FABLETOWN AND BEYOND: A TALE IN THREE-PLUS-ACTS
At one of the Fabletown and Beyond panels — sometime early Saturday morning — “Unwritten” (and “Lucifer” and “X-Men: Legacy” and “Crossing Midnight” and more) writer Mike Carey mentioned that when he teaches writing workshops, he doesn’t even teach the three-act structure anymore. Or he teaches that it’s not something to worry about. “Start writing the story and let it find its own shape,” I’m totally paraphrasing from what he may or may not have exactly said.
I know Van Jensen and Chris Roberson riffed on what he talked about, where the former advocated for the simplicity of the three-act structure’s “beginning, middle, end” essence but the latter discussed that the beginning, middle, and end don’t even have to be in that order, and he cited a brilliant Warhammer novel by Kim Newman that shattered all the structural rules that you’re taught when you hang out at the Robert McKee ranch.
Inspired by all of this heady conversation and enthusiasm for breaking the structural rules, I’ll recap my experiences at Fabletown and Beyond in any order I damn well please. I’m not bound by your structural rules, Syd Field. Joseph Campbell, your quest narrative can sit quietly on the musty shelves for now. Back off, Campbell, and Field, and McKee, and Dan Harmon, and Vladimir Propp. If you dare.
Act One: The Call to Adventure!
My wife keeps a practically non-existent internet profile, and she likes it that way. But we wouldn’t have gone to Fabletown and Beyond had she not been so excited to attend, so I have to include her in this story. It was she who sat in the audience at a series of Bill Willingham panels at Heroes Con in 2012 and heard the announcement of this thing called “Fabletown and Beyond” which was to be a smallish gathering of like-minded “Mythic Fiction” readers and creators scheduled for the wintry Minnesota spring of 2013.
She really wanted to go.
My wife has never really wanted to go to anything comics-related. She has humored me, and helped run my table at last year’s Heroes Con because (a) she loves to travel, and (b) she loves talking to people, and (c) she loves any kind of challenge thrown in front of her — and selling books to uninterested people is a challenge. And when we go to New York for the convention, it’s because she loves to run around trying to score freebies and enter contests. She plays the world like a massive game show. It’s like she’s on a special version of “The Amazing Race” whenever she leaves the house. This version doesn’t have any cameras pointed at her. And prize money isn’t at stake. But she’ll give it her all.
And because “Fables” is the one comic she reads regularly — and because she loved Bill Willingham’s charm and humor when she saw him at Heroes Con — she knew she had to get herself to “Fabletown and Beyond.” A quest was born.
Act One Point Five: The Impossible Quest!
But how would she get there? It was thousands of miles away (well, hundreds). And it was in the middle of March!
With an impossible series of challenges in front of us, I did what needed to be done. I ordered tickets…online! And made hotel reservations. And bought plane tickets. And we took personal days.
2013 really takes the thrill out of the quest, it turns out. You just click buttons and email people and then it’s all set. But even though no challenges stood in our way, we never gave up.
Act Negative Zero: The Origin of Fabletown and Beyond!
I don’t really know the exact story about how this unique mini-convention originated, but between what people mentioned when they gave speeches and what I heard from some of the volunteers running the show, the genesis of Fabletown went something like this: Bill Willingham (and his friends) wanted to do a convention that didn’t have all the terrible things that have taken over so many other conventions: loud Hollywood or video game nonsense, crushing crowds waiting in lines, panels that were filled with hype or nothing but joke answers to continuity questions. They took what they liked about conventions — meeting people and having conversations and going to the bar — and turned it into a convention all its own.
The “Mythic Fiction” aspect was a way to provide a theme for the weekend, and it wasn’t a neglected topic, but Fabletown and Beyond wasn’t just a bunch of goth Disney princess cosplayers hanging around with guys who dressed up like grungy versions of Link. It was a group of folks representing a range of ages and interests. I met musicians interested in classic pulp magazines and retired soldiers who liked Batman and Mouse Guard. I met folks who do MMO podcasts and teenagers who love webcomics that I don’t understand. There were puppeteers and publishers and novelists and composers and artists and Kurt Busiek and a guy named Dennis who didn’t read comics at all but was just letting his friends crash at his place.
Dennis was useless in the trivia competition, but so were we. Though my wife did take home the bronze medal in the scavenger hunt, so show some respect.
But whatever the origin of Fabletown and Beyond — and organizers Bill Willingham and Stephanie Cooke and Brad Thomte and Stacy Sinner did great things behind the scenes, and throughout the convention, to make it work — it was a stellar experience. Imagine a convention where it’s just you and only about 500 people total, and a dozen or so interesting comic book creators, and your spend your days bouncing from listening to thoughtful, often funny, conversations on panels to having thoughtful, funny, conversations with some of those same people, to a well-stocked bar with an overflow room and enough seating for everyone, to an occasional song from Gene Ha or a comedy riff from Bill Willingham and back again. Oh, and a pool party where Mark Buckingham will spike the beach ball at your face.
Act Two: Voyage into the Unknown World!
Mark Buckingham just spiked a beach ball in your face, kid.
Act Zero Minus Thirty: Bill Willingham, Gamer!
Once I knew we were going to Fabletown and Beyond, I had to prepare the only way I knew how: by obsessively fixating on something kind of irrelevant.
While my wife read “The Unwritten” in preparation for meeting Mike Carey and Peter Gross (who were, by the way, wonderful to talk to, even if it was only briefly), I realized that there was only one way to truly prepare for a Bill-Willingham-centric show: I had to dust off the 1980s Villains & Vigilantes books and run my family through “Death Duel with the Destroyers” and “The Island of Doctor Apocalypse.” I convinced my wife that she had to create a character, along with my kids, and play in these two adventures that Willingham wrote and drew in his pre-Fables, pre-Sandman-spin-off, pre-Eros-Comics, pre-even-Elementals years. They were the only two role-playing game adventures ever written by Willingham. We owed him, and the role-playing game industry, and America, the honor of playing in these two modules.
The thing about Villains & Vigilantes, one of the first-ever superhero roleplaying games, is that you create yourself as a superhero. You use your real name as your hero’s alter ego. You use your estimation of your real physical and mental attributes to determine your hit points. And then you get a bunch of random powers. So we created the Callahan family as squad of superheroes — a mom and dad and two young kids. Like the Incredibles, but more ridiculous. While my daughter recreated herself as “Sky,” the flying young heroine with the illusion-casting powers and amulet of disintegration, and my son was the telekinetic “Astral Avenger” complete with an energy sword, and my wife was “Shockira,” lass of lightning, I was the sonic-powered “Boom Box,” with the uncanny ability to mimic any noise and blast a wall of sound and breakdance on cue.
Led by the Astral Avenger — my son clearly took charge on the adventure to uncover the hidden base of Doctor Apocalypse and stop the vile villain from destroying the cities of Earth — we squeezed Ratman for some intel, escaped from the headquarters of the Destroyers, borrowed a rocket-plane from the agents of F.I.S.H. and flooded the undersea transport tubes of the foul Apocalypse before confronting the master villain in an epic battle atop Nacht Island’s highest mountain. Shockira and Sky were knocked unconscious. Boom Box breakdanced without joy. The Astral Avenger saved the day.
That’s how we prepared for Fabletown and Beyond. Whether they liked it or not. (They kind of liked it, even if my wife will tell you that she never wants to play in a role-playing game again.)
Act Zero Minus Thirty Plus Thirty Two-and-a-Quarter: Art and Army!
Before Bill Willingham wrote “Death Duel with the Destroyers” and “The Island of Doctor Apocalypse,” and before he started working at TSR drawing cool pictures for Dungeons & Dragons (and this was decades before “Fables,” of course), he played more D&D than almost anyone on the planet.
At Fabletown, my wife and I got to meet Jack and Mike, two of the guys Bill Willingham played D&D with in the 1970s, while the three of them were in the army, stationed in Germany. They had to be on call for hours on end, but calls rarely came, so they spent their time playing D&D. As they tell it, they’d sometimes (maybe even often) play for fifteen or twenty hours at a time, on call in these old German castles, with candles lighting the throw of the dice. Willingham drew sketches of their characters, and after one of their early games in 1978, he came back the next day with a pencil illustration of his friend Mike’s character in the midst of a battle they’d just experienced. Titled “Berserker Among the Kobolds,” it’s one of the earliest examples of Willingham’s work, and it’s a classic example of the style he would soon officially employ in service of TSR’s lineup. The reason I know this is because, after telling us these stories, Mike came in to Fabletown the next day with his collection of old Willingham drawings. He had saved them for the past 35 years, these artifacts of Willingham’s D&D games from the army days. Knowing my wife was a passionate Bill Willingham fan (even if she did loathe role-playing games), Mike generously gave her one of Willingham’s pre-TSR ink drawings from the 1970s, an image of an insectoid creature with a spear, striking down a noble hero. It’s now the coolest piece of original artwork we have in the house.
Act Three: Fabletown Ain’t Forever!
After three days in Minnesota, we had to leave to return to real life. We’d spent the extended weekend having wonderful conversations with Chris Roberson and Allison Baker (even when the cheesy cover band tried to drown us out at the restaurant), getting to know Peter Krause and Mitch Gerads and Matt Sturges and Sean Williams, becoming friends with some of Bill Willingham’s old pals, meeting Gene Ha and Mark Buckingham and Lauren Beukes and Kurt Busiek and Peter Gross and Mike Carey for the first time, and just generally enjoying a convention that was basically a three-day casual party punctuated by worthwhile scheduled events.
I don’t know where the conversations ended up, since we had to leave before the final hours of Fabletown and Beyond, but there was talk of the show continuing in some form in future years, with the “…and Beyond” part of the brand sticking around with a new host every time. It’s hard to imagine the experience without Bill Willingham’s presence at the center, though. It’s not that the show needed its Mythic Fiction theme to be as successful as it was, since that was really just the flavor. What was more important was the tone Bill Willingham set for the weekend, accompanied by the delightful Mark Buckingham playing the role as the Guest of Honor. From their mostly-rehearsed, but-also-completely-kind-of-improvised opening addresses throughout every hour of the convention, Willingham and Buckingham let everyone know that this was a show unlike any other. Not because of what they said (though they were both relentlessly charming), but because of how they did everything: with an attitude of generosity and kindness and a sense that comics aren’t products but rather experiences for people to share. And in celebrating these shared experiences, we were able to share a new experience called Fabletown and Beyond.
You probably should have gone. You might have seen my tribute to Aquaman.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.