Monday, January 26, 2009

Issue By Issue: Bill Willingham's Fables

#18 - Barleycorn Brides

Writer: Bill Willingham; Pencils: Linda Medley; Inker: Steve Leiahola; Colour: Daniel Vozzo; Letterer: Todd Klein; Cover: James Jean.

pp 01-04 Caught

A tiny little man, small enough to be a member of the Mouse Police, has broken into the Deputy Mayor’s office and is making his way up a perilous bookshelf. Perilous if you’re as small as he is. His goal? A jar. He no sooner finds it, than Bufkin grabs him and flies him into Sheriff Wolf’s custody.

Bigby recognizes him as Eddie Underfoot and tells him he’s going back to the Farm the same way he got out, on the next messenger bird. Neither Bigby nor Bufkin seem either surprised or concerned about the break in, which puzzles Flycatcher. The Bigby he knows isn’t usually so lenient. Bigby explains that what Flycatcher just witnessed is a rite of passage amongst the men of Smalltown. When one comes of age, he is expected to try and steal a jar of magic barleycorn. Why? Well, that’s what the rest of the comic is about.

pp 05-07 F.L.E.A.L.F.

Lilliput is an Indian island nation appearing in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The most remarkable feature of its citizenry is that they are only a twelfth the size of other humans. They’re a tiny people. Another remarkable feature is that, while many other people were just hoping the Adversary would be happy conquering other lands and leave them alone, they put together a volunteer regiment, the First Liliputian Expeditionary And Liberation Force. They sailed off determined to do their part, that is, until they arrived and discovered they were in a land of giants. Colonel Wuddershanks decided they’d best go home, but when they returned to their ship they found it burned. Worse, a giant ogre was sleeping on the shore beside the wreckage.

They tied it down and questioned it. He was left to guard the shore while the others searched for the crew. A runner was sent to inform command that a kingdom of tiny men existed. One they could easily conquer. Taking this in, they decided they couldn’t risk going home. They might lead the Adversary to Lilliput. Meeting other refugees they learnt of the portals to the mundy world and came here to settle on the Farm and called their community Smalltown.

pp 08-10 Smalltown

The community had everything it needed, except one. There were no women. That sorry state remained until Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina showed up. Being the only woman, however, her presence brought the town fighting, jealousy, and disorder. No one was happy, especially her. The people of Smalltown went to King Cole and demanded that they be made they same size as other people, or that enough women be shrunk to their size to allow them to have wives. Cole refused on the grounds that they couldn’t afford it. This scene is an interesting one. With Cole is Snow and two unidentified characters. I can’t help but wonder who. And what was Snow’s role here? During Bigby’s investigation of Red’s disappearance it was clearly stated that she’d only recently come into the position she now enjoys. Anyway, Johnny Bullhorn, a Lilliputian himself, comes up with the solution.

pp 11-22 Johnny Bullhorn

Bullhorn decides to return to the Homelands and find the pot of barley corns from which Thumbelina was grown. A witch, wanting a daughter, planted a barleycorn. Up grew a tulip, and in the blossom of that tulip was little Thumbelina. How on earth you get tulips from barley, I don’t know, but Bullhorn figures that with the magic barleycorns they could have enough brides for everyone.

A hawk named Arrow, commander of the Farm’s air guard, agrees to help him, but it is still a long, long time before they complete their mission. So long that the remaining Fables give up hope and assume they’re dead. When Johnny and Arrow do find the witch’s cottage, they discover the jar is gone. They also discover Mustard Pot Pete, a bug who knows where the jar has been taken. He brings them to a high castle, where the Adversary has been storing magical items. The items are guarded by a bear, but the bear, on learning their mission, helps them find the jar and escape. He is a king who lost his lands to the Adversary long ago. Able to transform himself into a bear, he undertook his current position believing that there were no free lands left. Now he knows otherwise he joins them, magically borrowing Arrow’s wings and flying them all back to the Farm. No sources for the bear or the bug could be found.

In the spring a big enough crop of barleycorn girls were grown to allow the population of Smalltown to grow the next generation of brides in a more traditional manner. The jar was put into the office for safekeeping. Johnny Bullhorn became known as Johnny Barleycorn, which is the title of a traditional English folk song, and the inspiration of this rite of passage amongst the young men of Smalltown. When they come of age they try to steal a barleycorn bride for themselves.

As fairy tales go its a good one. A lot more could have been doen to develop the adventures of our heroes while they were in the Homelands, but that was never really the focus of the tale. It is great to see Linda Medley's work outside her own book, Castle Waiting. Reading these stories you can really see the inspiration behind the 1001 Nights Of Snowfall anthology, something I would like to see a follow-up to. Next up, the March Of The Wooden Soldiers, one of the great turning points in the series, and the beginning of the second chapter of its overall arc.

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