ECCC: Williams Handles Epic Heroes In "Fairest" And "Artful Daggers"

Vertigo Comics and Bill Wilingham's ongoing Fables spinoff, "Fairest," gets a new creative team in May as veteran artists Stephen Sadowski and Phil Jimenez team up with writer Sean E. Williams to spin a yarn straight from India and the epic Mahabharata.

A comics and prose writer, Williams is also collaborating with artist Andrew Losq on a brand new creator-owned series, "Artful Daggers," announced at MonkeyBrain Comics' Emerald City Comic Con 2013 panel. Describing it as part of the "Mythic Fiction movement" with ties to "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," the digital ongoing comic begins March 3 and is available on comiXology.

Speaking with CBR about both his turn at Vertigo and his MonkeyBrain series, Williams dove into why he's setting his "Fairest" tale in India, what Mark Twain has to do with "Artful Daggers."

CBR News: Sean, your arc in "Fairest" begins in May and tackles the Fables world of the Indu. Why did you want to focus on the Indian Fables?

Sean E. Williams: It was a confluence of a couple of different inspirations, actually. I visited India in 2006, I think, and the experience blew my mind, a part of which was all the decaying colonial, British Raj architecture that was everywhere. In the middle of the cities you'd have these abandoned buildings, covered in vines, standing out against everything around them. That contrast led me to reading up on the Raj and India when I got back, and all the Rudyard Kipling I could get my hands on. So that was one aspect.

Another was that around the time that I pitched this version of the story, which was two years ago now, Bill was getting asked by readers about expanding beyond Western, and specifically Germanic, fables, so it seemed appropriate to explore some of the other characters from around the world. Lauren Beukes was already working on her Rapunzel arc featuring some of the Japanese fables, so that was out of bounds, but as I researched more, there wasn't really anything else I'd want to do except something set in the Indu.

Your story centers around a character named Nalayani. Who is Nalayani? Is she an existing character from Indian folklore and mythology?

Nalayani's story is told in the Mahabharata, which is one of the epics of Hinduism. She's got a very -- unique -- story, that I don't really want to spoil, as we're exploring part of it in this arc. But yeah, she's pre-existing.

The characters highlighted in "Fairest" so far all fit into some definition of "Fairest of them all." How does Nalayani fit this concept?

That's an easy one: Nalayani's described in one version of her story as "one of the five ideal women in the land," so it put her on my radar immediately as I was researching for this arc. In another version, a female nymph-like spirit says of her that "I did not think that such beautiful women live on Earth," so that kind of clinched it for me that she qualified, and that I needed to bring her into the "Fairest" fold.

As well, all the characters in "Fairest" so far have also been established in or characters from "Fables." What made you choose Nalayani, a character not previously introduced?

Part of it was what we were looking for with this arc. With the Maharaja in mind, Nalayani offered the most drama and conflict on every single level. The fact that she could co-exist alongside Kipling fables in the Indu made it an easy decision, and allowed some more well-known Fables to make an appearance as well. That's the brilliant thing about the "Fables" universe Bill's created -- characters from Hinduism and Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Books" can exist side by side, which creates a lot of tension and conflict, naturally.

What can you tell us about the story? Will we see the Indu Homeland, or does the action all take place in the modern Mundy world?

The arc takes place in the present, not as a flashback, in the Indu. All of the able-bodied men are gone. They all died fighting The Adversary's forces years ago, leaving Indu with a shortage of men. Our story starts out with Nalayani's village under attack again, with gangs of teenage boys are roaming the countryside looking for trouble, and more dangerous forces lurk in the jungle. Nalayani is basically the leader of the village, and has to go on a journey to get help from the Maharaja, since supplies are running out, monsoon season is close, and these attacks just keep coming. That's where our story starts.

In the solicits there's mention that Nalayani's quest will impact all Fables. Does this arc tie into events in the ongoing "Fables" series, or will influence the status quo for other characters?

You noticed that bit, eh? Yeah, part of what we're doing with this arc is setting up a whole slew of things to come in "Fables," at least for the characters that make it out alive. I think it's safe to say that not all of the characters are as well known as Snow White, so a bullet to the head (if they had bullets in the Indu, which they don't) or anything equally as deadly has a bit more lasting of an impact. That's the amazing thing about working with Bill, though. We started talking about this arc over two years ago, and its repercussions in "Fables." He's working that far ahead with his stories. It just blows my mind.

How did writing this "Fairest" arc come about? Did you know Bill Willingham or the folks at Vertigo before working on the book?

I've known Bill for years, and we got to be friends over the course of hanging out at Comic Con in San Diego year after year. I first met him the year after "Fables" came out, and I approached him after a panel about adapting it into a television series (I was mostly writing and producing for TV and film back then). The rights were already taken, but we struck up a rapport and stayed in touch. Being a huge fan of "Fables," I tracked down some of Bill's other stuff, and fell in love with "Proposition Player." Turns out the rights for that were available, so we shopped it around town as a TV series, and I even ended up writing a pilot for it. Then Chris Roberson started doing his Cindy arcs, and I got up the gall to pitch Bill an arc for a character I was in love with, who we hadn't really gotten a chance to see a lot of in "Fables." To my amazement, he said yes, and over the course of the next few months "Fairest" got formalized at Vertigo, and my arc got rolled into that.

That was 2010. That winter, I was in Minnesota for the holidays, and ended up swinging by Bill's place while I was there, and over lunch we started talking about my arc. He said he had this character that he wanted me to write instead of the one I had pitched (who I'm still hoping to get back to, someday -- Bill and I both love the character, and want to see his story told, it's just a matter of scheduling). So anyway, there was a gap in "Fables" character-wise that he wanted filled, and he asked if I'd be interested in writing it. Of course I said, "Yes," so I went home and came up with a whole new arc, as "Fairest" had started rolling, and they needed a pitch. So I started researching, and ended up with the arc pretty much as it is now, with Nalayani, taking place in the Indu. Bill's character ended up becoming the Maharaja in my arc, as it turns out, so keep an eye out!

Joining you on this arc are artists Stephen Sadowski and Phil Jimenez. What is it like working with these two on your story arc?

As soon as Bill said that Phil and Steve had been wanting to work together, and that they were available for this arc, it was a no-brainer. Everything I've seen has been absolutely gorgeous. Steve's done a great job with his acting, making my dialogue totally redundant, so each issue I'm trimming back how much the characters are talking, which is the way it should be. And another thing he does -- well, for instance, there's this bit that I wrote for the second issue that was kind of a throwaway thing, but Steve made it into this huge, gut-wrenching beat, and it totally reframed the entire issue for me. Even talking about it now I'm feeling torn up for a character that doesn't even have a line of dialogue. Not everyone can do that, but Steve is absolutely bringing it for these issues. And Phil's adding a level of detail that is just staggering. They're seriously beautiful pages. I can't wait for everyone to see them.

Outside of "Fairest," you have a creator-owned comic book series coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about that?

I've got a creator-owned series called "Artful Daggers" coming out March 3, that I'm co-writing with Adam P. Knave. Our tagline for it is "Swords, Spies and Science." Andrew Losq is doing the art, and it's being published by MonkeyBrain Comics, and is going to be only available on comiXology. It's an ongoing monthly series, and is part of the whole "Mythic Fiction" movement, so "Fables" and "Fairest" fans should really enjoy it.

What is Artful Daggers about, and how does it fit into the Mythic Fiction movement you mentioned?

"Artful Daggers" is about a band of mercenaries called "The Tricksters," who get hired by the corporations running England in 585 AD to sabotage and undermine each other. Now, if that doesn't sound like it's historically accurate, it's because it's not. The world of "Artful Daggers" was inspired by Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," and is set fifty years after the end of the book -- hence the "Mythic Fiction" connection. So King Arthur happened, but so did all the technology from the late 1800s that Hank brought back with him. It's knights, and guns, and fiber optics; "Swords, Spies, and Science," basically. Our main character, a Trickster named Arden, has kind of lost her touch, and is finishing up the training of a new recruit at the start of the first issue, but things don't go exactly as planned.

Did you meet Chris Roberson through Bill Wilingham? How did this project come about?

Actually, I first met Chris when he was still doing MonkeyBrain Books. I was a fan of Alan Moore's "The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen," and MonkeyBrain published Jess Nevins's "Heroes & Monsters," so I met and chatted with Jess and Chris at San Diego after it came out, but didn't stay in touch. A couple of years later I met him again at a lunch that Willingham was hosting, yeah, and over the years of hanging out at San Diego got to be friends with him and Allison.

Similarly, had you known Andrew Losq from before MonkeyBrain?

Yeah, Andrew I met years ago as well. I was working on a pitch for a publisher, but needed an artist, and did what any sensible person does and posted an ad on Craigslist! I didn't know any artists in the comics industry at the time, so it seemed like the best option, and it ended up working out, because I found Andrew and fell in love with his stuff, and ended up staying in touch with him, even though that initial pitch didn't get picked up.

What was the original genesis for "Artful Daggers?"

"Artful Daggers" started out as a joke on Twitter. Adam P. Knave, who I met at Chris Roberson's dead dog party at NYCC 2011, thought he was making a joke when he said that one day we would write a "dark medieval fantasy spy series" together. But I take good ideas (even if they're jokes) very seriously. So we started bouncing around specifics, and I said "What about doing something like 'Connecticut Yankee?'" and everything kind of clicked from there. Since we met via the Robersons, taking it to MonkeyBrain seemed like the only appropriate way to go (I don't think they'd even announced MonkeyBrain yet, but I was aware of it, and Adam was already working with them on "Amelia Cole," I think). Knowing we'd need a full team to pitch it, and I'm very much the type of guy to not let momentum die down, I reached out to Andrew Losq, who I'd worked with on a pitch for another comic series before. He was available and stoked about the idea, so using the samples from the previous project, we pitched "Artful Daggers" to Chris & Allison that same night that Adam cracked-wise on Twitter. They gave us the go-ahead the next day. I think it was 25 hours from tweet to greenlight.

Finally, art-wise what does Andrew bring to your tale of "Swords, Spies and Science?"

Andrew's got a very specific style which I love. It's kind of manga-esque, with a bit of an exaggerated, hyper-stylized flare to it, that totally works for "Artful Daggers." I mean, we're in a medieval world with guns and slews of other early 20th-century tech. Going along with that, we've got a world where electric lights (of all varieties -- we researched a ton before writing the first issue) are completely new and foreign feeling, so we ended up coming up with a color design that kind of emulates that stylistically. It's awesome stuff. Additionally, Andrew's great with his acting, which makes my life so much easier. If he can do it with an expression instead of a word balloon, I'm for it.

"Fairest" #15 is out May 1 from Vertigo; "Artful Daggers" #1 is available on comiXology March 3 from MonkeyBrain.

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