This book is an absolute must for fans of Bill Willingham’s comic book series Fables. The attractive package has no introductory material; it steps right into alphabetical entries on the major and minor characters in the Fables universe from individual issues 1-121 and the graphic novel 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Each of the entries includes the first appearance of the character by title of the issue, the page number, and the exact panel. Entries for characters who have been adopted and adapted from the worlds of folklore and popular literature are filled with delicious background detail about their origins and traditional roles along with their respective roles within this new universe.
The book is also a testimony to the very successful and effectual reworking of folklore in popular culture that permeates the writing and artwork in this multi-award winning series. Besides the most well known characters from both the series and traditional literature, such as Snow White, Bigby (Big Bad Wolf), Baba Yaga and Ichabod Crane, are figures from traditional ballads such as Barbara Allen and characters that were specifically created for the series such as Babcock and others. Literary allusions are employed chiefly from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio, the various texts about the world of Oz created by L. Frank Baum, and historical characters such as Lord Mountbatten and Belle Boyd, “the most famous of the spies working for the Confederacy during the American Civil War…was captured in 1862 and after the war acted on stage in England and wrote a memoir of her experience as a spy, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (1865)” (38).
Browsing the magnitude of allusions used in this series nearly overwhelmed this review by the almost boundless wealth of knowledge of Willingham and Buckingham in creating, populating, and maintaining the Fables world. Willingham explains that the character Jack, “was sort of an ongoing experiment to see how many different characters from fables, fairy tales and folklore we could shoehorn into a single character” (115). This is not a text without fault however. One of my pet peeves is the lack of precision in the use of descriptors, such as myth or fable when referring to traditional fairy tales. For example, in the entry on Bearskin, Nevins introduces him as a character from, “a fairy tale from the Grimms’ Brothers,” and immediately follows this with a description of the tale preceded by “In the myth…” (25). This occurs quite frequently, diluting my pleasure and ultimate trust in some of the annotations and descriptions. In balance, however, full verses are included of the various nursery rhyme references and most readers will not notice the lack of specificity in folklore terminology.
Accompanying the myriad of entries are asides made by both author Bill Willingham (BW) and illustrator Mark Buckingham (MB). The asides often dovetail to add a conversation between the two of them and the reader and give an entirely flamboyant air. For example, the comment from Buckingham on the character Tom Harrow, created by Willingham, gave further insight into the vast intertextuality so very evident in the series: “The evil warlock Tom Harrow possessed more than a passing resemblance to a very famous writer and the best man at my wedding (Neil Gaiman). I gave him the splash page that he… I mean Tom… first appears on as a birthday present” (111). Another illuminating comment, this time from Willingham, explains that while “the Narnia books aren’t available to me to use in Fables…nothing could keep me from exploring some of the same source material C. S. Lewis drew upon” (191).
Liberally and effectively sprinkled with numerous examples of artwork from the most frequent illustrators working on the series, including covers by James Jean and full colour interior pages by Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, and others, the encyclopedia deserves shelf space beside the books that it so well illuminates. Back matter includes fourteen pages of annotations for various issues from the series, offering additional folkloric and background information of the often arcane references used liberally in the series.
As previously stated, this is highly recommended for Fables fans but also highly recommended for storytellers and students of folklore in popular culture.