PROJECT: FABLES

by

In which the series is assessed, favorite characters are named, and excessive praise is given.

(Hopefully you get the above reference.)

Legends in Exile 

Ladies and gentlemen, why do we read comic books?

A simple, albeit slightly melodramatic, question, with probably a fairly simple answer: to be entertained. There’s something about comics that we just enjoy–the battles between and evil, the plot twists, the iconic characters. But American society is full of chances for such entertainment (to the point of near-desensitization), so if that was all there is to our comic enjoyment, we could just as easily fine the same things elsewhere.

No, there’s something more that keeps us coming back to this obsession. Perhaps it’s the promise of greatness. We’ve all read something at some point that touched or moved us in some way. Some story or book that took us beyond mere entertainment. Perhaps it was some epic battle, some easily related to character, some noble sacrifice, but we’ve all seen it. And while we’re often content just to be entertained, I think what keeps us coming back is that promise, that hope, of finding that next great story, which in midst of our busy, stressful, jaded lives, can still reach and inspire us.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my eight or so years of reading comics to witness several such comics. From Christopher Priest’s Black Panther to Kurt Busiek and/or Fabian Nicieza’s Thunderbolts to Mark Waid’s Flash to Grant Morrison’s Animal Man to large chunks of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, I’ve seen the way comics can transcend their medium when done with such perfection. Yet as I type here before you today, I must say that Fables is the greatest comic book run I have read in my life.

Animal Farm

On its face value, Fables sounds like an interesting enough concept: famous fairy tale characters living in modern-day New York City. It also sounds like it could be silly, over-the-top, and not necessarily having the potential to be groundbreaking or anything like that. And when it first got started, it wasn’t.

Writer Bill Willingham’s first storyline, running through the first five issues, is a whodunit on the apparent murder of a minor fairy tale character that really no fan knew existed. It has a lot of cool moments, but the only character that’s immediately likeable is Bigby Wolf, and though it’s a very good story, you couldn’t be blamed if you didn’t fall in love with the series.

The next five issues, “Animal Farm,” is where things begin to take off. Willingham starts to really show his writing talent with a well-crafted story that draws heavily on various literary sources while still creating his own unique voice and flavor. It’s the model that, in many ways, defines the book. Readers were also introduced to the art of Mark Buckingham, who, after initially alternating storylines with Lan Medina, would soon become the regular penciller of the book. More on him later.

Storybook Love

At the end of “Animal Farm,” we’re introduced to one of Willingham’s best assets in the book: time. His characters are essentially immortal, allowing him to spend as much time as he wants in developing something. He can and has gone through months, even years, in a single issue, without having to worry about feasibility or continuity as in traditional comics.

Most of the early storylines are built, at least in part, around the blossoming romance between Bigby Wolf and Snow White. As the two most competent people in Fabletown, they would almost seem to be a natural fit, but each is so stubborn and hard-headed that they always seem to be on shaky ground at best. Despite being two fairy tale characters in constantly unreal situations, their relationship is written to be very real, to an almost gutwrenching level at times, with exciting breakthroughs and painful setbacks, yet a dominating sense of the way things have to end up.

March of the Wooden Soldiers

The book really starts to kick it into another gear when the scope is changed. We learn early on in the book the basics of what led to Fabletown’s creation in our mundane, or “mundy” world–the conquering of the Fables’ magical worlds by the evil and mysterious “Adversary”–yet the focus of the early stories remains on the present-day and building up the characters as they are now, not paying too much attention to their past events or future plans with regards to the Homelands.

Fables: The Last Castle, a prestige-format one-shot, changed that, as we’re given the beautiful, emotional, and deeply saddening story of the final conquest over the Fables in their old world. Soon after, Willingham followed it up with “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” the story that ups the ante for the title. Suddenly, this great struggle is no longer a thing of the past, and the book soon picks up a sense of much greater urgency…

The Mean Seasons

…but that urgency doesn’t come about immediately. First, we’re given a somewhat downtime story with Snow White. The story, “The Mean Seasons,” does still contain major plot advancements, but it comes sandwiched between the title’s first two great war epics.

That, too, becomes a staple of Fables. Willingham gives a lot of great storylines, often in fairly long arcs. But he also tries to break them up with some downtime issues. At first, it’d be a single issue that is unrelated to anything currently going on: a fun story that doesn’t seem to be of any great importance. He’d also give a two-parter every now and then that was more obviously significant. Finally, Willingham even started to insert a downtime issue in the middle of an arc, taking a break from a storyline for one unrelated issue.

It’s an odd thing to see, really, especially in today’s comics environment that seems to thrive more on those big epics than genuinely character-driven stories. Yet Willingham pulls it off very well for a couple reasons. First, he just extremely gifted in character development. He’ll introduce a minor character and leave him in the background for 30, or even 60 issues (more on that later), then pick a moment and give him/her incredible depth very quickly in such a poignant way that you wouldn’t necessarily mind that he was taking time out of the epic to do it. The second reason ties into the same thing: Willingham has clearly mapped out this entire run is some detail in advance, so those brief, seemingly unrelated stories have a way of becoming major players much further down the line.

It is easier to say that those detours don’t bother me now, though, because I just read 73 issues in a row. It’s certainly more diffcult when you’re in the middle of a big storyline and on the edge of your seat, then you have to wait an extra month to find out what happens next.

Homelands

Now, I’ll take a break in whatever the hell I’m talking about to do a list, since I love doing lists. Because Fables is such a character-driven book, I thought I’d do a countdown of my Top Ten Favorite Fables:

10. Bufkin: Perhaps the most minor of the regularly appearing characters in the book, Bufkin is occupying a spot that more deservedly should go to Rose Red, Beast, Kay, or especially Cinderella. But, as relatively unimportant as he is, this blue flying monkey is quite funny. Fables isn’t a book that strives to ever have much humor, but when it has come, the laughs are often due to Bufkin’s idiotic shenanigans. And since Willingham has suddenly developed small characters into major role players before, I wouldn’t be shocked if Bufkin ended up doing something pretty meaningful.

9. Mowgli: Mowgli, the wild child of Jungle Book fame, is all grown up as one of Fabletown’s secret agents. He appears in only a few issues really, but whenever he does pop up, he’s pretty badass. His search for Bigby is some great stuff.

8. Jack Horner: This starts to show how many great characters there are in this book, since Jack of the Tales is good enough that he’s even gotten his own spinoff book, Jack of Fables. I’ve only read the first arc of that book, but it was really enjoyable. Well before that book came about though, he was the washed-out but still cool anti-hero of the main title. His Hollywood story is particularly good, one of the best downtime stories Willingham has told.

7. The Adversary: I think I could make this list a dozen times and put characters #7-4 in a different order each time, but here’s what I’m going with now. The Adversary is really great. First, there’s just all the buildup to its true identity, finally revealed about 35 or so issues in. I won’t say who, obviously, but it seems like an odd choice until you get the explanation in the next issue for how the character gradually became so evil. From that point on, it just seems to fit really well. The Adversary almost seems genuinely likeable at times, but inevitably does something to remind just how dark it really is. Great villain.

6. Frau Totenkinder/the Black Forest Witch: As he does with many characters, Willingham takes someone who had little to no backstory and makes her rich with history, not to mention power. Out of the ashes (literally) of the Hansel and Gretel fable comes Frau Totenkinder, probably the most mysterious of any character. She’s played a pivotal role in many stories already, and it’s anyone’s guess what the full scope of her character will eventually be. But I’m sure it’ll be big.

Arabian Nights (and Days)

5. Snow White: The main heroine of the book comes in all the way down at #5, but it’s nothing personal. She’s a strong female character in a book that has many such women, as Willingham frequently takes the damsel in distress notion and turns it on its head. Snow’s depth is no so much wrapped up in her actions, like most of the top five, but her interactions with other characters. From her early troubles with her sister to her relationship with Bigby, she’s largely defined by how others see her, but it works well.

4. Prince Charming: One of the most fascinating characters in all of Fabledom, Charming is not only one of the most changed people from his fairy tale roots, he’s also probably the most interesting psychological study. He’s a man who admits that he’s interested mostly in the chase, not in living with his conquest. This makes for exciting stories when he’s in pursuit of whatever he wants (women, wealth, power, etc.), then just as interesting is when he realizes afterward what he now has to live with. Like Jack, he’s sort of an ‘anti-hero hero,’ and he’s so damn easy to root for.

3. Bigby Wolf: If Charming isn’t quite the hero he used to be, then Bigby is certainly even further removed from his evil ‘Big Bad Wolf’ roots. He’s the hero of the book, especially early on (after 26 or so, Fables becomes much more of an ensemble cast), and an intriguing one at that. He’s dark and brooding and at times even ruthless, but he’s also the person you’d most want on your side. I don’t think there’s ever been a story with him that I didn’t like.

2. Boy Blue: When Fables starts, Boy Blue is just an office clerk who wouldn’t seem to have much potential to make this list at all. The Last Castle turned him into one of the more likeable characters, and “Homelands” made him as good as it gets (really, he should be #1). Like all the Fables, Blue is caught in a state of perpetual agelessness, but behind his youthful face hides lies one of the most wearied characters of all. Blue is a character that you just feel for on every level: his adventures, his misadventures (to put it mildly) in romance, his incredible courage. He’s just amazing.

1. Flycatcher/Prince Ambrose: Flycatcher would have made this list after 30 issues, but just barely, only because he was funny and kinda sweet. But eventually, Willingham reveals just how much there is to the former Frog Prince. I can’t say much else without spoiling greatness. But Buckingham also once said Fly is his very character, and as he put it, the appeal is at least partially rooted in the fact that he is the one character, the only one, who is completely innocent.

Wolves

I think for me, it was “Homelands” that really started to take Fables from an already great read to ultimately now becoming my favorite ever. it was a swashbuckling adventure at its finest, but it also final gave the answers fans had been waiting for so long, revealing who/why of The Adversary, and making it clear that the book was leading up to eventual war.

From there, it never really slows down, as each volume adds something new to the tapestry. “Arabian Nights (and Days)” adds greater scope to the story, even though it’s not quite as strong as the volume right before or right after it.

Then comes the volume “Wolves,” and it just has everything you could ask for, including the double-sized issue #50, almost certainly the best issue of the series thus far. It’s the issue that fans had waited for since the first arc, as it seemed like it what happens in it just had to happen eventually. When it does, it doesn’t disappoint. The only way to describe it is a truly beautiful comic book issue .

The next chapter, “Sons of Empire,” ups the ante yet again, as we get closer to the inevitable showdown. So many things start happening at once, and the exciteable pace seems to reflect the frenzy of the characters’ world.

Finally, the most recent big storyline, “The Good Prince,” which ran from 60-69. A fitting title too. Again, can’t say too much, but before this story, Fly probably would have been about 8th on my list; after it, he’s first. That alone has to say something. As always with Fables, this is at its core a great adventure with even greater characters, but as has happened progressively throughout the book, the stakes have been raised to their highest point yet. It’s so surprising, from its initial concept to all its twists and turns. A dazzling story. Willingham easily could have ended it a different way, but I love what he did instead.

1001 Nights of Snowfall

Before we go any further, though, there’s another volume of Fables stories that simply must be talked about. Like The Last Castle, it can stand alone, and you don’t necessarily need it to follow the main title. But even far more so than that special, you’re really, really missing out on something spectacular if you don’t read it.

It’s 1001 Nights of Snowfall, and it is stunning. It’s essentially a prequel to Fables, telling stories from different main characters’ lives from before they came to the Mundy world. I’m not exactly sure when it was released, but I think it’s probably best read before “Wolves” or at least before “Sons of Empire.” It’s all written by Willingham, of course, but each tale, which range from 1 page to about 20 pages, is done by a different artist. All the art is painted. I’m a slight sucker for painted art in comics, and I must say that I love the idea of doing it that way. It really gives it a truly fairy tale feel.

Still, it’s the stories, as always, that make it so great. After the introductory tale, the first story finally reveals one of the greatest mysteries of one of Fables‘ very main characters. Yet it’s a mystery that most of us probably had forgotten all about, because Willingham so effectively dismissed it in issue #1. But at last, he brings it up for only the second time ever, and my god, is it so very much not what you would have ever guessed.

It doesn’t stop there, either, though that first main story is undoubtedly the best. We keep getting more background on characters, learning the answers to several questions that we’d had for some time, and to questions we never even thought to ask. There’s so much character development packed into these anecdotes; it’s simply a must-have.

Sons of Empire

At last, I’ll get around to talking about the art. That’s fitting, I suppose, since I’ve always cared more about plot than art. Talking about the art means talking about two people: Mark Buckingham and James Jean.

First, there’s Buckingham, who’s probably pencilled somewhere in the ballpark of 60 of the 73 issues. Buckingham is deceptively good. His pencils are rarely the first thing you notice; he’s very understated, and he doesn’t blow you away in the way that some of the industry’s top talents might. But even though his name isn’t with the greats, he’s just incredible in how consistently good he is. I never remember thinking, “that panel wasn’t particularly good,” with any of his art. In a fairy tale book like this, he’s had to draw some weird things along the way, but he’s always up to the challenge, and everything looks good on every page.

He does have a couple of quirks, mostly involving how he does specific characters. The wooden characters all have slightly odd features (the long forehead and exaggerated butting jaw), but he’s consistent in that, so it works. The one that used to bother me before I quit comics was that Bigby often looks like he only has half a mouth, and I still don’t entirely get that. Didn’t bother me this time through, though.

He’s also Kirby-esque in the way he conserves space, meaning that he can fit a lot into a panel, and a lot of panels into a page/issue. Most comic issues today end with dramatic full-page splashes; Fables frequently does not, focusing more on fitting as much story in as possible, rather than constantly trying to surprise or dazzle right at the end of each issue. All this goes hand in hand with how well he and Willingham work together. In the “Wolves” collection, DC included at the back Willingham’s script to issue #50. I scanned it some and compared a few of his descriptions with Buckingham’s art, and it really gives you a feel for their rapport. Also, it’s worth noting that Buckingham did one of the painted stories in 1001 Nights of Snowfall, and his painted stuff was actually even better than his pencils.

Finally, you can’t not talk about cover artist James Jean. The main reason I’ve included the covers to all the collections was to break up this incredibly long post, but I also wanted to show off some of his stuff, because it’s worth it, though I’m not sure the collections’ covers are even among his best works. He’s done the cover to every Fables and (I believe) every Jack of Fables, and they’re all pretty great. I’d have to say he’s my favorite cover artist of all time. DC even put out a collection of just his covers, a believe only the second time they’ve done that (Sandman being the first). Like Buckingham, Jean did an entry in 1001 Nights. It was only 8 pages, but it was visually the best in the book. I’d love to someday see a full story painted by him.

The Good Prince

And so, here we are now, through 73 issues. Issue #73 began a crucial story arc, and one Fable is supposed to die in #75. I have a couple guesses who it could be, but really there’s no telling.

There’s also no telling how long we’ll be on this ride that is Fables. Willingham has said that he still has lots of stories left to tell and has no plans to end the book any time soon. And that’s great for us, because this has been one spectacular epic.

I’ll admit that I’m kind of an easy target on some levels. I’m a fairly emotional person, so it’s not hard for something to make me laugh, or give me goosebumps, or even move me in some profound way (though in Michael Bluth fashion, I rarely cry). Yet even so, I don’t feel I’ve overstated myself in my introduction when I started singing this book’s praises.

This is what all great storytelling comes down to: ordinary people put in extraordinary situations. When you look at your favorite stories, that’s mostly what you’ll find. You may have to strip away a layer of superpowers, or in this case, magic, but the characters that stick with you are the ones you can feel for and relate to, and the stories you remember are the ones that feature those characters coming as alive as you or I, facing some great obstacle in their lives, and ultimately finding the strength we all hope we have to get by.

Covers by James Jean

I suppose I started reading comics because I liked to see good guys and bad guys fight. But along the way, things have become far more nuanced and elaborate. Due mostly to financial restraints, I had to quit my collection for nearly three years. But what was it that finally forced me to come back? That same promise of greatness that we’re always chasing.

Ladies and gentlemen, Fables is the reason I read comic books.

“Welcome back to a world you knew once upon a time. We’ve certainly missed you.”

–Bill Willingham

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15 Responses to “PROJECT: FABLES”

  1. davidry214 Says:

    3,514 words. I’m almost sorry.

  2. gokitalo Says:

    This may be one of the longest posts we’ve had so far, but it’s also one of the best. Great job, David: you put a lot of thought and heart into this entry, and it shows. I’d be surprised if anyone DIDN’T want to pick up Fables after reading this.

    I also loved the images you included in there. I’ve always admired the covers for Fables, and seeing a bunch of them together like this reminds me of how beautiful they look.

  3. davidry214 Says:

    I didn’t really think about it at the time, but scrolling back through the post now, I also like how putting the collection covers there in order lets you follow the progression of Eisner Awards this series has racked up.

  4. spiffyithaca Says:

    So….Fables isn’t THAT good

  5. spiffyithaca Says:

    Bwahahaha! Funny? No? I don’t care.

    TIME FOR A LONG MEMBERED POSTERS OPINION:

    Really brilliant post David. You really captured the magic of the ‘Ham’s, and made your post almost as magical as their title. It was a long and intense read, but really good and it didn’t feel long (breaking up the text with pictures was a smart manuever).

    Like Goki mentioned (about no way that people don’t want to read Fables after reading), I had to physically prevent myself from getting out of bed and digging out my Fables issues at 2 in the morning to go read them after I read the post. This should’ve been in your 5 comics you love post (screw Spectre).

  6. davidry214 Says:

    To be fair, I hadn’t read past 31 when I wrote that, so “March of the Wooden Soldiers” would have been the only story that might have made it at that point.

    But thanks, I’m glad you liked it. And if I’m the handsome man, and you’re the long-membered poster, what does that make Goki?

  7. spiffyithaca Says:

    The long-membered poster was just my alias on this day. I’m really only big on Wednesday’s anyways (what can I say, I get hard for comics).

    And I know you weren’t done with Fables, but this definitely seems to be in the same vein as 5 Comics We Love

  8. Gokitalo Says:

    Note how he dodged the question!

  9. spiffyithaca Says:

    Goki, you can make your own damn name, but I mean it is HIS blog that we post on and his giving groin that we salute each time by doing so: he is Goki, The One With Everlasting Man Juice

  10. gokitalo Says:

    You describe me so well

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    […] be this long). What follows is an attempt to gush harder and more profusely than David did in Project: Fables. No spoilers […]

  12. DC April 2009 solits highlights « Goki’s Giving Groin Says:

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  15. Fables, you’re still the one « Eat More Comics Says:

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