The Best Band In The World: Mark Buckingham On The End Of ‘Fables’ [Interview]
Mark Buckingham’s art hasn’t just made Fables a classic — it has made it, and comics in general, accessible to reluctant readers the world over. His work on the long-running Vertigo series chronicling the lives of exiled fairy tale characters is simple, but never simplistic, and visually strong without ever sacrificing complexity. From Buckingham’s pen flow wooden soldiers of truly oaken resolve, smart-mouthed witches, rumpled detectives and alcoholic, anthropomorphic pigs, all living and loving in the little slice of New York City they’ve made their own.
Buckingham has helped propel the Bill Willingham-written series to the bestseller lists over and over again, inspired decadent cosplay and made Fables the kind of work that’s beloved by your bag-and-boarding friends and your mom alike. Now, as the story nears its end, Buckingham is preparing to say goodbye the world he so richly imagined. ComicsAlliance found him at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss the fond farewell and what the future holds.
ComicsAlliance: You’ve been working on Fables for over twelve years now. How does it feel to look back? You’ve been with these characters and working with Bill Willingham for so long.
Mark Buckingham: Well, you know I’ve spent half my career on this one book, and so much has changed in my life since then — I got married, lived in Spain for a few years, now I’m in London; a lot of moves, a lot of change. So I’m very aware that it’s been a long period of time, but even so, the years do rush by, so sometimes it’s hard to believe that its been that long.
I was very fortunate [before Fables], working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman and Death and Miracleman and things like that. And I’ve worked with Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan and Jamie Delano, and all sorts of wonderful talents over the years. I’ve always had a great deal of luck in this business. You know, [editor] Shelly [Bond] and Bill [Willingham] and I worked together back in 2000, I think it was, with Merv Pumpkinhead.
That was such a great key moment for me and my career, being introduced to Bill and seeing how well we worked together . There was this instant synergy between us that just felt right.
CA: Does it feel weird to prepare to say goodbye to these characters after so long?
MB: Oh, definitely. I keep saying to people, I’m sort of the continuity cop on this book. I’ve been the one that’s been holding all of this stuff in my brain all these years. So, I’m usually the one that has to remind Bill, “Oh, we haven’t finished that plot with that character yet.” Or, “What are we gonna do about so-and-such?”
So to be actually letting go of them all is going to be really tough. Although, it might be useful, because now I’ll start to remember the names of some of my friends, and birthdays, and other bits of information that I’ve actually been jettisoning for years in order to just cram all the nonsense into my head.
CA: Did you develop any favorite characters over the years, or least favorite characters?
MB: Well, I mean, favorites definitely. Flycatcher remains a dear favorite of mine. Pinocchio, Boy Blue; that gang I fell in love with straight away. Rose Red, to the extent that Rose Red is, in appearance, my wife, Emma. She became that character. And all the animal characters! I absolutely love everything about that aspect of the book.
To be honest, the only ones I tend to dislike are the handsome men, which is why I keep trying to kill them off or have them move to their own book. I was the one that said to Bill, “You know, Jack, he’s an egomaniac. Maybe he should go off and make films and try to improve his power through popularity?” And that allowed him to have his own book, and for me to get rid of him. And then I wanted to kill Prince Charming. I had a hit list.
CA: How do you feel you’ve grown or changed as an artists over the course of Fables?
MB: Oh, dramatically. I think, as an artist, it’s good to have new challenges and it’s good to sort of flit around and try different things. But, to be honest with you, the real development comes over time, and investing in something so that you refine and develop your art to an ultimate degree.
I think with Fables it was an interesting sort of journey. I was quite intense in the early days and I played around a lot with textures and tones and things like that. And then, as I seriously developed, I started refining all of those design elements down, and that’s where we ended up, with the little strips on the side of the page. And that became, through a process of development over the first two or three years, the kind of key defining thing. When you see a Fables page, you know what it is because of that.
CA: I know Bill Willingham is also an artist and you traded duties on issue #100, I believe?
CA: What is it like working with an artist? Does he have a specific visual in mind? How much creative freedom do you get? What do you look for in a writer to work with?
MB: One of the reasons I worked with Bill so much is that he is just the ultimate story teller. He doesn’t cram too much in, and he has this sense of space and moments, and he knows exactly how to hit those kind of emotional beats in the story, so for an artist that’s a dream. I mean, you just know that there is a rhythm there that is going to make sense and be easy to follow.
You know, some writers can be really insanely rich and sort of overly complex in some places and give you acres of space [in others], and you don’t quite know why. With Bill there is consistency and a strength that really carries the stories through.
CA: What do you think Fables brought to the comics world that was unique? What do you think its lasting legacy will be?
MB: I think one of the most important things about Fables is the extent to which it’s brought new female readers into the industry. It was always important to me that I reach out to as wide of an audience as possible, and I think Fables, more than anything, was always going to have that possibility. We were taking iconic childhood characters, fairy tale characters that everyone has some understanding of even if they’ve never read a comic, and giving them a new context, fusing them together in an interesting way.
There’s quite a strong soap opera element to what we do. There’s a lot of emphasis on the relationships between the strong female protagonists in the series. For a female audience, and especially for people coming in to comics fresh, it’s something that’s very open and easy for them to step into. Then once they start to get to know these characters, they get so lost in the story, in wanting to find out what happens next, that we bring those readers with us.
For my part, I’ve tried very hard to give the style and the approach to it a really classic, clean storytelling technique. I don’t do a lot of weird visual tricks. I wanted this to be a very accessible book.
And it worked! It means the world to me the number of times I’m at a panel or convention and someone comes up to me and they’ll say, “Fables was the very first comic I read.” Or maybe they’ll say, “My husband,” — or boyfriend, or brother — “was really into comics and he kept trying to get me in, and then I found Fables.”
CA: How do you feel about comics in general since you started Fables? You’re really unique, in that you have this incredible long stretch of time where you were a fixed point in a turning industry.
MB: I think we’re in an interesting moment, and not just in terms of the diversity that’s taking place in the range of books and comics that are out there. It’s been wonderful the way all the independent publishers have been rising up; the amount of indie work and really out-there projects that now have a home.
Certainly digital comics has made a huge different. It’s created the level playing field. You can be home, penniless but if you can get internet access and you’ve got a piece of paper and a pen or access to a tablet, you can create a strip and get it out there. I think that’s been the most healthy and wonderful transition in this business — that’s now, suddenly, if you have an idea, or a talent, you can just get yourself out there. You’re not having to convince a publisher to take a risk on you. You can prove to people what you can do it just on your own. I think that’s magical.
CA: Where there any particular challenges you faced in creating Fables and sustaining it over such a length of time?
MB: No, the amazing things about Fables is the strength and integrity in the team. We have bonded together. I think what works to our advantage is, it’s an incredibly professional group of creators, and we all have longevity and well established careers.
[Inker] Steve Leialoha has been in the business for thirty-blah-blah years and he’s an incredible artist. [Inker] Andrew Pepoy, [letterer] Todd Klein — the most incredible letterer in the business. Shelly Bond is a wonderful editor who’s been working at Vertigo for twenty years. I worked with her at the moment she arrived there, and she had a relationship working with Bill going back to the early days. We’re people who are very grounded and really understand the business. There’s a great sense of communication and support that goes on within the team that’s really just bound us together.
In this modern world people tend to be on a book for four or five issues and then they’re gone. They’ve always got their eye on something; “Oh, that looks like fun,” or, “I want to do this.” They may be be worrying about their profile, or just wanting to be seen to be doing lots of stuff. For me, I felt like I was in The Beatles. I felt like I was in the best band in the world, and I wasn’t going to be the one that broke them up. I think that was really important to the stability of this book.
CA: What’s in the future for you? Anything you’re planning or would like to do?
MB: Right now I’m juggling three books at DC. We’re working through our final year of Fables, I’m writing [Fables spin-off] Fairest, which is exciting for me. I actually have my own book that I’m guiding now.
I’m also doing the Dead Boy Detectives book for Vertigo as well, so that’s a lot of work, and it’s keeping me very busy. Next year I’m going to be running off to Marvel to work with Neil Gaiman again after 20 years to finish our Miracleman series. So that’ll be a year’s worth of work.
After that? Who knows. I’m always talking to DC about other projects. I’m pretty sure that Shelly Bond has got me on a very tight leash and won’t let me stray too far. I’m going to be back in Vertigo doing something very soon, I’m sure. I want to write and draw and just get some more of my own ideas out there as well. That’s really the next target for me, to see what fresh projects I can create, and try and find the next thing that will be the next Fables.