Monday, October 6, 2008

Issue By Issue: Bill Willingham's Fables

Today I am kicking off a new column at Paperback Reader. I am looking at Bill Willingham's Fables the same way I have Seven Soldiers and season four of Battlestar Galactica. This time I will be working from an ongoing series, so it'll take almost two years to catch up! We'll see how it goes. I am hoping for a weekly post. I am posting it first at a forum in the hopes of getting some feedback I can utilize in the column, but we'll see about that too. I know from experience that most readers won't comment at all. I've named the column Issue By Issue.

#1 Old Tales Revisited

Writer: Bill Willingham. Pencils: Lan Medina. Inks: Steve Leialoha. Letters: Todd Klein. Colours: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh. Cover: James Jean (this issue had an alternate cover by Alex Maleev, but that’s not the one featured here).

pp 01-03 Jack’s Errand

Our story kicks off with a manic New York cab ride to Bullfinch Street, where we quickly meet some of the series important players. There is Jack Horner, the cab’s passenger, Trusty John is the doorman, the Frog Prince mopping the floor, the Big Bad Wolf (a.k.a. Big B.Wolf a.k.a. Bigby Wolf) sitting in the security office. Not one of these men is a fable in the correct sense of the word; which is a story, not a character, which utilizes anthropomorphic animals to teach a moral lesson. What we have here are characters from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and children’s literature.

Jack is a stock character, appearing in a wide variety of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. He is the young adventurer. Some readers have described Willingham’s version of him as a ‘trickster’, and he certainly is a schemer, but luck has never stayed with him for long. He imagines himself to be a clever man, but the truth his he isn’t very smart either. This is the guy who, you’ll recall, who, when his family was poor and starving, traded their last procession for some magic beans. Okay, that one worked out for him, in the short term, but the adventure would never have gotten off the ground if he wasn’t stupid enough to take the beans.

Bigby actually has appeared in fables, as well as fairy tales. In all of them he is a villain. But here he is, the town sheriff. But Fabletown in a lot tougher than it looks, and it needs a tough sheriff.

Trusty John and the Frog Prince are stars of their own fairy tales. Both will grow to have important roles, particularly ‘Flycatcher’, but for right now the story is all about Jack and Bigby. Jack jumps out of the cab, into the Woodland apartments, pass the business office (‘S. White’) and into the Big Bad Wolf’s. “There was… there is… a terrible thing… a crime… a terrible thing happened!”

pp 04-09 Beauty & the Beast

Next we step back and enter the business office – and it is huge! In it are all kinds of items, from stories and adventures, some of which will be important. In the office we meet S. – Snow – White, two of her office staff, Little Boy Blue and Bufkin, a flying monkey, and two citizens demanding action, Beauty and the Beast. All of them will grow to have important roles, too. Snow White is from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast is a French fairy tale, Boy Blue, they drop the ‘Little’, is from the Mother Goose rhyme, and the Monkey is from Frank L. Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz.

The problem presented in these pages is pretty mundane, no pun intended, but we learn a lot about the world these characters inhabit. The Beast’s human appearance is dependant on his wife’s affection for him, but they have been married a long, long time and right now they are going through a rough spot. The marriage isn’t in peril, but their place in Fabletown is because unless he can maintain a human appearance they can’t stay. They will be “relocated upstate to the Farm”. Sounds ominous.

They want help from the Fabletown government, but Snow White, the Deputy Mayor, says no. And in saying no, she gives us an overview of how the Fables world works. They have escaped the “Adversary” and come to the human world. They cannot, under any circumstances, let their presence be known to us humans, or ‘mundys’. Any Fable who cannot hide, or pay a witch to cast a spell in order to appear human, will be hidden away at the ‘Farm’. The Fabletown government cannot tax its members and exists entirely on handouts. The mayor is Old King Cole, star of a nursery rhyme perhaps based on an early medieval king in Britain. His role, at least according to his Deputy, is fundraiser. Snow White runs Fabletown. There’s no money in the budget for marriage counselling, nor, it’s implied, for glamours to help Fables maintain their human appearance.

Beauty isn’t impressed with the civics lesson. She says the Snow has no appreciation for how hard marriage can be. She brings up the fact that Snow divorced her prince long ago, and then there’s that “tawdry little adventure with those seven dwarves.” At that point Boy Blue ushers them out. “Never mention the dwarves!” As they leave, in walks Bigby.

pp 10-11 Prince Charming

Gottfreid’s Steakhouse. Molly, a pretty young waitress is charmed by her customer. Everything he says is clever. Its not, or course, but she really is charmed. Meet Prince Charming, Snow White’s ex. In short order, he tells her that he intends to ask for her phone number and skip out on the check, leaving her stuck with the bill. Charming and loathsome, all in one package. Like Jack, Prince Charming is a stock character, appearing in a variety of fairy tales. He is the man of the heroine’s dreams. He saves the day, whisks her off her feet. We all know who he is. As first impressions go, though, this isn’t the best. He’s living under assumed identities and, apparently, off the infatuations of young women.

pp 12-13 Bad News

Bigby tells Snow he has bad news for her. I know, she replies, Charming is back in town. But that’s not it. The news is “about your sister, Red Rose.” “This may surprise you,” Snow replies, “I actually know my sisters name.” First, I have to stop and say that that is one of my all time favourite lines (and, yes, I did abridge it, somewhat). To understand why, you need to read some comics written before the mid-80s. They are full expositive prose. Needlessly expositive prose. Some people complain that today’s comics can be read through too quickly, that there is far less dialogue, and text in general, than there used to be. And that’s true. But go back and read an old comic. Put aside your nostalgia for a moment and consider what you’re reading. Most of the text is spelling things out for you that are already obvious from the story. It’s as though they weren’t just written for kids, but kids with ADD. There are lots of ways Willingham could have introduced Red Rose, and the fact that she’s Snow White’s sister, but this shot at comic books past will always be a favourite. And why did he have to tell us they are sisters? Because lots of people don’t know Snow White has a sister. She certainly hasn’t in the Disney movie. But this is easy to explain. There are two Snow Whites! One lived with seven dwarfs and married Prince Charming. The other, aided by her sister, Red Rose, saved a prince who had been turned into a bear by an evil dwarf. Willingham has combined the two women into one. Fable’s Snow White is the Snow White of Disney fame, but she’s been given the sister from the other fairy tale. Which was called, Snow White and Red Rose. In the fairy tale the sisters were very close; in Fables, not so much.

Bigby breaks the news. Jack has arrived and fears something terrible has happened to Red. She is missing and her apartment has been turned upside down. That doesn’t worry Snow. Her sister’s apartment is party central. It’s turned upside down on a regular basis. This time it’s different. Jack reports that there is a lot blood. Bigby’s on his way to check the scene now. Snow insists on coming along. Bigby’s not too happy with the idea, but she insists and she’s the boss.

p 14 Prince Charming II

While the two travel to Red’s apartment, we get a page of Charming and Molly. Of course, he took her to home and had sex with her. Did you think he wouldn’t?

pp 15-22 The Scene of the Crime

Bigby and Snow are on their way to the apartment. He ignores the cabbie’s plea that he can’t smoke in the taxi. He ignored the no smoking sign in Snow’s office, too. She wonders where Jack has gone, and he explains that he sent Jack on ahead to keep anyone else from getting into the apartment. He reasons that if Jack wanted to tamper with the crime scene he would have done it before alerting them in the first place. Snow says she doesn’t trust Jack. Bigby suggests her that her dislike of Jack is probably what Red found most attractive. Like I said, they aren’t very close. Bigby goes on to describe their antagonistic relation, but Snow cuts him short. It’s none of his business. He disagrees, but they’re at the crime scene so that conversation ends.

Jack is sitting outside the door. He didn’t go in because he doesn’t want to see it a second time. He pushed the door open to reveal an apartment that has not only been completely trashed, but has had blood sprayed everywhere. In one corner, on the wall, are bloody letters spelling out: No More Happily Ever After.

Bigby gives Snow his cigarette to hold. He needs to clear his senses. And then he goes in, warning them to keep an eye out for others. He doesn’t want mundys involved. He carefully steps between pools of blood, taking in the carnage. Snow thinks he should look for Red first, but Jack says that he’s already checked and she isn’t there (which is odd, in retrospect, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Bigby tells them both to be quiet. He tells Jack to take Snow away, by force if necessary, if she opens her mouth again. She having none of that, but she does leave Bigby alone. He continues his investigation. He checks things that have been turned over. He checks out the mysteriously blood splatter free stereo system and CD collection. He goes into the kitchen. It’s also trashed, but it’s a sort of every day trashed. No malicious intentions. The fridge has some odd marks on it. He finds the tool drawer and in it he finds the lock that was attached to the fridge. It’s still locked. Whoever removed it didn’t have the key.

Bigby steps back into the hall and promptly arrests Jack. The charge? Well, resisting the arrest and possibly assault (Jack took a swing at Bigby), but whether or not Jack killed Red will have to wait for the next issue. At least.

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