Fabletown and Beyond was unique, but shouldn’t be
At least a couple of times over the course of the weekend, Bill Willingham talked about his goal for the Fabletown and Beyond convention he hosted in Rochester, Minnesota. He may not have actually used the term “bucket list,” but that’s essentially what the show seems to have been for him: an opportunity to throw the kind of comics convention he wanted to attend and to see if other creators and fans would enjoy it just as much. From the standing ovation he received at Sunday’s closing ceremony, it appears he was right.
Chris Roberson pointed out to me that Fabletown and Beyond was a lot like fantasy and sci-fi literary conventions. It had that feel from the opening ceremony (an idea Willingham freely admits to stealing from fantasy/sci-fi shows) to the final farewell. It was completely focused on comics and storytelling, and it was a uniquely intimate experience. The show was only designed to accommodate a maximum of 500 attendees, and it got 505. That meant I kept seeing the same faces over and over again all weekend — creators and fans alike — so that by the third day, even people I never talked to were familiar. Instead of a hectic event where people rushed from place to place trying to see and do everything they wanted to, it was a relaxed environment that felt more like just hanging out with friends. Really smart, interesting friends.
Two things contributed to that feeling. First was the panels. There were a variety of topics, some specific to Mythic Fiction, but not all. The first panel I attended featured Kurt Busiek and other creators defining the Mythic Fiction genre. As with any genre, the boundaries are fuzzy, but mostly it has to do with storytellers drawing from humanity’s shared stories and continuing them. These stories also need to be folk-driven, so characters owned by a particular person or company don’t count. If a single entity is able to dictate what can or can’t happen to the character, it’s not Mythic.
The subject of ownership came up again in Sunday’s panel on obscure legends in which Conor McCreery, Gene Ha, Mike Carey and Matt Sturges talked about the effect of copyright laws on storytellers’ ability to use whatever characters they discover and love. Carey pointed out that copyright hasn’t stopped storytellers from using whatever characters they want through piracy and fan fiction. I’m putting words into his mouth now, but it does seem that all characters are in the actual public domain, even if not all are legally so.
Other panels also crossed over from genre-specific topics to broader conversations about storytelling. Peter Gross hosted a Friday panel that was supposed to be about the different ways the same mythical characters (Pinocchio, for example) end up having adventures in different worlds. But Gross and panelists Van Jensen, Mike Carey and Chris Roberson were more excited to talk about where ideas and stories come from. It’s a question that most writers fear being asked, but the panel dived into it voluntarily and surprisingly scientifically. A highlight was when Gross pointed out that humans keep telling the same stories over and over again, and that he thinks that’s because we’re fighting some sort of war. He’s not sure what kind of war or who the enemy is, but he believes that we use these repeated stories to remind ourselves of important truths.
That was the panel where I realized I could get more out of the convention than just some interesting discussion about controversial topics. There was that, too (panels on work-for-hire, the ethical treatment of touchy subject matter, and whether altruistc heroes still exist in superhero comics, for example), but into these discussions the creators kept coming back to what stories are and why we tell them. In hindsight, I should have expected that at a convention dedicated to myths and fiction, but I guess I’m more used to the traditional convention panel where conversations tend to stay on the surface and include lots of promotion of upcoming work. At Fabletown and Beyond, creators used each other’s work to illustrate points, but any huckster impulses were buried beneath the desire to contribute to the overall dialogue of the weekend.
The second thing that helped create the feeling of camaraderie was the Kill Shakespeare Bar, hosted by the ebulliently gregarious Brad Thomte. Armed with free snacks and cleverly renamed drinks, Thomte made everyone feel at home. The bar’s physical layout provided wonderful nooks and crannies for private conversations, but there was also a large spillover room for better mingling and playing games. I spent Saturday evening hanging out with the staff of The Source Comics and Games, the place where I buy comics every week, and who also helped sponsor the convention. It was a great experience getting to know better the folks whom I usually only see for a couple of minutes each week as they hand me my pull list and I hand them some money.
The convention organizers also made sure that at least one creator was in the bar at all times during the day. Attendees were encouraged to sit and talk with them without the artifice of seeking autographs or sketches; just conversation. I sat with Chris Roberson and Allison Baker (and fellow CBR writer Tim Callahan, whom I’d never met before) for a little over an hour as they talked to students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a young man who’d traveled all the way from Israel. It was a beautiful conversation about influences and favorite comics. I’ve had those kinds of discussions at other conventions, but usually after hours and always on the initiative of the group I was with. At Fabletown and Beyond, it was built into the programming; another example of Willingham’s vision for his perfect con come to life.
Sadly- – but understandably — Willingham doesn’t want to host again next year, having scratched his itch. He said as much during the opening ceremony and hadn’t changed his mind by the show’s close. It’s simply too time-consuming an enterprise and he feels the need to get back to writing. That doesn’t mean that the show has to go away, though.
A couple of possibilities could bring it back next year. The one Willingham seems to prefer would be for another creator to take over, replacing the “Fabletown” part of the title with his or her own comic, but keeping the “and Beyond” part. He says that he got some very wary interest in that, but even if that doesn’t happen, there’s a professional convention organizer who apparently would like to continue the show. Willingham sounds interested, but only if there are guarantees that the convention would retain the same format and feel from this year.
As an attendee, that’s also the circumstance under which I’d want to return. I’m hoping that this isn’t the one and only Fabletown and Beyond, but only if the next one is also able to create the intimacy and inspirational discussion that this one did.
One of the topics involved singing:
Another topic allowed Buckingham to have his revenge, so he invited Willingham onstage to sing a duet to Fables editor Shelly Bond: