Dear Reader #7: On Fables and Endings

Dear Reader,

Fables has been officially over for a good half a year now. In its time it spawned spin-offs, one-offs, a Sierra-style point-and-click adventure game, and according to some (me) a pretty prominent rip-off .

It also jumped the shark better and harder than any other comic I can think of.

Fables pic 1I probably ought to have started by telling you what Fables is, or was, before you care how it ended or went astray. But it’s too late for that. It’s not as if I can go back and edit any of this. If only the backspace key existed. Oh well.

Fables was a comic by Bill Willingham, published by Vertigo, which is to DC as Pixar is to Disney. They published Sandman and Hellblazer, which are in-continuity with DC, while Fables isn’t. Think of Vertigo as DC’s online persona, where sometimes it acknowledges what’s happening in real life, and sometimes it won’t answer to its real name and just wants to roleplay fanfic about James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Fables had a fascinating premise: familiar characters from fairy tales are secretly living in a hidden refugee community in present day New York. Old King Cole is the Mayor, Snow White is the Deputy Mayor who actually does all the work, and law enforcement is the Big Bad Wolf, one Bigby Wolf (do you realize the subtle pun of Big B Wolf?).

The first several volumes are great—alliances of convenience that end in backstabbing, cloak-and-dagger talk about “technically not lying” and who needs to know certain secrets, and this vague ominous unnamed ‘Adversary’ that they fled their homelands to escape. It’s like what would happen if Casablanca got possessed by Neil Gaiman. There’s a lot of Noir Thriller in the early volumes of Fables, on top of which is the best part: recognizing the reinterpreted characters. Because it doesn’t come out and tell you that the janitor is the Frog Prince, or that the foul-mouthed child is Pinocchio, or that the handsome douchebag is Bluebeard. It lets you figure it out via context.

But two things went wrong.

First, they won the mostly-cold war with ‘the Adversary.’ At first, this seemed like a great move, and it yielded a fantastic story that was genuinely well-handled, don’t get me wrong. The volumes around the resolution of the war with the Adversary’s Empire are some of the best the title had to offer.

But it very rapidly became clear that without that war, nobody knew what to do with the basic concept of the book. They tried this nightmare guy, they tried a crossover with the massively disappointing spin-off, they tried shifting focus to some kind of knightly destiny story, and none of it, in my opinion, worked even close to half as well as the war, which might have been partly due to the second problem:

Fables Pic 2

All the moral greys got leeched out of the characters. You see, in the first volumes, nobody really trusts each other. Snow White doesn’t trust Bigby, Bigby doesn’t trust Bluebeard, Bluebeard doesn’t trust anybody, and nobody trusts Prince Charming—but circumstances have forced them onto the same side, and as a result the plot and dialogue downright sparkle. But in the process of winning the war, all the rough edges got rounded off, everyone got a chance to prove that they really were heroes, people started pairing off and getting married, and they lived happily ever after. There’s a reason that fairy tales are supposed to END at ‘happily ever after’

Because after the war (SPOILERS), Snow and Bigby are married, Prince Charming gets a hero’s funeral, Flycatcher gets an Idyllic Kingdom, Beauty and the Beast never have marital disputes again, and everyone is best friends with everyone. And yeah, that’s perfectly realistic—winning a war together brings people together. And yeah, that’s what you would want for them. They deserve some happiness after all they’ve been through…

…But it makes for a boring story.

Then they started having to bring in completely original characters, just to get a little narrative momentum. That’s where I hit my limit, my friends.

Fables Pic 3

I’m not saying that keeping the status quo is always a good thing. There are stories where the failure to move past a given status quo is the biggest flaw they have. And changes to status quo can be done well. But Fables needed that status quo, or least this particular piece of it. It comes down to knowing what bits of the story are essential and what parts are details that can be changed as need be. Given the floundering that Fables did after they tried to change the ‘refugee community’ bit, I would say that one turned out to be essential.

Fables is still worth checking out. The first four volumes are excellent. If you have a taste for hopelessly bleak deconstructions of the ‘child goes to a magic kingdom’ genre, then try ‘Cubs in Toyland’. If you like werewolves and don’t mind some nudity (okay, a lot of nudity), try ‘Wolves of the Heartland’. And the adventure game from Telltale called ‘The Wolf Among Us’ is very good—this is arguably because it’s set before the comics, and thus before the resolution of the war.

It’s just a shame to see a favorite title run on so long past its expiration date.

You’ve Changed, Man! You Used to be About the Fables,

-The Guy That Wrote This.

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