Last week at Comic-Con International, Bill Willingham took the stage for the latest in what has become a beloved annual event for fans of his multiple award-winning series "Fables." Joining the writer - who just the night before won another Eisner for his work on the Vertigo book - were Shelly Bond, editor; Mark Buckingham, "Fables" artist; Matthew Sturges, co-writer, "Jack of Fables", Andrew Pepoy, inker; Todd Klein, letterer; Steve Leialoha, inker; and Chris Roberson, writer of the newly announced Fables miniseries, "Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love."
Though Roberson is a newcomer to comic books, Willingham said fans should take much from the fact that he has never entrusted so much of Fables to another solo writer. Roberson was joined on stage by Chrissie Zullo, cover artist for the six-issue miniseries, which will be drawn by Shawn McManus.
Roberson described the project as "'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' meets 'Sex and the City.' Cinderella is on a jet-setting adventure aided and abetted by talking animals. She meets her opposite number, who's another Fable who does spy kind of things. She travels to homelands we haven't seen and all sorts of exciting things that happen. If anybody's familiar with the standard tropes of cool spy novels and the special relationship between the Americans and the Brits and how they work together but they have their own agendas, [Cinderella's cohort] is Aladdin, the super spy for the Arabian fables."
Some of Zullo's cover art was displayed for the San Diego crowd, depicting Aladdin and Cinderella. Zullo indicated the two "might" have some romantic chemistry in the series.
"There will be monsters, there's going to be cool romance, and he gets to work with Shawn McManus, one of my favorite artists ever!" Willingham said. "Way to go, Chris!"
Given special attention at the panel was "Peter & Max," which is not just the first prose "Fables" novel, but also the first prose novel by Bill Willingham and also the first prose novel to be published by Vertigo. Willingham said he approached the DC imprint with the project as a courtesy, not expecting the publisher to be interested in developing a project outside its traditional comic book parameters. The writer was pleasantly surprised when Vertigo accepted the challenge. "They learned how to publish novels while I learned how to write novels," Willingham said.
As Willingham promised when the announcement of a "Fables" prose novel was first made, each of the main characters of "Peter & Max" has appeared in the "Fables" comic before -- in exactly one panel each. "Max grows up to be the Pied Piper, who appeared in '1001 Nights of Snowfall' in the story about Frau Totenkinder, who basically hands him a magic flute and says, 'Go punish this town that's kind of pissed me off,'" Willingham explained.
"Peter Piper is a little more esoteric. Remember the 'Burning Questions' issue of 'Fables' where someone asked what song was playing while Snow and Bigby danced at the Remembrance Day ball and we saw Boy Blue's band? Well, Peter Piper was in that band playing his flute with his back turned to us.
"They are established Fables characters is what I am saying!"
Willingham continued, "The book is a sibling rivalry writ very large. It covers medieval times in the old homeland, historical times as things move to the Mundy world, and modern times. It's a sweeping saga of adventure.
"There are some guest stars, some you know and some you don't. Bo-Beep, you haven't met her. But there are some perennials like Bigby Wolf and Frau Totenkinder. "
A 400-page hardcover, "Peter & Max" features spot illustrations by "Fables" inker Steve Leialoha, including a three-page spread of the famous scene of the Pied Piper leading the rats out of Hamelin.
The book also ends with an eight-page comic book story introducing novel readers to the "Fables" comic books. "We know 'Fables' readers and Vertigo readers already read books, so we're hoping we're going to get some book readers and teach them how to read comics," Willingham said.
Although "Peter & Max" isn't released until October, advance copies have been produced for reviews. Willingham decided to give some of these books away as part of a decidedly hardcore "Fables" trivia competition - provided the winner promised not to pirate the book online or spoil the ending. The question: Three of the Snow Queen's sisters have given names. There are four kingdoms that these sisters rotate and share amongst themselves. After a number of attempts, one fan correctly identified all three names and all four kingdoms to win the advance galley.
Next, the panel showed fans the cover of "Fables" #87, which begins the new arc called "Witches." "We basically lost the business office when the great unraveling happened thanks to the appearance of Mister Dark. We're going to find out what happens to it," explained Mark Buckingham. "All the horrors that were kept safely locked away in the business office have now been released. The only one left to save the day is Bufkin. We have poor Bufkin up against a renewed and revived Baba Yaga and the Genie and a whole host of terrible and horrible things now stalking the dark halls of the business office."
"That seems like a fair team-up," Willingham said.
The "Witches" arc will be five issues, with each cover featuring the issue's main character. The first issue is called "Bufkin." Another is called "Frau Totenkinder," and features the return of the witch's legendary gingerbread house. "Wasn't the whole point of the gingerbread house to lure young kids in to be slaughtered and killed and possibly turned into a very nice quiche? Hmmm. I was really pulling for her redemption and that she would be one of the good guys. Oh well!"
Vertigo's "Fables" convention panels are known for special new projects - the "Last Castle" one-shot, the "1001 Nights of Snowfall" graphic novel, the "Peter & Max" novel, the deluxe "Fables" hardbacks (which will be released once a year) -- and Comic-Con 2009's was no exception. The next big "Fables" project for 2010 will be "Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland," a 144-page graphic novel starring Bigby Wolf.
"It also deals with werewolves... for some reason," teased Willingham.
The graphic novel is being drawn by Jim Fern with inks by Craig Hamilton, a team-up Willingham and Shelly Bond were extremely enthusiastic about.
Next, Bond announced that 2010 will see more of the frequently demanded "Fables" merchandise, including a print set of twelve "Fables" covers. Following that, DC Direct will release a Snow & Bigby mini-bust. Buckingham designed the item while sitting at the DC booth at Comic-Con, and walked it over to the DC Direct area for approval. "We know how attached you all are to Snow and Bigby so we couldn't start a range of mini-busts without them," the artist said.
"Fables" is fast approaching its 100th issue, which Willingham revealed will come in at 100 pages. "You know how we like to hit these big milestones. Issue #50 was a wedding. Issue #75 was a war. Issue #100 will be pretty interesting. It will be a big story."
Willingham was quick to point out that issue #100's story is not 100 pages long, and that many of the extra pages will be occupied by sketches and designs by "Fables" cover artist Joao Ruas as well as Buckingham, and will also include a "Fables" board game in the form of a double-page spread.
As always, Bill Willingham reaffirmed his commitment to continuing "Fables" indefinitely. "We have decided doing 100 issues for you guys has been pretty fun, so we're going to go ahead and do 100 more - unless you stop buying it!"
To give attending fans a hint of what's to come in those 100 issues, Vertigo distributed a one-page story full of, we presume, many hidden meanings.
As if that weren't enough, Willingham confirmed he intends to return to the drawing board for a "Fables" project yet to be determined. "There has been a movement afoot, with scurrilous pirates insisting that I draw an issue of 'Fables' someday," he said. "You are only hurting yourselves. As an artist, I make a wonderful plumber. The thing is, I do like drawing comics but my skill -- compared to the artists in 'Fables?' I could not get a job drawing 'Fables' if I didn't have this backdoor as the writer!"
Willingham continued, "We've talked about Bucky and I switching roles, where he writes a 'Fables' story for me. He's going to write a 'Fables' prose story for me to illustrate, much like the way Steve and I worked on the 'Peter & Max' novel."
"You made me do issue #75 with nothing but double-page spreads of intense battles," Buckingham said. "There is a little bit of vengeance just creeping up inside me."
The panel concluded its presentation stage and moved on to a quick question-and-answer session, including one from a woman who's known to the "Fables" team. She and her husband have wedding rings that read, "For My Bigby" and "For My Snow," respectively, and Willingham occasionally inquires as to the status of their marriage. The writer is afraid the health of the "Fables" comic book may be linked to the health of his fans' marriage, and that if their relationship falls on hard times he feels they must welcome counseling from the "Fables" team. "It is our business now," Willingham said.
The woman asked after the status of the "Fables" television pilot that was announced some months ago. "I believe it is in development limbo," said an obviously unenthusiastic Willingham. "A pilot was written. I will not tell you anything about that. I'm pretty certain that pilot has not been filmed yet."
Q: With the "Peter & Max" prose novel, will prose fantasy readers have to have read "Fables" to enjoy the book?
Shelly Bond: "This is a terrific entry point for prose readers to get the inside look at the 'Fables' mythos. It's equally amazing for 'Fables' fans because there are so many secret histories of 'Fables' characters."
Bill Willingham: "The book is self-contained. 'Fables' readers will get more of the background a little quicker. We planned it in part for you to use as a gateway drug to lead book readers into becoming comic readers."
Q: Where did the idea to turn Bigby into a little girl come from?
Matthew Sturges: "Pretty early, we hit on the idea of altering Bigby. We knew that was something funny that Kevin Thorne was going to do. We just started making a list of the funniest and most awful things we could do to Bigby to make him upset. A monkey, an elephant, a pink elephant. The final insult would be to turn him into a little girl with pigtails. Little Girl Bigby really redeems herself when she starts murdering people."
Q: Is the Snow Queen coming back?
Bill Willingham: "Keep reading!"
Q: More stories about Snow?
Bill Willingham: "Yes!"
Q: How will "The Great Fables Crossover" be collected in the trade paperbacks? Will it be split into "Fables" trades and "Jack of Fables" trades? Will it be a "Jack of Fables" trade? Will it be a "Fables" trade?
Bill Willingham: "A 'Fables' trade!"
Q: "Are we going to see more of the Literals?"
Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges: "No!"
Q: More of Colonel Thunderfoot?
Q: What's happening with "Jack of Fables" now that there are two Jacks?
Bill Willingham: "There are two Jacks of Fables now, Jack Sr. and Jack Jr. Jack Sr. is irredeemable. He is just a louse. We tried to make a decent character out of him. I mean, he's a fun character and he's not entirely out of the book. But we also wanted to write heroic action adventure stories that don't quite fit 'Fables.' So starting shortly after the next 'Jack' - which shows one of the riddled cases of Jack Horner when he accidentally became the template for Tarzan - we are giving Jack Jr. the title role. We will look in on Jack Sr. from time to time. When we want to get silly, we're going with Jack Sr. But we're going to do some old fashioned, Burroughs-esque, 'Terry and the Pirates,' 'Prince Valient'-esque stuff."
Matthew Sturges: "In the story I'm working on right now, he's got a sword in one hand and a ray-gun in the other."
Bill Willingham: "Jack of Fables is now Jack Frost. It's straight action-adventure. It's fairly serious in our slightly demented way of doing action-adventure. One of my friends in the army, John Baker, when I would read these kinds of Burroughs-esque swordsman and alien settings books, he would look at them and go, 'Yuck. Another one of those muscle-bound spacemen-with-lasers-and-swords books. And that's what this is."
Matthew Sturges: "Look for that in issue #50 of 'Jack of Fables.'"
Bill Willingham: "Its fairly fair to say that Jack Horner gets a little bit of what's been coming to him for a very long time."