Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bill Willingham's Fables

Every so often an idea comes along that you should have thought of first. After the fact, it just seems so obvious that you’ll spend weeks wondering why it hadn’t ever crossed your mind. When I first began to read Bill Willingham’s Fables when it debuted several years ago, these were my exact thoughts. The concept itself is simple: figures from fairy tales, whether they be Grimm or Anderson or Collodi, are all forced to flee their kingdoms, moving into our world where they live among the streets of NYC, and of course keep a low profile. The twist? All the characters have very adult and unique personalities.

There is a lot to like about the series up through issue 51, where I stopped reading for a while. Snow White is deputy mayor of Fabletown, the community in which many fables reside. She is no nonsense, and now single after divorcing Prince Charming after he caught her cheating with Snow’s sister, Rose Red. Charming is a cad, using his ability to woo the fair sex into a life freeloading (he’s also the ex-husband of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella). Bigby Wolf, the Big Bad Wolf guised in human form, is Fabletown’s sheriff, and his gruff and direct methods of getting to the things ruffles a few feathers. He and Snow are able to keep the community running fairly smoothly, as well as make sure that the Farm upstate, where all the nonhuman looking fables must live, maintain the ideals and goals of the larger Fable community.

Even characters that are secondary are often well done. Boy Blue plays jazz on his trumpet and has a lot more to his background than one nursery rhyme would indicate. Flycatcher, the Frog Prince, is the janitor, continually penalized for his inability to stop eating flies. Old King Cole is the mayor, balancing the more ceremonial and diplomatic issues in the city government, at least for a while.

Rather than discussing separate plots, I would summarize by saying the narration is effective and the art, mostly by Mark Buckingham, is fantastic. There is a real gift for pacing, especially hard when all one has to do is glance downward and to the right to know what will happen. But Buckingham is able to keep you focusing on what you are reading, adding so much information with his art that I found myself pausing and perusing each panel before moving on, even in scenes of heightened suspense. In later issues, a frame of sorts surrounds the panels on each page, usually thematically linked to the page at hand. It reminds me quite a bit of a stained glass window or a book from the 16th century, which of course is likely the point.

One question that seemingly comes up is what fables are used, who’s actually there? Well, Willingham isn’t afraid to use anyone who vaguely might be considered a fable and is in the public domain. We all can buy that Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty & the Beast, etc., should be there, but the men and women of Lilliput also live there, as does Pinocchio. At one time Robin Hood is shown. I suppose Pinocchio isn’t so bad, for I believe Collodi was a contemporary of the Grimm Brothers, but Robin Hood isn’t a fable.

Fables does however suffer from being a bit shallow. I remember reading fairy tales and such as a child and it seemed that most had some sort of lesson to impart. Little Red Riding Hood explained the dangers of wandering off through the woods, as did Hansel and Gretel. Pinocchio showed the benefits of following your conscience, not lying, and avoiding people who can turn you into a donkey. But the namesakes of the fables do not have the corresponding morals in Willingham’s Fables. For all the praise the book has received over the past few years, I just wanted a little more depth to go along wit a very entertaining story.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that while Fables is a well-done story that is quite enjoyable to read, that is all that it is. Though there has been some movement over the last few issues I read toward drawing a parallel between Fabletown and Israel, it is an analogy that doesn’t hold up very well for me and shows, at least at this point, a lack of knowledge about the real regional political struggle than Israel is in.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading necessarily, just that I feel the book is falling short of its potential.

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