Monday, January 19, 2009

Issue By Issue: Bill Willingham's Fables

For those reading along in trade format, things may seem a little out of order at this point. We finished the second to last story in the third trade, Storybook Love, with one more to go. Then it was on to book four, March of the Wooden Soldiers. Now we are looking at the first chapter of the fourth book and before the final chapter in the third. Why? Up to this point the trades have been printing the stories in publication order, but there are a few hiccups now. Issue seventeen came out on September 10, 2003. The stand alone special issue, ‘The Last Castle', on the 17th of that month. And then issue eighteen on the 8th of October. Vertigo put ‘The Last Castle’ at the start of volume four because it reads better that way, setting up the March of the Wooden Soldiers. Issue eighteen is another fairy tale about Fable characters and could have been put anywhere. Also, in volume four The March of the Wooden Soldiers is told from beginning to end. When it was put out as a monthly, however, issue 22 took a break from the main story. It gets collected into volume five. After that the trades resume following the monthly order. At least, they have until now.

The Last Castle

Writer: Bill Willingham; Pencils: Craig Hamilton and P. Craig Russell; Inker: P. Craig Russell; Colour: Lovern Kindzierski; Letterer: Todd Klein; Cover: James Jean.

pp 01-3 Preface

It’s the Ides of May. That’s the 15th, or the mid-point of the month on the Roman festival calendar. Mars was worshipped. Of course, it has taken on something of a negative connotation since Caesar’s murder (which was on the Ides of March). That killing has no bearing on this story, but it is interesting that the Fables are using such an old calendar system.

Boy Blue is sitting around the office, blowing his horn. Snow asks if he has an audition, but, no, he tells her it’s the Ides of March. A mini-Remembrance Day for those who were on the last boat out, fleeing from the Adversary to the mundy world. They meet once a year to commemorate the passage. They hold their grief pretty close to the chest, so Snow doesn’t know a lot about what happened, but nothing’s getting done about the office, so Blue decides to tell her the story.

pp 04-09 The Last Refugee

It’s the last citadel, protecting the last gateway into the mundy world. It’s not, as we’ll learn, but that is what it’s defenders believe. It is described as being east of the sun and west of the moon, which I have always thought of as a time, rather than a location, but that’s not important either. While the Adversary’s army hasn’t arrived en mass, those there have our heroes cut off. Fewer and fewer refugees make it safely behind the walls. Today’s rider will be the last.

She makes her run, across a field of carnage, chased by six goblin riders. She leaps over a pumpkin carriage. On the wall two defenders make bets as to how many of the goblins they can kill. They are not going to do out and help her, but if she can get close enough they will shoot the goblins with their bow and arrow. The two devise a point system, the loser serves the winner, in a gown, at dinner. The rider is shot is the shoulder and thigh before she makes it to the gate, where a crow calls out for the defenders to open the gates.

The rider is Red Riding Hood. The carriage, of course, Cinderella’s. The crow is one of the Twelve Brothers, characters from a Grimm’s fairy tale who are cursed into a bird form unless their sister can remain silent for seven years. In Fables they have the power to change between human and bird form at will. The two archers on the wall are Robin Hood and Britomart. Robin Hood looks just like the Green Arrow. Exactly like him, right down to the blond hair and beard. With him in the castle are Friar Tuck and his other ‘miry’ men. I am not sure why Willingham chooses to call them his miry men instead of merry men. Perhaps he thinks they were originally the miry (muddy) men and that their name was transformed, through retellings, to the merry men. But from all I can find, that wasn’t the case. In medieval times the word merry referred to a companion or follower. Britomart was originally the name of a Greek nymph, but in Spencer’s Faerie Queen she was transformed into a warrior maiden and her name refashioned with a new etymology, with ‘Brit’ referring to Britain, and ‘mart’ to Mars, the Roman god of war. She wins the contest.

pp 10-15 The Castle

Blue then gives us a tour of the castle. He is a fifteen year veteran of the war against the Adversary and has fought in many famous battles, but of the four he mentions, Boxen, Ruby Lake, Oakcourt, and Hollyfield, the only one I can positively attribute to anything is Boxen. When he was a child C. S. Lewis and his brother invented an imaginary land they called Boxen. He is now the aide-de-camp (orderly is the term used) to Colonel Bearskin, the commander. Bearskin tells him to check up on the latest refugee and learn what he can of the enemy’s movements. Blue finds her in the care of Dr. Swineheart, who boasts she’ll be on her feet in an hour or two. The horn player is immediately smitten by the new arrival.

In the mountains directly behind the castle is a passage through which Bluebeard pilots a swan ship to and from the portal. He arrives anxious to reload and leave, but the Colonel isn’t to be disturbed. Willingham originally wanted to use Captain Hook to fill the role played by Bluebeard, but had to change his plan due to copy write issues. This story at least allows him to put the character to sea, albeit as the owner, not the captain. It is also a swan ship, a popular motif made even more so by Tolkien, and not a pirate galley.

As this unfolds Blue introduces us to some of the people there. We’ve already met Blue, Bluebeard, and Swineheart. Prince Charming and Cinderella are also there. They aren’t getting along. He is particularly unhappy about living somewhere with all three of the women he has walked down the aisle. Who are the others? Colonel Bearskin is from a Grimm fairy tale. He was a down and out soldier given a coat, with pockets full of gold, and a bearskin to sleep in by the devil. A deal was cut, and the Colonel’s part of it was not to bathe or cut his hair for seven years. During that time he gained the name Bearskin. The crow who spoke is named Vulco. He will go on to manage the Eggman diner. We meet three kings. Pellinore is from the Arthurian tales and is our first confirmed character from the King Arthur stories. In them he was searching for the Questing Beast, which is the ‘endless quest’ Blue refers to. Kings Madagao and Bornegascar are both from Ambrose Bierce’s Fantastic Tales. There are three knights. Tam Lin is from the famous Scottish legend of the same name. Sir Herman Von Strakenfaust, whom Blue says really is a ghost, is from Washington Irving’s ‘The Spectre Bridegroom.’ The Red Cross Knight is, like Britomart, from the Faerie Queen, but he is in reality St. George of George and the Dragon fame. George was originally a 4th century Christian martyr, who was eventually, if only traditionally, robed in the red cross of a crusader. That cross eventually became the flag of England. There are also three dogs. From another German tale, their names are Salt, Pepper, and Mustard. They save their master after he saves a maiden from a dragon. We also see the Three Little Pigs, Mother Goose, and a host of her nursery rhyme characters. Little Bo Peep, Jack and Jill, the butcher, the baker, the candle stick maker. Of course, Little Boy Blue is himself a Mother Goose character.

pp 16-22 The Adversary’s Army

The next day the main body of the Adversary’s forces arrives. It is a huge army. An attack is launched that sees the death of three hundred goblins, but only one defender, the Brave Little Tailor, of Grimm and Disney fame. Bearskin is unimpressed. The enemy’s forces are so vast that the loss of three hundred means nothing to it.

The Adversary’s commanding officer sends out a flag of truce. He wants to talk. Bearskin and Blue go out alone (Blue is there in his role as the Colonel’s orderly). The commander is Aucassin de Beaucaire, from a French tale of courtly love and adventure called Aucassin and Nicolette. Interestingly, he is not a villainous character is that story at all, but he has been working with the Adversary for some time in Willingham’s adventures. Bearskin defeated Aucassin at Boxen. Aucassin tells them that, in spite of his orders to kill everyone, he will let the women and children live if they surrender now. Bearskin begs off giving an answer right away, saying he isn’t empowered to speak for all in such a matter. Aucassin tells him to have his meeting, but not to delay.

pp 23-28 The Last Night

Bearskin addresses those in the castle. He tells them that there is only time for one more ship full of refugees to make it to the mundy world. Priority is given to non-human Fables, women, children, married men, and those with family already crossed over. He also asks that all magical items, except the witching cloak, which he needs, be put aboard in order to keep them from the Adversary. All other positions will be filled by a lottery. Some will need to stay behind to defend the ship as it leaves. Bearskin exempts himself from the lottery and many of the defenders volunteer to stay behind with him. Blue is one. Prince Charming, on the other hand, is all too happy to be going. Cinderella has agreed to keep silent about the fact that they will be divorcing as soon as they get to safety. I don’t know why. It’s obvious that they can’t stand each other.

Blue takes Riding Hood up to the tower. Vulco is there, but he leaves them alone. She tells her story. Grandma and the Wolf. She was captured by the Adversary, passed around by his soldiers, and eventually became a cleaning woman. When she saw a chance to escape, she took it. She wants Blue to come with her to the mundy world. He won’t. So they spend the final night together.

pp 29-43 The Last Stand

It’s the next morning. They’ve overslept. She pleads with him to go with her, but he insists she get to the ship. He takes her. They kiss goodbye.

Blue finds the Colonel. They have already been pushed back from the first wall. His orders are to take the witching cloak and go to the highest tower. He is to witness everything and then use the cloak, which has the power to teleport the wearer, to join Riding Hood aboard the ship. Blue doesn’t like the order, but he is a soldier and he follows orders.

He watches as Pellinore and Tam Lin fall. When Robin Hood and Britomart are cut off she throws her enchanted spear (apparently Britomart really did have one), which certain that it will find whatever target it is aimed at. Beyond the wall it cuts Aucassin down, robbing him of the chance to enjoy his victory. Von Starkenfaust, the ‘Miry’ men, and kings Bornegascar and Madagao die. But then, for a moment, it seemed like things might turn around. The Red Cross knight stands his ground, killing hundreds. Then the attackers send a dragon and the most famous of dragonslayers is incinerated. Bearskin was the last to fall. He was injured and then tormented to death.

Blue uses the cloak and reappears on the deck of the swan ship. The ship passes out from the castle along a deep, rough gorge. It doesn’t sail free. It’s cabled to some pylons until it reaches a waterfall. As it goes over the falls wings are spread out from the sides and it takes to the air. No sooner than it looks like they might have made it, two dragons attack. Their only defenders are the Crow brothers, who fly to them and then, taking human form, cling on, stabbing at the monsters with all their might. The dragons die, all but three of the brothers with them. The boat flies for the gate, with orders to close it and destroy the key.

pp 44-46 The Ides Of March

And that’s the story of the last ship from the Homelands. And Riding Hood? She didn’t make it. She decided she didn’t want to go without Blue and so was in the castle when it fell.

He goes off to join the other survivors and lift a drink to those who didn’t make it. We see the toast. The only others there we recognize are the remaining Crow brothers.

And so ends Fables’ first, and so far only, special issue. To date we’ve seen a community that is defined by its origins but has actually been living peacefully for many, many years. That is all about to change and ‘The Last Castle’ was released to set that up. I am not familiar with Craig Hamilton, but he does a great job of the main story. The only reservation, if you can call it that, is something of a ’what if’ question. P. Craig Russell inked his work and also did the introductory and concluding pages. You can’t get a better fantasy artist in American comics than Russell. What if Russell had done the whole book? Why didn’t he? Why did they divide the story between the two men? Of course this line of questioning comes off as a criticism of Russell and it isn’t meant to be. His work comes off well with both Russell’s and Linda Medley’s, the artist for the next tale. As for the story, its alright. We see Blue the war veteran, something that will be built on later, and get a nice O. Henry-esque ending. If you are reading this in the trade collection, it serves as a great introduction to one of the title’s major arcs, but we have one more issue before we are there.

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