“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or lesser-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.
Fables: The Deluxe Edition Book One
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Lan Medina; Mark Buckingham
Colorists: Sherilyn van Valkenburgh; Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein
No. of Issues: 150
Take your familiar childhood fairy tale characters and draw them into modern-day New York. Give them new lives, new jobs, and often disintegrating “happily ever afters.” The Homelands, various fairy tale spaces, have been conquered by the Adversary, resulting in the Fables needing to leave their lands and set up in the mundane world. This is what lies behind the inaugural story arc of Bill Willingham’s Fables: “Legends in Exile.”
Fables, a series running from July 2002 until July 2015, takes familiar fairy tale characters and places them in a modern-day New York City. Fairy tale mainstays, like Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Blue Beard, and the Big Bad Wolf, are residents of Fabletown: a corner of New York that is warded to keep the magical beings safe and secret. The Woodland, the central administrative and residential building, is the home of Fabletown operations and is where most human-looking Fables live, while the inhuman Fables live at the Farm in upstate New York. Figures from lore, legend, and tale take on new roles, fitting their old characters into their new spaces.
A number of story arcs drive the narrative over the 13 years of the series, but the first volume features two tales that center around Snow White: the investigation into her sister, Rose Red’s, disappearance and presumed murder, and Snow going up to the Farm and interrupting a Fabletown rebellion. While later stories and spin-offs center on other figures, like Cinderella, Boy Blue, Fly Catcher (known in his original stories as the Frog Prince), Beauty and Beast, and others, the first stories center on Fabletown’s deputy mayor. The first story, framed as a noir, involves an investigation after the discovery of a bloody scene, and acts as an effective introduction to a few of Fabletown’s more well-known residents and their complicated interpersonal dynamics.
The stories flirt around the everyday residents of New York, as some Fables interact with Mundies (their term for the mortal residents of the mundane world), but most avoid them. Strict rules are in place to never reveal the existence of Fables to the Mundies, while the community attempts to maintain stability, secrecy, and, eventually, push back into the Homelands and take down the Adversary. The separation of worlds leaves the Fables operating near, but not with, humanity; this maintains the bubble of the suspension of disbelief, as the fairy tale creatures remain magical and otherworldly, even in our modern world.
Reception Upon Release
Fables won the Eisner Award for Best New Series and Best Serialized Story for the first arc, “Legends in Exile,” in 2003.
Later issues won further Eisners, and “War and Pieces” was nominated for the first Hugo for Best Graphic Story in 2009.
IGN noted in 2006, “Fables tops our list not only of the first book we’d pick up from DC Comics, but the first book we’d grab from any publisher. That’s right, Fables is our pick for the best comic currently being produced. It’s a good thing Bill Willingham never wants this series to end.”
Snow White is featured as the driving force early in the narrative, while also being the dynamic figure on the “Legends in Exile” cover; she runs for an over-packed subway car filled with other Fables, holding her high heels and wearing running shoes. She is an illustration of the modernized fairy tale space, no longer limited by the romantic-era trappings of her origin story. The narrative arcs in Fables Volume 1 also center around her dynamism; while other players can set events in motion, as Rose Red and Jack’s plots have in “Legends in Exile,” or Goldilocks and the Three Pigs’ rebellion in “Animal Farm,” Snow is no longer a patient damsel. The shift of such a fundamental figure of the fairy tale canon tells the reader from the outset that, while still a princess, she is no longer a frozen, powerless figure waiting for a rescue. She can save herself.
The Fables in exile have adopted some of the Mundy forms of government and order, while still maintaining aspects of their fairy tale tradition. Snow White is the Deputy Mayor under King Cole, Bigby Wolf is the Sheriff, and the government runs on donations from the Fables. The operations seem to operate as a standard bureaucracy, yet when there is a risk of violence between Bigby and Bluebeard, the rescue comes in the form of Snow, the security guards, and Bufkin all bearing traditional martial weapons. The idea of using modern weaponry does not appear to occur to the Fables until after the uprising on the Farm. While the Fables may live in the Mundy world, they appear to have limited their interaction with and influence by the modern world we know.
Willingham, in taking familiar figures, is able to short-hand much of the backstory and character cues that comic series often need to establish. In Issue #1, Beauty gets a rise out of Snow White by mentioning “her tawdry, little adventure with those seven dwarves” (18). This allusion and reframing of Snow White’s story as something scandalous takes the children’s stories into a context that is all grown up. The use of the fairy tale origins gives Willingham material to allude to, or pivot toward; these fairy tale stories also link to the power that the Fables have.
At the end of the Farm rebellion, Goldilocks shoots Snow White in the head, but Snow survives. This miraculous recovery is linked to her popularity in the Mundy world, and that fame is also at the root of her strained relationship with her sister. Rose Red, the oft forgotten figure of fairy tale, begrudges the Mundy adoration of Snow and her resulting immortality: “They keep making their godawful animated movies and writing their endless children’s stories about you. So you can’t die! They’ll never let you! But who remembers me? Not one in a million of them! It used to be Snow White and Rose Red. Now, it’s just Snow White, period. All alone! No sister needed or desired, thank you so very much! If it had been me who’d taken that bullet, I’d be dead as a doornail.” (244-5, emphasis in original). Rose Red, while once an equal figure in fairy tale, is forgotten when Snow White’s story intersects with Prince Charming. Willingham addresses the many characters and stories and versions that make up the fairy tale corpus, as some figures are immediately recognizable and others are not. The power associated with that notoriety means that authority for the Fables is a bit arbitrary: decided by the readers, and not the Fables themselves.
Willingham takes the fairy tale and upends it, changing our focus and reframing our familiar characters. This is not simply revisionist or a “twisted fairy tale,” but a fully re-imagined community dealing with loss, grief, and dislocation. The Fables are refugees hiding in the real world, facing real struggles alongside their fantastical ones. They have their own Remembrance Day celebrations, recalling their Homelands and their urge to return there, leaving behind the “dreary mundane place” in the real world (92). Magic remains a powerful Deux Ex Machina, albeit an expensive one, and each of them carries their pre-exile baggage, despite the General Amnesty that absolves them from past crimes. The tension of their history and their future, the Homelands and the Woodlands, is a constant balance in the stories and one that keeps the traditional fairy tale character revitalized and dynamic.
As with all good fairy tales, Fables takes magical and fanciful characters and tells universal stories. Willingham plays with genre and form, but keeps to the fairy tale themes. Our characters are introduced as Legends in Exile, dislocated from their own world and refugees living under the radar in New York. The stories are thus authentic, dealing with real challenges despite their fiction formatting. Volume 1, for example, appears to be two different forms of stories: a noir and a thriller; however, the theme running through both stories is the difficult relationship between sisters, the difficulty of not fitting in, and the need for justice and fair treatment. Each story has these resonant moments, making the strange and fanciful familiar. Just as Willingham has brought his Fables to the real world, their stories are also grounded there, too.
Other Points of Interest
In 2013, Telltale Games released A Wolf Among Us, featuring their manipulable story-space centered around the Fables characters, particularly that of Bigby Wolf. They released a digital comic version of this story under the same title starting in December 2014.