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Bill Willingham Replies To DC Comics' Reaction To Public Domain Fables

Bill Willingham stating Fables was now public domain, when it is uses almost entirely public domain characters, was chutzpah at its highest.

I have to confess that Bill Willingham, choosing to state that his comic book series Fables was to be considered public domain, when it is using almost entirely public domain characters anyway, was chutzpah of the highest order. From Snow White to Jack Frost to Red Riding Hood, albeit given a noir filter, that was kind of the point of Fables at DC Comics. Something that Zenescope has also played up to.

Whether Bill Willingham is actually able to make Fables public domain, given that he signed publishing rights over to DC Comics, may be up for debate. Especially given that much is already based on public domain, it felt as if Steven Moffat was making Sherlock Holmes free for everyone.

But of course, there are totally original characters, and original takes on them in Fables as well. A creator-0wned series, though one as he put it, that was controlled by DC Comics, it is notable that DC Comics didn't make any move over ABC's Once Upon A Time TV series which was, in many ways, a beat-for-beat adaptation.

Bill Willingham posted to clarify some points. "Several questions have poured in over Fables rights. No, this doesn't include the right to reprint previously published Fables books and stories. And if you come out with your own Fables books, others couldn't decide to reprint them. "Create your own" is the new order of things." I am not entirely sure that's how the public domain works either. Time to consult the lawyers. Willingham adds "No, I am not in any way soured on Fables. And I'll happily still sign Fables books and talk Fables at cons. I'm just soured on a certain publisher that joined the dark side." But lots of other folks wanted to have their say. Some were very supportive.

James Owen: Bill Willingham is an old friend, and one of the earliest supporters of my creative work. I have Imaginarium Geographica novels in twenty-two languages. A FABLES-based novel written and illustrated by me, under the permission of his having declared his work to be public domain, would be a seismic event in the pop culture world. And I might do it – not just because I can, or because I have an affinity for the material – but to also put companies like DC Comics on notice: we don't need you. But you are NOTHING without us.

John Rozum: People are so focused on the public domain aspect of this when the important part is that Bill entered into a creator owned agreement with DC where he is the creator, and DC is not only not honoring it, but making it impossible for him to get ownership of his work back from them. I can completely understand his predicament with them, and it is no laughing matter.

Brian Hibbs:This is pretty "Wow!" to me as a comics industry story. I sincerely hope this works the way Bill Willingham hopes it will. Several of the things he claims DC has done are extremely troubling to me, and appear to point to real problems with creator ownership at large corporations.

Jimmy Palmiotti: Biggest story of the year? You decide.

Terry Moore: Wow. The DC lawyers made Bill really really really really really really mad. #fables

Blerd With Out Fear: "Not Bill Willingham putting Fables into public domain as a middle finger to DC Not gonna lie. I love the energy. DC been playing with this man for years and he's had enough. If he can't get paid then fuck it. Fables belong to everybody."

Some thought that this was not going to work and he was only harming himself.

EL Anderson: Like…Bill Willingham is a total jerk, and his IP only kinda exists, which is definitely down to some sort of contractual failure by someone, but…this is like watching a toddler carefully pouring kerosene on themselves; shouldn't someone who knows better be preventing this?

Seth Jacob: Bill Willingham claims that Fables in the public domain doesn't include "the right to reprint previously published Fables books and stories." um actually, that's exactly what it means. if it's public domain…it's public domain. you don't get to issue caveats and conditions.

While some saw an opportunity to publish their own Fables comic books, the most prominent was Ben Dunn of Antarctic Press, who didn't waste any time recruiting creators to pitch him stories.

Ben Dunn: So the idea of doing a FABLES anthology series seems to be catching on. I think a crowd funding project might be the way to go and then have AP publish it for comic stores. I did a similar project with SOUTHERN GOTHIC so it is not out of the realm of possibility to do something in that vein but with characters from the FABLES comic series. I am willing to take on such a project but I will need to see how many out there are serious enough to want to contribute to it. I will work on some guidelines and post them to get things started.

Justin Cristelli: This was a surprise move! So…who wants to make a Fables comic with me?

Luna Alexander: Holy cow… looks like Im gonna be rereading some old pals and coming up with some new ideas around em… Victoria Rose Weatherspoon, have you ever devoured Fables?!?!

Luis Castillo Silva: I wanna say that I'm happy that I can potentially use this story and tell my own version of it. When I was a kid, I found that setting and some of its characters to be absolutely rich with potential and fascinating to look upon. (Mark Buckingham's exquisitely detailed art was something I would stare at for hours at a time.) But I'd be lying that I'm hesitant still about this whole process. What if DC pulls something? Is Fables, the setting and its logos and what makes it truly unique, truly safe to use? And if so, I wonder, should I use Fables at all? It did not age well, unfortunately. I know this because my little sister used to read through my comics collection, and she told me a few years back that the sexism within Fables, including multiple aspects of Snow White's pregnancy, turned her off of comics in general. It broke my heart to hear that, and I've been more aware of that sort of thing in comics, especially as I become a writer myself. So, is me doing my own spin on this story enough to undo that? What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that I'm just glad that maybe I can do something of my own with these characters, something that will transcend either a corporation or the pain of the past, but I'm still unsure on how it'll all work out in the end. We'll see, is what I think.

But not so fast. As news ramped up, DC Comics issued a very rare statement of their own;

"The Fables comic books and graphic novels published by DC, and the storylines, characters and elements therein, are owned by DC and protected under the copyright laws of the United States and throughout the world in accordance with applicable law, and are not in the public domain. DC reserves all rights and will take such action as DC deems necessary or appropriate to protect its intellectual property rights."

Are Snow White and Red Riding Hood really not in the public domain, DC Comics? As for the storylines, characters and elements therein, the indicia of Fables indicates a shared copyright between DC and Bill Willingham. Here's what DC Comics printed from the most recent issue:

Comic Industry Reacts To Bill Willingham Making Fables Public Domain

Owned by DC? Even though they state that they are copyright in their own public statements? I reached out to Bill Willingham for further comment, and he told me "I told you DC thinks they own Fables and this inexpertly-composed statement from them admits it."

Bill Willingham Replies To DC Comics' Reaction To Public Domain Fables

Former DC/Vertigo Editor Stuart Moore posted to Facebook, "Why is everyone dumping on Bill Willingham? He's publicizing a dispute with a big corporation. I helped review those Vertigo contracts in the early 90s, and I can tell you they're COMPLICATED"… bu then it seems someone contacted him and he edited to add "I'm reliably informed there's another whole side to this story that isn't currently being commented on."

I'd love to know more. And also, the internet rediscovered that Bill Willingham is a prominent right-wing conservative commentator, who has written for Breitbart, attends conservative comic book conventions, and has expressed pro-Israeli, anti-abortion and anti-trans opinions and sympathies, sometimes in the comic books themselves, as well as participating in a rather controversial comic con panel at the time.

Although he didn't always bat for one side of the fence.

Bill Willingham Replies To DC Comics' Reaction To Public Domain Fables

Nevertheless, it was enough to gain comment from comic creators regarding those political beliefs as well, amongst the swell of support for Willingham.

Henry Barajas: "Don't forget what kind of human being @BillWillingham is based on his own actions. He has gone unchecked and given an extraordinary platform for decades. Letting Hansel and Gretel fall into public domain is not noteworthy… The problem with the comic book industry is all of you blindly supporting a bigot just because he's letting Hansel and Gretel go into public domain. Racists supporting racists."

Jennifer de Guzman: "I'm not saying a misogynist, transphobic right-wing comics writer who once wrote for Breitbart deliberately tricked people into thinking he's some kind of hero of the working class, but I am saying that the only part of that I'm not sure of is "deliberately."

Magdalene Visaggio: Bill Willingham Starter Pack

Biskeletal: As someone who really loved Fables, Bill Willingham being into climate change denial stuff is baseline disappointing, but him liking transphobic rhetoric feels extra sh-tty given the work of Lilah Sturges on the Fables universe.

Does that matter when a principle is at stake? It does to some. And I get the feeling that we have only scratched the surface on this particular one. Antarctic Press' Ben Dunn has just updated his plans…

So I've been advised to stay away from the whole Fables thing and for now I agree with them. I support Bill Willingham's effort and if DC was man enough they should know better than to treat creators this way. What does it say about them that they treat a respected and talented creator and not only refuse to pay his due but to outright steal his creations. This needs to change. Boycott DC!

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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