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Graphic Novels Reviews

Fables: The Good Prince

(Five stars)
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha
Publisher: DC/Vertigo

Satyajit Chetri Sep 09, 2008

If you thought the Shrek franchise was the only one that gave a new spin to fairy-tales, you probably need to read Fables, the brainchild of creator Bill Willingham and a motley crew of alternating artistic teams, which I will unhesitatingly call the best continuing series in comics today. Published monthly since 2002, Fables tackles the modern-day adventures of familiar folk, fairy and nursery rhyme characters ”“ Snow White and her sister Rose Red, The Big Bad Wolf, Red Riding Hood, Boy Blue, Bluebeard, Prince Charming, Cinderella and others too numerous to mention – and consequently turns the familiar motif of “happily ever after” on its head.

The Fables, as they call themselves, stay in houses and establishments in Bulfinch Street, Manhattan. The mundies (short for “mundane people”) would never know that the Fables have their own secret community, one which has settled down in our world after the magical forces of a mysterious opponent called The Adversary have overrun their own world, the Homelands. And because of the various enchantments around Fable-town, the world outside didn’t even realise that the Adversary had brought his war uncomfortably close, and things looked to be going very badly for the Fables. It was a time of war, and forging alliances and creating spy networks, and too many Fables were involved in activities that might impact the community in the days to come.

The world-building in Fables is intricate, multilayered and among the most fulfilling I’ve read in serialised fiction in a long, long while. Willingham has obviously put a lot of thought into the direction his story will take, and is taking his own time to tell it. Heck, it took him forty issues just to divulge the identity of the Adversary. Every beat in the story feels like one more domino in a grand, gigantic pattern that is being built every month. And with every passing storyline, the grand design seems to be getting bigger ”“ the Arabian fables were brought in at a point, thereby integrating characters like Aladdin and Sindbad into the mix, and in certain standalone stories, some characters are dealt with in detail, like the story of what really happened to Hansel and Gretel after their tryst with the witch in the jungle.

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The Good Prince, while not a very good place to begin reading Fables, is a storyline that has been hinted at for quite some time. It is an arc that takes the most sympathetic side-character in the series so far and puts him square in the centre of events. The character is Flycatcher, once a prince and now the resident janitor for the mayoral office. Not just any prince, he was the one who, due to an unfortunate curse, was transformed to a frog until a princess kissed him and turned him back to his original self. In a previous heart-wrenching story (”˜A Frog’s Tale,’ from the award-winning title Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall), we find out how the prince lost his kingdom, his wife and children at the hands of the Adversary and metamorphosed into the vaguely-lost janitor. Flycatcher has now regained the memories of his loss, and he sets on a quest to redeem himself. The problem is his innocence ”“ in the words of Boy Blue, another Fable who’s his best friend, Flycatcher was the only one among the community who did not have anything to bury, absolve or be forgiven when he came to Fabletown. And picturing someone like him take to arms is not easy. But help comes from unexpected quarters; the janitor is transformed into a knight, and sets on the journey to become a king.

The story develops over nine chapters, and the tribulations Fly undergoes in these chapters are truly epic. One notes the spirit of Joseph Campbell hovering over the story, as the gentle character morphs into a self-assured general and king who anticipates his opponents’ moves, a saint-warrior who resurrects armies, builds a kingdom and sets in motion the chain of events that forces the Adversary’s Empire to act against its enemies. And that’s all I am saying without including any spoilers in the review.

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Willingham while narrating this story weaves one more legend into the Fables tapestry, puts his readers on tenterhooks about the true nature of Fly’s newfound powers, and includes a sufficient quantity of villainous characters and plot twists to add an intriguing aspect to the storyline. One cannot talk of Willingham’s writing without praising the talents of Mark Buckingham on pencils and Steve Leialoha on inks. The razor-sharp plot is finely honed by Buckingham’s style and layouts, unique to Fables ”“ every page in framed in an intricate border that evokes old fairy-tale illustration plates. In the span of 60 issues, it has become clear that Mark Buckingham, (with apologies to Lan Medina, the artist who drew the first Fables story arc) is the definitive Fables embellisher. One must also mention the cover-work of multiple-Eisner Award winning artist James Jean, whose muted designs add to the beauty of the Fables package (and in a note of homage to Jean, Buckingham has adapted every cover into some aspect of the panels).

Most readers nowadays are confused about ongoing comics ”“ continuity references, spinoff titles, multiple guest appearances add to the convoluted mix of the mainstream periodical market, making it very hard to keep track of characters and storylines at any given point of time. A series like Fables, on the other hand, is a title that invites you aboard with its steady pace, one that just gets better with every subsequent issue. Pick up the first couple of trade paperbacks, settle yourself in. It’s going to be a long, wild ride and you don’t want to miss a moment of it.

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