Sunday, November 2, 2008

Issue By Issue: Bill Willingham's Fables

#5 The Famous Parlor Room Scene (Sans Parlor)

Writer: Bill Willingham. Pencils: Lan Medina. Inks: Steve Leialoha. Letters: Todd Klein. Colours: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh. Cover: James Jean.

pp 01-14 The Denouement

This, the final issue of the first arc, breaks down neatly into two parts. The first is the promised denouement, or parlour scene. Bigby tells all.

His suspicions were raised the moment Jack came to his office. Jack coming to his office was suspicious in itself, but Bigby noticed right away that Jack, who had only run from the curb to his door, was winded, out of breath. Bigby knew that whatever Jack was trying to sell him, he was overplaying his role. Then there is the crime scene itself. The apartment was turned over, but few personal effects were damaged. Red-the-party-animal's sound system was strangely blood free. Jack said he'd been inside, to see if Red was okay, but he hadn't left any footprints. All in all, this was obviously a staged crime scene.

But if it was so obvious, interrupts Snow, why did he let her believe, 'for days, weeks', that her sister was dead? Because the fact that it was a fake crime scene didn't mean Red wasn't dead. Perhaps it was a suicide disguised as a murder? Perhaps Red intended to fake her death, but her accomplice, or accomplices, thought otherwise? The blood at the scene really was Red's and there really was just too much of it. No one could survive the loss of so much blood. Not all at once. That's where the locked fridge came in. Over the course of several weeks, Jack and Red collected her blood into IV bags and locked them in the fridge, where they would stay fresh until needed. The fridge was locked to ensure none of her guests raided it and discovered they were up to something.

That explains the how, but not the why. Bigby decided that until he knew exactly who Red was afraid of he would keep as much to himself as possible. The answer, of course, was Bluebeard. Given his marriage history, he was the last person she wanted to get on the wrong side of – especially after signing a marriage contract. Just why she did that could be found in Jack's computer files. Jack decided that the best way to make his fortune was through a computer start up company, but he needed financing. To get that he turned to his girlfriend, Red Rose. She didn't have it, of course, but she did have the interest of one of the wealthiest men in the community. They staged a very public break-up, after which she hooked up with Bluebeard. She agreed to marry him for a million dollars and the promise to keep their engagement a secret for a year. Within that year she and Jack would become multimillionaires, she would then break off her engagement, and return the million to Bluebeard out of her new found wealth. Unfortunately the dot.com bubble burst, leaving her on the hook to marry a notorious wife killer. Amnesty or no amnesty, she wasn't going to do that, so she schemed with Jack to fake her own death. Her rationale was that with a little more time, they would figure a way out of their predicament.

Cole asks Bigby what to do next, but the detective begs off. His job, to solve the mystery, is done. The consequences are someone else's jurisdiction. Bluebeard wastes no time in stepping and telling everyone that he expects to have his revenge on Jack and his marriage to Red. Charming, thinking of himself first and always, wants his winnings (now described as millions). Snow intercedes and tells everyone to go home. The party is over. The consequences will have to wait.

pp 15-16 Aftermath

The second half of the issue details the aftermath.

It’s the next day and things look quiet at the Woodlands, though the topiary needs a trim. Colin is sleeping off the festivities behind a bushy elephant while Snow and Bigby meet in her apartment. He's impressed with how big it is. He isn't impressed with the solution she's come up with. A solution that guarantees no one will got what they want. She sends him out to round up the injured parties, to tell them where to be and when.

p 17 Prince Charming

First, she meets her ex back at the Eggman. He wants what's coming to him and she dutifully hands over a cheque for less than thirty thousand dollars. He is outraged, but she reminds him that their deal allowed her to charge expenses against the winnings and to determine just what those expenses would be. The lottery has been used to finance the investigation and pay off Bluebeard. Neither of which have anything to do with Charming, but, really, what sort of idiot would put that kind of authority in the hands of an ex-wife who hates him? She advises him to use the cash to buy back his title - and to pay for their meal.

pp 18-19 Bluebeard

Bluebeard isn't actually that happy, getting the money and not the bride. But Snow points out that the contract her sister signed stipulates that he cannot tell anyone of the engagement until the year is up, and, in aiding the investigation, he did just that! Now he has a choice: he can take the money and call it a day, or he will be brought up on charges for his attempt to kill Jack.

p 20 Jack and Red Rose

Jack and Red get off lightly: a ten thousand dollar fine, each, and two hundred hours of community service. No jail time. They don't have twenty thousand, but will once Charming buys his title back.

pp 21-22 Snow White and Bigby Wolf

Everything wraps up with a quiet moment between Bigby and Snow. Everything is settled, but she still has one question: why did he need her to go as his date to the dace? Turns out, it was just a round about way of getting her to go out with him! She's not impressed and tells him they will only ever be colleagues, but you'd have to be particularly dense to miss the sparks between these two.

And that's that. Mystery solved. First arc complete. First trade, too. I said last week that I would save my critique until now. I decided to do so because my one criticism of the story remains consistent from issue to issue and I didn't want to sound like a broken records (kids can ask their parents what that means), but it may well be a precedent. It does make more sense to evaluate a story when its done. We’ll see.

Fables first came to my attention while browsing at my local comics shop. I saw issue four, loved Jean's cover, and picked it up. I flipped through it, but wasn't engaged. It really was the cover art that drew my attention. Nothing else. Not that there is anything wrong with Medina's art. Buckingham has been with the title for so long, it’s easy to forget he wasn't the original artist. But I had the same experience when I read the first trade. As mystery stories go, it’s okay. Willingham does a good job of setting things up and the resolution is straight forward. They only point that seems a bit fuzzy is the time frame. In this issue Snow complains of being kept in the dark for 'for days, weeks', but everything else points to a period of a few days. A week tops. Bigby’s account of Jack and Red setting things in motion suffers from timing problems too. Bigby says that it was when their 'year began to run out' that Jack and Rose came up with this desperate plan. But it would have taken Rose thirty to thirty-six weeks to donate five or six pints of blood. A considerably longer time frame. But those are minor points. No, the complaint I had throughout my reading of this arc was a consistent one: where is the magic?

Seriously. Throughout the entire story we are constantly told of the importance of their origins, we see both Bigby and Grimble transform into their original forms, or something close to it, in Bigby’s case, and, yes, we see a flying monkey and a hobgoblin, but at what point to the underlying fantasy elements actually impact the story in any meaningful way? Never. This story could just as easily been told without them. The mayor’s party girl sister may have been murdered. The mayor, an attractive young woman herself, works closely with the local police detective to solve the crime. What they uncover is that the sister had dropped her loser boyfriend for an older man with money and a reputation for spousal abuse. Looking a little deeper into the whole affair, they discover that she has swindled the old man out of a fortune with a promise of marriage and has given the money to her first boyfriend. Their intention is to make a quick fortune, repay the millionaire, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, their money goes down the drain and she is left on the hook. They decide to fake her death, in order to get the fiancĂ© off her back. Throw in a bad first marriage for the lady mayor and we’ve got the same story. Fantasy elements? Zip.

Now Fables is one of the great fantasy series, comparable to Sandman, though very different. You’d never get any sense of that from the first arc. The only moment that really reads like one of the many stories that inspired this series is when Snow argues that Bluebeard nullified the marriage contract by telling them of it. Fairy tales are full of those kinds of ploys. Comparing the two series, Fables and Sandman may well be like comparing apples and oranges, but of the two I prefer Fables. Still, if I hadn’t borrowed the first two or three trades together, it’s unlikely that I would have gotten any further than this one. On re-reading it I am actually quite impressed with how well so many elements of this fantasy world have been laid out for us, but I can’t believe for a moment that Willingham couldn’t have come up with a better story with which to introduce them. It is not a terrible story, by any means, but it is nothing like what Fables will quickly become.

A Wolf In The Fold

This first arc also constitutes the first trade. As a special extra we are given the story of Bigby and Snow White’s first meeting. Their first two meetings, actually. It’s a short prose story. In it the wolf, he is just the wolf at this point, has become a terror to the troops of the Adversary and the de facto guardian of a passage to the mundy world. He is not an heroic figure and the Fables are as afraid of him as the troops he routinely destroys.

He first came across Snow White when he freed a group of prisoners, tearing their guards into gruesome little pieces. Snow picked up the sword of a dead guard, intent of defending herself and her sister against this new attacker. This leads to some banter, while they take the measure of each other, and he bites through their chains and shows them the way to freedom. Two centuries pass and the wolf himself has crossed over. He hasn’t joined the others. He lives as a wolf in the Carpathian Mountains (that would be central Europe and the Balkans). Snow comes looking for him, protected by a strange man called Feathertop. There are two distinct views of ‘Gaffer’ Wolf (gaffer means boss or chief). On the one hand he ate a great many Fables, long before the Adversary showed up; on the other, he saved a great many Fables from the Adversary. They would like him to join them, but he would have to live among the human-like Fables. That would require a glamour Snow can provide with the prick of a sword she has brought. Throughout this encounter the wolf is distracted by Feathertop, who he can’t figure out, but he accepts the offer and joins them in Fabletown.

It’s a nice little story, adding some depth to the preceding one, though it’s interesting that no mention is made of their first two meetings and the metaphorical kisses (the bite and the stab). Feathertop is the creation of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He is a scarecrow given the appearance of a human by a witch’s spell. He was chosen to accompany Snow because the wolf doesn’t eat straw. They seem to have forgotten about Colin and his house of straw. Feathertop is one of a small group of special agents who live outside the Fable. Collectively they are known as the Tourists and we will meet more of them as our story unfolds.

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