by Derek Royal
When Bill Willingham announced back in early November that his long-running Fables series would be coming to an end after issue 150, the news caught me by surprise. Sure, all comic-book series eventually reach a stopping point — and since the fall of Mister Dark after issue 100, I’ve seriously wondered about the direction and the future of this title — but Fables as been a Vertigo staple, a reliable series that weathered changes with the publisher and has never flagged in quality. This series has truly embodied the best that mainstream comics, or any kind of comics, has to offer. Perhaps it was opportune that two new books surrounding the great Fablesphere (and yes, I’m coining a new term here) were released at about the same time of Willingham’s announcement. Fairest in All the Land and the Fables Encyclopedia are not only successful in their own rights, but they both stand as reminders of how significant and how far reaching Willingham’s work has become.
Fairest in All the Land is certainly not the first standalone original work to come out of the Fablesphere. Earlier we had Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (2006), the prose work Peter and Max: A Fables Novel (2006), and Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland (2012). There was also the two Cinderella-based miniseries Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love (2010) and Cinderella: Fables Are Forever (2011), and of course the spinoff series Jack of Fables (2006-2011), The Literals (2009), and the current Fairest, beginning in 2012. In many ways Fairest in All the Land is in the mold of 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which was a series of 10 different stories — eleven, if you count the outer framing narrative — each illustrated by different artists. (In that work, Snow White plays a Scheherazade figure, and her life-preserving tales become the gist of the text.) The latest is also a composite work, a graphic novel made up of 30 individual stories and all contained within a larger framing narrative. But unlike 1001 Nights of Snowfall, where each of the 10 stories could conceivably stand on its own, the individual contributions of Fairest in All the Land are inextricably linked one to the other. The stories, or chapters, are illustrated by different artists, all wonderful and distinctive in their visual representations. The roster of this “Wonderland of Artists,” as it’s described on the book’s title page, includes such figures as Gene Ha, Phil Noto, Ming Doyle, Kevin Maguire, Chrissie Zullo, Tony Akins, and Fables regular Mark Buckingham. Given the sheer number of creators, as well as the book’s cohesive and tightly woven storyline, this book does 1001 Nights at least one better, resulting in one of the best self-contained Fables narratives that Willingham has created.
Like the earlier 1001 Nights, Fairest in All the Land is a framed narrative, this one structured around the tale of the Magic Mirror, trapped in the Fabletown offices with several other figures as a result of Mister Dark’s wrath. (One could even call this book a “framed framed narrative,” since the selections are narrated by an entity whose very structure is literally framed.) And taking a play from the two Cinderella miniseries, the tale revolves around the shoe-linked heroine and her adventures. Instead of functioning as a spy for Fabletown, however, she takes on the role of detective in the absence of Beast (currently in Haven) and Bigby Wolf, who in the current Fables series, having been turned to glass and shattered, is being reconstructed by the 13th Floor Witches. The story proper begins with the discovery of two gruesome murders. Two of Fabletown’s female residents, one considered a “fairest in all the land,” have been beheaded, and along with the bodies there is a list of nine other beauties. Despite her hesitancy in taking on this mystery — by her own admission, she may be an expert spy, but she has little experience as a detective — Cinderella begins following the clues. She soon discovers that similar paired murders, one of a “fairest” and another of more “common” female Fable, follow in the wake of her investigations. Someone, for some reason, is out to eliminate all of the beauties, and Fabletown’s spy-turned-sleuth quickly becomes embroiled in a potentially deadly wo/man hunt. What unfolds is an intriguing murder mystery that includes a large cross-section of Fabletown, both regulars and more obscure figures, and the reappearance of one particularly notorious Fable who clashed with the community early in the Fables series.
The very concept of this project, a comic in 30 different sections (31, if you count the outer frame narrative) illustrated by a variety of different artists, has the potential of turning into a loosely woven collection (somewhat like 1001 Nights), or at worst, a fragmented series of visuals that resists cohesion. But Willingham spins a tight yarn, and the shift from one artistic style to another never really disrupts the narrative flow. Indeed, Willingham’s story is so compelling that it’s easy to overlook the transition from Fiona Meng’s story art to Mark Buckingham’s story art to Phil Noto’s story art. In fact, one way of reading Fairest in All the Land is to go through it first as one continuous story, and then read it again as a series of interlinked art pieces, each a distinctive example of graphic storytelling. Or vice versa.
Yet, if Fairest in All the Land reminds us of the storytelling prowess of Bill Willingham, it is the Fables Encyclopedia that underscores his vast abilities at world-building. Jess Nevins has compiled a useful companion to the Fablesphere, and in a concise 252 pages. (“Concise” when you consider the vastness of the Fables universe and the many folktales, myths, and traditions it pulls from.) The book is exactly what the title promises, an alphabetic and descriptive listing of the various characters, locations, and objects that populate the Fables series and its various spinoffs. Each entry contains a brief summary of the actant, along with its history in the Fablesphere and its links to classic folklore, myth, or literature. Nevin even lists the characters’ first appearance in the comics, including the issue number, page, and panel. The book ends with sixteen pages of annotations, further adding to its critical value. It’s quite an ambitious task, and one that will make the Encyclopedia an indispensable resources for both scholars and fans alike.
Although the Fables Encyclopedia is primarily a reference work, you can nonetheless appreciate it on its own terms. Reading through the book, you get a sense of where Willingham got his ideas, where he pulled from previous texts and traditions, and where he created from whole cloth. There are entries on the primary Fables protagonists such as Frau Totenkinder and Boy Blue, supportive figures like Grimble and Reynard the Fox, infrequent and one-off appearances by Br’er Rabbit or Tam Lin, and characters such as Bufkin, Mustard Pot Pete, and the Page Sisters who are all the products of Willingham’s fertile imagination. Accompanying Nevin’s entries, and peppering the entire book, are commentary sidebars by both Willingham and Mark Buckingham, Fables’ primary artist, with insights and contexts on the various characters as well as backstories to their creations. Fans of the Fablesphere could easily turn to Wikipedia or the Fables Wiki for contexts and summaries, but why do this when we now have such a thoroughly researched book, and with beautiful illustrations an authorial commentary, as you do in Nevin’s Encyclopedia?
Taken together, Fairest in All the Land and the Fables Encyclopedia are not only absorbing examples of comic art, they are also an occasion for us to reflect on the sheer impact that Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Sturges, et al. have made on comics over the past twelve years. We may have only another fifteen months of Fables to look forward to — although nowadays, that’s longer than most series seem to last — but these two new books remind us of a Vertigo phenomenon that stands apart from the others and will be difficult to rival in the years to come.
Be sure to get the books reviewed here, as well as other titles from the creative mind of Bill Willingham: