Monday, December 22, 2008

Issue By Issue: Bill Willingham's Fables

#11 Bag O’ Bones

Writer: Bill Willingham. Pencils: Bryan Talbot. Letters: Todd Klein. Colours: Daniel Vozzo. Cover: Aron Wiesenfeld.

pp 01-04 Discharge

This issue boasts all kinds of changes. It has two guest artists. Bryan Talbot illustrated the story and Aron Wiesenfeld did the cover. This is only the second cover to be done be someone other than Jean. Alex Maleev did an alternative cover for issue one. It is also the first stand alone issue, and it is the first to tell us a story about one of our stars. This one comes from The American Jack Tales.

Jack, seeking adventure, lied his way into a lieutenant’s position in the Louisiana Volunteers. His plan was to win glory on the battlefield and marry a rich belle. Of course, through no fault of their own, the South loses and Jack’s scheme comes to naught. Willingham’s views of the war are coloured by the fact that he himself is from Virginia. There are many Southerners who will not give up on the Civil War until they win. Facts be hanged. Jack has somehow alienated his superior, who is only too happy to agree to an early discharge. Just how isn’t spelled out, though Jack claims the man was tired of losing at cards. Jack leaves draped in food, garlic and sausages and more, while the others sit around making do with coffee and potatoes. As he leaves, someone warns him to stay away from the woods. They’re haunted by the devil himself!

pp 05-07 Beat The Devil

Of course, Jack heads straight for the woods and, of course, he runs straight into the devil (or Nick Slick, as they call him here). Unlike the previous ten stories, there are no changes in perspective. This is a straight ahead tale, faithfully narrated. The two play cards and soon Jack has lost everything. He is down to betting his boots. For the last hand, Jack bids his soul and Nick bets the sack he has been putting all his winnings in. Jack couldn’t help but notice the magical qualities of the bag. No matter how much is put in, it never fills. Jack wins and the devil tells him how to use the bag. Cheating the devil and bottomless treasure sacks appear in many folk tales, so we’re not really breaking any new ground here, but Willingham has one more thing to add.

pp 08-13 Saramore

Jack makes his way and comes upon the Saramore, the Cornwelles family home. It has been abandoned, yet it has been left alone. No one has robbed or damaged the property. Jack calls, but no one answers.

He makes his way through the place, and finds the beautiful Sally Cornwelles. She heard him calling, but, being a lady, could not shout back. She couldn’t go out to meet him, either, because she is paralysed and bed ridden. She’d let the staff go, freeing her last slave only that day. She suffers from an inherited malady, causing paralysis and death, and expects to die any moment. Jack, being Jack, immediately suggests she has time for one last ‘tumble’ before she goes. Sally is outraged. She intends to go sinless to her Lord. But Jack has another scheme. Jack offers her life in exchange for her… honour.

pp 14-22 A World Without Death

Death comes to Sally Cornwelles and Jack jumps out from behind the door and says, ‘Clickety Clack! Get into my sack!’ And the Grim Reaper is sucked into the sack. Instantly Sally is healed. Apparently she was dying of death. I mean, Jack didn’t get rid of any disease. She should still be lying there suffering, but let’s not ruin it. Jack claims his prize, but she insists he bathe first. Once that’s done the very proper Miss Cornwelles is only too happy to give Jack what he wants. This is the first time, in a Fables comic, that we see what passes for ‘Mature’ in a Vertigo title: sex and, very shortly, graphic violence.

That comes as soon as Jack gets hungry for something other than Sally. He sends her off to get some food. Since she’s freed all the slaves who hadn’t run off or been sold, she has to kill the chicken herself. Except it won’t die. Nothing will die. Soon dead Confederates – or men who are grievously wounded and should be dead – start showing up demanded that Jack fix whatever he has done. And he does. He let’s Death out of the bag. But Death bares no grudges. He hasn’t had a day off in forever. He gives Jack and Sally a year together and goes off to do his work. The narrator tells us that this Happy Ending doesn’t last long. Sally dumps Jack and he loses the bag too. But that’s Jack. His luck never lasts.

I liked the story. It didn’t need the gratuitous sex and nudity, but other than that everything worked for me. These characters are the stuff of legend and folklore and it’s good to see one of them in their proper context. Willingham takes his cue from the folk tradition itself and grabs pieces of other stories – the sack, the deal with the devil, death takes a holiday (though I’ve only seen that in movies, not folktales) – and he fashions them into an entertaining little tale. Jack isn’t my favourite Fable, though I have grown to like him more since this story first came out. I suspect if Willingham wrote him more sympathetically he couldn’t get away with the kind of behaviour that comes naturally to him. He is a scoundrel, but that’s okay. He never profits from his misdeeds.

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