Legends in Exile: The World of Fables

24 Nov

Although the majority of posts on this website concern authors, novels, short stories and films, one of my favourite forms of entertainment media is the graphic novel. Over the years I’ve read a number of comic books which are as compelling as any other form of storytelling and it continues to mystify me that this medium never seems to receive the same respect as the more traditional prose novels. Sandman, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, 300, Slaine, Judge Dredd, 30 Days of Night, The Walking Dead, Witchblade, House of Mystery, Spawn, The Books of Magic, Promethea, Hellblazer and Preacher to name just a few are full to the brim with imagination, original ideas, witty dialogue and searing imagery. It is therefore no great surprise to me that a number of these properties have been turned into successful films and television series. Whilst Sandman and The Books of Magic are probably overdue for big screen outings, the one comic saga which I would like to see on film more than any other is Bill Willingham’s Fables.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, Fables re-imagines the classic characters from fairy tales and folklore as a group of real people from hundreds of scattered worlds – collectively called the Homelands – who arrived in our world long ago as refugees fleeing the invading armies of a  merciless conqueror known as The Adversary. Once here they formed a clandestine community in New York City known as Fabletown – a tiny, secretive neighbourhood taking up only one modest city block along a small side alley named Bullfinch Street. Strong spells of misdirection have been laid all over the place but, if you were to stroll down Bullfinch Street by accident, you would notice nothing unusual about its residents. The people who live in Fabletown are far from normal, however, and in most cases look no older now than they did when they first arrived there, hundreds of years ago. More importantly, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to many popular characters from world mythology, folklore and fairy tales. The Mayor of this underground community is Old King Cole; Beauty and the Beast are, respectively, Fabletown’s deputy mayor and sheriff; Cinderella runs a shoe store (appropriately enough) while moonlighting as a spy (somewhat less appropriately); Sleeping Beauty is living off her investments, while trying not to prick her finger again; and more than one (formerly) wicked witch now resides on the thirteenth floor of the luxurious Woodland Building. Fables who are unable to blend in with human society (such as monsters and anthropomorphic animals) live at “The Farm”, Fabletown’s annex in the wild reaches of Upstate New York. The Farm is run with a loose hand by Rose Red, the wild child sister of Snow White, who was once deputy mayor of Fabletown and now lives in Wolf Manor with her husband Bigby (once known as The Big Bad Wolf but now able to take irascible human form). Incidentally, Snow White, along with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, is one of the three ex-wives of the philandering Prince Charming, who reforms his rakish ways as the series progresses and eventually becomes one of the heroes of the war against the Adversary.

It is the struggle against the Adversary which provides the series with much of its early thrust. Be warned that the conflict is often portrayed unflinchingly and occasionally Very Bad Things happen to characters about whom you come to care a great deal. But for me this is what elevates Fables above so many other books and graphic novels – the characters are all so engaging and well-rounded and, despite the fairy-tale subject-matter, there is always an element of gritty believability (and precious few happy endings). As if that were not enough, there’s also witty dialogue, startlingly original story-telling and plenty of humour – of both the light and dark variety. Willingham clearly knows his mythology back to front and is also skilled at constantly pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers, confounding expectations and moving the story on.  Series highlights for me include The March of the Wooden Soldiers, in which the citizens of Fabletown are given a refresher course in the unforgiving lessons of war when they are tracked down by the Adversary’s forces; Homelands, which introduces us for the first time to the bizarre reflection of our own world that is the Fables’ place of origin; and in particular the double-header of War and Pieces and The Dark Ages, which both concludes the ‘War against the Adversary’ storyline (I won’t give away how) and introduces a totally different, yet equally interesting, nemesis for the Fables – thus giving the series a new impetus when Willingham could just as easily have lost focus or rested on his laurels.

If Fables sounds like it might be your cup of tea, I’d recommend seeking out the collected trade paperbacks, starting with Legends in Exile. If you like what you read then you might need to clear your schedules because there’s fourteen more collections after that, spanning almost ten years of comics! In the same vein Willingham has also recently started another comic book series, House of Mystery, which bears similarities to both Fables and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, while being somewhat darker in content, veering more towards horror than fairy tale while exhibiting the same brilliance in dialogue and storytelling. Oh, and did I mention that the artwork is amazing as well?

4 Responses to “Legends in Exile: The World of Fables”

  1. The Paranormalist November 24, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    You are persuasive. I have not ever considered graphic novels … until now.

    Well, to be truthful, I started to think that maybe I should give them a try when I became addicted to The Walking Dead TV series. But this is another nudge along the path 🙂

    • anilbalan November 24, 2011 at 11:24 am #

      Trust me, you won’t be sorry!

  2. Raymond Frazee November 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    I’ve looked over some of the issues of Fables and have greatly enjoyed them. And Cinderella as a incredibly hot and very bad (as in good) spy has to be seen.

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