Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What is it About?
Think back on every character you know from fairy tales and folklore. Now picture them all living incognito in modern-day New York. This is the premise at the start of Fables, which is still going strong as a monthly comics series after over ten years. These ageless storybook characters, aka fables, have left their various homelands to hide among us normal folks (mundanes, or ‘mundies’) after being driven out one by one by the nameless Adversary.
With the wellspring of various mythologies and oral traditions to work from (not to mention public domain children’s classics such as Alice and Wonderland, the Jungle Book, and the Wizard of Oz), Fables boasts one of the most varied casts of characters in graphic novels. This leads to interesting story turns and juxtapositions as writer Bill Willingham throws all those characters you think you know together and lets them interact in original ways.
Case in point: We all know that Snow White married Prince Charming. But think for a moment – he also married Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty! So of course in Fables, Charming ends up being a rather likeable Lothario, a three-time divorcee who has the magic ability to attract and be attracted to women, only to find he is incapable of maintaining any sort of relationship after the attraction.
Each new volume of Fables continues the story of the centuries-long struggle with the Adversary and beyond, and each story arc tends to add more and more postmodern takes on new fairy tale characters. For instance Volume 2, Animal Farm, highlights how the non-human fables, like the Three Little Pigs, live away from the prying eyes of us mundies in upstate New York. As of this writing, Fables is up to volume 18, with no end in sight.
Fables has won multiple Eisner awards in many categories, both for its writing and artwork, including the wonderful cover art by James Jean and later João Ruas. While many popular artists have contributed at various times, it is Mark Buckingham who does the lion’s share of the storytelling duties. His clean, straightforward style does much to set the tone for the series. He manages to both ground the characters in a realistic, believable environment as well as stretch artistically to pay homage to their fairy tale inspirations, especially in fanciful side borders on most pages which give the feel of a classic storybook experience. He is a true co-collaborator along with Willingham’s writing, and that shows in every page.
And due to the postmodern nature of the work, that writing allows the fables to be cast in a variety of story genres, including (but not limited to) mystery, comedy, war, spy, horror, even at one point a caper-style story arc, all with a modern fantasy twist. Literary references, perhaps obviously, abound. And perhaps the most appealing aspect is the internal logic of the Fables universe. It somehow all hangs together in Willingham’s and Buckingham’s hands, even while taking inspiration from sources worldwide and spanning hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The fables living in exile in our world have agreed to abide by very practical and modernistic rules as a community, complete with their own legal systems and government.
The main characters of Snow White, Bigby (formerly Big Bad) Wolf, Pinocchio, and the others – different characters tend to be highlighted each time – are all well-crafted and fully dimensional. From the usually one-note sources that we’re familiar with they are spun into something new and original, while still staying true to the source material. One thing not carried over from the fairy tales is that moral certitude one might expect. Good and evil are not clear cut in the Fables world, and moral ambiguity abounds. Bad guys, like Bigby, can reform. And good guys? Well, let’s just say Hansel was a pretty big deal during the Salem witch trials, for example. Willingham excels at extracting and extrapolating believable motivations from the fairy tales and then showing how these attitudes play out in our world.
In general, Fables has become known for its well-crafted stories, its humor, and its wonderful characterization. Being published by Vertigo, Fables is an obvious direct descendant of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, though it charts much different ground. Willingham had been doing contract work for DC/Vertigo for a few years before this series started, filling in both as an artist and a writer in a range of things from superheroes to the adult Vertigo titles, including telling further tales set in the Sandman universe. One of these featured his first collaboration with Buckingham, whimsically recasting Gaiman’s Merv the Pumpkin character as a secret agent. One can’t help but wonder if this helped provide inspiration. Looking at especially Willingham’s Vertigo work, one can see him working towards the concept that would eventually become Fables.
In its own right Fables has spawned 2 continuing series, the now-concluded Jack of Fables, starring – well, Jack – who is literally every “Jack” you have ever heard of in folklore (Frost, ‘be nimble’, the beanstalk, etc…). And more recently Fairest, which highlights the stories of the more popular female fables. There have also been additional Cinderella mini-series, highlighting her espionage career, an original prose novel about the Pied Piper titled Peter and Max, and other graphic novels set apart from the main storyline and which usually fill in and explain things from the past. Of these, the stand alone Eisner award-winning short story anthology Fables: 1,001 Nights of Snowfall is easily the best, and also a good entry to the Fables series in general.
Curiously enough, Fables has also been twice optioned for TV but not developed past the script stage by NBC and then ABC – who later broadcast Grimm and Once Upon a Time respectively.
Take a look at the current trends in fantasy fiction and it is easy to see why Fables is popular. There are more modern urban fantasy series dealing with magic in today’s world coming out every day, and Fables easily fits that niche. But the appeal of Fables will extend far beyond that genre, as the stories range far afield of the typical gritty urban fantasy tale, sometimes verging on a truly epic scale. Yet, due to its very nature and huge cast, it is easy for the creators to take a break in the plot and focus on an intimate story of a particular character, or have fun with quick vignettes answering readers’ questions. Humor and drama and action are all in abundance and well-balanced. As mentioned before, fans of the Sandman will most likely enjoy the mythical permutations of Fables as well. And there are literary Easter eggs peppered throughout the entire run. One caveat: These are definitely tales meant for older teens and up, and not sanitized fairy tales by any means. There is sex and blood and some tasteful nudity.
Why You Should Own This
There are few series, especially being produced in the US, that have as much consistent quality for such a long run as Fables. Far from losing steam, Willingham and Buckingham seem to have no end of new stories about their well-realized characters. Each story arc or plot element seems to lay the foundation for what comes afterwards, and continues be engaging. It’s not often that you find a classic, which Fables surely is, that is also one of the best comics titles coming out each month.
- Legends in Exile (Volume 1): 9781401237554
- Animal Farm (Volume 2): 978-1401200770
- Storybook Love (Volume 3): 978-1401202569
- March of the Wooden Soldiers (Volume 4): 978-1401202224
- The Mean Seasons (Volume 5): 978-1401204860
- Homelands (Volume 6): 978-1401205003
- Arabian Nights (and Days) (Volume 7): 978-1401210007
- Wolves (Volume 8): 978-1401210014
- Sons of Empire (Volume 9): 978-1401213169
- The Good Prince (Volume 10): 978-1401216863
- War and Pieces (Volume 11): 978-1401219130
- The Dark Ages (Volume 12): 978-1401223168
- The Great Fables Crossover (Volume 13): 978-1401225728
- Witches (Volume 14): 978-1401228804
- Rose Red (Volume 15): 978-1401230005
- Super Team (Volume 16): 978-1401233068
- Inherit the Wind (Volume 17): 978-1401235161
- Cubs in Toyland (Volume 18): 978-1401237691
Deluxe Hardcover Edition
- Volume 1: 978-1401224271
- Volume 2: 978-1401228798
- Volume 3: 978-1401230975
- Volume 4: 978-1401233907
- Volume 5: 978-1401234966
- Volume 6: 978-1401237240
- Volume 7: 978-1401240400
- Volume 8: 978-1401242794