Review of Fables, Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers

Title: Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers (Vol. 4)

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Mark Buckingham (penciller, inker), Craig Hamilton (penciller), P. Craig Russel (penciller, inker), and Steve Leialoha (inker),

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

The fourth volume of the Fables series tells two related story arcs. The first takes place during the French Revolution, where Little Boy Blue and several other fables are under attack by the Adversary. We are introduced to Red Riding Hood, who arrives to the Fable stronghold, barely hanging onto her life. Red Riding Hood has a fling with Little Boy Blue as the Adversary’s army advances and through the course of the battle, the relationship between the two ends up being a tragic love story.

The major story arc takes place in modern times and there are three men who begin to stir up trouble, particularly with the fables. Pinocchio surmises that these men are wooden soldiers created by none other than an enslaved Ghepetto. Meanwhile, Red Riding Hood suddenly shows up on the scene, who is immediately under the suspicion of Bigby Wolf. She claims that she has escaped the enslavement of the Adversary, but Bigby isn’t buying her story. Little Boy Blue is a little more willing to believe her and after a little spat, they rekindle their passion.

March of the Wooden Soldiers is an all out, bloody battle of an army of wooden soldiers attacking Fabletown. Willingham is so skilled at blending so many fabled elements into the story that it is difficult to take it all in the first time reading it. I really don’t have any criticisms and for having such a simple premise, the latest volume brings out a rich and imaginative world. I enjoyed reading about the wooden soldiers and their humorous, yet sociopathic attempts to annihilate the fables. The battle at the end was filled with strategy and tension as the fables find that bullets and even fire are not effective ammunition against the hard-wooded enemies.

Once again, Fables continues to raise the bar for quality in the comic world. This volume is highly recommended.

Review of Fables: Storybook Love (Vol. 3)

Title: Fables: Storybook Love (Vol. 3)

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Mark Buckingham (penciller), Steve Leialoha (inker), Linda Medley (artist)

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

The third trade paperback volume of Fables collects issues 11-18 of the comic book series. Within are four separate story arcs: Bag O’ Bones, A two-part caper, Storybook Love (the feature story), and Barleycorn Brides.

Bag O’ Bones tells a Civil War era story of Jack Horner. who lies to be granted an early muster from the war when it was evident the South would lose. On his journey through the bayou, he comes across a rugged-looking man who wants to play poker with him. After Jack loses his shirt (literally) against who he believes to be the devil, they play one final hand for Jack’s soul. Jack cheats his way to win and obtains a magic bag. Knowing Jack, this just leads to more trouble.

This one-issue story was a delight to read. Jack is not my favorite character, but this tale is pure escapist fun. It is cleverly written and Jack’s encounter with the Grim Reaper was morbidly humorous.

The two-part caper (“A Sharp Operation” and “Dirty Business”) concerns the story of a mundy (a mundane human) reporter who is about to unveil a massive story about the fables living in New York. Worse yet, he has pictures to prove their immortality. Bluebeard wants to kill the guy, while Bigby has a more civil and tactful approach to handling the reporter. An elaborate caper is developed where Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) puts the reporter’s apartment building to sleep and the rest of the Fables move in to carry on their plot.

This story features most of the main players, including Flycatcher (the Frog Prince), a scruffy, fly-breathed prince who must come to the rescue when Prince Charming cannot. This particular story arc was interesting, but is more of a setup for the feature story, Storybook Love.

Storybook Love tells of the romantic connection between Bluebeard and Goldilocks, which is discovered by a toy soldier and his trusted mouse. News of their shacking up together reaches the rest of Fabletown and Bluebeard attempts to head the investigation off by applying a magic potion that makes Snow and Bigby abruptly decide to take a vacation together in the middle of the woods. Here, the guerrilla leader, Goldilocks is waiting to finish them off. Can Prince Charming, who has begun to amend his womanizing ways, help save Fabletown in their stead?

This story was very enjoyable and it has many consequences that change the lives of the fables in the end. Snow and Bigby develop a romantic relationship, which has a curious twist in the end. We also learn that popular fables die hard and defeating Goldilocks is not an easy task, even with the strength of Bigby Wolf (in his beastly form). It was really cool to watch Snow mount her trusted lupine friend and run for shelter.

The final story, Barleycorn Brides, was the weakest of the bunch. Bigby Wolf tells Flycatcher a story of the Lilliputians and their quest to find brides in a male-only town. The story itself is a diversion from the overall story arc and the artwork, while similar in style to Buckingham and Leialoha, is as inspiring as a coloring book. That’s not to say that the characters were badly drawn, but their faces are simple with canned expressions. I think this volume would have been much better leaving this story out. Or perhaps it would have been better served as a story in 1001 Nights of Snowfall.

Overall, the stories in this collection were good, but fell a little short of the previous two volumes. Prince Charming’s abrupt change in character was not believable and makes him much less interesting than in the first volume. Perhaps there’s a nihilistic tendency I have as a reader to wish for him to be a destructive antihero, but alas, he saves the day by foiling (no pun intended) Bluebeard in a sword fight. Or maybe I am being a little harsh on the volume, for the Fables series is truly one of the most enjoyable comic series out there today.

Review of Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Title: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Esao Andrews, John Bolton, Mark Buckingham, James Jean, Derek Kirk Kim, Jill Thompson, Charles Vess, Michael W. Kaluta, Tara McPherson

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

Bill Willingham has a unique talent in taking the fables of old and weaving them together with a theme to form a unique story. In his second collection, Animal Farm, he adapted George Orwell’s satirical classic. In 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Willingham borrows from the One Thousand and One Nights compilation from the Islamic Golden Age.

Like the Arabic collection, 1001 Nights of Snowfall uses a framing sequence to unfold several tales. Snow White, on behalf of the exiled fable characters, travels to the Middle East to seek an alliance with the Sultan against the Adversary who drove them from their homeland. She is deceived by one of the Sultan’s officials and finds herself selected to be the Sultan’s next wife. To many women this would be an honor; however, the Sultan marries a new woman every night, only to have her executed in the morning.

Snow White employs the same strategy as Queen Scheherazade (of the Arabic collection) and begins to tell the Sultan stories in hopes that it will deter him from killing her. The brilliance of the Arabic collection is that Scheherazade fails to finish her story, giving the Persian King a reason to postpone her execution so that he can hear the conclusion the following night. Willingham keeps his stories intact, which makes the Sultan’s motivations less believable, but the format is more convenient for the graphic novel medium.

But really, the frame story is mostly a clever way to tell a collection of stories that take place many years before the time period of Fables comic series. For readers of the series, 1001 Nights of Snowfall contains many origin stories. We learn how Bigby Wolf came to be, why Snow has a problem with dwarves, Flycatcher’s escape from the Adversary, and a closer look at the benevolent King Cole.

The artwork makes this collection a keeper. Having a different artist for each sequence helped differentiate the various tales. Just as the Sultan eagerly came to Snow each night for a new bedtime story, we as readers turn to each story with a fresh set of illustrations. The beauty of the artwork lies in its diversity, from John Bolton’s realism in “The Fencing Lessons” to Jill Thompson’s children’s book art in “Fair Division.” The highlight of the artwork is Vess and Kaluta’s old-fashioned artwork of the frame story.

While I enjoyed the collection and found Willingham’s approach to be creative, it is not without fault. For the most part, the artwork is good, but there are some illustrations that fall a little flat. Bolton paints some absolutely stunning panels, but then a few panels later we see a flat, rigid portrait floating on a white background. Wheatley’s artwork on “The Runt” has its aesthetic moments, but in several panels comes across as messy. Even the writing is hit or miss. “The Fencing Lessons” story was particularly tragic, essentially blaming Snow for her divorce from Prince Charming, who was brilliantly crafted as a fabled player, using his charm to gain favors from naive women. “A Mother’s Love” also seemed to be an afterthought tossed into the collection without thoughts of continuity. Parts of me suspect that the Sultan would have killed Snow a few times over again.

The merits of 1001 Nights of Snowfall far outweigh its shortcomings. There is an added depth that can only be grasped by reading the comic series, but I think this collection stands alone quite well. I really enjoyed the concept of this novel and found the execution to be satisfying. For Fables fans, this is a must read. For others new to the series, feel free to give it a shot, but I would start with the original series first.

Review of Fables #2: Animal Farm

Title: Fables #2: Animal Farm

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Lan Medina (penciller), Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton (inkers)

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

The Fables series began with fabled humans living in New York, exiled from their own lands. “Animal Farm” collects Willingham’s second Fables story arc, depicting the rest of the fabled creatures. Without a human shell, the non-human creatures are forced to take refuge on a farm. This is all well and good for most of them, however Goldilocks, assisted  by the three little pigs, has a different plan in mind. She seeks to arm a militia who will bring about a revolution. Snow White and Ruby Red return to the farm and quickly find themselves entangled in the political struggle. Can they restore order to the farm and make it out alive?

As one can guess from the story’s title, “Animal Farm” is inspired by the Orwellian classic. The political motives and characters in Fables are unique, but both stories tell of a political revolution led by animals on a farm. While I didn’t find the story flawless, I did find the connection to the novel to be brilliant. There is nothing forced to draw this connection and the story arc sets up a nice introduction to the non-human creatures.

Like in the real world, suppressed peoples sometimes have a surrogate leader — one who isn’t one of their own — to lead a revolution. For the animals, this character is Goldilocks. She is sympathetic to the animal’s cause, but is ruthless in her methods. Even the animals that will stand against her are murdered without second thought and made a public spectacle for all to see.

The fabled human and non-human creatures share a common enemy of the adversary, but Fables does not take the easy route of making a story focused solely on this struggle. Living in exile is not easy. The humans have become, in a sense, upper class — free to roam New York because of their ability to remain inconspicuous. It is only natural that internal strife develops between the humans and the farm.

What I am really starting to like about this series is the richness of the characters. Snow White is obstinate in applying her sense of morality to the extent that it becomes a flaw. She doesn’t trust others and is slow in seeing things from another perspective. Her sister, Ruby Red, on the other hand is much more open-minded, secretive, and cunning and we never really know whose side she is on.

Once again, the artwork was skillfully done. Medina has a good sense of perspective and I enjoyed seeing his military inventions such as the gun developed for the hare and tortoise (one can only imagine the hare mounted upon his slow-paced companion’s shell, spraying bullets across the landscape).

I don’t have any major criticisms of the second Fables collection. I suppose I wasn’t a huge fan of the three giants and the dragon as fabled creatures, but my quibbles seem to have resolved themselves for future installments. Fables is fun to read and provides a nice level of suspense and humor to keep me wanting more. I look forward to the next comics in the series.

Review of Fables #1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #1: Legends in Exile

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Lan Medina (penciller), Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton (inkers)

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

The theme of Fables parallels is really nothing new. It is a basic mishmash of modern fairy tales, which has now been done in novels (Gregory Maguire), Broadway (Wicked), film (Shrek), and television (Grimm). But it is with great enthusiasm that I say that the graphic novel has something new and wonderful to offer.

The stories takes place in New York, where fairy tale characters, driven from their homes by an evil adversary, are forced to take refuge. The characters are different from the fabled stories you’ve read. Snow White, the workaholic deputy mayor of Fabletown, learns that her sister, Rose Red, has been murdered, but her body has gone missing. Bigby (big bad) Wolf, the town’s reformed sheriff, has two prime suspects: her live-in boyfriend, Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) and her murderous ex, Bluebeard.

Published by Vertigo, the fables are not the youthful endeavors of the original fairy tales. Prince Charming, now broke and desperate, uses his charm to coerce a waitress to pay for his meal and give him a place to shack up. Beauty and the Beast’s marriage is on the rocks and depending on her feelings, he alternates his form from an ordinary human to a barely-understandable fang-toothed creature.

The story reads like a murder mystery, following primarily through the eyes of Bigby and Snow White. Given the unique take on the fabled characters, the comic does not feel gimmicky like I feared it could have been. The characters’ history remains the same (one dare not mention the word dwarf around Snow White or they will face her wrath), but they have all experienced significant change to make them new individuals.

The artwork is solid and adds to the story well. Bigby’s shadow is depicted as a wolf, a sign that his old nature has never truly left him and expresses itself in his bouts of anger. Like the stories of old, the illustrations have a sense of age to them. The colors and lettering are conventional, but crisp. I understand the deluxe edition has glossy pages, which could add to the depth of the images.

What really makes this a great comic is the characters. Each has a very unique personality and I longed to know more about them and their back stories. My biggest qualm with the first novel was that the story was predictable. I think that is okay in many instances, but when the theme is a murder mystery, it is not as forgivable.

Without hesitation, I plan on continuing this series. The first novel did an excellent job of establishing the characters and milieu without burdening the reader with a dump of background information. This is one of the most popular comic series of the decade and it is easy to see why. It is smart, has interesting characters, and good stories to boot.