Friday, January 08, 2010
Word Balloon: Fables
Fir the new year I thought I would post what is easily my favorite comic book being published right now, Bill Willingham's Fables, published by DC Comics Vertigo imprint. Vertigo Comics specialize in creating books outside of the regular spectrum of comics, namely no capes or cowls. Typically Vertigo books are mature reads and encompass wildly different topics. Fables is certainly no exception to that rule, but it IS one of the cornerstone books of the imprint.
Fables started publication in 2002 and it is about the various characters of fairy tales and folklore, who refer to themselves as Fables, that have fled from their native home worlds to ours. All the characters we associate from these fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, have all retreated to our world as their native lands have been invaded by a creature known only as the Adversary and his hordes. The Fables have set up a small community deep in the heart of New York City, along a few magically en-spelled streets, and are content to live in anonymity. The also have a large en-spelled community in Upstate New York called the Farm for the large variety of Fables that cannot blend in to society, like the various monsters and anthropomorphic animals that fled the Adversary (for example Puss in Boots or the Three Little Pigs.)
This could easily be a book that sounds cutesy or trite, but author Bill Willingham has really put a unique spin on each character. Prince Charming for example, is the same Prince Charming from ALL the fairy tales, his philandering has cost him three marriages, first with Snow White, then Cinderella, and finally Sleeping Beauty. Snow White is here divorced and jaded, working as the Deputy Mayor to Old King Cole and overseeing the operations of the Fabletown community. She is assisted by the reformed Big Bad Wolf, calling himself Bigby and who can turn himself human now, as the town Sheriff.
The first trade paperback, Legend in Exile, deals with a murder mystery that pits Snow White and the often maligned and mistrusted Bigby together to solve the apparent murder of Snow White's hard partying sister, Rose Red. The arc is an excellent way to introduce us to the huge cast that Willingham has at his disposal, specifically targeting an introduction to the more important Fables. Here we meet Little Boy Blue, once a soldier against the Adversary, now sad and missing his lost love. We also meet Flycatcher, the Frog Prince, now the Fabletown office janitor, who mourns the loss of his family. Jack of the Fables, also known as Jack the Giantkiller, Jack of the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, Jack and the candlestick, here a bit of a scam artist who always has a get rich quick scheme and is usually the source for most of Fabletowns mischief. You also meet Cinderella, King Cole, Beauty and the Beast, and a little farther down the line, meet the important characters from the Farm, including most of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book characters and many other.
Fables is a deep and complex tale encompassing everything from murder mysteries to conspiracy capers. What really impresses me is that over 90 issues into the series, Willingham has still managed to keep it fresh and entertaining. The characters are constantly changing and evolving, never staying stagnate. With such a huge cast to chose from, everyone can get a moment in the sun. Early in the series he sticks to the core characters, Bigby, Snow White, Jack, but over the run of the book everyone has a spell. The first 5 issues introduce us to the characters, but each book builds into the next, fleshing out the Fables universe and building towards the inevitable confrontation and unmasking of the Adversary. The final battle actually builds up for nearly 75 issues, and it was at this point i feared the book would lose its way. Instead Willingham introduces new characters and fleshes out old ones in such a manner as to keep the book exciting. In fact, I look forward to this book more than any other each week. Part of me wishes he would actually get back to some of my favorite characters, like Snow and Bigby, but he makes the new ones so enthralling that you really don't mind.
Fables has been mostly drawn by mark Buckingham, a veteran penciler who brings a unique take to the world, though Willingham has used a variety of artists depending on the story to be told. The cover artist for the series was James Jean, a personal favorite through over 80 issues of the run, though he has been replaced by João Ruas who has brought a similar, yet uniquely different flavor to the covers. All in all, the art works hand in hand with the story no matter who is penciling, and they really help accentuate the story. They may not be the flashiest artists working in comics, but they are so perfect for the book that its hard to imagine anyone using the more super hero style of penciling on this book.
I think the things that draws me to this book is the way that Willingham has united the world. Building new relationships with stories everyone knows by heart and changing how we perceive them, or better yet changing how the character perceives themselves. The genius of Prince Charming being the same for every story, or of taking characters like Pinocchio who has to deal with the consequences of being stuck as a boy. Or the Big Bad Wolf, untrusted despite being pardoned, dealing with the prejudices of his former dealings with Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. He has even worked Fables into different mediums, most recently writing a wonderful prose novel about Peter Piper, who happens to be the same Peter as the one from the stories Peter and the Wolf, the Pied Piper, and the Peter from the nursery rhymes. Its wonderfully complex and layered, and has a great re-read value. He also wrote several stand alone graphic novels and one shots, like the Last Castle, detailing Little Boy Blue's last days in his homeworld and the fate of Little Red Riding Hood. As well as 1,001 Nights of Snowfall, detailing Snow Whites time dealing with the Persian Fables (like Sinbad) who must tell their king stories to prevent her own execution, as a take on the famous Persian fable 1001 Arabian Nights. In this original graphic novel, he uses a wide variety of artists, including cover artist James Jean's first interior work and one of my all time favorite artists Tara McPherson's tale of Rose Red and Snow White's rescue of the Witch of the Forest, from tales like Hansel and Gretel. It also may be one of my favorite books of all time.
You may ask me why it took nearly two years of doing this column for me to post Fables. Part of it was not wanting to overload you on Vertigo books, of which I have highlighted quite a few. The other was that last year there was an announcement that Fables had been optioned for television development and I put off recommending it to perhaps one day coincide the column with the show. As I thought about the book for this month though I realized that I should not wait anymore to highlight this series. Bill Willingham is writing what I believe to be the BEST COMIC BOOK ONGOING SERIES of the last decade, and I don't think its hyperbole. Fables is the kind of comic you can give to all comic fans to find something, it's usually one of the first two gateway books that I also give to new and potential readers. It elevates the medium in a way that very few books do. Please, if you are looking for a new comic book series, or just an awesome read, check out Fables by Bill Willingham from DC/Vertigo. Start at the beginning with Fables: Volume 1- Legends in Exile, and I guarantee by volume 2- Animal Farm, you will be hooked.
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