Look, it–okay, sometimes, a thing seems like a good idea, SOMETIMES you get a tattoo that says “EZRA MILLER AIN’T JUST A FLASH IN THE PAN” across so, so many of your knuckles and then take a big sip of your beverage and check the news six months ago.
You have at least heard, I am confident, of the comic series Fables, wherein a nation of storybook creatures are driven from their home by an Adversary and have to settle in our world, so you get Prince Charming being a serial womanizer, the Big Bad Wolf is a private dick, that kinda stupid garbage.
I’ve tried several times to get into the book and have actively disliked it every time, disliked it aesthetically, thematically, how precious it clearly thinks it is, everything about it repelled me. So naturally, when it was on sale the other day, I grabbed all 22 volumes, because I am down with the sickness.
I don’t get what there is to like about it–especially after it bogarted an entire fucking volume of The Unwritten, which is a masterpiece and the heir to The Sandman–but it won fourteen goddamn Eisners, ran for 150 issues and was universally beloved; far too many people worked on it for it to be all bad, so the problem must lie with me, despite my usually reliable ability to find something to like in even the ripest stankblossom. But I was a younger man then, hotter of blood, less hurty of back; maybe I just couldn’t see the forest for the stupid trees?
With all of this in mind, I decided to embark upon a challenge of growth: read all of this crap, one volume at a time, in the year of 2023 and figure out why people liked it. I would forcibly expand both my perceptions and my comfort zone, and whether or not I liked Fables by the end of it, I would know more about myself, and that is the mark of a task worth doing. And I thought, you know who might be into this? Some of my pals in one of my comics groups on Facebook, so I told them about it, in hopes that they might undertake similar challenges, maybe we could make it a fun group thing, and then this happened:
To be clear, I’m personally not talking about Israel, which is a subject I’m not qualified to have an opinion on (though they sure seem to be missiling a lot of people, including children and noncombatants, but again: an American doesn’t have a lot of room to speak to that), I’m talking about American conservatives whose support of Israel is driven entirely by the belief that its existence is necessary for their evangelical eschatological scenario to kick off. (If you just said “Wait, isn’t it super antisemitic to only care about Jewish people as a means to summon Jesus so he can cast them and all of your other enemies into hell?”, congratulations, you have better critical thinking skills than most politicians and white people on Facebook.)
I had planned to scrap the whole project, but like the Edmund Fitzgerald before me the cost is sunk, and I stand by my belief that there is something to be gained or appreciated in any work, sometimes despite the author, so SURPRISE, and welcome to Part 1 of my Fables read-through. Let’s roast this asshole when he deserves it and grudgingly acknowledge when a good story manages to sneak past his MAGA brainworms.
OKAAAAAAAAY let’s read this horse-cabbage.
Fables, Vol. 1: Legends In Exile
This introductory volume’s plot is pretty straightforward: All of the Shrek-style faerie-tale creatures got kicked out of their plane or realm or whatever and are now living among we, the mundies, in a demimonde society run by Snow White and peacekeepered by—and again, I cannot believe I have to fucking say this—the Big Bad “Bigby” Wolf, Handsome Jerk Private Eye.
The main What of Vol. 1 is that Snow’s sister, Rose Red, has gone missing and is maybe murdered, and so she and Bigby have to investigate apparently every fucking storybook creature and pseudohistorical literary figure that ever existed to find out what happened to her and who’s responsible. Was it her fiancé Bluebeard, notorious uxoricidal maniac and untouchable linchpin in Fabletown’s economy? Her secret boyfriend Jack, of the Beanstalk and similar? How about Prince Charming, who based on his behavior I’m pretty certain is actually a species of smarm-remora? SNOW WHITE HERSELF SOMEHOW??? God help us, every soul in Fabletown is a suspect!
(Spoilers for a twenty-year-old book: Nobody killed her because she’s not dead, she faked her own death so she and Jack could abscond with the dowry she demanded from Bluebeard in their marriage contract. No one learns anything, there are no consequences for anyone, and it’ll all reset next week like Gilligan’s Island or Fox News.)
My personal distaste for everything about its whole deal aside, mechanically it does the broad strokes of its job well enough: these are our main players, this is what their individual and collective circumstances are, this is what’s happening now and what they need to do about it. The murder-mystery aspect is revealed to be built on hidden information that Bigby has and we don’t, which is a perfectly legitimate flavor of mystery story even if it does annoy me.
And now: the problem.
Knowing what I now know about him and his politics, I really cannot help but see Bill Willingham’s agenda and biases on almost every page of this thing. Take the following, where Beauty and the Beast say that their marriage is suffering from the strain of hiding from the mundy world:
Now, coming into this cold (heh, ’cause it–’cause Snow Wh–you get it, youuuuuu get it), it might be easy to see that as a somewhat unkind but ultimately reasonable response from an overworked civil servant whose resources are already stretched to the limit. But now, I can’t help but see it as a couple of manifesto bullet points about keeping government small and out of private citizens’ lives, and that if you can’t make yourself fit in with the rest of society you should get the hell out (which is pretty rich coming from the leader of an enclave that has to hide itself because it doesn’t look like the general population). Did he consciously mean this as a representation of those beliefs? It’s impossible to say, but it’s also impossible to un-see it once you focus your eyes on the stereogram the right way, it goes click and the blurry pattern turns into a hedge-dolphin. And that question—how much of this is what’s there, and how much is just what I’m seeing because I expect it— continues throughout the book:
Well-earned perk of privilege or bootstraps-bullshit implying that those who don’t have such an apartment–or have to live at the aforementioned Farm because they can’t pass for human–simply didn’t work hard enough and have no one but themselves to blame?
Establishing Bigby as a wolfman-out-of-time who struggles to adapt to the modern world around him and whose crusty exterior belies his isolation in an already very insular community? Or bumbling-commercial-dad-style silent assertion that since men are incapable of house/office work, only women should do it?
Okay yeah this one is just a blatantly racist cabbie caricature pulling up on Kipling Street for Mowgli’s sake, I don’t think there’s any room to spin or interpret that in a book from 2002 set in New York, that’s just cartoonish post-9/11 xenophobia.
It’s also just…not very well written?
Tropes are tools and there’s a time and place for all of them, including the As You Know, but that’s usually for when there’s NO other way to work necessary information into the scene, not for when Snow White could just say “What’s my sister done this time?” and convey the exact same information without the entire top-right word balloon.
Listen I’m very aware that this is a nitpicky point, but it’s also important because it’s indicative: this book never uses six words when twenty-five will do the job (I counted); I imagine you might say “Uh may I refer you to the case of Pot v. Kettle there bud”, and that’s fair, but we all know that for whatever reason reading a comic page loaded with text is exhausting compared to a prose-work, and that in a visual medium every inch of real-estate is worth its ink in gold.
All of this boils down to one of the densest, most visually crowded, wordiest fucking comics I have ever seen:
Ultimately, the reason I didn’t much like this volume has less to do with the quality of the storytelling–by its own admission it’s a fairly simple whodunit with a crunchy Aesop shell slarbed all over–and more to do with all of the characters being powerfully unlikable? Like Bigby is the Brash Handsome Jerk (Maybe: With A Heart Of Gold) which the careful reader will note is still a subclass of Jerk, Snow White is a shrewish #BossBitch visibly straining under her responsibilities, and the less said about Bluebeard, Jack, Rose Red, and Prince Charming the better. Really the only sympathetic character is the Beast, portrayed as a henpecked husband who grows more beastly as the strain on his marriage grows, and whose wife wants him to buy her a title and lands so she can be…independent somehow???
But it’s early in the title, and while they’re unlikable they at least have fairly strong characterizations and room to grow.
LEST IT SEEM that I’m only here to poop, with vigor, volume, and velocity, all over a more successful and beloved thing than I’ve ever done, I did actually enjoy a few things in this volume, such as:
- Believe it or not, I actually kinda liked Bigby; on top of adapting poorly to being a Fooble in allegedly-factual New York City, there’s the fact that he’s a bad guy, it’s LITERALLY HIS MIDDLE NAME, and he’s been thrust (through circumstances that I’m sure will be explored at loquacious length) from his role as a monster and symbol of chaos into a position of maintaining something like law and order, and clearly kinda enjoys it even though it also clearly rustles his jimmies more than a little bit. There’s a lot going on with him, and I really hope some of the grumbles crumble off of him so he can get some development.
- One of the moving pieces in this volume is Prince Charming, the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch, raffling off his title and property back in the Homelands and every Farble with an ounce of ambition (like Beauty above) scrambling for their chance to claim it, despite the fact that it might as well be on MARS for all the good owning it will do. This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons: one, I am VERY into that idea, the selling of stations and mantles and the possible consequences there. If Beauty won the raffle, would she become Princess Charming and start sleeping and conning her way through New York? Who is Prince Charming without the ‘Prince’ part? How much of this is tied up in ontological bindings and contracts and other things that are one THOUSAND percent my shit?
And two, as much as I roll my eyes and make the jerk-off motion about the whole “all of these rich white people are actually persecuted and also Israel”, I must admit I AM fascinated by the social arms-race that ensues when a stagnant ecosystem of status and position suddenly has a wildcard that could move anyone up to a fixed but much higher tier, OR let someone occupy TWO spots at once and completely redefine their standing in Fomble society. These people are exiled from their homes, and NONE of their titles or positions mean jack except in very specific relation to each other within this closed social system, and yeahhhhhh fiiiiiine that’s pretty interesting.
- Related but distinct, at several points mention is made of the Fables In Exile Compact And General Amnesty, implied to be what allows former bad guys like Bigby and Actual Murderer Bluebeard to live as free men among the (relatively) innocent general Fable population. As always, my crispy black lawyer-heart drools for a contract, and I want all the details, including how it was drafted, its founding signatories, whether its terms (one of which is “don’t fucking tip the game to the Normals”) are magically binding, what the consequences for breaking them might be (Snow mentions sending them to The Farm where the non-human Fables live, which sounds fine unless it’s a euphemism for murders?), and what social and legislative mechanisms it establishes for running Fabulous Society.
So that’s Fables, Vol. 1: Legends In Exile. I still did not like most things about it on its surface, and most of the things I DID like are rooted in my own speculation and desire to know more, but I guess that part means it’s doing something right. And as always, it’s still better than all of the none comics I’ve made, and presumably it just injected pure dopamine into the brains of all the Disney-adults at whom it was squarely aimed, God save their Mouse-eaten souls, so all in all I can’t argue that it wasn’t doing its job. It also told a reasonably competent mystery story, albeit one that doesn’t entirely make sense because the parameters of the world haven’t been fleshed out enough; at one point Bigby thinks Rose must be dead because they found more blood than a human body can hold in her apartment, and like, okay, but…a bunch of you are magic? Real-Boy Pinocchio never ages and is sexually frustrated? That guy turns into a monster if his wife is unhappy with him? On what are you basing how much blood you think a faerie-tale princess should have? I HAVE GOTTEN OFF TRACK. My point is, in my gentler older age I looked upon it a little more kindly, so sure, it’s Fine, whatever.
Volume 1 Grade:
7.5/10 Boxes Of Crunch Monkey On Old King Cole’s Breakfast Table
This was dumb but not terrible, and I look forward to continuing, and hope you’ll come with me. I also hope it gets objectively better, if not necessarily more suited to my taste, so that these will be more than just litanies of complaint from me.
What about you all? How many times while reading this did YOU say “ughhhhhhhh” and have to go read some manga or Nona The Ninth for a while? What early-00’s fad do you think Jack will try to bamboozle us all with next time, maybe Beanie Bigbies? Will Snow White and Rose Red be revealed to have a third sister…RUBY BLUE???
Lemme know on the comments, and tune in next time for Vol. 2: Animal Farm, which I presume will be about the Kinks song of the same name.
Until then I faithfully remain,
Yr Obt Svt,