Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Review: Fables, by Bill Willingham

A review of the entire series over its 13-year arc


DC/Vertigo, 2002-2015, 22 volumes (150 issues)

Fables is an American comic book series created and written by Bill Willingham, published by DC Comics' Vertigo. Willingham served as sole writer for its entirety, with Mark Buckingham penciling more than 110 issues. The series featured various other pencillers over the years, most notably Lan Medina and Steve Leialoha. Fables was launched in July 2002 and concluded in July 2015.

The series features various characters from fairy tales and folklore – referring to themselves as "Fables" – who formed a clandestine community centuries ago within New York City known as Fabletown, after their Homelands have been conquered by a mysterious and deadly enemy known as "The Adversary". It is set in the modern day and follows several of Fabletown's legal representatives, such as sheriff Bigby Wolf, deputy mayor Snow White, her sister Rose Red, Prince Charming, and Boy Blue, as they deal with troublesome Fables and try to solve conflicts in both Fabletown and "the Farm", a hidden town in upstate New York for Fables unable to blend in with human society.[1] The series also deals with such other matters as the main characters' personal lives, their attempts to hide the Fables' true nature from regular humans (or "Mundies"), and, later, the return of the Adversary.

Fables was a critical and commercial success, winning many Eisner Awards and receiving several Hugo Award nominations for Best Graphic Story. Its success led to several spin-offs and a 2013 prequel video game titled The Wolf Among Us.

I started reading Fables after the first trade paperbacks were published, and that is how I have always read them. It was actually published as a monthly series for 150 issues, over the course of 13 years, with several spin-off series.

I am, as usual, slow to finish series so though I've had the last few volumes for a while, I finally got around to finishing it off, five years after the series ended.

I've been a fan of Bill Willingham since his Elementals days. The Elementals was a 1980s series that was one of the better early examples of reimagining superheroes in a grittier, more realistic world. Before the Elementals, Willingham was an early D&D artist. He went on to write and illustrate the adult comic fantasy series Ironwood, which spawned an RPG which is actually really pretty good and one of the best fantasy settings for an RPG I have ever seen. And then, in 2002, he began Fables.

So join me as I reminisce over the course of 22 (!) trade paperback collections, a series that had long, epic arcs and occasional lulls before coming to an end that, I think I am not alone in thinking was not as satisfying as it could have been, but how many final episodes really satisfy fans?

Spoiler Warning: I am reviewing the entire series, so everything is a spoiler past this point.

[Spoiler (click to open)]

Vol. 1: Legends in Exile

Volume 1: Legends in Exile

When a savage creature known only as the Adversary conquered the fabled lands of legends and fairy tales, all of the infamous inhabitants of folklore were forced into exile. Disguised among the normal citizens of modern-day New York, these magical characters have created their own peaceful and secret society within an exclusive luxury apartment building called Fabletown. But when Snow White's party-girl sister, Rose Red, is apparently murdered, it is up to Fabletown's sheriff, a reformed and pardoned Big Bad Wolf (Bigby Wolf), to determine if the killer is Bluebeard, Rose's ex-lover and notorious wife killer, or Jack, her current live-in boyfriend and former beanstalk-climber.

The first collected volume introduces the Fables by way of dropping us into Fabletown. It's a tiny community in the heart of New York City, hidden by magic from Mundy eyes, where the Fables have lived for centuries. We're immediately introduced to a bunch of names we know from legend and folklore, all of whom manifest in the modern day as rather ordinary, earthy people who just happen to be immortal and some of whom have powers.

The Big Bad Wolf is the Sheriff of Fabletown. Snow White is the de facto leader of the community, even though King Cole is technically the Mayor. Snow White's ex, Prince Charming, is a louche freeloader (but very, very handsome). They divorced after Charming slept with Snow's sister, Rose Red. Cinderella (who is Prince Charming's ex #2) is an expert fencer (and, as we'll find out later in the series, an expert at many other things). Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue, Jack (of beanstalk fame), King Cole, the Three Blind Mice... lots of names are dropped, but from the beginning, Snow White and Bigby are the central characters, though many others will get the spotlight for entire arcs. It's mentioned that they are all in exile here in the world of the Mundy, but we won't learn the details until later. And the tone of the series is also set here: this was a Vertigo series, so there are f-bombs and other vulgarities galore. Fables may have familiar names and faces, but they are decidedly not Disney characters. Pinocchio wants to kick the Blue Fairy's ass because when she made him a real boy, she made him a real boy who would never grow older, so he's been a prepubescent for three hundred years and he puts it, "I want my balls to drop! I want to get laid!"

The plot of the first volume involves the murder of Snow's sister, Rose, and Bigby's investigation. In which we learn that Fables, while ageless, can be killed.

Vol. 2: Animal Farm

Volume 2: Animal Farm

Ever since they were driven from their homelands by the Adversary, the non-human Fables have been living on the Farm—a vast property in upstate New York that keeps them hidden from the prying eyes of the mundane world. But now, after hundreds of years of isolation, the Farm is seething with revolution, fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric of Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs. And when Snow White and her sister Rose Red stumble upon their plan to liberate the Homelands, the commissars of the Farm are ready to silence them—by any means necessary!

Here we are introduced to the Farm. When the Fables arrived in New York, three centuries ago, the mostly-human or human-passing Fables settled in Fabletown, in Manhattan, but giants, dragons, and talking animals couldn't very well stay hidden among Mundys. So they established the Farm, in what is now upstate New York, a vast rural property where the non-human Fables live in what's really pretty idyllic circumstances. But they're more or less confined there, and in this volume, Goldilocks is a Marxist revolutionary who's going to make all the animals equal. But some more than others.

This will not be the first time that Bill Willingham inserts political metaphors into the series, though they are actually kind of funny here. Goldilocks is a hot blonde perfectly human-looking Fable who wants to liberate her non-human Fables from class-based oppression, and for extra Fable solidarity, she's getting freaky with Baby Bear. (Amazingly, Willingham refrains from bestiality or furry jokes, leaving those for the reader.) So when she starts a bloody revolution, Snow White has to travel up to the Farm to see what's going on. We learn here another bit of Fable lore - under the agreement by which the Fables all settled on Earth, Bigby Wolf is forbidden from ever coming to the Farm. Seems the animals still remember when the Big Bad Wolf was really bad.

Among the batches of Fables added to the cast are "the Kipling group" — they are literally called that by other Fables, and they include Shere Khan and King Louie. Now, one might be wondering at this point, if the Fables are over 300 years old, how are there some that came from a book that isn't nearly that old? Do new Fables appear when Mundys write new stories? Or are Mundys inspired to write stories about Fables who already exist? As the series goes on, Willingham will kinda sorta answer this, but not in a particularly rigorous manner. It's a comic book, don't think about it too hard.

Anyway, the second volume showed us more worldbuilding, dropped more hints about the Fables' origins, and killed off a few more legendary names.

Vol. 3: Storybook Love

Volume 3: Storybook Love

In the Fables' world, there isn't a lot of happily-ever-after to go around. As refugees from the lands of make-believe, the Fables have been driven from their storybook realms and forced to blend in with our gritty, mundane reality.

But that doesn't mean they don't have any room for romance—or the pain, betrayal and jealous rage that go along with it. In fact, love may be blooming between two of the most hard-bitten, no-nonsense Fables around. But are they destined for happiness— or a quick and untimely death?

The first story in volume three (a single issue of the monthly comic book series) features a solo adventure of Jack O'Tales. His character was established in the first volume: he's an amoral douchebag. In this historical flashback, it turns out he fought in the American Civil War — unsurprisingly, as a Confederate. This one-shot is a typical Jack tale in which he promises a beautiful but dying woman he'll protect her from death if she promises to sleep with him. She agrees, and he actually captures Death. As is usual with Jack's adventures, things don't go well.

The rest of this volume involves more plotting among the Fables. Bluebeard turns out to the short-term villain. Rich, scheming, and still as murderous as ever, though like every other Fable he was granted a general amnesty for all past crimes when they came to the mundy world, he sets up Bigby and Snow White to try to get them out of the way, resulting in the two of them abandoned in the wilds. Here we start to get more of Bigby's story. The whole huffing and puffing and blowing things down is because his father was the North Wind, and Bigby is essentially a demigod even among Fables. Until he came to Earth, he was also really pretty evil, earning his reputation as the Big Bad Wolf. Except now, it turns out, having taken human form for so long, he has a thing for Snow White.

There's a duel between Prince Charming and Bluebeard, and a hunt between Goldilocks (who survived her little revolution) and Bigby and Snow. Goldilocks appears to get kacked, but Bigby points out that being so popular with the Mundys, Goldilocks is probably very hard to kill, which is a hint that Fables really are powered by Mundy belief. The volume ends with a surprise twist on Bigby and Snow's time together in the woods, and then another one-shot story about the Barleycorn Brides.

Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers

Volume 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers

When Little Red Riding Hood suddenly walks through the gate between this world and the lost Fable Homelands, she's welcomed as a miraculous survivor by nearly everyone - everyone except her old nemesis, Bigby Wolf, who smells spying and subversion more than survival. But will he be able to prove his case before disaster strikes? And how will it all affect Prince Charming's upstart campaign to become the new mayor of Fabletown?

Well, the cover is kind of a giveaway here: we find out that among other things, Snow White's little romp in the woods with Bigby Wolf left her pregnant.

But the other big story development in this volume is the arrival of wooden soldiers from the Homelands, which are the magical worlds the Fables originally came from. The wooden soldiers are half Agent Smith, half Terminator, and made of wood (but really, really hard wood). They deliver an ultimatum to the Fables from the Adversary, and also refer to Pinocchio as their brother, the "First-Carved." Then they gather an army to lay siege to Fabletown, giving us our first big magical battle, which Willingham does in impressive style. This will be the first act in the long arc of the Fables' war against the multiverse-spanning Empire that sent them to Earth as refugees in the first place.

Built around this saga is the arrival of Little Red Riding Hood, one of the few Fables who never made it to Earth... until now. Red has a history with Little Boy Blue, who of course is smitten by the miraculous survival of his old flame. Bigby Wolf, who has a very different history with Little Red Riding Hood, is deeply suspicious. This was the point where the series was really starting to get juicy, as Willingham started methodically building up the powers of both the Fables and their enemies, as well as planting plot seeds that would not fully bloom until the end of the series.

That said, it was the also the point where I started questioning the transition of Bigby Wolf, the Most Horrible Monster in the History of Fairy Tales, to doting family man who gets all mushy and romantic around Snow White. Of all the Fable characters, it was Bigby who, despite being an obvious fan favorite, in large part because he's an obvious Wolverine expy, I never quite found credible.

Vol. 5: The Mean Seasons

Volume 5: The Mean Seasons

With the Battle of Fabletown won, and the surrounding city of New York none the wiser, the Fables have gained a little time for rebuilding and reflection - in between interrogation of the Adversary's agent and the anticipation of Snow White's impending motherhood.

For Bigby Wolf, the father of her soon-to-be newborns, that means a visit with an old friend - and a reminiscence of another, even deadlier war. For the Mayor of Fabletown, it means a rude awakening to the harsh realities of civic administration - and its conflicting demands. And for Snow herself, it means a long, painful labor - and a series of joyous, heartwrenching surprises.

After last volume's mass magical battle in the heart of Manhattan, this one is slower and feels like a bit of filler, which was a recurring problem throughout the series — between the high points and climaxes were sometimes long, occasionally weird and tedious, lulls. The story opens with a Fabletown traitor, and the revelation that Cinderella is a top secret spy working for Bigby. Then there's a flashback to Bigby fighting the Nazis in World War II. Remember what I said about how I have trouble with a former super-bad wolf being more or less the hero of the series? There is some thin pretext for why Bigby would care about one group of Mundys at war with another, but mostly it seems like another opportunity to show off how badass Bigby Wolf is.

Meanwhile, Prince Charming ran for Mayor of Fabletown on the promise of granting all the Farm Fables glamour and transformation charms so they can walk in the Mundy world. Fabletown has a cabal of witches, referred to as "the 13th Floor" (because that's where they hang out). They include Frau Totenkinder (who's just what she sounds like — she used to live in gingerbread houses), and Ozma (because Oz is out of copyright), and they supply much of Fabletown's magical power, but Prince Charming finds out there are catches.

And finally, Snow White gives birth to a litter, and meets Bigby's father, the North Wind.

Vol. 6: Homelands

Volume 6: Homelands

Having beaten back the Adversary's first advance into their world, the residents of Fabletown must now prepare themselves for the full-scale war that is sure to follow. For one particular Fable, this means skipping town to launch a new career as a venal Hollywood mogul - a path he hopes will be paved with gold and immortality. For another Fable, though, it means a journey down a much more dangerous road - one that winds through the Fables' old Homelands into the very heart of enemy territory, where the mystery of the Adversary's identity will finally be revealed!

For the first five volumes, one of the big mysteries has been: who is the Adversary? Who is the Emperor?

This volume finally takes us back to the Homelands, and it's a doozie. Little Boy Blue, armed with the Witching Cloak and the Vorpal Sword, two god-tier artifacts, cuts a swath through the empire, right to the Emperor himself. And discovers the big twist: the Emperor is a figurehead.

So who is really behind the Empire, the secret puppet-master who created an invincible army that's overrun countless worlds for centuries? It's none other than [Spoiler (click to open)]Geppetto.

Blue's quest is pretty epic, as we are introduced to the real big bangs in the Empire, including the Snow Queen. Back in Fabletown, they're still engaged in skullduggery and preparation, and there is some filler as Jack O'Tales decides to strike out on his own for a career in Hollywood. (Jack would end up getting his own spin-off series, which was okay, if you like reading about the wacky adventures of an amoral, self-serving douchebag.)

Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days)

Volume 7: Arabian Nights (and Days)

With the identity of the Adversary finally revealed to the citizens of Fabletown, it's time to begin making preparations in earnest for the defense of their stronghold in the mundane world - and that means forging new alliances with whoever remains unconquered by the Adversary's legions. But the arrival in Fabletown of a delegation from the Arabian Homelands shows just how tricky this kind of coalition-building can be - especially when one side is concealing Weapons of Magical Destruction!

Fables supposedly come from all corners of the fairy tale universe, with Bill Willingham trying to insert every character he can find from the most obscure legend or out-of-copyright children's story. But you might have noticed that until now, almost all of them have been Western. There were a few references in previous volumes to other realms, but we have seen very little of the rich lore of Asia, Africa, the Americas, etc.

In this volume, as the Empire expands, Sinbad the Sailor leads a delegation from worlds of Arabian tales to Fabletown. Mowgli was supposed to be the Fables' translator, but he's off on a mission, so the initial meeting doesn't go well, until they finally realize that King Cole speaks Arabic.

Willingham does here what he'll do in many volumes: introduce a magical superweapon, which the Fables can only defeat with a twist in the rules. In this case, it's a djinn, brought by the Arabian delegation. Djinns, as you might expect of creatures that can literally alter reality with a wish, are godlike beings that even the 13th floor witches can't defeat. A traitorous Arabian Fable unleashes it, but the Fables manage to neutralize it with, well, a cheat. Some of Willingham's twists are clever, but some are arbitrary handwaving — "Let's cast a spell that does such-and-such for convenient plot reasons." This was the latter, so it didn't really feel properly set up or earned.

Aside from that, though, the culture clash between Arabian and Western Fables was entertaining, as was the glimpse into the multiverse-setting of the series, though readers who like using words like "Orientalism" and "exotifying" and "cultural appropriation" ...ummm, probably shouldn't read the original One Thousand and One Nights. But it lets Sinbad and some of the other Arabian characters become recurring characters.

Vol. 8: Wolves

Volume 8: Wolves

The community of Fables living undercover in our midst has endured plenty of suffering at the hands of their longtime antagonist, the Adversary. Now it's time to return the favor and put the would-be conqueror on notice that the cost of subjugating this last stronghold of magic will be higher than he can bear. The one Fable who can accomplish this mission, however, has hidden himself away in the wild and will take some convincing if he can even be found. Luckily for Fabletown, there's something more than a trip behind enemy lines awaiting Bigby Wolf's return...

Bigby Wolf has been absent for a few issues, off sulking in the wilds because Snow White doesn't want him hanging around. It turns out he was off on a secret mission. He travels to the Homelands, finds Geppetto's cottage, and delivers a message to the Emperor comparing Fabletown to Israel. Yes, really. The extended metaphor he explains to Geppetto is that Israel survives against larger, hostile enemies by making sure every time one of their enemies hurts them, they hurt back, harder. So Fabletown is going to punish the Empire, every time they make a move against the Fables, until Geppetto relents and leaves them alone. Bigby underlines this threat with an impressively destructive demonstration.

Leaving aside the accuracy of that description of Israel, and the absurdity of two legendary magical beings using Israel as their analogy, the other problem with this story is that the analogy just doesn't work. Israel's enemies aren't a monolithic force led by one single absolutely evil absolute dictator. The big bad is obviously going to react exactly the way you'd expect him to react to being given an ultimatum and told "You can't push us around" and then kicked in the teeth for good measure. It's not plausible that Bigby could possibly have believed that Geppetto would actually say, "Well, that sucked, I guess I'd better leave them alone after this." So it seemed like just a big setup for Willingham to deliver this clever Israel speech and show off, yet again, how badass Bigby is.

Then he comes back and he and Snow White have a tender reunion and he proposes and they get married. And they all live happily ever after. Except there are still 14 volumes to go, so maybe not.

In other events in this volume, Cinderella has to climb inside a giant's ear in order to finalize a treaty with the cloud kingdoms. Eww.

Vol. 9: Sons of Empire

Volume 9: Sons of Empire

The free Fables living in the mundane world have struck a decisive blow against the Adversary, destroying one of his most valuable assets at the very heart of his empire - and setting the stage for an all-out war between the worlds in the process. Now, while the ruler of the Homelands licks his wounds and gathers his forces, the denizens of Fabletown have a rare chance to savor the brief peace their victory has brought them. Everyone, however, knows that this is just the calm before the storm - and that even the winds themselves will have to choose sides before it's over.

This volume is mostly a lot of build-up. In the last volume, Bigby Wolf delivered a threat to Geppetto, so in this volume, Geppetto actually takes the Fables up on their demand for negotiations, and sends an ambassador to Fabletown. Obviously he has no intention of negotiating a peace treaty, and the Fables know his ambassador is just there to gather intel, so it's a bit perplexing what they hope to get out of it, but what we get out of it is more intrigue. The Empire's ambassador is Hansel — the guy who pushed Frau Totenkinder into an oven way back when. It turns out he grew up to be a serial-killing religious fanatic.

Back in the Homelands, the Empire holds a war council. Which is more interesting in terms of how Willingham theorizes a war between magic and mundy than in the actual decisions of the council. The Snow Queen lays out her proposal, which is basically "Unleash fire, famine, blizzards, plagues, and other magical devastation on Earth, and we'll walk in and occupy the ruins." To which Pinocchio (who is now living with his dad as a sort of ambivalent fence-sitter with loyalty to both his father and Fabletown) says "Lol, no, you totally don't understand how this would go." And then lays out a counter-scenario in which the Fables give the armies of the Earth access to magical transportation, and billions of united Mundys send tanks, bombers, and soldiers into the Homelands and slaughter them.

So according to Willingham, technology > magic. This very old geek debate is always very universe-dependent, but I didn't quite buy it here. Or rather, I didn't buy that Geppetto would accept Pinocchio's conclusion as incontrovertible and abandon plans for a magical invasion. Considering that half the series is about the Fables figuring out loopholes and tricks to work around magical obstacles, it seems like the Empire could figure out a way to neutralize the Mundy threat. Half a dozen schemes occur to me off the top of my head, and it's not like there wouldn't be counters and counters to the counters, but that's the point: Willingham sets up the possibility of an apocalyptic high tech vs. magic war across the multiverse, and then handwaves it away. So Geppetto remains intent on conquering Fabletown, but without provoking a war with the rest of Earth.

There are some filler stories in this volume, and lots more about Bigby and Snow's kids, and the North Wind.

Vol. 10: The Good Prince

Volume 10: The Good Prince

Will all-out war looming between the forces of the Adversary and the free Fables living in the mundane world, everything now depends on a humble janitor known as Flycatcher. Released from centuries of trauma-induced amnesia, Prince Ambrose (as he was known in happier times) faces a long and difficult road - one that will take him through the lands of the dead and into the heart of the enemy's realm. Once there, this unassuming and unlikely hero will face his greatest and most arduous test - and the future of both Fabletown and the Homelands will turn on the outcome.

This arc was one of the high points of the series. As the Empire prepares for its assault on Fabletown, Flycatcher, the Frog Prince, goes on an epic quest. Until now, Flycatcher had been comic relief, a janitor in Fabletown's offices, always being busted for minor infractions. But he was once a king in his original Fable homeland, with a tragic backstory, and when he returns, he has access to magic even greater than the Empire's. With the help of figures like Lancelot, he proceeds to create the impregnable Kingdom of Haven in the middle of the Empire. Of course the Emperor, and his father, Geppetto, can't stand for that, so there are some more huge magical battles, trumped by more magical super-weapons. We also get the reappearance of Bluebeard and Shere Khan (they're still dead, but that's always a relative thing for Fables).

One of the longer and better volumes, as Willingham was firing on all cylinders to build up to the climax of the war.

Vol. 11: War and Pieces

Volume 11: War and Pieces

The final battle between the free Fables of the mundane world and the Empire occupying their former Homelands is about to begin, and the scrappy storybook heroes have already managed to even the odds considerably. With his previously unstoppable wooden soldiers neutralized, the Adversary is about to get his first taste of high technology in the form of steel-jacketed bullets and laser-guided bombs. But the ruler who conquered a hundred different worlds didn’t do it by fighting clean—and he’s still got a surprise or two left to spring on the residents of Fabletown.

The first part of this volume is a long espionage mission starring Cinderella, who kills lots of people because she is deadlier than Beatrix Kiddo and twice as good-looking as Uma Thurman.

That's all a prelude to the war. This is it. The final battle. Actually, several of them. While the Empire has been planning to invade Fabletown... the Fables invade the Empire instead. With an airship equipped with modern weaponry, they lay waste to armies, hordes of dragons, and bomb magical gateways to other worlds, and all the Empire's warlocks are unable to stop it.

Willingham loves battle scenes, and he also loves guns, and so he leans heavily on the theme of high tech > magic. But still, a lot of tricks come with stockpiled magic, so the Empire eventually rallies, and there's a final battle involving mass combat, WMDs, and the Emperor vs. Bigby Wolf. The battles are big and epic, there are lots of casualties, and the grand arc of the war with the Adversary comes to an end.

This is where the series could have ended, and maybe should have. But it's only the halfway point, as Willingham still had plenty of stories in him, some better than others. As we will see, when your protagonists have finally vanquished the Big Bad who's defined the series since the beginning, you face the problem of either subsequent stories seeming relatively inconsequential, or having to engage in constant power creep and threat escalation as each Big Bad is somehow more great and terrible than the one before. And we'll see a little of both.

Vol. 12: The Dark Ages

Volume 12: The Dark Ages

The great war between Fabletown and the mighty empire of the Adversary is over, and the victorious free Fables have brought their defeated enemy back from the Homelands to join them in exile. Their celebrations, however, are destined to be short-lived. As it turns out, not even beloved storybook heroes can escape the law of unintended consequences. In the post-war chaos of the Adversary's former realm, a terrible force is about to be unleashed - an evil that threatens not just Fabletown but the entire mundane world.

So what do you do after the good guys have defeated the Big Bad? Obviously you have to introduce a new Big Bad.

The first part of this volume involves integrating Geppetto into Fabletown. Having captured the true mastermind behind centuries of conquest and oppression, they apply the same General Amnesty they applied to every other Fable who came to Earth. Instead of being tried for war crimes, the former true emperor gets to walk around being a grumpy old man complaining about everything. He is gleefully unrepentant about being directly responsible for millions of deaths, and makes a lot of cold-blooded utilitarian speeches about how his rule brought peace and stability to billions more, but some of the Fables whose families were his victims are no more convinced than I was.

However, with the fall of the Empire, hundreds of worlds really are thrown into chaos, resulting in the release of a horde of imprisoned super-powerful baddies, including Mister Dark, who promptly tracks the Fables to Earth, kills a bunch of significant characters, and destroys Fabletown. Thus begins the next big arc. There is also some filler about the war years, some interim art that was quite dissonant with the style of Mark Buckingham, the primary illustrator for most of the series.

Vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover

Volume 13: The Great Fables Crossover

When Fables Collide!

This is it - a story so grand, so epic in scale that no single series could contain it!

As the free Fables struggle to regroup following the destruction of their New York City stronghold, they are suddenly faced with a wholly new menace - one that threatens not only their adopted planet, but all of reality itself!
Against such a terrible power, can even the combined abilities of these legendary storybook heroes prevail? Only one thing is certain: once the battle is joined, the world of Fables will never be the same!

This was the point where I felt like the series was going into a bit of a slump. Mister Dark, the terrible new adversary introduced in the last volume, barely shows up here. This was mostly a cross-over with the Fables spin-off series, Jack of Fables. I read a few volumes of that series, but found it less compelling (I only have so much tolerance for the misadventures of an amoral prick of an anti-hero). So instead of being about Mister Dark, this volume kicks off with Jack coming to the Farm to warn the Fables about a new threat to the entire world: Kevin Thorn, a writer who can literally rewrite reality, and who's about to erase all of existence.

Kevin Thorn kind of comes out of the blue, though his children and the Literals he spawned were introduced in the first Jack books. This storyline seemed like a big filler arc, though I did like all the literary in-jokes. The Literals are the living manifestations of literary devices: the Page sisters (hot censorious librarians with guns), the Pathetic Fallacy, Mr. Revise, Kevin Thorn's dreaded twin, Writer's Block, and the Genres, whom Kevin summons to advise him and then fight for him. The banter between Westerns, War, Mystery, Romance, Horror, Noir, Comedy, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy twins is amusing, though they are the very crudest of genre stereotypes. And in the end, Dex (Deux Ex Machina) appears out of nowhere to offer them a solution. Har har, so meta!

Bigby Wolf is finally back to his bad-ass self in this book. Since he's supposed to be the biggest, baddest Fable in existence, watching him become a happily married family man for all these years has had an aura of sad slapstick. In this volume, he does some serious bloodletting — albeit he does it while trapped in the body of a little girl.

So the whole book is pretty surreal. It's got some humorous bits, and it's got an entire save-the-universe self-contained story arc within, but I was glad to see Jack wander back to his own series. (He's such a prick.)

Vol. 14: Witches

Volume 14: Witches

In the wreckage that was once Fabletown, the sinister Mister Dark is building a web of fear and anger that threatens to ensnare any Fable that strays too close. Cut off from the Woodland building's business office and its trove of magical weapons, the exiled free Fables now must turn to their oldest and most powerful members - the witches and warlocks who once occupied the Woodland's 13th floor - to defeat this latest adversary. But even as those still trapped within the business office struggle against a legion of uncaged foes, rivalries within the Fables' sorcerous community threaten to fracture their united front - and open them up to destruction.

After the lackluster previous volume, this one was a great return to the old Fables style. In fact, this book had a lot of what I loved about this series in the first place. Previously minor characters suddenly rise in importance. Comic relief sidekicks take a Level in Badass. We get some background information about the Empire, old threads in the storyline we thought forgotten are brought back into play, and the main story arc moves forward (albeit only a little).

First we get the backstory on Mister Dark and how he was imprisoned in the first place. The Empire sacrificed thousands and thousands of sorcerers to take him down. This turns out not to be mere history, as the book ends with Frau Totenkinder (who incidentally has wrapped up the knitting she's been doing since the series began, figuratively and literally, and reassumed her true form) seeking out the one surviving sorcerer who was a part of that campaign.

Meanwhile, the witches of the 13th floor (which doesn't exist anymore now that Fabletown is in ruins) are getting ready to rumble, and Ozma wants to take leadership away from Frau Totenkinder. So when Totenkinder takes a walk between worlds without telling anyone, Ozma seizes the opportunity. Ozma is quite a cute little badass, but though we know that little girl exterior hides an ancient, powerful being, she's still a little kid compared to Frau Totenkinder, so this isn't going to end well.

Geppetto escapes from his tomb (like we didn't know he would) and makes a bid to seize control of the Farm. Right back to his old tricks. And Rose Red is still a human wreck, depressed and emaciated and trying to hide from the world.

All that was interesting enough, but of course the main part of this story was Bufkin the flying monkey taking down a True Djinn and Baba Yaga. Yes, the flying monkey singlehandedly (well, not quite, he has a little help, and I mean a little help) defeats two of the most powerful beings in existence. It was indeed awesome.

The story at the end gave us a little tale of Flycatcher's kingdom, where he finds out that ruling over an uneasy confederation of humans, talking animals, and goblins isn't going to be as easy and bloodless as he thought. But he and Red Riding Hood finally have their moment, so one more long-suspended story-brick finally falls into place.

Vol. 15: Rose Red

Volume 15: Rose Red

As the Fables of the mundane world try desperately to shield themselves from the withering power of Mister Dark, Rose Red - the Farm's ostensible leader - is finally jolted out of her crippling depression and into action by a timely revelation from her storybook past. Her epiphany comes not a moment too soon - as more and more of New York City falls under Mister Dark's malign power, the chances of striking a decisive blow against him are getting smaller by the hour. Luckily, the survivors of Fabletown have the world's most powerful witch on their side - and she well may be the only entity more ruthless than the Dark Man himself.

This volume was one of the most satisfying in a long while. There was a ton of backstory (mostly involving Snow White and Rose Red) and then an all-out smackdown between Mister Dark and Frau Totenkinder. The backstory is mostly stuff we've inferred from earlier volumes — Rose Red and Snow White used to be the closest of sisters, and then Snow White went away, and Rose, consumed with jealousy, set out to destroy Snow's life. So we find out that Rose really was an evil, manipulative bitch back in the day. All of this is brought out by way of forcing her to emerge from the deep depression she's been in since Boy Blue's death. She finally crawls out of her hole, cleans herself up, and takes charge, while seeking redemption.

Watching godlike powers go at each other is always interesting, since you can't take anything for granted. Even when they're defeated, maybe they're not. First there's the North Wind parlaying with Mister Dark, both of them posturing and arrogant as all hell, and both knowing that going at each other would be Mutually Assured Destruction. Then comes the duel between Dark and Totenkinder. It seemed almost too easy and too quickly resolved, so of course it turns out that it wasn't.

Willingham weaves a ton of other subplots into this volume, many of them threads that have been dangling for a long time — the North Wind finding out about his zephyr grandson, Geppetto getting his hands on a new army of (very small) wooden soldiers, the birth of Beauty's baby (for which Totenkinder knitted such an "interesting" onesie).

Vol. 16: Super Team

Volume 16: Super Team

Now why, oh why, in this mixed-up world would we saddle an important series that has never had anything to do with Super Heroes with a title like "Super Team"? And why has that snotty little Pinocchio suddenly got it into his head that he needs to design tight-fitting costumes for a carefully selected team of Fables? In fact, why was the little brat caught looking over his own comic-book collection, mumbling things like, "We can call him Werewolf Man, and he can be The Golden Knight, and she can be called The Green Witch?"

Since the Fables are all about mythology, and power fueled by mundy belief, it was inevitable that sooner or later we'd get superheroes. But the notion is really only flirted with here, as I think Willingham wanted to pay tribute to some of his legendary inspirations. The plan to go up against Mister Dark with a hand-picked team of Fable "superheroes," complete with four-color costumes, was as entertaining as it was silly, but in the end, what we got was a deux ex machina and a heroic sacrifice. It was a rather abrupt resolution, but it killed several birds with one stone, and left enough loose ends for plenty of new stories, like our dear treacherous Miss Sprat, and the continuing Cult of Boy Blue, and the rather obvious "mystery" of Beauty and the Beast's child. There was also a hint of a Pinocchio/Ozma ship which sadly, never really went anywhere.

This volume brought to an end the Mister Dark storyline. There were two secondary stories: one starring Bufkin the no-longer-flying monkey, who got an entire story arc of his own, and one involving the sleeping city that was once the capital of the Empire, back in the Homelands, and the fate of Sleeping Beauty, with yet another ominous plot seed laid for the future.

Vol. 17: Inherit the Wind

Volume 17: Inherit the Wind

The tights and capes have been stored away forever, but it remains to be seen if Haven and its refugee inhabitants have survived the onslaught of. Where do the Fables go from here? Bigby and Snow White's cubs try to move forward after learning a hard lesson about life and death. And the loveable, fan-favorite hero Bufkin the Flying Monkey gets into more trouble when he finally reaches his homeland of Oz.

This volume began a bit of a slump, following the conclusion of its second epic arc. It also began the build-up towards Bigby Wolf and Snow White's kids being increasingly important, all the way to the finale.

With the North Wind dead, one of his grandchildren must assume the title. Snow and Bigby are not thrilled, since it involves their cubs going on epic quests or daily scavenger hunts. The other three Winds drop by to throw their weight around, and there is a general sense that this is going to end badly for someone, especially when it turns out that there is a prophecy involved. One of the children is eventually chosen, and we see a return of Bellflower, the former Frau Totenkinder reborn in a newly hot body, but just as powerful and just as devious as before.

In a second storyline, Bufkin the flying monkey is leading a ragtag band of revolutionaries in the former kingdom of Oz, which is now ruled by yet another evil emperor, this time the Nome King. The Soviet-style propaganda posters are amusing, but the story drags, even with the comic relief.

Finally, Rose Red returns to the Farm, as the Fables prepare to migrate back from Haven to their former home in Manhattan... where Miss Spratt is waiting, vengefully.

Aside from the North Wind storyline, there were a lot of cameos by Fables old and new but not a lot of the old characters doing much. It was a decent entry in the series that set things up for climactic events to come, but there was nothing epic, astonishing, or really funny. Also, Mark Buckingham's penciling seemed lazier than usual.

Some of the filler stories were more interesting, particularly as we learn about a powerful magician, unmentioned until now, who was really responsible for protecting Fabletown from the Emperor, and Rose Red's quest to determine who she will be as a new paladin of Hope.

Vol. 18: Cubs in Toyland

Volume 18: Cubs in Toyland

The most harrowing epic since the inception of the series starts when Snow and Bigby's cub Therese receives a Christmas gift from an unknown admirer. This red plastic boat may hold the key to a deep, disturbing secret that will incite a series of soul-crushing events for the denizens of Fabletown.

This entire volume was focused on either Bigby Wolf's kids, or Bigby himself, but despite that, it was pretty solid, and did not feel like filler. Instead, it felt like serious worldbuilding for the Fables mythology.

Therese, Bigby and Snow's prettiest and most spoiled child, is lured off to an adventure in Toyland by a charming little talking boat.

Adventures in Toyland

These misfit toys are not nice. Willingham takes the old Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer special and turns it dark, dark, dark. Before Therese is able to leave "Toyland," some of the worst parts of the prophecy given to Snow about her children come true. One of the things I liked about Fables is that character deaths usually (not always, but usually) stuck. Even though the characters are immortal magical beings, and sometimes demigods, they do die, and we haven't seen too many of them come back from the dead (with some notable exceptions).

Vol. 19: Snow White

Volume 19: Snow White

With Castle Dark now back in the hands of the Fables, mysteries both young and old begin to challenge the residents of Fabletown. Bigby and Stinky set off from Fabletown in Rose Red's blood-fueled sports car to track down the two abducted cubs. Unfortunately for Snow White, besides suffering the trauma of having two of her cubs go missing, a long forgotten secret uncovered in Castle Dark threatens to sabotage her and Bigby's marriage.

This was really the beginning of the end of the series. It was starting to show its age, and while Willingham said all along that he would keep writing it as long as it still sold, he'd completed two epic arcs against world-threatening adversaries, given almost every major and minor character some time in the spotlight, and introduced the next generation. How many fables about Fables were left?

The first half of Volume 19 is about Bufkin's war to liberate Oz from the Nome King. Told in short, comical chapters despite the rather gory massacres of Oz civilians and soldiers alike, Bufkin is the main character for a while, and Willingham actually takes us far into the future, telling us the final fate of the wingless flying monkey and his doll-sized girlfriend, many, many years in the future.

Then it's back to Fabletown and Bigby Wolf's search for his missing children. While Bigby is out driving between worlds in a magic car, the latest Big Bad is Snow White's first husband. Well, technically her "betrothed," who insists that marriage vows are eternally binding even if she was a child and the marriage was never consummated. This is no Prince Charming — he's a smarmy, evil, misogynistic cad, but an unfailingly polite one. Lawful Evil to the core. It's a battle of wills between him and Snow, but naturally it's Bigby Wolf who comes running to the rescue, which leads us to the huge twist that appears to set the tone for what is the remaining run of the series.

Vol. 20: Camelot

Fables v20.jpg

Rose Red takes the mantle of Paladin of Hope to rally the Fables in the tragic aftermath of “Snow White.” A new dark age calls for a new Round Table, with modern knights willing to take on a sacred quest to reassemble the shattered pieces of Fabletown.

The Fables have gone through various iterations of myth and legend, even taking a turn as four-color superheroes, so unsurprisingly, we finally get the retold tale of Camelot. In this case, it's Rose Red, with a new sense of purpose, and mysteriously powerful magic, who has decided to resurrect the Round Table and send out a call for new knights a'questing.

Camelot always contains the seeds of its own destruction, though, so where there is an Arthur, there must also be a Guinevere, and a Lancelot, and a Morgan Le Fey, and a Mordred...

Rose is alienated from her sister, Snow White, by Rose's decision in the aftermath of Bigby Wolf's death. Meanwhile, Miss Sprat (still nursing a grudge after the death of Mr. Dark, the last Big Bad to be overcome by the Fables) is scheming, Snow and Bigby's daughter has become a goddess, and off in Flycatcher's Kingdom, Geppetto is up to his old tricks.

So, bad stuff is coming. Maybe epic bad stuff.

This wasn't the best volume in the series, but it captures some of the epic feel that was present in the best of the past arcs. This was a book of premonition and dread foreboding (often pretty explicitly spelled out). Even the side stories, while they occasionally had some humor to them, were pretty dark, all of them clearly leading to bad things in the future.

This was a thick and portentous volume leading to the finale.

Vol. 21: Happily Ever After

Volume 21: Happily Ever After

In this penultimate volume of Bill Willingham’s Fables, the residents of Fabletown look to live “happily ever after,” but there is a steep price to pay for happiness as Rose Red clashes with Snow White!

Willingham was building towards the grand finale to end the series, which means more and more major characters getting knocked off. While some of the events in this volume were, well, notable, it felt a bit like filler, and some of the characters who died seemed to be killed off abruptly. Here's this immortal, immensely powerful being who's been a major player for many volumes, suddenly offed just like that. But ya know, sometimes death is like that.

Bigby Wolf, who was supposedly dead, is of course not really dead. It's not the first time someone who was dead didn't stay dead, though the Fables don't return from the dead as reliably as superheroes. But Bigby has become a feral monster, and he's racking up a big body count. Meanwhile, the fates themselves seem to have pitted Rose Red and Snow White against one another. Here, Willingham actually gives us an extended background story to explain why the two sisters are doomed to be mortal foes. It's both sad and inevitable and also seems a bit contrived to suddenly drop this on us at the end of the series.

Between the major story arc chapters were a bunch of little filler one and two-pagers telling us "the last story" of some of the minor Fables who've appeared over the years. Some funny, some poignant, some tragic.

This wasn't the best of the series, but it's wasn't one of the worst volumes either.

Vol. 22: Farewell

Volume 22: Farewell

This was the big finale. Willingham wrote Fables for 13 years, 150 issues, plus several side volumes and spin-off series. It was a venerable, long-running series and he got what few comic creators are able to do, which is wrap it up with a planned ending.

Did he stick the landing? Well, I would say the heights of the series were the climaxes of the Homelands and Mister Dark storylines. It was hard to keep up momentum like that, so Willingham once again threatens the world, but this time with the Fables themselves.

In the final volume, Snow White and her sister Rose Red have gathered mighty fantasy armies to wage a final battle to the death for somewhat contrived reasons introduced in the last couple of volumes. We're expecting some sort of clever resolution — the two of them just wrecking the world because of a prophecy seems kind of lame.

The resolution was kind of clever, but also disappointing. Anti-climactic, even. And the degree to which major characters handwaved away some of the major events of the last few volumes made me think Willingham just didn't want to deal with it.

Bigby Wolf, who started his career as the Big Bad Wolf of legend, a killer feared throughout all the Fable worlds, eventually reformed and became a family man, the tame husband of Snow White. Which I never quite bought, but okay. And then, in the last few issues, he's turned bestial again and goes on a rampage, kills a bunch of major characters. And then... a bit of family time fixes him, and we're all better. I guess no one cares that he's still a mass-murderer.

Snow White began the series as a non-combatant who was seriously freaked out when she had to fight, so her leveling up to become a mighty warrior in the end seemed unearned.

The conclusion of the Snow White/Rose Red arc was just a little unsatisfying. Not that I would have preferred for them to actually slaughter each other, but it was a strangely-engineered duel in the first place, and a bunch of good characters were rather cavalierly dispatched, and then we fast-forward to a happy ending a thousand years hence.

Then there are a whole string of one and two-page epilogues telling us "The last story" of many minor characters who have appeared over the years.

It was touching and poignant to see these old friends take their final bows. And it was probably the right time to end the series — you can only reinvent so many world-threatening Big Bads before it all seems rather repetitive. But this was a wrap-up for a series that needed to be wrapped up, and it went out with less of a bang than I was hoping for.

But I do still highly recommend reading Fables from the beginning. Years and years worth of stories.

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