The hit comic book series Fables is now in the public domain.
In a surprise move announced today, creator Bill Willingham has released the intellectual property into the wild, citing on-going conflicts with DC Comics. DC first published Fables under their original Vertigo imprint, then most recently under its Black Label banner. According to Willingham, the publisher has “… always been in violation of their agreements with me.” From neglecting to get the writer’s opinion on artists, covers, etc. to failing to pay royalties for such things as the video game license DC sold to Telltale Games.
Willingham says in his press release, “…since I disagreed on all of their new interpretations of our longstanding agreements, we were in conflict. They practically dared me to sue them to enforce my rights, knowing it would be a long and debilitating process. Instead I began to consider other ways to go.”
The other way he’s going is to release Fables to the public domain, thus giving everyone the right to create new material in the story universe. “If I understand the law correctly (and be advised that copyright law is a mess; purposely vague and murky, and no two lawyers – not even those specializing in copyright and trademark law – agree on anything), you have the rights to make your Fables movies, and cartoons, and publish your Fables books, and manufacture your Fables toys, and do anything you want with your property, because it’s your property.”
For those not familiar, Fables is a long-running Eisner Award-winning (and Hugo nominated) comic book series featuring folklore and fairy tale characters who have formed a secret community within New York. The “Fables” live there after their Homelands were conquered by a deadly enemy known as “The Adversary”. Set in the modern day, Fables ran from July 2002 to July 2015 and concluded with issue 150. The story was revived in 2022 with a 12-issue continuation, nine issues of which have been published – and the remaining three may never see the light of day. Willingham says that he completed his work on issues 160-162 a long while back, and it’s up to DC to decide whether to finish the run.
In the past, whenever Willingham had differences with DC, there were discussions and resolutions because “the company was run by honest men and women of integrity,” but over the years he says Fables fell into bad hands – “a revolving door of strangers, of no measurable integrity, who now choose to interpret every facet of our contract in ways that only benefit DC Comics and its owner companies.” This move is a way of short-circuiting DC’s ability to exploit the Fables property in ways that don’t align with Willingham’s preferences.
Although the announcement was a surprise – and was supposed to be released tomorrow, only Looper ignored the embargo – it could be argued that this conflict with DC is part of an overall bigger industry problem, one that Willingham has written about before. In a blog from September 2021, he puts forth a theory as to why the “cranky comics pros” have become more noticeable of late – social media being one reason and “the law of fecal gravity” being the other.
“Since the dawn of modern comic books the publishers and their editor representatives have made it their business to keep the freelancers under their thumb — to keep us in our place, which is the state of being cringingly subservient to them,” he writes. “In DC Comics it became obvious over time that, unless you were the rare 300 pound gorilla (you can guess who they were) who could dictate terms to the editors, you fell into the camp of those the editors could keep under their thumbs. I was never in the 300 pound gorilla camp, but I might have come close to it at the height of Fables, as I began to notice the real dicks in the company started treating me just a wee bit more deferentially.”
Now that Fables is in the wild, and anyone can have a chance to create in that world, Willingham seems to be counting on the law of averages. “If I couldn’t prevent Fables from falling into bad hands, at least this is a way I can arrange that it also falls into many good hands. Since I truly believe there are still more good people in the world than bad ones, I count it as a form of victory.”