Created by: Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, James Jean
Published by: DC/Vertigo
ISBN: 1563899426 (Amazon)
Fractured faery tales and contemporary reimaginings of the classic fables have proliferated over the last several decades. Perhaps marked by the playfulness of postmodern revisitation, traditional narratives have seemed a ripe harvest for gleaning new meaning from old stock. So with Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s Fables, we can’t really find ourselves wowed by the ingenuity of exploring third-millennium expressions of old yarns—after all, it’s not as if it hasn’t been done often and recently. Still, since Fables is a wonderful series, its charms must lie elsewhere from the bland ingenuity of simply traveling well-trod roads.
Fables is, plainly stated, a wonderful series. It does indeed follow the figures of numerous traditional faery tales, fables, nursery rhymes, and best-beloved stories. It does indeed give them modern lives. And it does indeed attempt to interpret their predilections through a number of contemporary filters. Its successes in these reinterpretations are varied, with some faring better with some readers than with others—there have been some understandable frustrations with the fates, expressions, and motivations of both female and male characters, depending on what a reader brings to the text.
Fables works well not just as Story As Story, but as a commentary on the contemporary reader. Obviously, the work says many things about its creators, but just as interesting are the reactions it provokes in its readership—whether joy or frustration or pleasure or groans or interest or rage. When embedded fans of the series will devote their time and energy to incisive critique and critical readings, that is the mark of a worthwhile read.
Some readers take issue with some of Willingham’s female characters and their sometimes provincial outlook on life and on male/female natures and interactions. Others find the portrayal of Arabian fables to be stereotyped and representative of the book’s missed opportunities. Others boggle at the treatment of contemporary political matters, whether the abortion question or Israeli foreign policy. It is a powerful work that can elicit such responses from its mature readership and still garner praise from many of its detractors.
Fables’ foundation is built on the idea that all the faery tales and nursery rhymes that have been expressed over the centuries in our world are somehow reflections on a multitude of very real other worlds. Worlds in which Snow White and Rose Red live and breathe. Worlds in which the Big Bad Wolf roams around large and hungry. Worlds in which Boy Blue, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and her Beast, Pinocchio, and more each have full lives only hinted at in our own versions of their stories. And circumstances being what they were, these auspicious figures were forced to evacuate their fabled realms and flee here, to the mundane world.
Because a grave and merciless Adversary had begun conquering their lands one after another, the fables found themselves escaped to 1600s Europe from where they then made passage to the New World. There, they established in New Amsterdam an enclave they call Fabletown. Protected by numerous spells and wards, Fabletown sits undiscovered in the midst of the growing New York City—and that is where Willingham first deposits the reader, four hundred years later. The fables have grown comfortable in their adopted homeland, leading relatively normal lives and holding jobs. Of course things are more complicated than that, but that is our introduction to what turns out to be a collection of indelible characters.
Characterization is one of Fables’ three main strong points. Each fable has his or her or its surface story, the one that may be an amusing take on the legend. Pinocchio is an embittered 400-year-old in the body of a ten-year-old boy. Kind of like Edward Cullen but with a lot less sex. Beast is human most of the time, but begins falling back into his monstrous appearance as his wife’s love for him wanes. Goldilocks, married to Baby Bear, is an activist for interspecies marriage. Prince Charming, having wed Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty is known as the town cad. Amusing, sure, but not much beyond that. And if that was where Willingham left his characters, Fables would grow stale at a rapid clip.
Fortunately, the stories and backstories of these fables pretty quickly begin to show some depth and thought. These are full-bodied individuals whose motives and actions begin to make sense through the perpetual revelation of who they really are. No character remains mere stereotype. And with a single exception (due to personal taste), each of these characters have become dear to me.
The second strength of the series is its seemingly endless well of narrative ideas. Willingham continues to bring new and fresh developments to this company of fables and seems to actively eschew any sort of status quo. The series just hit its 100th chapter and Willingham shows no evident signs of flagging. After what seemed to be his first-act climax, I couldn’t be sure where he would take the story. It seemed as if, having wrapped up what probably could have been the series-long conflict, he didn’t have much elsewhere to go and yet even now, we’re seeing new story branches and hints of developments to come. I continue to anticipate a long and fruitful series.
The other great strength of Fables is its art. And while the seventy or so James Jean-painted covers are a mighty beauty to behold, it is Mark Buckingham’s interior design work and character drawing that really pulls the series together. While many of the guest artists do well with what they’re given, I am always thirsty for the series to return to Buckingham’s hands. His art is not flashy in the overly detailed sense that has sometimes been a boon but mostly plagued mainstream books for the last two decades. He is steady and inventive and illustrates these fables with power and grace.
Personally, this is one of my favorite books to pick up every time a new collected volume comes out. I anticipate each new arch in the story and am rarely let down. In sixteen volumes (and one prose novel), the book has only been Not Good twice (individual reader frustrations over socio-political matters aside). Unfortunately, one of those books is the reason I have a hard time recommending the series.
Because it’s the very first book.
It’s pretty aggravating, but the first volume of this otherwise wonderful series—the one in which all the principal characters are introduced—is really just a mediocre book. It holds none of the charm of the later series. Essentially, whenever I do recommend the series (as I am doing now), I have to caveat by saying: “No matter what you think of the first volume, keep going and read the second one. And then the third. It just gets better and better.” Really, the next rough patch doesn’t crop up until volume thirteen,* so that’s a pretty good spread.
In any case, if you’re a mature reader, I highly recommend Fables as an entertaining, thoughtful exploration of characters with whom you’re likely familiar in circumstances that are new and fresh.
* I know. Others will point to the Arabian fables volume. Or the Wedding. Or any number of other points that illustrate issues that one may take up they interpret the book. And that’s fair. But, those are judgments on volumes based on personal values, not on the merits of comic-craft and storytelling. Volume thirteen is objectively Not Good,** whether one takes issue with any socio-political matters contained therein or not.
** Insofar as anything in the realm of deciding whether or not you like a comic book can actually be considered objectively.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
Review copy submission may be facilitated via the Contact page.