years ago there was no possibility that an artist would stay on a book for its entire 13 year run. It never occurred to us to do anything but try and lock in people. Different artists for different arcs. And that was the template that Sandman had gotten into and some others. People did not stay on books for very long. When Mark let us know that this was going to be his permanent home for a while it came as a bit of a surprise. An absolutely delightful surprise, and one for which I can't imagine doing it the way we initially conceived, you know, at best you'd get a good artist for one limited period of time and then they're gone. This turned out much better.
BSR! As you look back at the whole thing, is there a particular moment in the story or frame that you drew that really stands out over the heads and shoulders of everything else, now that you can look at it from the ending and look back? Is there anything you're particularly proud of?
BW: In the art side, Bucky is going to be too humble to mention his. But there have been many moments, there were times where I'd say, "Oh my God, he dialed it up a notch," and then later down the line, "Oh, he did it again!" And he did it again. And again. And many times throughout the series. Whereas, by no means, were the first efforts lacking in any way, but he just found a way to get more and more. So those were great moments. On the writing side, there are lots of personal moments. But the "Good Prince" story arc that came out more or less the way I imagined it when I started writing. Someone much wiser than me said that you ruin a story by actually starting on it because when it's just in your imagination, it's perfect. But your skills are never going to live up to what you hope for a story in your mind, so by beginning it, you wreck it. And that's been pretty much the story of my career, except for the time I look back now and again and say, "That kind of worked out the way I thought it would." And that was nice. But that's pretty rare, too. I will let Mark respond now...
MB: As Bill correctly predicted, you won't get me to be particularly proud of anything, because as an artist I have this habit of thinking everything I do is rubbish and always hoping the next thing I do will be better and that drives me on. I certainly have some favorite stories. Like Bill, "The Good Prince" remains for me one of the finest things that we did together. I also have a great affection for one of our more recent arcs, "The Cubs in Toyland." I think it had a lot of whimsy and delight about it, and there were some wonderful characters in there, but I also think it had some of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments that we've ever had in a Fables tale, and I'm very proud that we were able to kind of give those moments the gravitas and the delicacy that I think they needed in order to make them as compelling as could be. So that, to me, was the best.
BW: That one, I ended up asking more than ever, "Dare we do this?"
BY: No pun intended?
BW: Yeah... It was definitely the one that right up until that final page, even the final panel of that moment, we were asking, "Should we back off and save him?" That was a tough one to do.
BSR! I would say, having gone back and re-read them... I mean, I've read a lot of the series since day one, I actually owned a comic book store when it started and was foisting it on everyone I could, so I've been with it from the beginning and as I re-read it this time, I hadn't read a lot of these arcs in a long time, and as I got through "March of the Wooden Soldiers" I thought, there's no way they could top this, and then I'd get through "The Good Prince..." And I got through "Cubs in Toyland" again, and that ending, more than just about anything, really just... hit me right between the eyes and it's a particularly striking moment, I really love it. As I much as I don't wish you would have killed him, I'm very glad you did.
BW: Well, thank you.
BSR! With this last arc, you've pit Snow White versus Rose Red. As we lead up to the last Fables story ever, and I've read that Snow is more your character Bill and Rose is sort of an avatar for your wife, I guess, Mark, so how did you guys reconcile that back and forth between the characters? Did that cause tension between the two of you? Even jokingly?
BW: I don't think so. Did it?
MB: No. I don't think so. I'm certainly aware of it. There were moments where I thought, hang on a moment, I'm drawing my wife, naked, having affairs with other men, is this necessarily a good thing?
MB: But no, certainly, between Bill and I, I think we were always so invested in what was necessary for the story that I don't think we ever really had any great dilemmas or debates about where the tale would go. We would certainly, it's that evil glee of, "Can we do this? Can we get away with that? Maybe we should do this?" There was always that sort of little mischievous thing... Bill would have an idea for a story and I'd try to up the ante a little bit with some thoughts of my own and we would see where it takes us. But I think, no, we always took huge pleasure in letting the story tell itself. I think that's the thing. Once we'd established all these characters and different plot lines, they sort of...I know it's a bit of a cliche, but they genuinely write themselves. The characters tell us what needs to happen.
BW: I think it succeeds if we've created a good debate amongst the readers of who is the hero, who is the villain, who has the right cause amongst the two of them? And then, finally, was it resolved fairly? We don't get to answer that. The readers do. I think, in both cases, I don't know if it's true that Snow is my character and Rose was Mark's? I mean... visually, of course. Rose was Mark's and Snow White, if I was to list off my favorite visual characteristics in the perfect woman, she might fit the bill. But that said, I don't think we, either of us, laid that kind of claim to them. It wasn't me versus Mark at any time I'm aware of. But then again, he's always so polite, he may have just never mentioned it...
BSR! Looking at the way it ended now and thinking back to looking at it from the other end, is this the ending you were building to? How much evolution was there of the characters that informed that road?
BW: Both. I think we had several milestones of endings in mind as we went. My first take on the ending is that it ended when Gepetto is conquered and forced to sign the Fabletown Compact, except, as Mark has pointed out before, each story we do generates so many fresh and wonderful questions about "what happens next?" So that didn't have to be the end. I'm more satisfied with this as an ending in that it did evolve over time, but I think this is one that I, as a reader, and I can only guess what the readers are going to feel, but I as a reader would look at this and say, "Yup, it might not have been the ending I wanted to read, but it's a satisfying one that is fair, that is not a cheat." It really did, this time, evolve as we were deep into the story between the two sisters.
BSR! Is there a chance that we might get more material like, say, Peter and Max? Where it's separate in its other sort of time that could fill in some of the gaps? I think Peter and Max was one of my favorite pieces, actually, especially the audiobook. My son is too young to read Fables proper, but Wil Wheaton's audio version of Peter and Max is just about one of his favorite things...
BW: I'm glad to hear that, and please note that Wil Wheaton took a tremendous pay cut to do that. He was a Fables fan, he was and maybe he still is, but all I'm saying is that he agreed to do it and it took a fraction of what he would have normally charged in order to read that. So our gratitude for that is so vast.
BSR! But is there more stuff like that a possibility? I'm sure you're still just sort buzzing from the end of this in general, but, are there still things in the back of your head that could come out that way…
BW: Well, there are plenty of stories that suggested themselves along the way that we did not and could not get to. Without any promises, we'll never say never, but there are currently no plans.
BSR! It must be rewarding though, I'm sure you're getting that question a lot, that the two of you have been able to build something that people still want more of even though it's ended.
MB: Yes. There's a part of me that wishes that we could just keep going forever, but then at the same time, I think it's better sometimes to just know that you've reached the right point and in the case of Fables we gave DC 16 months notice that were winding things up and it gave us the time to create that final story that we really wanted to tell because Bill realized that the big that were entering into next brought us full circle and really felt like the right moment to stop. We never wanted to be a book that people just forgot about, that people felt that our best days were behind us. For as long as we had really strong stories that we desperately wanted to tell, it was right that Fables continued. We just reached that point where we felt that this feels right. This is the time for us to say goodbye to these characters. It doesn't mean we'll never come back to them, but sometimes it's good to stop and reflect and to contemplate where you've been and what you've achieved and that was definitely the case with this point in the development of "Fables." I mean, maybe Bill disagrees, I don't know.
BW: I don't disagree.
BSR!: I want to thank you both for this incredible work of art, it's something I'm very proud to have on my shelf and something I've been proud from the beginning to foist it on unsuspecting fools who had no idea what they were getting into...
MB: We love you for that...
BW: We do appreciate that.
MB: One of the things that we've been so grateful for is that Fables readers have not just enjoyed the series themselves but they have in legion become advocates for the book and the series and for the characters and will leave copies on trains and run to their friends houses and say, "Why aren't you reading this? Have my copy, I'll buy another one." I we're very fortunate that we have that level of commitment and love for the series in our readership and I think that's been something that we've always hung on to as a very precious thing and we're very grateful to them all for that.
BSR! As a final question, is there anything that you would like people or readers or fans or people who haven't jumped into it, to know about it now that it's over.
BW: For those who have not jumped into it, it is a complete story now. You're not late to Fables. We kept it in print and will be keeping it in print for the foreseeable future. You're just in time whenever you want to dive into it, or gingerly dip your toe into it, or what have you. For the long time readers who have been with us, we hope you had a terrific time and enjoyed the story and will not feel cheated by the end.
BSR! I don't think they will be. It felt surprising but inevitable, which is exactly what you want, right?
BW: I would hope so.
Check your local comic book store for a complete run of Fables comics. Or start here if ordering on the Internet is more your speed.
Fables 150 came out last week, ending the series.