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The world of comic books may seem strange and alien to some people, and perhaps the preserve of a dominantly male fan base. But it's not all spandex and capes, and Fables is one of the best examples of the scope of this form of graphic storytelling. Originally published in monthly single issue comic book form in starting in 2002, Fables is now on 100+ issues and still going strong. 'Legends in Exile' is the first collected edition, or graphic novel. It is published by DC's Vertigo imprint which is marketed to towards adult audiences, and as such, Vertigo books can contains graphic violence, profanity and depictions of sexuality. Fables contains quite a lot of gory violence and sexual references, and although these are never gratuitous, by no means is this a book for children (arguably, very few American comic books are suitable for children anyway.) Fables is written by Bill Willingham, and drawn, for the most part, by Mark Buckingham, though over the course of the series, artists may change. There are 17 collected editions available in paperback, or the same stories are also available in 6 deluxe hardback editions, which cost substantially more. Each paperback contains about 5 issues of the comics, which is around 140 pages.
As the title suggests, Willingham takes childhood fairy tales and gives them a very modern, and adult, twist. He focuses on those stories of persecution and exile (and it's surprising, when you think about it, how many fairy tales deal with these darker subjects.) The premise is simple and intriguing. A group of fairy tale characters, including such notables as Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, have escaped the mysterious Adversary who enslaved their homeland, and have sought refuge in modern day New York, living secretly among the normal folk (or mundies as they refer to us.) Those of you familiar with the TV show 'Once upon A Time' may recognise this central concept, though the creators of the show claim any similarity is coincidental. The fact remains, however, that the similarity is strong, and fans of the show will love Fables.
'Legends in Exile' deals with the apparent murder of Snow White's party girl sister, Rose Red, and is set up as an old fashioned detective story. I'll not spoil the plot for you, but I heartily recommend you try and get your hands on a copy. This is perhaps the weakest of the series, setting up the status quo and introducing characters, and as a result, the story does suffer somewhat. I won't pretend that the resolution of this initial story arc is particularly satisfying. However, stick with it, and once you've moved on to volumes 2 and 3, you'll be hooked. Willingham's writing is full of charm and humour, but at the core is also a grim darkness that sometimes comes to the surface with devastating effect. The art is also outstanding, leaning towards gritty as opposed to the Disney perfection we might be used to, and as the series progresses, the backgrounds and frames to each page become works of art in and of themselves. In graphic novels, the writing and art must work hand in hand for it to be a success, and Fables certainly gets the balance right. Don't let the fact that this is a graphic novel put you off - the words and pictures work in tandem. It is not the same as reading an illustrated children's book.
The world of Fables is ambitious in scope and all the more engrossing for that. There are several spin offs to get hold of too, featuring Cinderella as a spy and Jack Horner dealing with classic American tales. If you commit fully to Fables, you'll not be short of reading material. The series has won multiple awards, and it's not difficult to see why. Adults and perhaps, well-read older teens will love revisiting old childhood friends, and seeing just where they ended up. If you love 'Once Upon A Time' or 'Grimm' you should definitely give it a go.
Most people dismiss comic books as childish entertainment, and to be honest most American comics are. But since the late-80s, a substantial proportion of mainstream American comics have been aimed at adults. DC, one of the main comics publishers (they own Batman and Superman), have a line of adults-only comics called Vertigo. It's been going for about 15 years now. It had a huge success with Neil Gaiman's Sandman, a lengthy horror/fantasy epic that broke out of the comic fandom ghetto and actually found a readership in the wider world (predominantly goths, sadly). Ever since then, Vertigo has struggled to find a similar success - this is largely because of lack of editorial imagination on their part. Instead of throwing the weight of their publicity behind some of the excellent series that followed Sandman (Transmetropolitan, or The Invisibles) they've tended to try to push the lame Sandman spin-offs, sequels and wannabes.
Fables is a relatively recent Vertigo series (it's been going for about three years), and I think it could potentially be quite a substantial mainstream success, if only someone would notice it. It has a similar kind of feel to Sandman in some respects, so will keep the Gaiman fans happy, but isn't nearly as pretentious or twee as Sandman was towards the end. The comic is published monthly, and only available from specialist comic book retailers, but they also publish anthologies, each collecting between six and ten issues at a time, which can be found in the bigger bookshops, amazon etc.
It's written by Bill Willingham, who I'd never heard of before this (although apparently he's been writing for some years, including pornographic comics). It's usually drawn by Mark Buckingham, one of the many artists to work on Sandman, and always reliable. He has the ability to draw fantastical things without going overboard on the stylisation, which helps sustain the comic's unique mood.
The premise of the series is ingeniously simple. The characters from the fairy tales we all know and love are real, and they're living in New York. Driven from their fantastical homelands by a terrifying foe known only as 'The Adversary', they have taken up refuge in our mundane world, living in a small area of New York they call 'Fabletown'. They've been there for a few hundred years, using magic to stop the human population around them from noticing they exist. The mayor of Fabletown is Old King Cole, a slightly pompous and largely ineffectual figurehead who leaves most of the real work to his no-nonsense deputy, Snow White. The Big Bad Wolf, who has assumed human form, is the town's sheriff ('a mix of small town sheriff and clandestine spy master', as he puts it). Other prominent citizens include the fabulously wealthy but completely amoral Bluebeard, the caddish Prince Charming (who has been married to, and divorced from, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) and Beauty and the Beast, who have fallen on hard times. Fables that can't change their shape to fit in with the humans (the three little pigs etc) live on a farm in upstate New York. Although they've adapted to their surroundings, they all dream of a time when they can reclaim their lands and drive out the Adversary and his fearsome armies.
Five anthologies have been published so far. 'Legends in Exile' sets up the series and introduces most of the main characters, and also tells the story of the suspicious disappearance of Snow White's wayward sister Rose Red (her no-good boyfriend, Jack - of beanstalk fame - is the prime suspect). 'Animal Farm' deals with an attempted rebellion by the farm animals (led by the three little pigs and a hilarious communist Goldylocks). 'Storybook Love' contains short stories of romance in the Fable community, with the main emphasis being on Snow White and the Wolf as they are drawn to one another. 'March of the Wooden Soldiers' features the first attack by the Adversary on the Fabletown community, with his terrifying wooden, shop-dummy style troops. 'Mean Seasons' is a little less focused, detailing certain developments in Fabletown politics and obviously setting up the next few storylines. The comics are still being published every month, and I guess there will be a new collection every six to eight months or so until Willingham brings the story to an end.
This has been one of the most enjoyable new comic series for a long time. I didn't buy it at first, thinking the premise sounded a bit too twee, but I'm glad I changed my mind. The first collection is OK, certainly intriguing enough to make you want to read the next. After that, though, it's solid gold all the way. Willingham's plotting is some of the best I've read in recent years - these are real page-turners, and the pay-offs rarely disappoint (even if I sometimes guess what's going to happen). There are some fantastic bits of comedy in the series (Reynard the Fox's attempts to chat up Snow White, or the eternally bitter Pinocchio, an adult trapped in an eight-year-old boy's body). There are also moments of genuine sadness (Little Boy Blue's doomed romance with Red Riding Hood), horror, excitement etc. All you could ever want from an entertainment, in fact.
The sheer number of obscure characters from fairy tale and folklore that Willingham has included could be overwhelming (I've never heard of a lot of them) but by focusing in on just a few people he allows the reader to be drawn into their world and care about what happens to them. He has yet to reveal the identity of the Adversary (my bet is that it'll be some thinly veiled Disney analogue - that seems to be where the clues are pointing so far, although I'm probably way off the mark. I might just be biased because of my profound hatred for Disney).
(In spite of its subject matter this is definitely not for young kids. There's frequent gory violence and occasional nudity and sex scenes. These are never gratuitous, and a lot of the sexual references are highly entertaining. There are very vague suggestions that Cinderella fell from grace because she made a lesbian pass at Snow White - a delightfully twisted idea - and Goldylocks is definitely sleeping with one of the bears. If things like that bother you, then give this a miss.)
Because the series is only part-way through (I don't know if Willingham has indicated how long it's going to be, or even if it will have a definite ending) I can't recommend this unequivocally. Long-running comic series by the same author all to often run out of steam before the end, and comics that start out great sometimes degenerate until they're unreadable (exactly what happened to Sandman, in fact). So while I've been enjoying Fables so far, it's sadly possible that it might go off the rails and become a depressing shadow of its current self. I hope not.
As ever with comics reviews, I'm very aware that absolutely none of you will take my advice and read this series. Which is a shame, you're missing out. Comics, when done properly, can be just as appealing as any other narrative medium. If more people recognised that, more good comics would be written. Ah well, if any of you are willing to give comics a go, then Fables is as good a place as any to start.