Imagine, if you will, if the inhabitants of the fairytales you know so well — human and fantastical alike — were alive and well and living in New York. Such is the premise behind Bill Willingham’s Fables series for Vertigo Comics. The Fables, as they call themselves, have long since been driven from their lands by an entity they call only The Adversary. The human-looking Fables settled in New York City, in a neighborhood they call Fabletown. Those who are less than human (think the Three Little Pigs, Shere Kahn, and Oz’s winged monkeys) live in bucolic upstate New York. Good King Cole is mayor of Fabletown, but the real power is in his deputy, Snow White. Long divorced from Prince Charming and estranged from her younger sister Rose Red, Snow White is quite far removed from her former passive self. Helping her maintain order is the Big Bad Wolf, better known now as Bigby Wolf, gumshoe detective.
Legends in Exile is nominally a murder mystery — Rose Red’s empty apartment is found, awash in blood, by her boyfriend Jack (as in “and the Beanstalk”) and Bigby must solve the crime. But it’s more an introduction to Fabletown and its denizens. There’s Beauty and the Beast, the latter in danger of being sent upstate, for as Beauty’s love for him wanes, the physical Beast begins to reassert itself. There is Prince Charming, so broke he’s seducing waitresses to get free meals and auctioning off his land and titles to the highest bidder. There’s sinister Bluebeard, still short a few living wives…. The mystery itself is neatly wrapped up in true fairytale fashion at an annual Fabletown ball attended by anyone who’s anyone in Fabletown.
Animal Farm, unsurprisingly, given the name, concerns an uprising by the residents of the upstate farm, resentful of the normal lives the human-looking Fables lead. As part of her punishment for the events of Legends in Exile, Rose Red is roped into going upstate with Snow White for a semi-annual work visit to the farm. What the sisters find, though, isn’t business as usual, but rather, a spot of trouble. Trouble that turns out to be a nascent revolt. As with the first volume, Animal Farm serves as an introduction to the vast panoply of non-human Fables — and their grievances against the residents of Fabletown. Characters from all walks of fiction, folklore and fairytales show up, some sympathetic to the cause and others more loyal to Snow White. The issues are resolved through some ingenuity on the part of both sisters, but not without raising a few others. . . .
Willingham’s writing is crisp and witty and thoroughly enjoyable. The cast of familiar, yet oh-so-different characters is a delight to rediscover, led in particular by Snow White and Bigby Wolf (there’s an intriguing vibe between these two that hopefully Willingham will explore further). It’s good fun to guess who might show up next and how they might fit into the fabric of the Fables’ world. While the art is not particularly memorable, it is serviceable and works well enough with Willingham’s dialog. The series is ongoing, with two other graphic novels in print, delving further into the Fables’ history with The Adversary who drove them from their lands. I will definitely be buying and devouring them all!
(Vertigo, 2002 and 2003)