Its respect for its characters and the intellectual nuance that Willingham provides makes it a must-read for anyone out there hungry for a story of real substance that's somehow still got all the primal resonance of a good fairy tale.
Strip away the particular details, and Fables represents one of the smartest, most thought-provoking political dramas out right now in any medium. Its characters hunt for moles in their midst, carry out missions of retaliatory vengeance, and desperately try to keep a number of diverse groups from each others' throats, instead directing them to unite against a common enemy. At one point, a character who has gone behind enemy lines on a seemingly illegal mission is told by the political leader who sent him there that he's been unable to keep his doings a secret and he might have spend time in jail to appease the public, despite serving his "country".
It's time for me to fill in the blanks: the soldier in question is actually Little Boy Blue, the political leader is Mayor Prince Charming, and the country is Fabletown, a tiny community in New York City hidden away from human eyes and made up of refugees from a world where fairy tale creatures really do exist. Several hundred years ago, a mysterious despot called "The Adversary" began conquering these Homelands and forced the Fables out. They've settled in a small corner of our own world, and part of starting over means embracing that American ideal of equality for all: nobody in Fabletown is royalty anymore, regardless of their stature in the Homelands, and all their former crimes have been expunged from the record as well. Thus, the mean old witch from Hansel and Gretel is allowed to lived in the same apartment complex as everyone else, and with no real job skills to speak of, Prince Charming starts off as a wastrel who's forever mooching off of his girlfriend du jour.
With such a vast cast of characters to keep track of, Fables writer and creator Bill Willingham can be forgiven for taking his time in figuring out how best to get his story up to speed. The series (currently up to seven books in regular continuity, with a special hardcover one-shot out in October that fills in the characters' backstories from their time in the Homelands) has improved consistently with each story arc, becoming less reliant on structuring its stories around genre conventions. The first three books all use a well-known plot-type to move things along, with the first a detective story, the second a conspiracy thriller, and the third a Mission: Impossible-style covert operation.
This very first book, Legends in Exile, has Fabletown sheriff Bigby investigating the sudden disappearance of Snow White's estranged sister Rose Red, and if the resolution proves disappointing, the detective work itself serves its purpose marvelously: it forces to Bigby visit each of the main characters and probe their past histories and skeletons in the closet, filling in everything the audience needs to know about over a dozen characters, as well as hinting at future mysteries that would be solved in time (among them the true identity of the Adversary –- and nope, I'm not telling). It's also a great introduction to Bigby -– aka the Big Bad Wolf -– who's practically Fabletown's poster boy for how life in the real world can reform even the most disreputable creatures.
I liked those first three books in the Fables storyline well enough, but I found them only pleasant diversions and didn’t understand why comics community was raving that this was the best title out on the market right now. But these early books, setting up the status quo among Fabletown's citizens so that it can be disturbed later, are crucial to what Willingham is trying to accomplish. He's driving home the point that nobody, not even someone as potentially shallow as a fairy tale villain or prince, is ever entirely what he appears to be, and he's using all these characters to create a masterful political saga that often comments on current events without feeling chained to them the way a more conventional allegory might.
Take for example book seven, entitled Arabian Days and Nights, which focuses on a culture clash that threatens to spiral into open warfare when the (Western) Fables meet their Arabian counterparts. It turns out that the Adversary has started making war against the occupants of the Arabian Fable homelands, and they're eager to forge an alliance now before it's too late. Unfortunately, new mayor of Fabletown Prince Charming is terrible at diplomacy, and isn't afraid to offend his guests by demanding that they immediately free their caravan of slaves if they wish to join up. The Arabian Fables, in turn, have brought along a genie's lamp, a "weapon of magical destruction" that could potentially annihilate Fabletown in the blink of eye, just in case they need a bargaining chip. What could have been a one-dimensional appeal for tolerance instead becomes a complex look at where respect for cultural differences ends and accepting injustice through political correctness begins. Is forcing progressive changes on another culture worth the bloodshed, especially when there are greater threats to face? Then again, is it any better to abandon the principles we claim to fight for in order to ally ourselves with powerful friends? Meanwhile the threat of sudden violence hovers over every action; while more rational minds try to work out a truce, there exists the possibility that extremists might take matters into their own hands.
Equally fascinating is issue 40, where Little Boy Blue learns first hand about the Adversary's rise to power. Without giving too much away, it turns out that he wasn't a born megalomaniac who desired power, but found himself in the odd position of being asked to replace a king crippled by madness. Soon more countries require his services, until before long most of the surrounding lands are under his control. It's a clever metaphor for the way fascist governments have often taken power throughout history: not by seizing it in a bloody coup, but by making its citizens comfortable with the idea of handing over more and more of their independence for the sake of survival, and then eventually, for the sake of convenience.
The political overtones are worthy of discussion, but it's important that on the surface Fables is as fun as any other comic book on the market right now. The wide canvas Willingham has at his disposal allows him to jump between wildly different stories from issue to issue, ensuring that every character has his or her turn in the spotlight. Within the span of just a few months, we get to see the political drama unfolding in Fabletown, a mission of revenge between carried out in the Homelands, and a sidestory involving the tragic romance between a pair of wooden soldiers who desire to be made flesh and blood. Although the early issues make it seem like Deputy Mayor Snow White and Sheriff Bigby Wolf are the series' main characters, in many of the more recent books, they're reduced to supporting players; in fact, neither White nor Bigby manages to hold onto their respective jobs for very long. And Fables delights in shattering our expectations. Prince Charming forces himself to run for the office of mayor in order to regain a modicum of the respect he enjoyed in the old days, but he's quickly buried alive in the responsibilities of the job. Little Boy Blue begins as a mere aide to Snow White but becomes one of Fabletown's most experienced spies in the cold war with the Adversary. Even characters that seem to be around for comic relief, such as the gangly janitor Flycatcher, have unexpected secrets: "Fly" was once the frog who was turned into a prince by a princess's kiss, and he's obsessed with finding out if the family that he lost during the exodus from the Homelands is still alive.
Fables has come a long way from its humble beginnings as an enjoyable comic built on a clever high-concept premise. Its respect for its characters and the intellectual nuance that Willingham provides makes it a must-read –- not just for comic book fans, but for anyone out there hungry for a story of real substance that's somehow still got all the primal resonance of a good fairy tale.