Friday, July 17, 2015
A Survey of Everything Fables
I've been thinking about how I'm going to tackle today's post since I saw the tentative release schedule for this coming Wednesday's books, and the pressure has mounted as the day to write it got closer. You see, this coming Wednesday, the final issue/trade of the long running Vertigo series Fables is released. Counting as both issue 150 and volume 22 in trade, this is a square bound, 150 page issue. That's a lot of comic. I probably should have broken this up over a few weeks, doing a series about Fables, because there's a ton of material to cover. Not only are there 149 previous issues, but various spin-offs, including other ongoing series, some mini-series, original graphic novels, specials, a novel, and a video game. So I've decided, instead of a deep dive, to do a survey of each part of the Fables story, and after the final issue has come out, after I've had some time to digest, probably in the winter begin a great Fables re-read. But that's for later. For now, here's a glance at the various aspects of the Fables universe.
We'll start with the beginning and end (well, mostly end, but more on that later). Created by writer Bill Willingham, Fables is the story of a community of fairy tale characters who are living in the mundane (or "mundy") world to escape the Adversary, a conqueror who took over their Homelands. Fabletown in a block in alphabet city in New York City where the human and shapechanging Fables live, and the Farm is a farm in upstate New York where the Fables who can't pass for human live, at least at the beginning of the series.
The cast of the series is a massive one, but the three principles, all met in the opening arc, are Snow White, the deputy mayor of Fabletown, her sister, the irresponsible Rose Red, and Bigby Wolf, the reformed and lycanthropic Big Bad Wolf, who serves as Fabletown's sheriff. While other characters are important, including the philandering Prince Charming, the steadfast Boy Blue, the tragic Flycatcher, and the witch Frau Totenkinder, to name but a few, it's the relationship between Snow and Rose and their family that drives much of the emotional action of the series. The joy of creator controlled comics is that the characters are dynamic. Rose especially changes over the course of the series, but both Snow and Bigby grow and change, and there are some changes that occur to the world around them that are joyful, some that are heartbreaking, but they all have lasting ramifications.
The plots on volumes of Fables vary wildly. Willingham writes stories that are murder mysteries, that are political thrillers, that are capers, that are war stories, and that are horror stories. You never know what to expect next, and that's exciting. And the war with the Adversary, expected to be the overall thrust of the series, ends halfway through, leaving a completely different comic in its wake. I won't reveal the identity of the Adversary here, but it's a clever reveal that when you read it makes such perfect sense. And the villains after the Adversary are different and chilling.
The principal artist on Fables is Mark Buckingham, who debuted with the second arc of the series, and drew well over half the series. Even if he didn't create the looks for some of the characters, he defined them, creating a lush tapestry of interesting characters. Other famous artists have come along to draw stories, including Gene Ha, Linda Medley, Bryan Talbot, and Lan Medina.
The Last Castle
The first spin-off of Fables was the prestige format one-shot, "The Last Castle". The first major story set in the Homelands, it's the story of the last stand against the Adversary's forces before the last gate to the mundane world was shut. Narrated by Boy Blue, who was there at the battle, it is a stirring story of valor and battle, and cleverly lays seeds for stories to come months and years later. Penciled by Craig Hamilton and inked by P. Craig Russel, it's one of my favorite Fables stories, and gorgeous to look at.
Jack of Fables
The first ongoing spin-off of Fables, Jack of Fables was co-written by Willingham and Matthew Sturges and focuses on Jack Horner, the Jack of all tales. Jack is another character who appeared in the first issue of Fables, but when his own conniving leads to his exile from Fabletown, Jack goes off on a series of adventures, getting into trouble mostly due to his con man's instincts and his over-arching libido. Along the way, Jack encounters the Literals, personifications of literary tropes, who will become important later, as well as many lost Fables, and his own illegitimate son, Jack Frost. Generally of a lighter tone, it includes the introduction of a miniaturized Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan's sidekick, whose completely out of touch with reality insanity made her a fan favorite. I admit that Jack himself is somewhat odious, and he can be hard to take, so at times it's a book to read for the characters surrounding Jack.
1,001 Nights of Snowfall
An original graphic novel, 1,001 Nights of Snowfall is an anthology, drawn by a different artist for each short story, framed by the text story of Snow White in the Scheherazade role as she must appease a Fable sultan who is holding her hostage by telling stories. The stories vary in tone, from the comedic like "The Christmas Pies," a tale of the trickster Reynard the Fox, to the absolutely heartbreaking, the Eisner winner for Best Short Story "A Frog's Eye View," the backstory of Flycatcher, the Frog Prince. We also get the details of how the various series leads made their way to the Mundy world. Like the series proper in miniature, the artists included are among comics' best, including Charles Vess, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Mark Buckingham, and internals from series cover artist James Jean. Along wit the best short story Eisner, the book also won Best Anthology for its year.
Established early on that Cinderella was Fabletown's chief secret agent, writer Chris Roberson write two mini-series of spy action and adventure featuring Cinderella. "From Fabletown with Love" and "Fables are Forever" expand on Cinderella as a character, giving the reader a view of her as one of the fullest and most fun characters in the Fables mythos. A third mini-series was planned, but when Roberson parted ways with DC it was postponed and rolled into... well we'll get to that in a bit.
The Literals/ The Great Fables Crossover
The culmination of the first half of Jack of Fables, and a brief detour from the main Fables story, was the "Great Fables Crossover" which included a three issue mini-series entitled The Literals, for those beings who are personifications of creativity. Bigby and Snow rush to stop Kevin Thorn, the Literal representation of storytelling itself, from wiping them from existence. The Fables parts of the crossover are only tangentially related to the crossover, mostly putting Jack back with the Fables cast, and while a fun story the literals don't impact the overall Fables story all that much. But it's fun, and has Bigby turned into a monkey, so that's good.
Peter & Max
A long form prose novel by Willingham, Peter & Max takes two fables, Peter Piper and the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and creates a narrative about two brothers are war. Peter was given his family's magical flute, passing over his older brother, Max, who gets his own magical flute and a family conflict begins. Taking place in both the Homelands and the modern Mundy world, Willingham crafts the rivalry well, as well as the love story between Peter and Little Bo Peep. As Fables nears its conclusion, it's interesting to see this story of warring siblings as a precursor to the events of the last few volumes of the main series.
Werewolves of the Heartland
As Bigby Wolf goes in search of a new place for the Fables to live, he encounters a town of werewolves that have a connection to his past. Craig Hamilton returns to draw the story, and while it has not proven to be anything than a diversion until now, there are seeds that I hope bear fruit in the final issue. Plus, well, werewolves.
The second ongoing Fables spinoff, Fairest was a book focused on the various female characters of the Fables universe. An anthology series with different writers and artists for each arc, Bill Willingham wrote the opening arc, a gloriously illustrated tale of the Snow Queen and Sleeping Beauty drawn by Phil Jiminez, but further arcs included tales of Beauty, Rapunzel, the final Cinderella arc (now written by Marc Andreyko), and others. The final Fables original graphic novel, Fairest in all the Land, which I reviewed in detail when it first came out, is also a spinoff from this title.
The Unwritten Fables
Another crossover of sorts, this was the final arc of the first volume of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's story about the power of stories, The Unwritten. When that series' protagonist, Tom Taylor, is thrown into a world he has never been in before, he finds himself in a a dark version of the world of Fables. It's sort of like the episode of Star Trek set in the mirror universe, although nobody here has a hip goatee that usually doesn't. While not directly effecting the main plot of Fables, it's cool to see what might have been
The Wolf Among Us
Telltale Games has recently been releasing popular episodic video games with a storytelling/rpg bent, not typical open world rpgs or fighting games, but stories where your decisions absolutely effect the progress of the story, and one of these games is The Wolf Among Us. Set before the events of the first issue, this video game is considered part of Fables canon, and tells the story of Bigby, the player character, investigating the death of some Fable working girls. It features many popular Fables characters, and is a very enjoyable game. If you're not a video game person, though, there is a tie-in comic, which is being released as DC digital first, and now in print. Written by Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus, this series not only lays out the canonical sequence of events in the game, but also fills in some gaps with additional scenes and extended flashbacks to Bigby's time after first coming to the Mundane world.
Aside from all these fiction pieces, there are also two impressive Fables reference books. Fables Covers: The Art of James Jean contains all the covers by original series cover artist James Jean, along with sketches and information about his creative process. The Fables Encyclopedia contains entries on all the major and minor characters of Fables, both within the series and in their historical context, as well as liner notes by Willingham and Buckingham about the development of the characters.
Pretty much everything I've discussed here is readily available either in trade or hardcover. All 21 volumes of Fables are in print, as are all the volumes of Fairest, and the first volume of The Wolf Among Us. Jack of Fables might be a little trickier to track down, but by no means impossible. And if you like your hardcovers, deluxe editions collecting somewhere between one and two trades, as well as things like the original graphic novels, are currently being produced. It's a lot of material, true, but it's one of the most well developed long form graphic novels series out there, and will really be worth your time. Once you start, you'll be spellbound, and now it's all out there for the getting.