Baltimore Comic Con played host to a panel that many comic enthusiasts were sad to see come. “The Last Fables Panel” featured the creative team behind the long-running DC Comics/Vertigo series “Fables,” united for a final discussion. “Fables,” a comic which brings figures from fairy tales and folklore into our own world, has been an extremely popular entry into the world of non-superhero comic books. First published in May 2002, the series will cease publication with issue 150 in 2015. As expected, the panelists, which included series writer Bill Willingham, artist Mark Buckingham, artist Barry Kitson, artist Adam Hughes, inker Andrew Pepoy, inker Steve Leialoha, letterer Todd Klein, Former DC Vice President Paul Levtiz and DC Senior Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne answered questions and discussed their experiences in the history of the series.
The panel started with Mark Buckingham and Bill Willingham taking the stage to conduct a “sofa” style interview of their colleagues. Willingham, the series creator and writer, engaged the crowd by discussing his hopes for the final “Fables” panel, including providing treats for the attendees or a different set up. Due to Convention Center regulations, he was unable to do so, but thanked the fans present for their dedication to the book. Willingham then introduced Buckingham, the longtime artist for “Fables,” as “the greatest artist that no one has ever heard of.” The duo would act as the moderators for the panel going forward.
Buckingham started the discussion by calling on illustrator Adam Hughes, who worked on Fables spin off “Fairest” as cover artist. After opening banter, Hughes recounted how he became involved in Fables. Although Hughes and Willingham became acquainted while working for DC, Hughes had actively avoided Fables for years.
“The book laid on my pile for nine years,” Hughes said. “Then, I was asked to do a Fables commission for a friend.” After discussing the commission with his wife, Hughes decided he should read the books so that he could create a better final piece. “I started binge-reading the books. I read the first 11 trades in two days. I ate while reading. I used the bathroom while reading. I couldn’t put them down.” Upon reading “Fables,” Hughes regretted not getting involved sooner. Hughes expressed his interest in contributing art to Willingham, who decided to use his talents on “Fairest.”
Willingham mentioned that one of Hughes’ covers would not likely be shown publicly. While hesitant to discuss the cover with the end of the book coming, Hughes said he’s “fire-proof” and decided to tell the story. The sketch, originally handed in with a batch of potential sketches for covers 21-24, featured Cinderella as “the world’s greatest spy.” Inspired by covers for James Bond feature films, Hughes depicted Cinderella in her under garments being roughed up by Troll goons. The angle for the illustration was between Cinderella’s calves. She was bent at the waist, showing that she dispatched the thugs using a gun, featured in one hand, and her bra, which was shown around the neck of one of the Trolls. According to Willingham, the cover continued Hughes’ reputation, but was not in poor taste by his account. “The piece was sassy, not naughty,” said Willingham, who went on to describe how his choices for covers were usually respected, but in this instance, the cover was not used even though he chose it.
Buckingham then took charge of the discussion, characterizing Hughes’ style as playful.
“A book being terminal helps,” Hughes said. “I can’t ruin books that are already scheduled to be cancelled.” He likened it to playing a cello on the Titanic as it sinks, deciding to change up the song mid-way down.
The “Fairest” cover artist also discussed his process, addressing how much time it takes him to complete a piece. “Too much, according to my editors,” Hughes said, joking. “It really depends on the piece. If it’s Snow White battling a polar bear in snow storm, it’s pretty quick. A single piece takes about a day. A large wrap around cover takes about a month. It just depends. … I draw what I like. I like beautiful women. No one asks me to draw anything else anyways.”
After thanking Hughes for his time, Willingham called Paul Levitz, who was Vice President at DC while “Fables” was being published, to the stage. “I only work with publishers where you can get the top guy on the phone,” Willingham said. “I would call Paul once a year as a test. He always took my call.”
“I always took my calls at DC,” Levitz replied. “It was a pleasant part of the job.”
Willingham recalled that “Fables” was accepted by DC very quickly after its pitch. The next day, Willingham saw the first trailer for “Shrek.” Concerned, he went to Levitz and the executive team, requesting to have his idea pulled as it was very close to what he saw in the trailer. Levitz told him, “You’re being silly. Someone did fairy tale characters before you, remember? You’ll be different.”
Buckingham noted that Levitz “Created a supportive environment” while at DC, and asked if his time worked in the creative side of the business made it easier for him to be so supportive.
“I was influenced by being a writer and being friends with writers and artists, especially those I played poker with,” he said, further stating that he remained conscious of how difficult it can be to be creative, and that there were 450,000 books printed last year. He also noted how he saw his friends struggle, which helped guide him as a businessman and include stakeholders in his decision making.
“When Fables received the Hugo nod, I got a hand written congratulations note from Paul, which I framed, and it still sits on my desk,” Willingham said.
Barry Kitson, who worked as illustrator on “Fables,” was excited to contribute to the series, as he felt like it was a “home.” Kitson characterized Buckingham as “the nicest man in comics.”
“Many people told me this,” Kitson recalled. “I then realized we had never talked and I wondered why he hadn’t talked to me. It made me nervous.”
After a short discussion on inspirations and models, Willingham asked Kitson about his upcoming projects, which includes a project with Willingham titled “Restoration” in which gods of the past and magic return to the world on a sudden and “not good” day. “We killed two-thirds of the world’s population in the first issue,” said Kitson.
Due to time constraints, the panel was picking up speed, with Andrew Pepoy being put in the spotlight. Pepoy recounted his initial meeting with Willingham at the Chicago Comic Con 1983, where he was set up next to Willingham selling fanzines as a teen. He would continue to run into Willingham at conventions for years to come. It was due to Willingham’s slow writing schedule that he would be brought on board as a second inker for Fables.
“Andrew inks well, even when in a hurry,” Willingham said. “That’s why we kept him around.”
Pepoy then thanked Willingham for the opportunity to work on “Fables,” saying, “Bill showed up at the exact moment I was showing my portfolio to the editor. Once she saw Bill knew me, that gave me some credit.” When asked what he was doing after Fables ends, Pepoy said he would continue to ink “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” as well as continue his work on “Afterlife of Archie.”
As current DC Comics Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne took the stage, he recalled one of his first experiences with “Fables.”
“I knew Bill. When Shelly [Bond, Vertigo editor] had me read ‘Fables,’ I asked her why she was doing this to me,” said Wayne. “It was good, but it was from Bill.”
Willingham then discussed how he knew that Wayne had given “Fables” a marketing push, describing him as “The Fixer of DC.” Buckingham agreed, recalling that “Fables” #6 — Buckingham’s first as illustrator — was overprinted by 6,000 issues at Wayne’s discretion. In hindsight, this decision was important to “Fables'” success. Willingham also noted that the legal support DC gave the book was excellent, especially the research done on the rights to the characters, which is what prevented Peter Pan from being used.
It was Buckingham’s turn to call up a member of the team. He chose Steve Leialoha, who has inked many of the issues. Buckingham praised Leialoha’s consistency as an inker, smoothing over differences in artists while keeping the right look and feel.
“Artists burn out and I don’t blame them,” Willingham said. “We planned on having different artists every arc. Then [Mark] called the editor and told her it was his book.”
Bringing on Buckingham as the sole artist on the book created more consistency and enabled him and Leialoha to build a strong artist/inker relationship. Buckingham noted how different the styles were in issues 1 to 6, in comparison to his. When asked if Leialoha found it challenging to manage both styles, he replied that he was “used to it.” Willingham pointed out that Leialoha also acted as the illustrator for the Fables novel, “Peter and Max,” which was the only prose novel every published by DC. Willingham thought DC would decline the offer to publish the book, but was pleasantly surprised when they took him up on the offer.
“Illustrating books is harder than doing comics,” Leialoha said. “You can’t show what’s happening in the prose, as it’s a spoiler.”
Post-“Fables,” Leialoha said that he has some Hawaiian projects in the works and that he “wants to take a nap.”
With the panel winding down, letterer Todd Klein — the only person to work on every issue of “Fables” — was the final guest, having lettered well over 2,000 pages during his time on the comic. Willingham said that would change before the series end, as there is a project he is not supposed to announce that Klein will not be a part of. This reminded Willingham to announce that “Fables” #150, the final issue, will contain 150 pages of content, which will hold together as a single, full story. In talking about his favorite issues, Klein mentioned issue #50 and #100 as both being really fun for him. Klein’s dedication to “Fables” was lauded by the hosts. After “Fables,” Klein will continue lettering several projects for DC.
As the panel began to wind down, Willingham and Buckingham made their final comments, including how much they enjoy “Fables” weddings.
“Snow and Bigby got married the same year I did,” Buckingham said. “My wife’s dress inspired Snow’s.”
Willingham reiterated how unknown Buckingham was when he came to Fables, mainly being known for his work on “Miracleman,” which was viewed as very experimental due to all of the different styles used. The duo first collaborated on “Merv Pumpkinhead” in 2000, which lead to them working on “Fables” together. Buckingham was offered issues 1 to 6, but declined, as he didn’t want to illustrate people at the time, preferring the more organic and creature based work provided in the “Animal Farm” arc. This led to Buckingham and Leialoha earning an Eisner Award, which Willingham cited as a very emotional experience for him; Buckingham has three books in the works after “Fables,” including a new stint on “Miracleman” for Marvel, which earned applause from the crowd.
In his closing remarks, Willingham discussed how fortunate he has been, noting how many times artists worked for less money just to be a part of “Fables.” For example, celebrity Wil Wheaton provided the voice for the “Peter and Max” audiobook at a greatly reduced salary. The writer thanked the fans for being so “evangelical” about the book, saying that anecdotally he has heard that more people read an individual print issue of Fables when compared to the number of readers of any other book, thanks to their sharing of the comic, rather than just collecting it. He concluded his remarks by thanking everyone for their loyalty, both fans and colleagues alike.
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