20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade: 3. Fables
Posted March 11, 2010on:
Who says that fairy tales are just for kids? Bill Willingham’s Fables has more than enough intrigue, politics, and drama to fill any number of high-brow literary works. Fables succeeds magnificently at molding the fairy tales you loved as a child into a grown-up saga without ruining your childhood (case in point: Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Now THAT was a scarring experience). Fables is brilliant because it works on multiple levels. It’s comedy, romance, mystery, and action all at once without denigrating into crass parody. Although some characters are more integral to the story than others, Fables never focuses on just one main character – it’s like a Robert Altman film turned comic book fairy tale. Fables isn’t just a great work of comic book fiction, it’s a great work of fiction, period, proof enough to shut up all the naysayers who believe comics are just for teenage boys and adults caught in arrested development.
Fables begins in modern day New York, where Snow White, her sister Rose Red, King Cole and many others have been exiled after escaping their homelands, fleeing a mysterious threat known only as “The Adversary.” It can be said of many series that they start off a little weak, but only get better as the series goes on. This isn’t quite true for Fables, because while it isn’t weak by any means, the early issues don’t even hint at how rich and complex the world of Fabletown becomes as the series progresses. Volume One opens with Snow White, who is now the right-hand woman of Mayor King Cole, tracking down her sister’s murderer. Things aren’t quite what they seem of course, and as Fables unfolds over 82 issues, events snowball and lead up to the big showdown, in which the villian is unveiled and kingdoms are restored… for a time.
What makes Fables so special is that seemingly minor characters end up as major players later on, significantly altering the lives of the Fable-town residents and becoming more important than they (and the reader) ever imagined they could be. They’re the ones we root the loudest and cry the hardest for. These characters aren’t the elevated paragons of perfection, clear-cut black and white archetypes that we’re used to from traditional fairy tales. They are imperfect beings, with frail relationships handled expertly by Bill Willingham. Prince Charming is a cad who’s had three wives (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, respectively). Snow White and Bigby Wolf have their own relationship problems, him being a wolf the least of them. The most stable relationship in the series is Beauty and the Beast’s. Healthy relationships are almost never interesting in fiction, (and really, who wants to read about happy couples?), but theirs is possibly the most fun, playful and yes, sexy healthy relationship I’ve come across in fiction, ever. No small feat.
And, like any great work of fiction, there is inevitable tragedy. The heartbreak of failed love between two characters is as devastating as the happy ones are uplifting. Late in the series, a final goodbye between a will-they-won’t-they pair ends not in forgiveness, but with one character revealing the hard, unvarnished truth about the other’s shortcomings. And it’s as painful for her to hear as it is for us, as Willingham knowingly wrenches our hearts by wrenching hers. He doesn’t let her off easy, even on his deathbed. And it just breaks your heart in half.
Most series would be content to wrap things up neatly in a bow and leave the residents of Fabletown to their happiness and content, but Bill Willingham never takes the easy route. It doesn’t end in “Happily Ever After” because, just like life, these stories will go on, even after we close the pages of the book.