Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reader's Diary #1078- Bill Willingham (writer), Lan Medina, Mark Buckingham (Illustrators): Fables the Deluxe Edition Book One

Initially I enjoyed the fractured fairy tales idea. Then, I admit, it started to rank up there with zombies, vampire lust, and teenage dystopias. In other words, I started to find it too trendy and grew tired of it. Not that any of these genres didn't have their shining stars, but I no longer cared to look for them amongst the heaps of poorly executed knock-offs. I'm glad, however, that I finally gave Bill Willingham's Fables a chance.

Fables, the Deluxe Edition Book One collects the first two story arcs, Legends in Exile and Animal Farm, the former of which started the whole series back in 2002.

Knowing these were fairy-tale themed but aimed at adult readers, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would they be gritty retellings, maybe more in line with the dark origins of many of these stories? Not that I wouldn't have been okay with that but I was pleasantly surprised that they were more fun and satirical than that. I think the bio of Willingham on the jacket flap help set the tone. “Bill Willingham has written hundreds of comic books," we're told, "some of which have found readers.” And this gem, "He’s never wrestled a bear, but knows someone who did." You also get a sense from his introduction to the book that he's not out to disrespect the stories but in his own way, play homage to them; "Fables," he explains, "are fairy tales, folk tales, whispered legends and ribald ballads, sung too loud and off-key, but with vigor and purpose."

The first story, beginning of course with "Once upon a time," introduces us to a plethora of familiar characters but with strongly defined personalities that the originals often lacked. Bigby, is the Big Bad Wolf in human form, a rough around the edges private investigator. Snow White is the no-nonsense deputy to the mayor (though she's the brains behind the operation). Her ex, Prince Charming is a sleezy manipulator. They're just the beginning.

What makes Legends in Exile so remarkably well done is the way it sets up the universe so naturally while still managing to tell a story that is entertaining. Snow White's sister Rose Red has gone missing, appearing to be the victim of a brutal murder, and we're left with a wonderfully engaging noir-ish crime drama. And while all this is going on, we seamlessly learn that the human fairy tale legends are living, unbeknown to us mundanes, in New York City. They are immortal, their kingdoms of days gone by are no more, and they've cleverly hidden the truth as unbelievable, often silly, children's stories, songs, and rhymes. They have an enemy, which explains why they're all now in exile, but for now that is left as an overarching premise that, while not explored in depth here, will clearly come into play later.

This story is illustrated in a style usually associated with traditional superhero comics, which oddly fits the classic whodunnit story.

I was nervous going into the second story, Animal Farm, wondering how Willingham would approach it. Though I loved the first one, would another noir crime drama already lose the charm? I also noted that it was set in an hidden society of fairy tale characters, and I wondered if it wouldn't bee just too silly to enjoy, but thankfully I was able to quickly suspend my belief and went along for the ride. These characters are the ones that couldn't blend in in contemporary societytalking animals, giants, and so on— so must live, much to the animosity of many, concealed from the rest of the world. 

But, as the title might suggest, Orwell's themes of socialism and Marxism are explored, and this time Goldilocks takes center-stage as a dangerous, idealistic leader. Yes, there's a lot of satire in this story, and a lot of riffing on propaganda motifs, but it's most importantly an entertaining story, so I'd not suggest that it's really a political story despite the surface details. 

In the end, I'm not sure I enjoyed the second as much as the first story, but I loved that Willingham showed that he would be exploring a variety of stories and genres all within this fantastically complex world that he has established and made his own.

I can definitely see why the series has been a hit.


Anonymous said...

They do have quite a following, don't they. I tried one and found myself feeling basically what you describe in the opening of this post. Enough with the fractured fiary tales already.

But, I am always envious of people who fall in love with a series like this. So, I may give them another go sometime. Probably long after their popularity has faded. ;-)

John Mutford said...

James: When did you first try them? I think a problem with me is that I first picked it up in 2014 long after everyone jumped on the bandwagon and the market was saturated. I wonder had I picked them up in the 2002 if I'd have had the same reservations. When did the trend really start to ramp up?