Fabletown and Beyond: Bill Willingham’s con goes where others don’t

March 25, 2013 | 2:26 p.m.

Fiona Meng, who was selected from artists who had portfolios reviewed by Vertigo Executive Editor Shelly Bond at Fabletown and Beyond to illustrate a story in the upcoming "Fairest: In All the Land," made this painting of "Fables" characters Bufkin, Snow White and Bigby Wolf for Bill Willingham. Meng says, "I feel very thankful and grateful that Bill and Shelly ... decided to take a chance on me. I'm going to do my best and try not to disappoint." (Fiona Meng)

Gene Ha ("Top 10") sketches "Fables" characters on convention volunteers' shirts during the farewell panel. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Luke Johnson and Carrie Rogers believe in Boy Blue, a martyred hero in "Fables" who many characters and readers hope will return. They made these shirts showing the character's signature trumpet, and gave one to "Fables" writer Bill Willingham. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

The original graphic novel "Fairest: In All the Land," has short stories by Bill Willingham with the Magic Mirror as the narrator. Chrissie Zullo will illustrate the framing story. Other artists include Mark Chiarello and Karl Kerschl. The above is not the final cover. (Vertigo)

David Petersen, the writer-artist behind the Eisner-winning "Mouse Guard," published by Archaia, holds a Lieam finger puppet made by "Transylvania Television" creator Gordon Smuder, whose Puppet Forge had a table at the show. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

A Fabletown and Beyond attendee sports a Cthulu mask at Saturday's late-night informal pool party at the Kahler Grand Hotel in Rochester, Minn. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Bill Willingham and artist Frank Cho will collaborate on an illustrated novel featuring, the writer says, Norse gods, monsters, dragons, smart monkeys, a grand ball with flowing dresses -- "and there's actually a story that goes with it." Above is teaser art. (Frank Cho)

"Fables" collaborators Mark Buckingham, left, and Bill Willingham discuss their long-lived work relationship on Sunday morning. When alerted that time was up, convention host Willingham quipped, "What's the next show here? I can cancel that." (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Conor McCreery, left, and Anthony Del Col are the creators and writers of "Kill Shakespeare," published by IDW. Their panel included a performance of the Bard's Sonnet 71 by attendee Michelle Camp, who'd been delighted to see "my sonnet" used in Volume 2 of their series. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Michael Perry of Chicago dressed up as Flycatcher, a frog-prince-turned-janitor in "Fables'" early stories. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

A future "Fairest" arc features Fabletown's finest secret agent, Cinderella. The story will be written by Marc Andreyko, with art by Shawn McManus. Here's an early look at a McManus page from it. (Vertigo)

Lauren Beukes, who wrote the just-finished Rapunzel arc in "Fairest," brought snacks -- and some borderline inappropriate questions -- to share at "Fairest" editor Shelly Bond's solo panel. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Artists Andrew Pepoy ("Jack of Fables"), left, and Adam Hughes ("Fairest"), along with writers Mike Carey ("The Unwritten") and Van Jensen ("Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer"). (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Winners celebrate during Friday night's Fabletown trivia competition in the Kahler Grand Hotel. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Husband-and-wife team Chris Roberson ("iZombie," "Cinderella" miniseries) and Allison Baker are the publishers of MonkeyBrain Comics, which began issuing titles on ComiXology last year and will start print editions this summer. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Bryan J.L. Glass is the co-creator, with Michael Avon Oeming, of the award-winning "The Mice Templar," published by Image. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Kurt Busiek ("Astro City," "Marvels"), who originated the term "mythic fiction" -- the genre the convention was about -- signs books for fans. (Blake Hennon / Los Angeles Times)

"Fables" collaborators Mark Buckingham, left, and Bill Willingham discuss their long working relationship. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Stephanie Horn played the outre party game Cards Against Humanity on Friday night with multiple-Eisner-Award-winning “Fables” artist Mark Buckingham, but the devoted fan isn’t ratting him out.

It was “hysterical,” she says, “and that’s all I want to say because I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”

Interactions like hers and Buckingham’s were an aim of the Fabletown and Beyond gathering in snow-white-blanketed Rochester, Minn.

Horn, who traveled from Ventura for the show, had enjoyed limited interaction with several of its special guests at larger events, but relished “deeper access than a standard convention,” a common sentiment during the weekend from readers and professionals alike.

"Fables" collaborators Mark Buckingham, left, and Bill Willingham discuss their long-lived work relationship on Sunday morning. When alerted that time was up, convention host Willingham quipped, "What's the next show here? I can cancel that." (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

“Fables” collaborators Mark Buckingham, left, and Bill Willingham discuss their long-lived work relationship on Sunday morning. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

In addition to the usual signings, artist sketches and comic-book discussions, attendees could see Cthulu dangling his legs over the edge of a pool, a veteran of local theater performing the Bard’s Sonnet 71 to kick off an hour with the creators of a comic called “Kill Shakespeare,” and a couple of scavenger hunt winners getting more than the usual prizes – they got engaged during a (planned) surprise twist of a blindfold game overseen by convention host Bill Willingham.

During the farewell panel Sunday, Willingham, the creator of the myths-in-modernity Vertigo series “Fables,” told the packed, applauding crowd that he’d set out to “show that there are better, nicer ways to do” comic-book conventions. Whether others try his tack, or even if there’s another Fabletown and Beyond, is uncertain. But attendees got a clear look at several anticipated projects.

Beyond the news that Lancaster residents Maria Mitchum and Josh Pinson, parents of 2-year-old Dani, will wed, the “Fables” panel Saturday brought several announcements: This fall’s “Fables Encyclopedia” will be followed next year by “The Fables Companion,” a collection of interviews, essays and more.

Willingham said that the previously announced original graphic novel, “Fairest: In All the Land,” scheduled for a fall release, has the Magic Mirror reflecting in short stories on his standards of internal and external beauty after finally cracking (metaphorically) when asked that same old annoying question.

More well-known artists were added to the book’s roster, including Gene Ha, Renae de Liz, Phil Noto and Chris Sprouse. And one unknown, Fiona Meng, earned a gig drawing one of the tales during the convention’s portfolio reviews.

“Fables” fans also got to see their favorite winged monkey librarian take flight Saturday during Telltale Games’ preview of the upcoming video game set in the comic’s world. The title won’t be announced until Wednesday, but Telltale’s Richard Iggo said gamers would play as Bigby Wolf, that there would be new characters and that the story is set before Issue 1 of the series. He said players will feel the “narrative clock ticking” in the game, and that outcomes are not determined only by choices, but also by the timing of those choices.

“We’ve always strived to see the players of our games … as the last collaborator in the creation of the story,” he said.

Willingham said the game is canon, and there are ideas Telltale originated that he wants to “steal” for future “Fables” issues.

Bill Willingham and artist Frank Cho will collaborate on an illustrated novel featuring, the writer says, Norse gods, monsters, dragons, smart monkeys, a grand ball with flowing dresses -- "and there's actually a story that goes with it." Above is teaser art. (Frank Cho)

Bill Willingham and artist Frank Cho will collaborate on an illustrated novel. Above is teaser art. (Frank Cho)

On Sunday, Willingham announced an independent endeavor, Imaginary Friends, that will have him writing more comics and working with a variety of artists. He also told the crowd that he and award-winning artist Frank Cho (“Savage Wolverine”) are teaming on a novel with illustrations, and that a Kickstarter campaign will start in the next few weeks.

His “Fables” collaborator Buckingham, a rare presence at U.S. conventions, was the guest of honor and clearly overwhelmed by the outpouring of reader affection over the weekend — in the singalong to a Carpenters song during his keynote address/variety show, in the line that formed every time he approached his dealer room table, in bonding during an informal late-night pool party.

He told the assembled at the farewell panel, “I thought I was coming here for a convention. It turns out I was coming for a weekend holiday with 500 of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.”

The tally ticked up to 505 on Sunday, a little more than the stated ticket sales limit. Many came from such nearby cities as Minneapolis and Chicago, but some came from as far as Israel and Singapore.

Willingham told Hero Complex that his expectations in the early planning stages were “dismal.” “It’s a small convention, a very narrow focus, and it’s way out of the way … Why would anyone show up?” But they did.

He said that on Saturday, wandering into the con-exclusive Kill Shakespeare Bar after the programming day’s official end and seeing the same people from the civic center — readers and creators — continuing their conversations, he said to himself, “Yep, that’s exactly how this kind of thing should work.”

Check out the gallery above for more on the creators, fans and scene at the show.

– Blake Hennon

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