Title: Fables #1: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham
Artists: Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton, Mark Buckingham
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel – urban fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
In the center of New York City, a strange community lives in secrecy, hiding their true natures so that they can exist side-by-side with ordinary humans. These are the Fables, refugees from other realms — who happen to be the stuff of our world’s fairy tales and legends. They’ve been driven out of their homelands by someone known, at the moment, only as the Adversary; his troops, from what we see in flashbacks, consist of gruesome monsters, goblins, orcs, etc — the nastiest of the nasty, rapers and raiders, fixed on destruction. They took over territories one by one, and over a period of a couple of hundred years, the Fables fled, first finding their way into other realms, then finally into our world. Most of them live in an luxury apartment building, with their businesses on the surrounding street. Those who can’t pass for human (the Three Little Pigs, for instance) live upstate at the Farm. The nice and the naughty live side-by-side thanks to the Amnesty — an agreement that any Fable seeking asylum both forgive and be forgiven for any past crimes, on the condition that they go forth and sin no more, so that wicked stepmothers, vile sorcerers, and the like, now reformed, can live peaceably with their former victims.
The first installment focuses on Snow White and Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf given human form) as they investigate the apparent murder of Snow’s wild-child baby sister, Rose Red (this series merges the two Snow Whites, she of the seven dwarves and she of the bear). Along the way, they introduce us to some of Fabletown’s greatest heroes and villains: Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Beauty and the Beast (whose curse reverts when his wife gets mad at him), the Frog Prince, Pinocchio, the thrice-divorced Prince Charming (Snow was his first wife, followed by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella), the formerly-murderous Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue. The interpretations of the characters, bringing them into our modern world, are all quite clever, and sometimes surprising. Prince Charming is pretty much a professional playboy, mooching off of the women he sweeps off their feet (we learn that he’s recently worn out his welcome in some of the royal courts in Europe). Snow is the Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, the brains and sweat keeping the whole organization running, while Mayor King Cole gladhands and takes care of the feel-good publicity. Beauty works in a bookshop. The Frog Prince is Fabletown’s janitor. Cinderella’s profession is as-yet unspecified, but we see her looking pretty badass, taking fencing lessons from Bluebeard.
Bigby reveals the details of Rose’s disappearance at the Remembrance Day ceremony, a Fabletown holiday on which they gather to honour those who fell defending the Homelands, to reminisce about their lost pasts, and to pledge themselves to, someday, reclaiming their former dominions. It’s a nostalgia-fest, and some members of Fabletown are more cynical than others, but it’s also the one time when pretty much all the Fables come together — making it the perfect opportunity for a tell-all. There’s some nice detective work going on, but that’s far from the focus or importance of the story — what’s far more crucial is what the chain of deceptions and revelations tells us about the characters involved and their relationships.
This is a great series, and the first installment does a good job of setting up the primary characters, as well as the world in which they operate. One of the loveliest moments is at the Remembrance Day ceremony. The official toast is the narration for a series of flashbacks — the first we see of the Adversary’s war and the Fables’ flight out of the Homelands. It shows the struggles to escape — in a somewhat different art style, with more saturated colors, higher contrast, more, well, epic tableaux than the usual style. For everything these first few issues reveal about the characters, they tantalizingly hint at a dozen more secrets and yet-unrevealed backstories. It invests the series with a narrative richness that I find utterly captivating — I love the complexity of it, the threads of story stretching backwards, forwards, and sideways. I love the spaces between, the stories left untold, the character nuances that hint at past tragedies, scarred-over but never-forgotten.