Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Bad Doings & Big Ideas by Bill Willingham and various artists

The odds-and-soda collection has a long and glorious history, which I'm not going to get deeply into here. But I will say that in comics, and especially DC Comics, it's a way to squeeze another piece of product out of a current top performer, since that top performer probably did a bunch of random shorter stuff that can be slapped profitably between two covers.

(Previous examples of the form: The Sequential Art of Amanda Conner, DC Universe by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days and The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman. No, I don't know why Gaiman gets the definite article when creating the DC Universe, and Moore does not.)

In 2011, Bill Willingham was the biggest creator DC's Vertigo imprint had, smack in the middle of the hugely popular Fables series and spinning off sidebars mostly co-written with others (Jack of Fables, Fairest, Cinderella). But no corporation is ever happy with what it has: it always wants more.

And so, somewhere, in some office high above Manhattan, the idea of a Willingham odds-and-sods collection was born. It turned out he had a lot of DC odds, mostly related to the Neil Gaiman Sandman-verse, the previous heavyweight Vertigo champion. And it was the era of big bug-crushing omnibi, so DC was presumably happy to see they had enough to slaughter several beetles at once.

Bad Doings & Big Ideas came out at the end of 2011, collecting basically the Venn diagram of "by Bill Willingham," "from Vertigo," and "not Fables." It has over five hundred pages of comics from roughly the decade 1999-2009, including three graphic-novel length stories (of six, four, and four issues each), three more full-issue stories, and eight more shorter pieces. It has both a general (though short) introduction by Willingham and notes on each story, along with detailed who-did-what credits for every story and a detailed table of contents. And it was all wrapped up in a new James Bennett cover, which is good and eye-catching and yet makes me wonder if Willingham offered to make a cover himself and was let down gently. (On the other hand, I don't think Willingham has ever been a painter, and a book like this just looks classier with a fully-painted cover rather than a drawn-and-colored one. So maybe it was even his idea.)

The first big story is Proposition Player, a comics series drawn mostly by Paul Guinan (it started off as an all-Willingham joint, which lasted not quite halfway through the first issue) about a professional poker player who gets mixed up with the supernatural in a very Vertigo way. It was intended to be an ongoing series, but the market did not agree, so it got just the initial six issues to set up the premise and has sat dormant ever since. It's a decent set-up, with that core Willingham cruelty baked in around the edges, but, in retrospect, might not have given as much scope for additional stories that Fables did, just three years later.

The second and third big stories are the two "Thessaly" miniseries, about an ancient witch who showed up in Sandman and walked out of that series still alive and mostly untouched, which was rare. Shawn McManus, who also worked on Sandman, illustrated those two stories, which are a little bit too tight and plotty for their own good: Willingham throws out hooks for things he doesn't have space to reel in, but the stories themselves are solid in that neo-horror Sandman style.

And then the rest is partly comedy (a one-shot about Merv Pumpkinhead as a "spy" in the real world) partly horror (several of the shorter pieces), partly already odds-and-sods (a one-short with multiple artists called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Dreams But Were Afraid to Ask), and then partly more-or-less just adventure stories ("The Further Adventures of Danny Nod, Heroic Library Assistant," from the miscellaneous book The Dreaming). Some of the short pieces I didn't call out specifically fit into multiple of those categories, or not clearly into any -- there's a short series of backups from House of Mystery that seem to be mostly "Willingham gets to work with artists he loves and has never collaborated with before."

It is miscellaneous; that's the point. And it's very much for the audience of people who found Willingham through the Fables door and want more kinda like that. (People who found Willingham through the Elementals door are older, crabbier, and still waiting for our collection.) Whether that's much of an audience a decade later, I can't say: I was vaguely looking for this for several years, finally found it cheap, and then it sat on the shelf for a while after that. I am happy I finally found and then read it, though: I'd missed Proposition Player at the time (pretty much everyone did) and didn't even know about most of the short stuff.

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