Comic books are ultimately a fusion of literary and visual mediums; what makes them wonderful is the way they can combine the playfulness and elasticity of language with the stark simplicity of imagery to create something that's more than the sum of those parts.
1001 Nights of Snowfall occupies an odd place in the canon of the Fables series, Bill Willingham's ongoing Vertigo title about fairy tale creatures that have formed an insular community in New York City after being driven out of their homelands. This original graphic novel forms a collection of short (in many cases, too short) stories about its inhabitants, all of which take place centuries before the events of the main series. As such, it's being promoted as a work that can be enjoyed equally by any audience. Long-time readers of Fables will be treated to the back stories of their favorite characters and answers to a number of unexplained questions; neophytes can use 1001 Nights of Snowfall as a jumping off point for the series, since no previous knowledge of Fables is necessary to read the book.
As it turns out, this is only half true: you don't have to be a devoted fan of Fables in order to understand 1001 Nights of Snowfall, but you do to appreciate it. Many of these tales seem curiously half-finished, and they're mostly interesting in terms of what they reveal about previously established characters. But as self-contained stories, many of them fall flat.
I think some simple math can help explain what's wrong: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is 140 pages, not terribly long by graphic novel standards. But once you subtract the introduction, the chapter title pages, and a mostly unnecessary framing prose tale, you're left with only 105 pages of actual comics, divided by nine different stories in all. That's hardly any time to develop a narrative, and too often Willingham falls back on relying on text captions to quickly convey information that feels like it should have been doled out more casually over the course of a longer story.
Comic books are ultimately a fusion of literary and visual mediums; what makes them wonderful is the way they can combine the playfulness and elasticity of language with the stark simplicity of imagery to create something that's more than the sum of those parts. As such, every comic book author has to strike the right balance between these two elements, and in trying to do too much in too little space, Willingham errs on the side of telling us information rather than showing it to us. The most egregious example is "A Frog's Eye View," in which the tragic life story of Flycatcher the Frog Prince is related to us in just seven pages, each panel loaded down with narration that tells us exactly what we should be feeling at every moment.
The other nagging problem here -– and what limits the book's appeal mostly to Fables aficionados -– is that almost none of the nine stories have a satisfying ending. Instead, they tend to conclude with oblique references to later events in the history of the series, as if winking to the audience at their ability to connect the dots and see how the past influences the present. "Diaspora", one of the stronger stories in the collection, follows Snow White and Rose Red as they flee the armies destroying their world and encounter an old witch during their flight; Rose Red eventually decides to bring her along over Snow White's objections, but the last page awkwardly announces that the three would become separated soon thereafter, and the final panel shows both girls about to be devoured by a giant wolf with the promise "that's a tale for another night". If you've read the first Fables storyline "Legends in Exile" this will make sense, but it's frustrating to new readers.
It's important to note that 1001 Nights of Snowfall feels very different tonally from the main series. Fables derives much of its wit and drama from the juxtaposition of contemporary life with characters who embody ancient archetypes; when the shallow yet hypnotically charismatic Prince Charming runs for Mayor, his political career acts as a sly commentary on the way many of us vote for the candidate who projects the correct image, regardless of whether or not he's qualified. By setting its timeframe before the Fables immigrated to America, the stories are more like darker versions of traditional fairy tales (or perhaps throwbacks traditional fairy tales, pre-Disneyfication), with added helpings of violence and debauchery.
If Willingham's writing is uneven, the artwork itself is staggeringly beautiful, and the diversity of artists makes each of the stories feel like they're from a different world. John Bolton's work on "The Fencing Lessons" borders on photorealism, even though it carefully switches between a lush, softer focus for its human characters, and a harsher, avant-garde approach for the ugly subterranean creatures. By contrast, Tara McPherson's illustrations for "Diaspora" are stylized to the point of looking like caricatures, contrasting the innocence of its characters with the madness of the world around them and what they're willing to do to survive in it.
Lacking a coherent narrative, most of what remained in my mind after reading the book was the power of its individual moments, its ability to condense all the immortal resonance of fairy tales into a few choice images. It's the muted color palette of "A Frog's Eye-View," as an infinite variety of dull grays depicts the life of a man wandering aimlessly while searching for his family; his heart knows, but his mind can't process, the knowledge that they've all been violently murdered. Or the dark, vivid colors of "The Witch's Tale" that look like a revenge thriller drawn by Bosch, in which a scorned woman's pained expression during childbirth shows both her contempt for the man who betrayed her and the awful realization that passion and true love are rarely the same thing, even though we can be fooled into thinking it for a time. Or Snow White's expressive eyes in "The Fencing Lessons" that reveal a cunning her Prince Charming can't begin to recognize, much less appreciate -– he's too concerned with protecting his wife to love her as an equal. Even though it's ultimately a mixed bag, 1001 Nights of Snowfall does manage to occasionally rise to the lofty heights that storytelling was designed for: the heartache of betrayal, the absurdity of love, the punch-drunk joy of not simply defeating our enemies but tricking them into defeating themselves. Too bad those moments are stranded like children in a haunted woods, uncertain of how they got there or where to go next.