Before Emma showed up in Storybrooke to shake things up on Once Upon A Time (ABC), or Nick found out his family had a certain, special heritage on Grimm (NBC), fairy tale characters were making a come back in a comic book series called Fables, written by Bill Willingham and published by DC Vertigo. Quickly growing in popularity with comic book readers, the book has kept going for over a decade, and has spawned several spin-offs. Up until now, I've avoided reviewing Fables simply due to the sheer volume of material available. I mean—where do you start? Turns out, you just have to start at the beginning.
Fairy tale characters such as Snow White, Old King Cole, Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Bluebeard, Prince Charming—even The Big Bad Wolf and The Three Little Pigs—are all real, and, as it turns out, live in a small section of New York City called Fabletown. Well, most of them. Those who can pass for human, anyway. Any who can't pass for human live on a farm upstate. Some choose to travel among the “mundys,” which would be normal people who have no idea magic is real or that the Fables exist and are living in their world. The Fables were forced to come to this world when theirs, part of hundreds of worlds existing in the multiverse, were invaded by the mysterious Adversary, who sought to rule all the magical worlds, but who has never taken any sort of interest in the Mundy World.
Fabletown is fairly insular; they have their own government, with Old King Cole acting as Mayor with Snow White as his Lieutenant. Really, Snow runs things for Cole, who doesn't like to get his hands dirty doing the heavy lifting. Snow relies on Bigby, The Big Bad Wolf in human form, to act as Sheriff, enforcing the laws of Fabletown. A few others, like Little Boy Blue and a Flying Monkey named Bufkin, round out those working for King Cole in the Mayor's office.
The three volumes I'm going to look at today tell two major stories, and then a few minor stories, setting up the world of Fables and growing the cast of characters exponentially as you read through.
Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile begins with Jack Horner (The Giant Killer), rushing into Bigby's office to announce something terrible has happened to Snow White's sister, Rose Red. At the apartment Rose shares with Jack, Bigby finds a gruesome scene; blood splatter everywhere, a room tossed and thrashed, and no sign of Rose Red's body anywhere. His immediate suspects are Jack himself, a man with a reputation for murdering giants and an overall bad reputation, and Snow White, who has had a shaky relationship with her sister ever since catching her in bed with Prince Charming, Snow's husband at the time. As the investigation continues, Bigby's list of suspects grows to include Bluebeard, one of the richest of the Fables, who announces that he was, in fact, engaged to Rose Red and set to marry her in days.
Fables Volume 2: The Animal Farm takes us out to the patch of land upstate where those Fables who can't pass for humans live. On her annual visit to the Farm, Snow White encounters a series of mysteries. First, she finds shell casings from Mundy weapons on the Farm where no “mundy weapons” should be. Next, she walks in on a town meeting conducted by two of the Three Little Pigs, and they quickly stop the meeting and change the subject when she asks what they were about to vote on. After that, she learns that Weyland Smith, the administrator for the facility, abruptly quit and left the Farm. Soon, Snow is the target of a Leftist Revolution led by none other than Goldilocks herself, and is forced to run for her life and head deeper into the mysterious Animal Farm.
Fables Volume 3: Storybook Love is a collection of shorter stories focused on the relationships of the Fables with a decent entry into the overall arc of the books. First up is a tale about Jack Horner's activities during the U.S. Civil war titled “Bag 'O Bones.” Although a decent one-shot story, I got the feeling it was intended to be a setup for something coming later in the series. Second, in the two-part “A Sharp Operation,” Bigby is forced to enlist the help of Jack, Prince Charming, Bluebeard, Flycatcher (The Frog Prince) and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), in order to stop a mundy reporter from outing the Fable community as immortals. The bulk of the book is made up with the four-part “Storybook Love.” In it, Goldilocks is hiding out in Bluebeard's apartment while Snow White recovers from injuries suffered during the revolution at the Animal Farm. When The Mouse Police discover Goldilocks at Bluebeard's place, the two hatch a plot to remove two thorns from their sides; Snow White and Bigby. Bluebeard uses a powerful enchantment to spell Snow and Bigby, and send them off on a camping trip. Alone in the wilderness, they are hunted by Goldilocks and, at the same time, forced to confront the feelings growing between them. Meanwhile in Fabletown, Prince Charming has convinced Briar Rose to let him stay with her. He is using her apartment, and The Mouse Police, in an intricate plan to regain the power and money he has lost since coming to the mundy world. The only people standing in his way? Bluebeard, Old King Cole and his own ex-wife, Snow White.
Okay—first, this is not a series for kids. Despite the fairy tale theme, these books contain some nudity, sex, violence and language. Consider it at least PG-13 with a strong caution towards PG. Having said that, it took me a while to warm to this take. The first volume, Legends in Exile, suffers from the slow pacing necessary when building up a world for the reader. It's also a whodunnit, which doesn't help the pace. I get what the author/creator, Bill Willingham, was doing, though, by letting the reader learn more about the characters and world as through Bigby's investigation into the alleged murder of Rose Red. By the end of the book, I was hooked, but it was difficult to get there. Stick with it and it does pay off.
Volume 2, The Animal Farm, was a much quicker read even with all the twists and turns going on. The idea of a Bolshevik revolution taking root among those Fables who are essentially locked away from the rest of the world in a prison of their own making is an interesting and engaging plot. Despite feeling like a more insulated story, Animal Farm actually does a lot to grow the Fables world, giving us glimpses into many characters, and showing us exactly how far they'll go to protect their community. We also learn more about this Adversary, who I am sure will show up at some future point given the build up they're giving him or her (so far, The Adversary is gender-neutral).
Volume 3, Storybook Love, suffers from a couple of choppy one-shots, but these are so common in comic books that I am used to them by now. Usually, they act as buffers between main “chapters” in the story, which is what they feel like here. Jack's story is obviously foreshadowing something yet to come and makes no bones about it (pun intended). The deeper story here is the relationship between Snow White and Bigby, and whatever Prince Charming is up to. Those two bits have the greatest future implications for Fabletown, and are what truly sucked me in.
In my opinion, Fables is popular because the story is so intricate and the characters are well-rounded and developed. It feels like an epic fantasy in an urban setting. You have political intrigue, murder, spying, revolutions, sibling rivalries—you name it, you'll find it in there. The writing doesn't dumb it down for the reader, which is important to any good story.
If you're looking for a good, modern take on fairy tales, Fables will not disappoint.
Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo-nominated Podcast producer/host and editor (2013) who lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012 and a 2013 Hugo Award. In addition to his Kirkus posts, he writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.