After 13 years, “Fables”, a landmark comic book series about fairy tale characters secretly living among us, has finally come to an end Wednesday. Available now, the series’ graphic novel-length final issue, “Farewell”, by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (with contributions from a small army of some of the biggest names in comics) is a big moment for many comics fans.
“Fables” is fondly remembered, not just because it was a moving story that got adults to care about fairy tales, but because it had a reputation as a series that convinced many people to give comics a try — particularly women.
“I think the fact that we’ve been an entry-point to comics for so many female readers has been a particular delight for me,” artist Mark Buckingham tells Business Insider. “I’ve had many comic book artists and comic book fans thank me at [conventions], because ‘Fables’ is the series that their wife or girlfriend or sister had picked up, and it’s the one that really got them excited and got them reading comics — and now they are very excited about the medium as a whole and are checking out lots of other stuff, and that’s a good feeling.”
Buckingham attributes this to the unique accessibility afforded them by the fact that they’re using characters from folklore that everyone knows from childhood nursery rhymes and fairy tales. “Fables” is warm and familiar, but with a “twist that we then give to the material,” says Buckingham, “that keeps you hooked and drags you in.”
“These are characters that you fell out of touch with like beloved childhood friends,” says writer Bill Willingham. “They show up one day and you’re going to sit around the kitchen table and catch up on what’s happened lately. The ‘what’s happened lately’ — that’s where the crux of the story is, that’s the surprising thing — The ‘oh the minister’s daughter became a stripper, and the patriotic kid is now an underground rebel.’ It’s like, ‘Oh I’m surprised that you changed that much. That’s where the ‘Fables’ story is told.”
As a series published by DC’s mature-readers imprint Vertigo (where it was the longest-running series), “Fables” was also frank in a manner that fairy tale characters are rarely portrayed. It was mature, but not salacious, there was violence, but it wasn’t gratuitous. For much of “Fables”, good taste seemed to be the rule of thumb — and this delicate balance was likely a big part of its success.
But early on, there was some indecision about just how ‘adult’ “Fables” would be.
“When we talk about regrets or things that we would have done differently — without changing much of the story, I would have stuck to my guns that Vertigo should have published it as an all-ages series,” says Willingham. “The reason Vertigo didn’t want to do this, and I think it’s a legitimate reason, was: If we had one all-ages series, those same kids will grab other Vertigo books and then be shocked and surprised by the maturity of their content.”
Like Willingham asserts, this is a reasonable assumption — throughout the ’90s, Vertigo established itself as a home for groundbreaking, provocative work, regularly publishing seminal series like “The Sandman” and “Y: The Last Man” — books that changed the landscape of comics with deft storytelling and layered themes but refused to shy away from frank depictions of sex and violence.
“I thought we kept Fables mature in the sense that there were adult issues and jeopardy and considerations constantly in play, but we did not need to have so much of the naughty stuff,” says Willingham. “I might have been the very first writer or writer/artist team where there was pressure to put more of the dirty stuff in, rather than ‘You’re going too far we need to take some of this stuff out.’ Not a lot of pressure, but there were a lot of questions where it was like, ‘Is there any chance they’re getting naked soon?'”
When asked for comment about the early days of “Fables”, the publisher offered this counterpoint:
“Vertigo is a creator-driven imprint and for the past 13 years we’ve been proud to champion Bill’s distinctive vision for ‘Fables’,” says Shelly Bond, executive editor of Vertigo. “Vertigo titles like ‘Fables’ and ‘The Sandman’ have a long history of garnering the support of readers from all walks of life, from young adults onward.”
That’s not to say early “Fables” stories were hedonistic jaunts, but those early issues — where “Fables” was still trying to figure itself out — did feature more “on-camera sex and vulgarity,” to use Willingham’s words. But once “Fables” found its groove (and it won awards in its first year, so it found its groove pretty quickly), it soon became apparent the series was most comfortable in a less gratuitous place.
“I always felt that ‘Fables’ should be a series that should reach the widest possible audience,” says Mark Buckingham. “When it comes to violence and when it comes to intimacy, I always go for less is more … you need to lead the reader to a point and let them fill in the blanks, and I think that’s what we did very successfully during our run. “
With it’s impressive collection of awards and accolades, and a readership that stretches far beyond those who read comics for typical superhero fare, “Fables” has had a remarkable run, one that created a whole universe full of spinoffs like “Fairest” and “Jack of Fables” and often was the only comics project that either creator has worked on for over a decade. So what happens to “Fables” now that it’s another bit of folklore, another storybook on a shelf next to the countless other stories it loved so much?
“I hope that it’s got legs, in that long after Mark and I are gone from this lovely place, ‘Fables’ as a series still exists and is available to people,” says Bill Willingham when asked about his hopes for “Fables” now that it’s over. “Having such a long-running series, we’ve gotten to see new people as they come of age are coming to ‘Fables’ for the first time, all the time.”
“We live off stories, as a people,” adds Willingham. “Our entertainment is to have stories told to us in various media, from song to cinema. Work [needs stories] — a house doesn’t get built without the story of what we want being told first. So that is the bedrock of who we are as a species, so of course they’re going to be important. Being able to be a storyteller by profession is a joy, and I think, a pretty big responsibility.”
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