Interview: Sean E. Williams on ‘Fairest: Return of the Maharaja’, Hinduism, and Giant Crocodiles

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Next week sees the release of the third trade of Fairest, the spinoff series of Fables which has seen a number of writers and artists tell standalone stories spotlighting the different female characters of Bill Willingham’s world. Return of the Maharaja, however, tries something a little different still – writer Sean E. Williams and artist Steve Sadowski introduce a new hero from myth to readers, in the form of Nalayani.

Coming straight from the epic mythology of Indian folkore, Nalayani is a dynamic, contrary, unpredictable sort of lead character; and her story dominates the third arc of the series. But Williams’ story not only brings in new characters like Nalayani – it also features some the return of some unexpected, familiar faces, to the shock of long-term Fables fans. I was lucky to have the chance to talk to Williams about his story, and he explained how it came together, the surprising twist appearance of a fan-favourite character… and giant monsters.

fairest1 Interview: Sean E. Williams on Fairest: Return of the Maharaja, Hinduism, and Giant Crocodiles

Steve: How did you get involved with writing this arc of Fairest?

Sean: I’d known Bill Willingham for years from working on another project together, and getting to be friends over the course of that time.  Then Chris Roberson started doing the Cinderella arcs, and he was in the middle of the second one when I had an idea for a FABLES story that I just couldn’t get out of my head. So Saturday night of SDCC 2010 I was walking between hotels with Bill, and I got up the courage to ask him if he’d be interested in hearing a pitch for a story. He said he would be, so I immediately got away from downtown and wrote up a full proposal.

The next night, as we were setting up Bill’s dead-dog party, I pitched him the story.  He said he liked it, and that they had something in the works that it might be a part of (which would become FAIREST; I think he was talking to Lauren Beukes about her arc already at that point).

Steve: Did you come with the pitch already in mind – what was your goal for the story?

Sean: Well, that’s where things get interesting.  So yeah, I had a whole pitch fleshed out, and was bouncing it between Bill and our editor, Shelly Bond, getting feedback and notes and tweaking accordingly.  Then I was in Minnesota that Christmas visiting the in-laws, and I drove down to visit with Bill.  We went to lunch, and he got all serious, and said that he wanted me to write a Prince Charming story too.  Which was great, but Charming’s dead, so it’d all be in flashback.

And who could say no to writing a FABLES Prince Charming story?  Which (spoilers!) was when Bill dropped the bomb that Charming wasn’t dead.  And my mind was blown.   So I reaffirmed that I’d be interested, and ecstatically drove back to the in-laws.  The next time I was able to get a hold of Bill was in March, I think, and I hadn’t heard anything, and I was starting to think the Charming thing was a practical joke, which Bill is known for.

I finally got a hold of him, and he told me it was a good news/bad news situation.  Bad news was that I wasn’t writing my arc as planned.  Good news was that Vertigo wanted the Charming story instead.  I can say this now since it isn’t happening, but my original story focused on Bluebeard, and for some reason Prince Charming is more popular than Bluebeard.  The only problem was that I hadn’t even thought about the Charming story, since I’d been working on Bluebeard for eight months.  So in the span of weeks I had to come up with a whole story for Charming.

The only thing Bill gave me to start with was that Charming had been blown through the gateway, and I had to come up with why he hadn’t been back to Fabletown in the intervening years, and go from there.

fairest2 Interview: Sean E. Williams on Fairest: Return of the Maharaja, Hinduism, and Giant Crocodiles

Steve: The story is notably set outside of Fablestown, and the American-centric adventures around it. What research did you do to look into the role of Hinduism, and how important was it to you that you set the story in India?

Sean: In thinking about what type of Homeland Charming would be sent to, I threw out a bunch of non-Anglo options.  Japan was the only one I had to stay away from, since Lauren was doing hers there, so the rest of the world was wide open.  I’d been to India a couple of years before, and had enough of a cursory knowledge of Hinduism to know that there was an endless supply of stories to draw from, so I set my focus there.  But unlike a lot of FABLES source material, Hinduism is a religion that’s very much alive today, and I wasn’t comfortable playing around with it willy-nilly.

I reached out to Dean Varun Soni at the University of Southern California (my alma mater) for his input, and (as a practicing Hindu), he walked me through what would be appropriate and what wouldn’t be, which really freed me up creatively.  With that in mind, I dove into reading the epics, looking for characters who would be a good foil for Charming, and revisited Kipling’s stories, which play a huge part too, like Tabaqui, and the Village of the Dead.

fairest3 Interview: Sean E. Williams on Fairest: Return of the Maharaja, Hinduism, and Giant Crocodiles

Steve: Your lead character, Nalayani, comes from the stories of Hinduism. What about her made her click as a character for you – what drives the original version of her, and what drives your take on the character?

Sean: In her original story, which is told in the MAHABHARATA, she’s described as “one of the five ideal women,” so that checked the “fairest” box off the list.  And what you have to remember is that there is no definitive version of these epics of Hinduism – who the good guy is in the RAMAYANA varies if you’re in the north or the south of India.  So I read a couple of versions of her story, which all centered on how she was married to this leprous sage Maudgalya, and treated him well and tolerated him for years, and he revealed himself to be this paragon and they travelled the world for the rest of their lives enjoying “the five pleasures” (which also checked a box off the list, since it was Charming she’d be partnered up with).

But she was insatiable, and as punishment for her lust, a later incarnation of her has to marry five men.  So the original story is basically “put up with your husband and you’ll be rewarded, but don’t be insatiable or you’ll be punished,” which isn’t exactly the story I wanted to tell, or thought that readers would enjoy.  There’s some of that original story in the arc, – Maudgalya has a cameo, and the leprosy in particular plays a role – but I really dwelled on the idea of “where are the gods?” in the Indu, the Indian Homeland.

Well, of course the Indu was invaded by the Adversary, so that had some effect on the world, as we see, and I realized the gods were gone: this was an alternate universe from the Hinduism people know and practice, and that Nalayani and Maudgalya never married, which changed her whole story completely.  She’s still a caregiver, though, so her whole focus in this arc is saving her village, which has been likewise devastated by the Adversary and all the fallout from the collapse of the Empire.

fairest4 Interview: Sean E. Williams on Fairest: Return of the Maharaja, Hinduism, and Giant Crocodiles

Steve: You got to work with the creative team of Steve Sadowski, Phil Jimenez and Andrew Dalhouse on the book – quite the team. What did they bring to the storyline, and how do you feel now looking back at the story as a whole?

Sean: As soon as I as saw the first pages Steve and Phil handed in, I knew we needed more animals and more wide shots.  Steve’s animals KILL me, they’re so gorgeous.  There’s a bit I wrote in the third issue that was supposed to be a throwaway beat, but Steve made the animal so alive that it became a crucial moment in the issue for me.  Mugger Ghat (the giant crocodile, from THE JUNGLE BOOK) has a much bigger part because of these guys.

There are several monsters from Hinduism throughout the book that I basically transcribed their descriptions, having NO idea how something like that would look, but Steve blew them all out of the water, and made them believable to boot.  He’s a genius.  And all the textures and tone that Andrew brought to the clothing and the scenery…it’s a gorgeous book.  We were really blessed to have these guys on board.

And, if I can add this, the fact that Todd Klein made a typeface based on Devanagari, the written form of Hindi, just for this arc still blows my mind to this day.

Shelly and Gregory Lockard were amazing editors to work with.  Their instincts were spot on, of course, and they never talked down to me, even though this was my first published comic work (although Shelly did gently chide me at our first lunch when I made the rookie mistake of calling word balloons “word bubbles”).  It’s just been humbling to work with the entire team, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.  Hopefully the readers feel the same way!

Many thanks to Sean for his time! The third arc of Fairest, The Return of the Maharaja’, will be published by Vertigo next week. You can also find Sean online at his website here, and on twitter. 

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