Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Fables, Part 1: Legends in Exile

Writer Bill Willingham wasn't the first to mash various fairy tale characters together into a single story: The 10th Kingdom and Shrek being two notable, earlier examples and from just a year or two before. But he was the first to do it as an exercise that took the original stories seriously and tried to imagine what it might actually be like for these characters to interact in a shared world. Like in The 10th Kingdom, Willingham uproots the characters from their traditional homelands and replants them in modern New York City, but that's where the similarities end.

Willingham is interested in exploring these characters through a variety of genres, starting with a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. As the comic book series Fables opens, the classic fairy tale characters have been driven out of their traditional homelands by a mysterious and nameless Adversary. Some have been able to hold onto their wealth, but many haven't. Those who can pass for human live together in a Manhattan neighborhood called Fabletown. Those who can't (talking animals, gingerbread men, etc.) have to live somewhere else. Willingham gets to that later. The first story, "Legends in Exile," focuses on the human fables and an apparent murder that takes place among them.

The mayor of Fabletown is Old King Cole, but it's actually Snow White who runs the day-to-day operations. And the Big Bad Wolf (changed to human form through magic and nicknamed "Bigby") is the community's sheriff. The plot kicks off when Jack (of Beanstalk and Giant-Killing fame) comes to Bigby with the report that his girlfriend Rose Red has gone missing and there's blood all over her apartment. The story follows Bigby's investigation and it's pretty great as he knowingly hits all the beats of a classic detective story and calls attention to them in a meta way as he does. He doesn't get many opportunities to play this role and he's having as much fun investigating as Willingham clearly is writing it.

But the coolest thing about the series is Willingham's decision to conserve the number of characters by consolidating them when possible. So Bigby was not only the being who tried to seduce and murder Red Riding Hood, he was also the one who terrorized the Three Little Pigs. Any fairy story with a Jack as a main character (and there are a lot): those were the same person. In fairy tales, Snow White of the Seven Dwarfs is a different person from the one in "Snow White and Rose Red," but not in Fables. And you know how Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all got married to a Prince Charming? Same guy. He may be charming, but he's also super unfaithful.

"Legends in Exile" introduces a ton of characters. Too many to mention them all, but some of my favorites are Beauty and the Beast, the Frog Prince (who works as a janitor at the Fabletown offices), Little Boy Blue (Snow White's assistant), and Bluebeard (the infamous wife-murderer who's still a terrifyingly threatening presence). Former villains like Bluebeard and Bigby are protected by a unity-encouraging amnesty that prevents them from being punished for any crimes they committed before the Exile.

There's a lot here, but it's just a hint at an even deeper world and mysteries that Willingham and his collaborating artists (Lan Medina in this first story) will eventually reveal. I read up to a certain point as the comics originally came out, but I'm looking forward to finally finishing the story as part of this fairy tale project I'm working on.

1 comment:

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

A detective story seems the ideal way to get people invested in story. Once the mystery of who done it is on that table the audience can’t break away until it’s solved. It’s also good for genre fiction, ‘this is something that could not have happened so how DID it happen?”

Detective fiction is also good for shaking up a genre piece, introducing more mature themes by exposing the seedy elements of corruption or deception. Especially fitting for reintroducing fairy tale characters who most of us were introduced to as simple archetypes can now be presented as more complex once the investigation reveals their backstory and hidden agendas. It’s also great at setting up character dynamics, with whose the most likely suspect, who doesn’t trust whom so there’s an undercurrent of antagonism in the ensemble that will lead to conflicts until more dangerous forces force them to rely on each other again.


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