Did NBC and ABC Rip Off This Great Comic Book?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 28 2011 5:33 PM

Once Upon a Grimm Fable


This week brings two new network shows that draw from a well one might have thought run dry: the most popular European folktales. ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm both attempt ‘gritty’ updates on their subjects, and each one recycles familiar TV tropes in the process. Once transplants the storybook characters to a serial-mystery format (its showrunners are veterans of Lost) while Grimm spins familiar fairy tales into a supernatural police procedural. And they share something else besides: the seeming influence of an earlier reimagining of the tales.

In 2002, artist and writer Bill Willingham created the long-running and critically acclaimed comic book series Fables for DC’s arty Vertigo imprint. In Fables, which now has 110 issues (and counting) to its credit, the storybook legends have been exiled from their homelands by the mysterious and evil Adversary; they live in secrecy in contemporary New York, where they fight for a way to return home.


The similarities between Fables and both of the new series are not hard to spot. In Once Upon A Time, fairy-tale characters—including Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and Geppetto—have been cursed by the Evil Queen to live in Storybrooke (get it?), Maine. In Grimm, a by-the-books cop discovers he is the last in a long line of supernatural detectives charged with defending normal citizens from the real-life fairy-tale monsters living in secret all around us. In the pilot, said cop teams up with a reformed Big Bad Wolf to solve the murders of young women in red hoodies. As a point of reference, the first collection of Fables comics involves the reformed Big Bad Wolf solving the murder of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, a party girl in red attire. What’s more: In Once, the Sheriff of Storybrooke appears to be a Big Bad Wolf as well.

Fans have previously remarked upon the similarities; the creators of Once Upon a Time have dismissed them. It’s worth noting, however, that both NBC (in 2005) and ABC (in 2008) separately optioned Fables for development. And though the two networks eventually abandoned those deals, they each ended up with a series that shares significant similarities to Willingham’s creation. The specifics of the failed negotiations are not public at this point (on the subject of overlapping ideas, Willingham has talked much more about Shrek), but whatever happened, the whole affair seems emblematic of one of Hollywood’s most pervasive current trends: properties winning out over ideas.

Next year will see three Snow White updates. There are as many as 10 Frankenstein movies in the works. Among the 10 highest grossing films from this year are adaptations of comic books, action figures, children’s cartoons, theme-park rides, and a book series. And all but one film on that list is a sequel (or the second part of the sixth sequel) or an adaptation.

This point has been made many times before, and at much greater length. But what happened to Fables (or seemed to) presents an interesting case study—maybe even a cautionary tale. Willingham’s concept blended recognizable properties with a complex and innovative storyline and excitingly off-kilter characterization. The shows that actually made it to air, on the other hand, have whittled that high concept (or something like it) into more familiar TV conventions. If you haven’t seen it before, the reigning conventional wisdom seems to be, why would you watch it at all?

Chris Wade is a producer for Slate Video and occasional contributor to Brow Beat. Follow him on Twitter.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.