Blame it on the Eisners.
The first and most important thing that anyone could see about Sunday's "Fables" panel is that it needs to be held in a bigger room. Every seat was filled and people were lined up along the walls -- this panel was popular. That's when the chaos started.
Bill Willingham thought that he'd do something special for the people attending this year's Fables-related panel, and created a one page "Fables" story "that will never be seen outside of this room." Which was amazing ... except that he printed too few. There were approximately 300 pieces printed, and the room was well over the posted seating capacity of 329, with every seat filled and people lined up along three walls. Willingham was overwhelmed by the show of interest in the title. "We are a frugal and humble people," Willingham said. "If you show up next year in a 'I got screwed at last year's Fables panel' t-shirt, I promise you'll get an extra special prize next year!"
One lucky fan reached under his seat to pull out an envelope, and he went home with a Bigby and Snow statue, "as designed by the merely remarkable Mark Buckingham," Willingham said. He also pointed out fans dressed as Fables (Bigby, Snow, Flycatcher and Boy Blue, with another decked out in a special Boy Blue jacket).
The panel was finally introduced, including editor Shelly Bond, inker Andrew Pepoy, penciller Tony Akins, inker Steve Leialoha, cover artist James Jean, colorist Danny Vozzo, letterer Todd Klein, co-writer Matthew Sturges and of course Buckingham himself.
Bond ran the actual panel, saying, "What we wanted to do this year is walk through exactly what goes into a page of 'Fables.'" Starting with the cover of issue #63, James Jean talked about his work process. "I start with a letter-sized page folded in half with a pencil sketch," he said, which then gets sent to Bond for approval via email. Jean then goes "with finished silk screen on heavy paper. It takes me about two or three days to finish. Then I scan it, touch it up, and upload it to the FTP server." He noted in particular that the dummies shown on the cover have a Hans Bellmer influence, and Bond noted that even title placement and where the issue number goes are all decided by Jean.
She showed a slide with an edited script that she would send to Buckingham, with "encouraging notes" drawn in the margin, such as "okay Bucky, it's the home stretch ... pencil like you mean it!"
"I like how Shelly draws a little box around the page number because everybody knows that artists are illiterate," Willingham commented. "The difference between this and 'Jack of Fables' is that Matt and I write that together. We take turns, and if I take the lead, and send it for Matt to go in and fix it. It's printed in this ugly accusatory red. It's like someone really did start bloodletting all over the page, telling me everything that I did wrong. Then of course, I send my changes to his in a nice soothing blue."
"The blue words soothe me," Sturges replied, "and I'm less reactionary to the changes to my changes."
"But then when he takes the lead, I do the red corrections," Willingham said devilishly. "Getting to do the ugly red phase is a good thing, you can get out your petty grievances, it's actually very liberating."
"Bill's scripts are a tool I use to show writers how to structure," Bond said.
"I'm a control freak," Willingham said about the length of his scripts. "My panel descriptions go on for a long time. Some kinds of artists look at a page and say 'what's the least amount I can draw to get this bastard off my back?' I got some of the most conscientious people and they try to figure out how to do that. Some hair loss occurs ..."
People started looking at Buckingham, who glared at Willingham and said, "You bastard!"
"Hairs get gray," Willingham continued. Pointing at the salt-and-pepper locks of Leialoha, he said, "He was dark haired two or three weeks ago! Marriages break up ... but it's all for you!"
Buckingham managed to continue, saying "I really fell in love with the idea of borders, to make the sense of story book feel. I create a space outside of the image area for these design elements which I use to indicate which character we're following and has nothing to do with the fact that it wipes out a third of the page that I have to draw. You can also see some of my prog rock loving past with the backgrounds. Shelly fell in love with him [Lancelot] and now Bill is trying to make room for him in the story."
Leialoha was soft spoken and kept it simple. "I try to be neat and stay in the lines, it's pretty straight forward," he said. "I try to figure what Bucky [Buckingham] has in mind, actual pens, actual inks, and the occasional brush. It's pretty straight forward. I'll take that, scan it, and assemble all of that and send it off to DC. That's my part."
"I have this reputation of being a comedian of artists," Buckingham said," always changing up my styles, and poor Steve has to try and keep up and second guess, but he always does a great job."
"It keeps it lively," Leialoha admitted.
Pepoy sometimes fills in on "Fables" and said, "I approach Bucky's stuff and Tony's stuff very differently. You try to ink it in a way that best fits whatever they're trying to do. We're just trying to enhance Bucky or Tony's work in a way they intended it to look. Bucky if he's upset, he's in Europe, but Tony only lives three miles from me. He'll park right outside, in front of the fire hydrant. He doesn't care about tickets, he doesn't care about the Chicago police, he'll bang on the door like 'What the ...'"
"Bill and I have a history," Akins said. "I was fortunate enough to have a script from Bill be my first in comics in 1994. I left comics, and when I came back the first script I got was a Bill script. I have always enjoyed adding more to a page, and sometimes more is in the panel, sometimes it's more panels ..."
"Many, many, many more panels," Bond complained.
"Normally artists don't want too many panels on a page," Willingham explained. "I know, I used to be an artist. I went to the five panel template, and Tony adds panels. No other artist willingly adds extra panels, he'll be kicked out of the guild!"
"I took it up to nine, on some I took it to eleven, and they yanked my chain," Akins smiled. "I feel that if they ask for it, I'll give it, I enjoy giving."
The "Fables" colorist was "a bit too shy" to attend, according to Bond, but Vozzo talked about his process. "I read the script first then I get the black and white files early in the morning, and at noon Shelly calls and asks 'Is the book done?' I say 'God, I hope I don't screw this up,' and I color it up and say 'God, I hope I didn't screw this up,' send it off to them, and everything else is added."
"In the old days, lettering was hand done on penciled art, and I was further up in the production chain," Klein said. "Now lettering is done towards the end of the process. When everything is on schedule,I get a file to work on, I call this 'code green.' Things are going later, I get pencil pages from Bucky, I call this 'code yellow.' If things are later, I get a fax and letter over that. That's 'code orange' ..."
"You're pretty grumpy at code orange," Bond commented.
"If it's later than that, I actually a fax, and letter over rough layouts of the pages," he continued drily. "That of course is 'code red.'"
The next page showed the finished product with a post it note and the words "YOU'RE ALL FIRED." Bond said, "That's pretty much what I do at the end of the process."
The Brian Bolland-drawn cover of an upcoming issue of "Jack of Fables" was shown with Excalibur sticking from the character's chest, "because it's fun to harm Jack," Willingham said, "and the more we do it the more we like it." The storyline is called "The Bad Prince," and is a loose tie-in with the main "Fables" storyline, "The Good Prince." After this storyline, Jack of Fables will feature in "Americana," a storyline that's set in the popular mythos of the United States. It was also revealed there would be a "Jack of Fables Halloween Special."
At this point the convention staff noted that the panel would be cut short due to overruns in other panels, so they hastily announced that Sturges and Willingham would be co-writing a new "House of Mystery" series with Luca Rossi, where Sturges would eventually be the solitary writer on the project.
"I'm writing it and Bill's helping," Sturges said.
"There will be mysteries," Willingham added.
"... and there's a house," Bond concluded.
Fan questions all had to be "lightning round," starting with one about the "Burning Questions" issue. Willingham said, "We picked the ones that weren't coming up, that wouldn't give too much away, and that we thought we could get a funny gag from."
Apparently Peter Pan goes into the public domain in February of 2008, "Which means Peter Pan will be a fables character in March 2008," Willingham quipped. "Peter Pan was briefly considered as the Adversary, because he comes to our world and steals kids! That's not good! But we couldn't use him, so we settled on Gepetto, and I am so glad, I think Gepetto is so much better."
Could a fan get an old script as a collectible? "We are paid so badly, we use 'em to insulate our houses!" Willingham said.
What's coming with the swirling rumors of war? Willingham said, "Shelly asked me, 'why don't we move that last 'Fables' story up really soon, because we've thought of things to do after that?' Things are gonna get really exciting in the next 20 issues."
Why only literary tales and not gods? "Fairy tales folklore is linked to mythology and I didn't wanna cross that line," Willingham said. "Also because I'm getting old and I'm getting scared. In case any of that is true and I end up in some weird afterlife, I don't wanna have pissed those guys off."
"You're better off than Neil Gaiman," the fan responded, eliciting an "ooooh!" from the crowd.
Why is Jack of Fables such an "a**hole" and yet still appealing? "That's really easy -- he's based on Bill," Sturges zinged. "I think 'how would Bill say this?' and it works every time."
A sequel to "1001 Nights of Snowfall?" Willingham played coy, saying, "The short answer is we're always gonna do some big special project, we're not gonna announce what it is, they take a while. It's under way, I was privileged to start writing the new thing in the Rudyard Kipling house in Vermont. The book was started on the same desk where Rudyard Kipling wrote 'Jungle Book.' Had I known, I would have made a 'Jungle Book' related thing but I didn't. It's two main characters, they're not happy with each other, and each one has appeared in one panel each of a previous 'Fables' issue."
Who decides what characters go on the covers? "I'm told what to do," Jean said simply.
Which literary characters would Willingham love to get in the title? "I'd sure like to get all the Narnia characters. But there's tons of characters that we're not gonna get to for years. We have a wealth of material."
With little more fanfare, the panel was shut down and fans were shuttled out into the chilled hallways of the Convention Center, and the "Fables" team headed down to the DC booth for signings.