Created and Written by Bill Willingham
I’ve mentioned it in my reviews of Once Upon a Time and Grimm, so I figure it is time to talk about Fables in more detail. I couldn’t help returning to the first story arc, the pilot if you will, after watching the premiere episode of Once Upon a Time. The two stories are quite different. While both involve fairy tale characters leaving their world for ours, the motivations and narratives couldn’t be more distinct. Where Once Upon a Time is a quest to reawaken the characters to their true nature so they can break a curse, Fables sees characters from both fairytales and folklore in exile in a small ghetto in New York City. They remember who they are and where they came from. The basic premise is that they have lived in our world for centuries after being compelled to flee from a being known only, as of book one, as The Adversary.
The Adversary came upon the Fablelands slowly, conquering outlying regions one at a time. Before many of the inner kingdoms realized that his plan was total domination, it was too late. He conquered and enslaved. Many Fables found their way to our world and upon the discovery of The New World (America), they started a colony. This colony, now a small ghetto, is presided over by King Cole (mayor of Fabletown) with Snow White doing the bulk of administration. Bigby Wolf (Big Bad Wolf . . . get it?) is a detective in employ of the city. He has taken human form, and option given to all non-human Fables. It is required of all who live in the city. Those who refused the enchantment were relocated to The Farm, an isolated piece of property in upstate New York that has enchantments that discourage visitors. A general amnesty is offered to all Fables upon acceptance into the community. All crimes committed prior to exile are forgiven. Just a note, despite the amnesty Bigby isn’t allowed on The Farm due to unpleasant encounters he had with some of the tenants prior to the exile. At the moment both communities live in peace, but King Cole and Snow do worry from time to time as the peace is contingent on the various Fables continuing to abide by the agreements they have made. It could all fall apart in short notice.
Now that the backdrop is in place, the first book deals with the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s sister. Her wrecked and bloodied apartment is discovered by her boyfriend Jack (the subject of all the “Jack Tales” you may have heard). Bigby is brought in to investigate, Snow tagging along much to his annoyance.
In many ways, Legends in Exile is similar to a television pilot. The story is primarily concerned with introducing the concepts described above, while introducing the myriad characters that populate this world (well, Fabletown at least. The Farm isn’t visited until Book Two). Character dynamics are explored throughout the investigation, and the tension between Snow and Bigby is signposted quite clearly. He is drawn to her, something that is explored in the back-up short story. And while the investigation is interesting enough, the writing and characterizations are still a bit rough. At times, Snow seems even more hard-nosed than later portrayals. Perhaps that is down to Lan Medina’s artwork. This is the only story arc Medina illustrated. He was replaced by Mark Buckingham as the primary artist, and I prefer Buckingham. His style suits the story, alternating between whimsical and serious. Legends in Exile, while compelling in concepts, still hasn’t found its stride. Fear not, however, as that will be achieved soon enough.
Following the five-part collection is a short story by Willingham entitled A Wolf in the Fold. It tells the story of Snow White’s first meeting with The Big Bad Wolf while still in the Fablelands. This story is prose with illustrations, and its writing is much stronger than that of Legends in Exile. I was a bit concerned that I was mis-remembering how good Fables was as I read Legends, but A Wolf in the Fold reassured me.
Part of the fun of this title is identifying the legends and fairytales that are peppered throughout, both obvious and not-so-obvious. In the obvious camp we have Boy Blue, The Frog Prince, Beauty and The Beast, and a flying monkey from Oz. One of the more subtle references is to Aslan and Narnia, which Willingham could only imply as both are still under copyright. A Wolf in the Fold even references Vlad Tepes, if I’m not mistaken. There’s also a fun reference to both Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Bullfinch (of Bullfinch’s Mythology fame) on the first page if you pay attention to street names. There’s a lot on the page to reward the eagle-eyed.
So, while Legends in Exile may not be the strongest offering of the Fables series, it is still a good read and it is essential to start at the beginning. It only gets better. If you are apprehensive about comics because you don’t like superheroes or you feel they are just for kids, this is a good starting point.
Content Note: Fables is published under DC Comics “Vertigo” imprint. Vertigo comics are meant for mature readers, meaning they can often deal with adult concepts or themes. They also may include strong language, graphic violence, nudity or sex. Fables: Legends in Exile does have some strong language and one sex scene though there is no actual nudity. It definitely isn’t for children.