“Fables” is a comic book that crept up on me, one that I didn’t know I loved until it was too late and I was 60 issues in and the story broke my heart.
Years ago, someone handed me a copy of the first volume, subtitled “Legends in Exile,” and insisted that I read it. It’s hard not to read “Fables” once it’s in front of you — the series is about characters from fairy tales of yore secretly living among us, and the volume that introduces them is a murder mystery where the Big Bad Wolf has reformed, taken human shape, and is a detective investigating the violent death of Snow White’s sister Rose Red.
That’s a pretty good hook.
Then you meet the rest of the fairy tale characters, and see how they live once happily ever after is over and done with, and it’s fascinating. Prince Charming is an unrepentant womanizer, Cinderella pretends to be an airheaded narcissist but is secretly a deadly superspy, and Goldilocks is straight-up homicidal — the list goes on.
There’s also Boy Blue, Flycatcher the Prince who was once a frog, and a little girl named Therese but you need to read their stories yourself. Those are the ones that broke my heart, and would probably do the same to yours, too.
The series was not so much a reinvention of these characters as it was a close read of them, positing the petty rivalries and implied dysfunctions that would be brought to the surface if they all knew each other and were exiled from their magical homelands to our mundane world.
That’s what they call us, by the way. “Mundies.” It’s short for “mundane,” which I suppose is accurate.
Created by writer Bill Willingham and artist Lan Medina (who left the series after its first story arc — Mark Buckingham would do the art on the next arc and then go on to become synonymous with the series and Willingham’s storytelling partner), “Fables” kicked off in the summer of 2002, and told the story of Fabletown, the invisible neighbourhood in the center of Manhattan where fairy tale characters lived among us after a villain known as “The Adversary” exiled them from their homelands.
Part of what made “Fables” interesting was that it pulled its characters from far and wide — the old stalwarts from “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” got plenty of play, but the Willingham and co. also looked to nursery rhymes and folk tales from all over the world — everything from “The Thousand and One Nights” to L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books was fair game.
“Fables” would go on to win 14 Eisner awards (that’s the comic book equivalent of the Oscars) over the next 13 years, garnering praise and acclaim for just about every aspect of the craft. A lot of those awards were for cover artist James Jean, whose stunning portraits were the first thing many readers saw for the first 81 issues of the series. They’re simply beautiful pieces of fine art.
This week, it’s all coming to an end.
On Wednesday, July 22, “Fables” will take a bow with its 150th issue, which is a full-sized, 178-page graphic novel (that doubles as the series 22nd volume). Titled “Farewell”, the graphic novel will wrap up the story Willingham and Buckingham have been telling alongside a deep roster of other talented creators like Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy for over a decade.
Few comic book series last very long. In superhero comics, this is a supply-and-demand thing: The two most prominent superhero publishers, Marvel and DC, have roughly 50-something monthly titles each, and at about four dollars an issue, not everything can be a huge success. Books are canceled all the time, usually within a year, in order to make room for something else.
For a series like “Fables” — one controlled wholly by its creators — the book will last as long as the people making it want to keep telling stories. This can mean anything from three issues to 60 (a few months or five years). Rare is the series that makes it to 100 issues, and rarer still are the ones that surpass it by a large margin.
I’ll miss “Fables”, not because I had any particularly strong attachment to the characters it culled from songs older than anyone I’ll ever meet and stories first told by people we no longer remember, but because it understood why those characters mattered.
Because we’ve always been telling stories, and we always will. Because stories are the one real form of magic we have — where we all dream of a Happily Ever After although the only thing we’re really promised is a Once Upon a Time.
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