Interview: Mark Buckingham On Dead Boy Detectives and the End of Fables

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Last November DC announced that its Vertigo title Fables is coming to an end next year with issue #150. The epic saga began over a decade ago in 2002, and it, along with various spin-off titles, has become a major hit, attracting many fans who weren’t comic book readers before. Mark Buckingham has been one of the book’s biggest artists throughout its run. At Emerald City Comicon 2014, we talked to him about the series’ end. We also discussed his work on the new series Dead Boy Detectives featuring Edwin Paine and Charles Roland, two ghosts originally introduced in Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series in 1991.

Alan Kistler (TMS): We’ve got a year until the end of Fables. Looking back, has this journey met what you wanted to accomplish?

Mark Buckingham: Oh, yes. It’s sad to end things. But mostly, it’s been an absolute delight. The only doubt I think we had in the early days was whether or not the audience was there for us and would stay long enough for us to tell our story. We also had a planned ending and we did talk several times about it, but it was always a year off or so. There was always another next big story that could fit in before the end point. We’ve had an embarrassment of riches that the fans were willing to stick with us and watch this epic unfold.

We started with a core cast but became a multi-generational story. We’ve seen glimpses of second and third generation characters and things to come. That’s been extraordinary. The fact that we’re working in our own universe and are largely left alone has definitely worked to our favor. And we’ve been able to exploit and explore that universe through other titles. So we don’t ever feel like we’ve let a character disappear. If Cinderella isn’t in Fables, that’s because she’s on a mission in her own book.

TMS: Cinderella’s definitely my favorite of the tie-ins. It’s hard to imagine now what it would have been like without the spin-off books, when the cast of the core title kept growing and growing each year. Was that design or necessity?

Buckingham: By about the fifth year of the series, we wound up with something like 300 cast members. And you have to do a juggling act to keep them all on stage. I remember saying to [creator] Bill [Willingham], how are we ever going to get to everyone? We have two or three major plot points in each arc. We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate from the amount of support and investment that DC and Vertigo have placed in us by letting us explore the universe through the other books. They’ve done a lot to help us develop the fanbase and be accessible. That’s been wonderful throughout our run.

TMS: What I’ve really enjoyed about the related titles is that each has its own atmosphere, even though they’re obviously taking place in the same universe. Was that a plan from the start or just how the books naturally evolved with their creative teams?

Buckingham: Those differences were definitely important to have. The personalities of certain characters are so strong that they need their own stories and they almost dictate how their tales will be told. I was so delighted when Bill moved Jack out of the main series because I found him revolting. Then everyone who worked on his book, they gave it such a distinctive flavor that it became its own universe and they filled it with new characters. Every time we try to open a window to give ourselves more breathing space, we find a huge cavern full of stuff. It’s been an amazing trip to follow these different paths. So it’s part planning, part surprise.

TMS: Have there been any surprises or unexpected challenges for you personally along the way?

Buckingham: It’s a good question. Juggling so many characters, like I said, was a task. But there’s not been a lot of difficulty. It’s more that there’s been a lot of artistic delight. The fact that there were so many interesting female characters in the story, that’s something I’ve been craving. I’ve always enjoyed finding these women that have a presence and a strength of will that readers could identify with and enjoy their journey. Cinderella and Rose and Snow White and others. Some of them have qualities that make them difficult to love, like Frau Kinder. But she has a journey you get to enjoy being a part of and you see that she doesn’t like the path that she’s on and what changes.

TMS: It also must help attract a larger readership rather than the typically targeted male audience. Many other comics don’t feature women as prominently or as interestingly as men.

Buckingham: I sometimes think a lot of the male characters wind up being sidekicks to these interesting women of the core cast, and that’s been a wonderful thing. I think that’s why I see so many women readers and why many have used Fables as their entry point into comics. It’s told in a classic storytelling style that’s accessible. You don’t have to know any other comic book stories that came before it. And it deals with things we encounter in our lives, but Bill gives the stories and relationships unique twists to explore in a very exciting and demanding way. It becomes a soap opera type situation the way we really get into the lives of these characters. I’ve loved so much being a part of it.

TMS: Switching gears to Dead Boy Detectives. Edwin Paine and Charles Roland were introduced in the Sandman story “Seasons of Mist.” Since then, they’ve shown up in crossovers, short stories, their own mini-series, and now the new on-going series you’re writing with Toby Litt. They seem ironically named since they never stay gone. What is it about these two ghost children investigators that makes us refuse to let them rest?

Buckingham: Neil just hit it so right with Sandman #25. He just perfectly encapsulated these two boys from different times, they lived and died almost a hundred years apart from each other, but they attended the same school and faced bullies and then found kindred spirits in each other that they wanted to hang onto. And that was powerful enough for them to stand up to Death and not go back. They wanted to stay in this world to explore and to experience a life that was denied them because their physical lives were cut short so soon. I think that really gets to the reader. You feel their pain, you can identify with their sense of loss and their desire to investigate mysteries and to try to grow up while simultaneously remaining these wide-eyed innocent boys who want to explore and discover what the world’s all about.

TMS: How are you and Toby making the current series different from the mini-series and short stories that have been published before?

Buckingham: I’ve enjoyed all their stories that came since they appeared in Sandman #25. We’ve had these glimpses of them along the way and they’ve all been quite different, which sort of goes along with the fact that they’ve all been short stories. We got these capers that were resolved and then we forget the dead boys for a while. But now we get to really explore the boys through an ongoing series. We can explore what makes them tick, and not just what binds them together but where the fracture lines lie for that could make their friendship crumble.

TMS: You’ve also got a new character joining the duo, a tech nerd named Crystal.

Buckingham: Crystal’s part of what exposes the fracture lines and makes the boys examine their relationship. On the one hand, she opens doors for them. She’s allowing them to discover the internet and technology that can assist them in finding out stuff about the cases they’re working but also information about themselves. What happened to their bodies, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, she’s such a personality in herself and she’s brought chaos into their lives. She’s highlighting their differences and they’re going to think long and hard about the road that they’re on and how they contrast. It’s a wonderful opportunity to push their story into a positive direction. I think people will like it.

Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and freelance writer. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History.

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