Moderated by his "Fables" collaborator Mark Buckingham, the Spotlight on Bill Willingham panel at Comic-Con International gave fans a retrospective of Willingham's life and career, as well as a few hints about what he's got planned for the award-winning Vertigo series. Additionally, everyone at the panel received a one-page black and white Fables story, an exclusive for Comic-Con attendees. Willingham explained that this giveaway was to make up for the dramatic underestimation of giveaways needed last year, when many fans were left empty-handed.
Willingham made a point of starting with a pitch for the newly released, re-colored trade paperback of his 13-issue "Pantheon." He then told in detail of his childhood growing up on army bases and his introduction to comic books. When asked when he decided to create comics, Willingham answered, "That's like asking 'when did you decide to start breathing air,'" explaining that as soon as he started reading comics, he started making his own - even selling them on the playground.
The writer-artist got his start professionally in the late 1970s, working at TSR where he illustrated role-playing games with what he called "horrendous line drawings." His unsuccessful pitches to Marvel and DC Comics prompted him to pitch to some of the newly formed independent publishers springing up at the time. He was immediately hired by now defunct publisher Noble Comics based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the strength of some drawings he had created of generic superheroes, each based on one of the four elements. Though he initially created the characters strictly to show that he could draw, the publisher thought he was pitching a script. This initial pitch eventually became "Elementals," later bought by Comico and published into the 1990s.
One audience member asked how Willingham felt about the ending of "Salvation Run," a DC Comics miniseries he began writing but left after a few issues. Willingham replied that when he left "Salvation Run" to write six issues of "Shadowpact," leaving the book in the hands of his friend and "Jack of Fables" writing partner Matt Sturges, "sales were down and it was already doomed before Matt took over. He was told to end it by issue 'whatever,' so the focus changed. Was it what I would do? No, because I had no inclination that we would be wrapping it up."
Another fan thanked Willingham for his depictions of women, not making them all the "stereotypical big breasted Amazonians." Willingham said that growing up with seven sisters influenced the way he writes female characters. "Making them more than ass-kicking and showing them with some redeeming qualities, that takes true creativity," he said.
Willingham said that "Fables" came about when Vertigo editor Shelly Bond pitched a story about two fairy tale sisters who are also detectives named Snow White and Rose Red. At the time, he was already working on a pitch for "Fables," but didn't think Vertigo would be interested. The writer explained, "Shelly said, 'you let me decide what Vertigo's interested in.' She said 'oh no, you're not submitting that to anyone else, have it on my desk in the morning.' So I sent it to her because I was not brave enough not to."
Willingham added, "I was always interested in fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a kid and watching 'Fractured Fairy Tales' on 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.' Even when I was doing 'Elementals,' which was a superhero book, I found myself slipping in fairy tale and fable references. So 'Fables' was really a culmination."
Willingham and Buckingham explained their method of working together, and how it has changed recently. Buckingham said, "Prior to issue #75, Bill had been using a full script method where he gave me quite rich scripts with set descriptions, captions and dialogue in scenes."
"But for the anniversary issue, number 75, we developed a new way with Bucky deciding where to put captions and how action is played out," Willingham said. The result, Buckingham explained, was "an epic scope to go with the storyline and everything done in big two-page spreads."
Willingham said that although he had hinted at last year's Fables panel that Peter Pan might be appearing in the comic, the character would actually not be guest-starring any time soon. He said that although the character is public domain in the U.S., in the U.K. it is not. When it should have lapsed into public domain, the rights to the character were extended by act of Parliament so that the proceeds could continue to benefit the Orman Street Hospital, to which Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie left all proceeds forever. Though they probably could use the character anyway, "DC thinks that it's still probably not a good time." Willingham said. "No one wants to be the big corporation stealing money from sick kids."
In answer to a question from an audience member, Willingham said that research and historical background are very important. "I do a lot of research because I want to get everything right. And I do all my research at home because it's the only place I can do research without wearing any pants."
The writer added, "I always read fairy tales but now when I do I'm not shirking work, I'm doing work."
Willingham called writing "Fables" "the easiest, most wonderful, most fulfilling work."
As for where the series is headed, Willingham promised "big transitions" in upcoming issues. "Big 'oh my god why would they do that to that character?' transitions. Everything up to and including the war, that's all just prologue. Now things gets hard for the characters."