Fables, which is entirely written by Willingham with art by Mark Buckingham and several others, was originally published by DC’s Vertigo imprint. The series launched in 2002 and ran for 150 issues, then came to an end but was restarted in 2021 (see “Bill Willingham Returns to ‘Fables’”) with a new story arc, “The Black Forest,” which was slated to run for 12 issues. Nine have been published so far, and the other three have been solicited for October and November 2023.
In the Substack post, Willingham wrote, “Throughout the years of my business relationship with DC, with Fables and with other intellectual properties, DC has always been in violation of their agreements with me.” Specifically, he claimed that DC:
- Did not seek his approval for new artists, covers, and formats;
- Underreported royalties and paid them late;
- Tried to persuade him to sign over ownership of Fables to DC as a condition of resuming the series for its 20th anniversary;
- Did not pay him for licensing the property to Telltale Games;
Willingham acknowledged that he and DC have disagreed on many points. “They practically dared me to sue them to enforce my rights, knowing it would be a long and debilitating process," he wrote. “Instead I began to consider other ways to go.”
His new way is to release the property into the public domain, although it’s not clear what that means. He still has contracts with DC, and he acknowledged that he cannot publish Fables comics through anyone but them, nor can he authorize any licenses for other media.
By putting the property in the public domain, Willingham wrote,
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.
Mark Buckingham is free to do his version of Fables (and I dearly hope he does). Steve Leialoha is free to do his version of Fables (which I’d love to see). And so on. You don’t have to get my permission (but you might get my blessing, depending on your plans). You don’t have to get DC’s permission, or the permission of anyone else. You never signed the same agreements I did with DC Comics.
On September 12, Willingham Tweeted about the series’ delays, saying “Short version: I handed in every script more than two years ago, and, for multiple reasons, haven’t worked with/for DC since. I fired them.” In a response to that Tweet, he added “Fables is fully creator owned, by me, but not creator controlled. DC has most publication and media rights locked up in contract.”
The copyright notice on Fables #159 includes the following wording: “Copyright © 2023 Bill Willingham and DC Comics. All rights reserved. All characters featured in this issue, the distinctive likenesses thereof, and related elements are trademarks of Bill Willingham.”
ICv2 reached out to DC for comment but did not get a response by press time.