Years before the Once Upon A Time and Grimm television shows, a comic book series called Fables by Bill Willingham brought fairy tale characters into a gritty, contemporary setting. Fables beget several spin-off comic book series and Matthew Sturges is one of the writers behind two of them: Jack Of Fables and The Wolf Among Us. The latter is co-written with David Justus, who also wrote the popular IOS game, Lifeline. It was recently cited by Matt Vella of Time magazine as “the first game I’ve loaded on my [Apple] Watch that is not only fun to play, but fun to play specifically on a wearable."
In the Jack of Fables, Sturges pulled off the remarkable feat of making the title character—a greedy, self-serving, arrogant jerk—strangely lovable. You might wonder which “Jack” from the fables he is, as there are several. The answer: all of them, including Jack In The Beanstalk, Jack Frost and Little Jack Horner. The series ended with issue number 50 in March 2011.
Fables is reaching its own end with issue number 150, set to be released on July 28. It will be a 160-page trade paperback extravaganza. The final tales of some of the major characters, including Jack and popular break-out character, Babe the Blue Ox, have already been told in the back pages. Babe’s last story was in issue 143 while Jack’s tale finished out in an appropriately absurd way in issue 147. Sturges wrote both.
Sturges and Justus are helping the Fables world live on for a time in the pages of The Wolf Among Us, a companion series to the popular video game by Telltale Games. It’s a prequel to Fables that follows Bigby Wolf as he solves a murder mystery. (The name Bigby Wolf is a hint that he is, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf of lore in human guise.)
Sturges and Justus had previously worked together on other projects. When Sturges had concerns about the intense workload and deadlines for The Wolf Among Us, he asked for Justus to be brought in to co-author the series. We caught up with both authors at the Comicpalooza convention and talked about their current work and what's coming next. Sturges also shared some perspectives on Jack of Fables.
Houston Press: How did The Wolf Among Us come about?
Matthew Sturges: I don’t think anyone foresaw that being a good idea, but when Telltale Games licensed the series, I think everyone at DC [Comics] thought, “Well, maybe they’ll make a nice game and we’ll make a little money and everyone will be happy.” But, I don’t think anyone expected the game to be as good or as well-received as it was. People absolutely adore the game. There were plenty of people—and we’ve been meeting them [here at Comicpalooza] all weekend—who barely knew Fables as a comic book existed before there was a game called The Wolf Among Us.
HP: Interesting. So, it’s like you reached a different audience.
MS: It’s an entirely new audience. So, DC saw that and said, “Hey, that’s an entirely new comic book readership, so maybe we can attract them by offering them something that they know,” which is The Wolf Among Us.
They came to me and asked if I would do it and I said, “I would, but only if I can bring Dave in to write it with me. It’s a very big project that’s a digital book that comes out every single week for an entire year. There was no way I was going to do it by myself.
HP: All of the episodes of the game have finally been released. For people who didn’t want the game to be over, this is a way to continue with the fun.
MS: It’s sort of a retelling of the story within the game, but we’ve added a lot of extra content, backstory and things about the characters now in the game. We have more room to play around and don’t have to sit there and hit “Q” [on a keyboard] over and over again to try and make anything happen. We can just make things happen. It’s a companion piece to the game is the best way to think of it and it’s for the person who has never played the game and isn’t going to.
HP: Dave, tell me how you got involved.
David Justus: So, as Matthew said, he was offered the job and just felt like his schedule wasn’t going to accommodate it. He was lamenting that in front of me and I very flippantly said, “Well, I’ll do it!” A couple of weeks later, he called me up and said, “Are you serious?” At that point, I was nobody and had no career to speak of, so I said, “Yes, of course! Of course I’ll do it!”
So, he was able to talk to the editor and say, “I’d really like to do this and I’d like to do this with my writing partner if that’s an okay thing.” Fortunately, I’d done a tiny bit of work for Vertigo [comics] and they had me in their Rolodex so they were like, “Sure, we’ll give it a shot.”
MS: The way we really know each other well is because we worked on a comic that’s coming out later this year called Public Relations that we’ve been working on quite some time. That’s how we became writing partners and it was quite a natural fit to ask Dave to work with me on this.
HP: How many issues is The Wolf Among Us going to run?
JP: We’re doing 48 digital chapters and each issues collects three of those, so it should run sixteen print issues. There will be two gigantic trade [paperbacks] as well.
HP: Tell me about the new comic, Public Relations.
MS: It is coming from Devil’s Due/First Comics this fall. The art is by David Hahn.
DJ: It’s a workplace comedy where the workplace is a castle. We pitched it as Arrested Development meets The Princess Bride, or, as we’ve been saying, “It’s Always Sunny In Westeros.” It’s a dark comedy in a fantasy kingdom.
HP: That sounds like a lot of fun. How many issues will it be and when’s it coming?
MS: We know the first five issues are coming out all at once as an arc. There are 13 issues that are done. At some point, all of those will come out. It’s intended to be an ongoing series.
HP: Are there other projects you are working on that we should know about?
MS: There’s another series we’re working on called Muirwood: The Lost Abbey that we’re doing for Amazon Publishing.
DJ: Jet City [Comics], which is Amazon’s comic imprint.
MS: It’s an adaptation of a story from Jeff Wheeler’s Muirwood series—a very popular fantasy series that Amazon publishes.
DJ: It’s like a bridge between two different novel trilogies, so it serves as the interim tale between the two. They’re producing it digitally and then will collect it in time for print for the first novel of the series to come out.
MS: David is also the author of the IOS game Lifeline. It was the number one game in the App Store recently. It’s an interactive fiction story about an astronaut who is stuck on the moon. It’s gotten a lot of great press and that’s been great for Dave.
HP: (To Matthew Sturges) You’re very well known for Jack of Fables. At the end of issue #147 of Fables, there was the very last tale of Jack.
MS: There were a couple of little things Bill [Willingham] let me do, just to be nice. Bill and I had for a long time planned to do a Babe the Blue Ox one-shot. We spent a weekend together at Bill’s house working on it and were just never happy with what we came up with, so we kind of tossed it out.
When Bill knew he was wrapping up Fables, he let me write the last Babe the Blue Ox story [in issue #143] and the last Jack story. I think we gave Jack a sendoff appropriate to Jack.
HP: I thought that was a good ending. It was appropriately ridiculous. The character is so interesting because he’s such a jerk but you can’t help but kind of love this guy.
MS: You kind of root for him. I think the reason is because Jack is the male id completely unrestrained by ego or conscience. He just wants things and sets about getting them. He’s kind of a sociopath, so he doesn’t care what he has to do but he has this strange code of honor about things. He won’t do anything that offends his code so there’s a moment in the "March Of The Wooden Soldiers" arc in Fables where he defiantly stands up to these wooden soldiers who beat the crap out of his because the way they’re going about things.
So, there’s a combination of this strange sense of honor and this don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that makes him so charming.
HP: It’s like he has no conscience about a lot of things but he’s not evil.
MS: No, he’s not evil. He just wants what he wants and has no regrets. Wouldn’t it be nice to have no regrets?
HP: Jack of Fables was one of the most popular characters and that series ended. After having written that character for so long, was that a sad thing or were you ready to move on at that point anyway?
MS: It’s always sad when you see that last issue on the stands. You think, “Should we have done more? Could we have done more? Were there other stories we could have told?” But I think you just know. About a year before the book ended, I met Bill in New York for something. We were sitting in Bill’s hotel room and I said, “I wonder if we should end Jack Of Fables,” and he said, “Yeah, I was going to say the same thing.” I think you just know when something has had its time. You want to stop before you’re not excited about it anymore. That would be a terrible feeling, for something you’ve had so much fun with to feel like a chore. You would never want to have your name on something like that.
HP: (To David Justus) Is there anything else you’d like for the Houston Press readers to know about you, your projects or anything else?
DJ: There will be more games in the Lifeline series coming out. The first game is in the process of being ported over for Android, so there will be an Android market soon. Lifeline Two, Three and beyond will be coming out later this year. I’d love for people to pick those up because I’ve had a lot of fun working with the 3 Minute Games guys. Creating those has been a blast and if they’re half as much fun to play as they’ve been to write, I think people will enjoy them.
I’d also love for people to pick up Public Relations and tell their comic book shop owners about it because it’s a smaller press book and those need all the help they can get.
HP: What kind of gamer would most enjoy the Lifeline games?
DJ: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing and I’m saying this as a non-gamer. One of the things that comes up constantly in the reviews that people are posting in the App Store is that it feels like you’re getting texts from a friend. You establish a relationship with the character very quickly and then your phone will buzz. You check it and it’s like getting a message from a friend. It’s very much a text-based thing. You don’t have to be an accomplished gamer.
MS: And it takes place over the course of several days, so when the character is off doing something, you have to wait. He’s out and you go live your life and then the next day you’ll hear [a new text message come in] and say “Oh, it’s from Taylor!” Its really exciting. I love playing the game. It’s so much fun.
HP: How’s Comicpalooza been for you?
DJ: It’s been really nice. It’s been a steady but not overwhelming stream of interest from people. With any comic convention, there’s going to be all kinds of people. There are going to be the people who are deeply involved in what you’ve done and have a million questions. Those people are great to talk to.
Then, there are going to be people who have never heard of what you’re doing and want to talk to you about it. Those people are great to talk to, too, because you get a chance to sell yourself.
MS: Then there are those people who want to know where the bathroom is. Those people are also great to talk to, because that’s a question we can answer!
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DJ: I know where the bathroom is, so I feel like we can help them! It’s been good. The space is amazing and to have aisles that people can walk down and not have this sense of being shoulder-to-shoulder all the time—
MS: And [Comicpalooza has] some of the friendliest, most lovely organizers I’ve ever encountered.
HP: (To Matthew Sturges): Same question I asked David earlier: is there anything else you’d like for the Houston Press readers to know about you, your work and your projects?
MS: All the things that Dave said, plus I have a new graphic novel called, The Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a book I wrote that was illustrated by John Lucas and it’s coming out hopefully next year. It’s also published by Devil’s Due/First Comics. That is a story of four Norse warriors, one of whom is a fighter pilot in the Afghan War who dies and realizes he’s the last true Norse warrior. Him and these other three guys break out of Valhalla to go look for chicks because there are no girls there. Wackiness ensues. It’s a dark comedy about men and women and religion and the things we wish were true.