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.
A new decade has begun, and with it, High Five! Comics will soon be unveiling our special “20 (Or So) Best Comics of the Decade” event (take THAT, Siege).But before we reveal the big list, we’ll start with a series of supplementary entries from HF!C’s contributing writers about those comics we each individually loved, but that didn’t quite have the mojo to make the final ranks.
Today, Hava talks about some of her personal favorite books from the last decade.
The 00’s saw the explosion of the memoir, which became arguably the most popular form of literature in the past decade. Since then, the market has been glutted with sensationalistic, outright fabricated works of “auto-biography” (A Million Little Pieces, anyone?). But with the arrival of Marjane Satrapi’s marvelous Persepolis, the memoir won back some credibility for an art form that was increasingly prone to fudging (Frey) and outright lies (the Margaret Jones scandal). Without being overly sentimental, Satrapi explores her childhood and teenage years growing up in Pre-Islamic Revolution era Iran and later, high school in Paris. Through the eyes of child, we witness the overthrow of the Shah, the tyrannical reign of Khomeini and Iranian citizens taken captive and killed for standing up for their beliefs. We witness one government being overthrown, only to have a newer, more dictatorial one take its place. Although a lot of the book is heartbreakingly sad (just try not to cry as Satrapi witnesses her Uncle being taken to jail), there is levity in her grandmother’s sarcastic sense of humor and Satrapi’s own dry sense of humor. Satrapi is wryly funny as she recounts her stories about buying Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden tapes on the black market. Moreover, she exposes Western readers to a culture that has largely been shrouded in misunderstanding and half truths. She opens our eyes to a fuller understanding of Middle Eastern life. One of the most compelling autobiographies I’ve ever read, and worthy of consideration as one of the best of the decade.
As much as I love superhero comics, I always reserve a special affection for the “small”, domestic stories, which (it often turns out) aren’t so small after all. Bechdel’s tale of growing up in an old funeral home, dealing with her discovery of her father’s homosexuality while dealing with her own coming out is as dynamic and exciting as any superhero tale. The key relationship in Bechdel’s life is the one she had with her distant father, a closeted homosexual, whose greatest love was the Gothic revival mansion he restores and raises his family in. Her relationship with him informs her behavior and dress style, as she puts it “I was the Spartan to my father’s Athenian, modern to his Victorian, butch to his nelly”.
The artwork is amazingly expressive. All the effects her parents’ failed marriage can be read in Mrs. Bechdel’s tired, drawn face. The drawings are ornate and elaborate, which is fitting, given the ostentatious Victorian house Bechdel grew up in.
What makes this memoir stand out from the pack is that Bechdel tells her story not in chronological order, but by crosscutting events. She leaves one story thread and returns to it at a different time. What might have been jumbled and confusing is instead engaging and interesting. She writes the way our memories work; remembrances of events are pieced together like a patchwork quilt, random and vague. Things are half-remembered, even Bechdel can’t be certain of her own memories sometimes. That’s what makes her story so true to life, and so fascinating.
For years, non-readers of comic books have given Superman a bad rap. He is the goody two-shoes, bland, uninteresting and my personal favorite, “the boy scout”. Superman: Birthright aims to correct all of that, while being faithful to the Superman mythology. In Mark Waid’s hands, The Man of Steel is complex and achingly human. He has his doubts about his role as a savior of humanity. And what’s always been interesting about Superman is that he feels more comfortable in his own skin as Superman than in his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent. People confuse Clark Kent- halting speech, clumsy, socially awkward, with Superman himself. Here we see Superman as he was always meant to be seen- as an emotionally complex personality. Waid keeps things accessible for new readers and old fans alike by making the conflict relatively simple and recognizable- Superman is re-introduced to his old foe and one-time friend Lex Luthor. Subsequent bad-assery ensues. One of the best scenes in the book- Superman flying over the jungle treetops with a big smile on his face- perfectly articulates the joy of flying. We feel that joy and freedom as well. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment. Superman: Birthright introduces Superman to a whole new generation of readers. It’s as good a place as any to start, and a perfect continuation of the Superman legacy.
I know, I know. The title sounds stupid. But don’t be fooled. Robert Kirkman, author of the acclaimed series Invincible and The Walking Dead has created a series that is refreshing and yet so familiar, you can’t believe someone didn’t think of it years ago. The story begins when Gary Hampton gets bitten by a werewolf on vacation with his family. Soon after, he turns into a werewolf, but he tries to keep it from his family, especially from his young daughter. Not long after, he is visited by a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be a vampire. He originally seems like Gary’s guardian angel, but as the story progresses, is not who he seems to be. The end of the first volume ends with blood on his hands, his daughter disowning him, and the vampire nowhere to be found. And it only gets more intense from there. Kirkman racquets up the tension so high that you may find yourself breaking out in a sweat afterwards.
Chris Ware delights in making you feel uncomfortable. He places us upfront and center into Jimmy Corrigan’s awkward world, and it is uncomfortably intimate. Ware spares us no details and leaves our hero no privacy, following him into the workplace, bedroom and bathroom. We are forced into close quarters with a protagonist for 300 pages that we would otherwise ignore. There’s a disparity between Jimmy’s fantasy life as “the smartest kid alive” where he readily dismisses women and lives like he’s king of the roost and his actual life, where he’s just a shlub who fades into the background and lets the world walk over him. Its dismal middle age malaise would be depressing if it weren’t leavened by Ware’s dry humor and wit.
Jimmy’s only outlet is a bizarre and fantastic fantasy existence…it’s the only way he allows himself to have any control over his life.
Chris Ware doesn’t need to do much to make his characters look expressive. A telling wrinkle around Jimmy Corrigan’s eyes, rings around his eyes even as a kid, make him look preternaturally aged. He is aged, even as a child. He already looks destined to destined to lead a quietly broken adult life.
More telling is Ware’s use of silence and space. Relying on the simple, primary colored panels, they speak volumes about the empty existence of Jimmy Corrigan. Fantasy sequences, in which Corrigan fantasizes about quietly bashing his father’s head in with a mug are the few times he lashes out. It works as both a coming of age story and a multi-generational family saga. It’s about the little (and big ) injustices that parents inflict upon their children, and parental neglect. We may have not liked him in the beginning, but by the end we are rooting for a character that we would have ignored or dismissed if we passed him on the street. We’ve come to care for Jimmy Corrigan, with equal amounts pathos and laughter.
Stitches starts out with a nightmare of a autobiography- boy goes in for surgery for a growth on his neck, wakes up unable to speak for the rest of his life, his vocal cords slashed. Then he finds out that it was cancer. And his family had been keeping it from him the entire time. This horrifying scenario takes on a dream-like quality, as Smalls uses surrealistic imagery inspired by a favorite book of his youth- Alice inWonderland. He depicts his mother’s silent rage as literal tidal waves, crashing down on him. He has repeated dreams of falling through a rabbit hole and crawling through a small door. Even the therapist he goes to see is depicted as the White Rabbit.
The book is sketched in beautiful watercolor black and white, which makes everything look spacey and dreamy. It has the aura of a silent film. Space and silence is used to mimic the silence and repressed anger in David’s mother and indifference in his distant father. Indeed, what little dialogue in here is spare, most of the action comes through hard gestures, like David’s mothers slamming of cabinet doors, David’s father hitting a punching bag in the basement. The absence of a voice, of David’s voice- literally and figuratively mimics the style of Stitches.
The story’s twist- the how and WHY David develops cancer…is hidden from David himself. An autobiographical mystery that isn’t to be missed.
Asians haven’t really gotten their due in comics. Sure there’s Jubilee and Psylocke of X-Men fame, but that’s about it. Although there HAS been a larger diaspora of races in recent years, with comics like 100 Bullets and DMZ, Shortcomings is nervy because it tackles what is seldom dealt with or even spoken about in comics: race. Race is so seldom dealt with in comics at all, that it’s refreshing to see it finally brought up here. As the 00’s drew to a close, comics starting becoming more racially diverse, ie 100 Bullets, DMZ, and others. Hell, the X-Men have their own Jubilee. Out of the superhero realm, there’s Adrian Tomine. Shortcomings chronicles the adventures of Ben Tanaka, a 30-something asian guy, with a long-term girlfriend, Miko and a wise-cracking gay best friend, Alice. With his minimalist, no-frills style, he gets to the heart and soul of racial unrest. Tomine is not afraid to poke holes in PC race issues. He’s just as quick to pick apart Asian stereotypes as he is to expose subtle racism in his characters…whether its Ben’s growing preference for white girls or his girlfriend’s not-so subtle hints that he prefers white women over her. But Shortcomings isn’t heavy-handed in its politics. It succeeds because it’s at heart a human story about relationships, jealousy, and all the things that come with it.
One of the goals of High Five! is to convert casual fans into obsessive fans. We’re constantly convincing our friends, that no, comics are so TOO for grown-ups! We also find ourselves fighting a constant battle to convince people that while we may have grown up with Marvel (and YES, I have Marvel titles on my pull list), DC is kicking a whole lot of ass these days. Today, we bring you the first (and hopefully not last) High Five! n00b Review! Our friend Hava is a voracious reader of regular books (you know, the ones without the pit-chers), but only in that last year or so has she been into comics. She hadn’t quite gotten into the Capes though, so rather than taking her the familiar Superman or Batman route, we foisted Green Lantern: Rebirth upon her – and I’m proud to say, we’ve got ourselves a convert. *sniffle* They grow up so fast…
Man. Is she gonna freak when she catches up to Blackest Night, or what?