Stop attacking Once Upon a Time

Willingham to fans: disarm, please.

Comic Book Resources recently published an editorial submitted by Bill Willingham, which takes the odd form of a lengthy interview with Willingham, conducted by himself. Within, he asks questions about the connection between his graphic novel creation Fables and the recent ABC hit fantasy drama Once Upon a Time.

Even back to when the show was first announced, fans of Willingham’s work began to decry the new series as a rip off. While true that both shows are based on the same general concept – fairy tale characters have been exiled to live in secret on our own world – and ABC had recently cancelled a previously planned project to create a television show based on the Fables property, Willingham says that he does not believe that they created Once Upon a Time just to be able to get the Fables story for free.

“[The plot similarity is] hardly damning,” he says. “Our fantastic literature is rife with ‘they’ve been hiding amongst us all along’ scenarios. There were plenty of such tales long before ‘Fables’ came along. There will be scads of them long after ‘Once’ has aired its final episode and ‘Fables’ shipped its final issue. If you start with the notion of fairy tale characters still alive in the modern world, the next step of placing them in a secret community seems almost axiomatic.”

He later comments that “[Derivation is] the nature of the beast. Storytellers get much of their ideas and inspiration from other stories. If handled in a non-sinister manner, those stories are not immediately copied, in whole or in part, but instead sent down into the mind’s basement kitchen, to stew and simmer, along with all of the other stuff already down there, filtering out the good from the bad, the better from the good, adding in a dose of ‘yes, but I would have done it differently,’ until something new and original, and absolutely not a rip off, rises out of the cauldron, ready to become one’s own stories. It’s this same process that makes it so easy to forget where all the individual bits came from.”

His tone is one of peace and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving. He trusts that the creators of Once Upon a Time are legitimate artists like himself, and is willing to leave it at that, even pointing out that his own work is itself derived from other previous works, like Fractured Fairytales (a series of anachronistic retellings of the classic stories) and 10th Kingdom (a TV mini-series with a plot involving people from our world getting trapped in a Disneyesque fairytale world).

Mostly, he wants his fans to stop questioning the Once Upon a Time creators’ artistic integrity in public forums, seeing it as a bit of bad form, and worse, making his fans look like jerks (though he doesn’t come right out and say that, I think the inference is there).

He gets the crux of it, and a few plugs for other works, out in the final paragraph, “If you like ‘Fables,’ you needn’t dislike ‘Once,’ and vice versa. Join me in wallowing in all of it. And then take a look at all the other grand stuff out there right now, or coming down the pike. Along with ‘Fables,’ read ‘Kill Shakespeare’ and ‘The Unwritten,’ ‘Memorial,’ ‘Mice Templar’ and ‘Mouse Guard.’ Read ‘The Stuff of Legend’ and ‘Castle Waiting’ and all the other gems in the same general category.

“It’s the new age of old time stories. Along with ‘Once,’ I’m looking forward to ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ and ‘Mirror, Mirror.’ There can’t be enough different takes on this character, which very much mirrors the way it worked in the olden days. The Brothers Grimm didn’t collect one version of every folktale; they discovered dozens of versions of each one, because it’s the nature of folklore to be altered to suit every different folk who wants to make use of it. Why should today be any different?”