Bill Willingham on "Fables" vs "Once Upon A Time"

[Editor's Note: There's been some confusion in the reaction to this piece: the below interview was conducted by Bill Willingham with Bill Willingham. It is an editorial done in Q&A format, conducted by the author.]

For those of you who just came in, let's start with some of the basics. "Once Upon a Time" is a weekly TV series showing on the ABC television network. It's just over a month old now, having aired four episodes by the time of this writing. It was created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis.

"Fables" is a monthly comic book series, published by Vertigo Comics. It's ten years old now, having published 111 regular issues along with about 60 various offshoots and specials by the time of this writing. It was created by Bill Willingham, the author of this essay.

Both series explore the notion of popular fable, folklore and fairytale characters, native to a fantasy medieval setting, but still living today in modern day America. Let's discuss.

So let's dive right in to the deep end. Is "Once Upon a Time" (which we should now refer to as "Once" for brevity) a rip off of "Fables?"

My best guess, based upon the scanty evidence, is probably not.

Is "Once" influenced and at least in part inspired by "Fables?"

My best guess, based upon the same scanty evidence is, yes, it probably is, but perhaps not on more than a "this is the type of thing that's in the air these days" level.

Why do you say that? The characters from "Fables" live in modern times, in a secret community called Fabletown, more or less hiding in plain sight, and the characters from "Once" live in modern times, in a secret community called Storybrooke, more or less hiding in plane sight. That seems pretty close to me.

That's hardly damning. Our fantastic literature is rife with "they've been hiding amongst us all along" scenarios. There were plenty of such tales long before "Fables" came along. There will be scads of them long after "Once" has aired its final episode and "Fables" shipped its final issue. If you start with the notion of fairy tale characters still alive in the modern world, the next step of placing them in a secret community seems almost axiomatic.

What about the network? Long before "Once" was aired from ABC, didn't that same network have a deal to produce "Fables" as a TV series?

Yes, but that by itself doesn't prove anything. First of all, I am and always was on the outside of any deals between DC/Warner and any studio regarding a "Fables" adaptation. DC didn't want me as part of the deal making and paid handsomely not to have me directly involved. So it was their baby all along. As such, I was never privy to the details of that supposed deal with ABC. I heard the same rumors you did, that the writers of that project weren't supposed to have made the big announcement when they did. In any case, the ABC "Fables" project went no further than creating an unproduced pilot script. I eventually got to read that pilot, and it was a far cry from anything to do with "Fables."

So there was no actual deal for "Fables" at ABC?

Who knows? There was something, but my limited experience with the imaginary place called Hollywood is that there are levels of deals, always including plenty of opportunities to kill a project. Judging entirely by my admittedly biased take on that proposed pilot, this was a deal worth killing.

So how did that lead to them doing a different but similar fairy tale project?

I can imagine many scenarios that don't involve anyone at ABC or the "Once" camp doing anything nefarious. In fact, one would have to be mightily conspiracy minded to suspect some sort of attempt to do a "Fables" knockoff so as not to pay for it. It's much easier to presume a situation where, since the "Fables" deal fell through, for whatever of so many possible reasons, some of the folks at ABC still wanted to do something in that subgenre and found a way to do it. No villains needed in this version. No smoking gun. Remember, this is the age where fairy tale and folklore based stories are in the air. "Fables" didn't start it. In that light, it would be harder to imagine situations where there weren't plenty of similar projects making the rounds.

What about some of the inconsistencies of the "Once" creators talking about their series in public?

What about them?

Hasn't it been stated that at first the "Once" creators denied ever having read "Fables," and then later admitted it? That seems a bit suspicious.

But that wasn't actually the way it happened. There were two creators of "Once." At the time (2003 or 4) they were coming up with the ideas behind "Once," one had not read "Fables" before and one had.

How do you know that?

I asked them.

Oh. Well --

It's perfectly reasonable to assume it happened as stated. I am the world's best example that the human mind is far from a computer with perfect memory. Offhand, I can list (as I've mentioned many times before) a dozen projects that came out in my lifetime that influenced the creation of "Fables." They include the "Fractured Fairy Tales" cartoons, "The 10th Kingdom," "The Charmings" (which I never saw in its short run, but I knew about), "Into the Woods," "Castle Waiting" and so many more. "Fables" was inspired in part by all of those things, but ripped off not a one of them. And here's the rub: I'm certain there are just as many more stories and properties that I read, or watched, or heard, or heard of, that I couldn't recall now to save my life, but which also went into the idea-mix that eventually spawned "Fables." I know this because all too often I reread a beloved old book, or rewatch an old movie and realize, "Ah ha, that's where I got that idea that I used in (fill in the name of the story), and thought I'd come up with entirely on my own." It happens.

I have no trouble imagining the harried creators of "Once," tired of being badgered from the audience every time they talk about their series, finally taking a look at the "Fables" comics they were accused of stealing, and realizing, "Oh yeah, one of us did see some of these books before," among the many stories that slowly helped build the idea for "Once" in their minds.

That's the nature of the beast. Storytellers get much of their ideas and inspiration from other stories. If handled in a non-sinister manner, those stories are not immediately copied, in whole or in part, but instead sent down into the mind's basement kitchen, to stew and simmer, along with all of the other stuff already down there, filtering out the good from the bad, the better from the good, adding in a dose of "yes, but I would have done it differently," until something new and original, and absolutely not a rip off, rises out of the cauldron, ready to become one's own stories. It's this same process that makes it so easy to forget where all the individual bits came from.

You seem awfully willing to take them at their word.

Of course. Writing is tough. I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who's able to go through to endless soul-grinders along the path to becoming successful at it. Who knows? Maybe they did remember reading "Fables" back then, but didn't want to mention it because we've become a very litigious people. We can and will sue anyone about anything, and the only practical way to protect oneself against such mischief is to always deny everything as our standard default setting. This may not be an admirable practice, but it's perfectly understandable. All it proves though, if true, was that "Fables" played some part in inspiring what eventually became their show. As I stated above, I suspect that's so, but that's a far cry from theft -- not even in the ballpark.

So, if there's no problem between "Fables" and "Once," why concoct this interview?

Partly as a call to arms -- or more accurately, a call to disarm. As grateful as I am to discover so many loyal "Fables" readers, willing to man the barricades, to help protect a story they love; as much as it moves me to realize I've been part in creating something that clearly moves you, affecting your lives in ways only a good story, well-told can, I think it's time to lay off. Perhaps it's time to quit rising up in public venues to accuse these folks of Grand Theft "Fables," even if you still think it's so.

One of the wiser men to enter my life was a humble but impressive itinerant history professor, who taught satellite college courses to soldiers stationed in small bases, scattered throughout Western Germany (back when Germany was still divided). He once gave me very good advice I've tried to live by ever since. "Choose your causes carefully," he said. "If not, if you try to champion every good cause that comes along, you'll wear yourself out, at best, and worse, become a dilettante -- an ineffective dabbler. Pick a few that are the most near and dear to you, and give them your all, trusting that others are out there handling the other causes with equal fervor." So let me pass along his wisdom by urging you to choose your causes carefully, and in this case, champion better causes than trying to prove that one unimportant (in the grand scheme of things) entertainment story might owe too much to another. There are worse crisis and better things for which to boldly take up arms.

Do you like "Once?"

I'll give you a general and then a specific answer to that. I like anything that raises the awareness of fairy tales and folklore as the raw stuff from which some of our best stories are being told today. The mercenary part of me hopes that every single fan of "Once" will also check out "Fables." Remember, stories aren't automatically in competition with each other. If I like Batman, it doesn't mean I have to dislike Captain America. I'd hate for "Fables" to be the only fairy tale-based story out there. If that were the case, I'd have nothing to read or watch for pleasure in this genre I love. I want more of what I want. Snacks are nice, but a feast is better.

And specifically?

It's not often a TV is known for subtlety, but to have Riding Hood, for example, whose original tale was all about food delivery to Grandma, translated into a waitress in a diner in the modern world, still bringing the goodies to -- well the customers tables in this case -- that was clever. But they didn't shine a big light on it, they trusted the viewers to catch that for themselves. And the wink at CS Lewis by making their version of Geppetto carve a magic wardrobe as the way to transport Snow and Charming's daughter away to safety -- and to an alien world -- that was nicely done.

As a writer toiling in the same vineyards, there are some things that I would have advised doing differently. The use of modern attitudes and colloquialisms in the flashback scenes to a medieval(esque) past was not a choice I would have made, but it's not a deal-killer for me.

The real proof of a story is, does it draw you in? In books, does it keep you turning the pages, and then inspire you enough to make that effort to get the next issue? In TV, does it bring you back next week for the next episode? "Once" does that for me. I want to know what the evil queen is up to. Why did she craft a curse that imprisons everyone in the future, but leaves them unaware of their punishment? And what value is it to her, if she has to stay in town with them, working her ass off to keep them contained? So far, it seems more of a punishment to her than to them. This makes me suspect many things. One possibility is that she somehow fell victim to her own curse, and the show's other villain, Rumplestiltskin, is the one playing the more complex and manipulative game. Who knows? But apparently they've hooked me long enough to want to find out. There are other things worth mentioning, but I've babbled on too long.

What about the scruffy sheriff in "Once?" He seems awfully close to --

Yeah, if it turned out he was actually the Big Bad Wolf, I might have started to get a wee bit territorial. But he's not.

How do you know?

I cheated. I asked them.

So who is he then?

Sheriff Graham is exactly who I guessed he might be. But I won't give that away.

Anything else you want to add?

Just to reiterate that there's no war here. If you like "Fables," you needn't dislike "Once," and vice versa. Join me in wallowing in all of it. And then take a look at all the other grand stuff out there right now, or coming down the pike. Along with "Fables," read "Kill Shakespeare" and "The Unwritten," "Memorial," "Mice Templar" and "Mouse Guard." Read "The Stuff of Legend" and "Castle Waiting" and all the other gems in the same general category. It's the new age of old time stories. Along with "Once," I'm looking forward to "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Mirror, Mirror." There can't be enough different takes on this character, which very much mirrors the way it worked in the olden days. The Brothers Grimm didn't collect one version of every folktale; they discovered dozens of versions of each one, because it's the nature of folklore to be altered to suit every different folk who wants to make use of it. Why should today be any different?

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