Legends in Exile
(Vertigo (DC Comics))
US: Jan 2003
A Fabled Revival
The recycling of stories is a messy business. Too often the storyteller fails to make the familiar unique, and the audience grows impatient after suspecting it knows what happens next. Comics as a medium has done its fair share of story-biting, whether it’s as blatant as the use of the Norse god Thor or the ongoing morality plays that seem forever tied to the X-Men. It would seem, therefore, that writer Bill Willingham was not only entering depleted territory when he launched Fables for the DC imprint Vertigo, but that comic readers would already know what to expect. Willingham, thankfully, has proven both assumptions incorrect.
Fables’ premise is relatively simple. Driven from their homelands by a mysterious force known as “The Adversary”, the characters of childhood fables have disguised themselves and now live among us (the “mundanes”). Present are King Cole, who is the ostensible head of state, Snow White who is truly the prime mover, and the Big Bad Wolf, who is sheriff of Fabletown.
Setting up the premise quickly, Willingham tears through the first five issues of the series with a true crime story worthy of late-night television drama. The Big Bad Wolf is trying to find out who murdered Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, with Bluebeard and Prince Charming as prime suspects. It’s true crime only if you can believe one of the three little pigs still rides the wolf’s back for what happened to his homestead.
What may seem like a novelty actually proves to be quite riveting, thanks to Willingham’s morphing of fabled characters into more modern archetypes. The wolf becomes the grizzled lawman, Snow White the proud politician, and Prince Charming the snarky seducer. Through these metamorphoses, Willingham spins a modern fable using familiar characters in an unfamiliar setting.
The one drawback would be Lan Medina’s art, which at times feels like it’s stretching to capture the fantasy that exists around characters who do not co-exist well with the mundane human society. Medina does a solid job of capturing the grittiness of some of the more gruesome scenes, but the art feels flat for most of the story.
It’s interesting that Willingham handles the subject matter so well—easily weaving elements of the Fables’ checkered past with the fast pace of the murder mystery—and yet came to Fables relatively unheralded. He had written a few short series for a variety of small publishers and spent a relatively long span as writer of Comico’s The Elementals, but was by no means a big industry name.
He certainly seems in his element here. Willingham announced at the launch of the series that he would not rely on the common interpretation of these characters, but go to the source material, before they were Disney-ized. He is essentially doing what Alan Moore has done so well in the past: reinterpreting timeless stories and mining them for new and interesting insight. There is nothing childish about these exiled, and adult, fables.