Bill Willingham’s Fables 6–10

Bill Willingham and many artists, mainly Mark Buckingham, and Todd Klein letterer, Fables:
– 6: Homelands (Vertigo 2005)
– 7: Arabian Nights (and Days) (Vertigo 2006)
– 8: Wolves (Vertigo 2006)
– 9: Sons of Empire (Vertigo 2007)
– 10: The Good Prince (Vertigo 2008)

fables6.jpg I’ve written about earlier volumes of Fables here, here and here. If I say that these five volumes, borrowed from a son, give us more of the same, that is not a negative comment. The story, which unfolded as a series of monthly comics, came to an end last July with No 150. These five collections bring us up to No 69.

For synopses you can go to Wikipedia. I just want to reflect here that though Bill Willingham may, as he says, have decided to work with fairy tale characters because they are out of copyright, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Lots of characters that are out of copyright have completely disappeared from the cultural memory: fairytale characters come with histories.

fables7.jpg There’s wit in making snoopy little Goldilocks grow up to be an adventurous spy, for example. Likewise, Hansel makes sense as a fanatical witch-killer and Prince Charming as a feckless womaniser.

More broadly, the identity of the Adversary  – the powerful character who aims to dominate or destroy the all the Fables (as fairy tale characters are called here) – as revealed in Book 6 plays beautifully  with our inherited lore. Or when Sinbad the Sailor turns up in Book 7 as an emissary from fairytale Baghdad, we are well prepared for his vizier to turnout to be a bit on the wicked side, and we’re not surprised when the survival of the universe is threatened by an all-powerful d’jinn.

fables8.jpg The overall arc of these five volumes is something you don’t expect from the ‘fractured fairytale’ genre: an epic battle is brewing between the forces of good and evil. Bigby Wolf has more in common with Achilles or Arjuna than with the Grimms’ Big Bad Wolf. And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Jack (of candlestick and beanstalk fame) as a wily Odysseus. Not that epics and fairy tales have to be kept separate. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Iliad and the Odyssey are built from a whole storehouse of received folk stories, the early books of the Bible have a strong folk content (the J and E strands, rather than the P and D), and the Mahabharata (as Cheryl D mentioned in a comment on this blog recently) has tremendous popular appeal now, and almost certainly did from its beginnings.

fables9.jpgThe intimacy / domesticity of fairy tales is still there: several romances are brewing as surely as the war. Bigby Wolf and Snow White marry at last, and Bigby resolves some big issues with his father and siblings in Book 8. There’s  a sweetly comic romance in Book 9 between a wooden soldier and his wooden woodcarver. They have heard about kissing:

‘Basically we open our mouths and touch them together.’

‘We can do that.’

‘How long do we stay like this?’

‘I’m not sure. At some point it’s supposed to feel good.’

‘Maybe I didn’t write down the instructions correctly.’

But sweet as this romance is, we don’t forget that its outcome has a strategic importance in the overall conflict.

fables10.jpg In Book 10 this combination of the domestic fairy tale and the epic is most clear. The Good Prince is a single narrative arc that takes up most of the book. It beautifully melds the story of a prince who was turned into a frog with harrowing of hell / raising of dead armies / return of the king stories. Its conclusion is a great point to take a rest in one’s progress through the massive work.

Fables is often compared, with some justice, to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s not as serious as the Gaiman work: Gaiman’s work features the Endless, eternal beings who are his own reinvented pantheon. Fables is not about gods but non-human beings at the fairy level (goblins, shapeshifters, giants, d’jinns, sentient animals) and humans who deal with them (witches, wizards, the enchanted). Even in the episodes of carnage, there is a fairy lightness to it, the stakes are less than cosmic. It’s consistently funny and exciting and inventive, it challenges us to think about the meanings of fairy tales, and I’m looking forward to the next10 or so volumes, but it makes no claim to explore the meaning of life.

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