Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Fables 136, originally released December 31st, 2013.
Patrick: I worked as a Residence Hall Director the year after I graduated from college. For me, the worst part of doing this job in a professional capacity was having to artificially take on a role that did suit me. I always believe that a Res Life staffer is only as good as they are authentic — college students have incredible bullshit detectors. A few weeks a month, I’d be in possession of the Duty Phone, which meant that I was going to have to act as back-up to campus security and bust parties at a moments’ notice. I used to hate it, and I’d stress out about my time with that damn phone all month. But as soon as the phone was in my hands, I took the duty seriously. It was the role I had to play at that time. As Rose Red’s new Camelot starts to take shape, the subject of roles comes up and makes everyone suitably uncomfortable.
Rose Red’s having kind of a tough time selecting Knights for her Round Table — it turns out all those goblin-y and ogre-y guys she took interest in last issue aren’t all that well skilled or disciplined. The Lady in the Lake recognizes one of the new residents of Camelot: an old washed up Lancelot is among the throngs. Lancelot had a pretty large role in Camelot failing last time, but this go-round he’s vowed to help keep it alive. This sets Lake on a tear through big players in Camelot, letting them each know the role they will be playing in this iteration of the experiment — Rose Red is King Arthur, Morgan Le Fey will be Merlin, and Snow White will probably be Morgan Le Fey. Slightly confusing, but still nothing to Lake’s own revelation about the role she will be forced to play in this drama. We don’t get details, but it causes her to break down crying and go on a big boozy bender.
Before we get into the more academic subject of how the Fables treat story tropes as models for living, I just wanted to acknowledge how profoundly grounded and funny this series is. Bill Willingham is a whiz at writing from both the perspective of a semi-omniscient character that hands out the decisions of the Fates and also from the perspective of that same character sad-drunk off her ass. I love seeing Lake as this confident adviser, and that moment that she tells Lancelot that she’ll “probably” turn him in is just genius characterization. It shows that she’s somehow above even this drama. I guess it’s a Bigger They Are scenario, because by the end of the issue, she’s fallen pretty hard. And I still love her in this moment — I mean, she’s an adorable drunk.
Willingham’s ability to switch between these high and low status moments is a constant engine of joy throughout the issue. I know that moment when Snow White’s son accidentally says that she’s pooping shouldn’t really be all that funny, but it’s coming on the heels of all this otherworldly destiny stuff. Plus, they do allow the character a moment of dignity as he demonstrates that he knows (or thinks he knows) why everyone got so weird all of a sudden.
This kind of levity makes all the stuff about a Doomed Camelot go down a lot easier.
Which isn’t even to say that the whole business with the Fates is over-obtuse in any way. I’m still very new to the Fables universe, but the series’ penchant for borrowing other mythologies wholesale means that I never feel like I’m more than a step or two behind the die-hard fans. And I absolutely love this whole idea that the citizens of New Camelot will inevitably fill the roles of the old Camelot. There’s nothing about the reality of this world that would dictate this, but then again, Fables isn’t really about reality — it’s about fiction.
Lake makes a big to-do about Red Rose’s lineage — enough to almost suggest that she’s a direct descendent of King Arthur himself — but I’m not really even sure it matters. Similarly, the artistic team gives us an impressive tray of potential scorned lovers when Lake brings up the concept.
It could end up being any of them, and because their world is dictated by this very familiar, very predictable fiction rules, that dude’s going to feel betrayed and help take down Camelot. Drew, I’m kind of torn — is that fatalistically grim or fun and ridiculous? Somehow, I think it’s both at the same time. Oh and I know I said I felt like nothing in the issue was going over my head, but who was the woman on the final page and what was she looking at in the final panel?
Drew: The first half of your question is definitely for the die-hard Fables fans (or at least those who have read more than we have): it’s Leigh Douglas, ex-wife of Jack Sprat (you know, the wife who “could eat no lean”). I’m not sure how deep our Fables knowledge would have to be to recognize her, but I actually do know how deep it would have to be for that object she’s holding: it’s the missing piece of the Bigby statue we saw in the previous issue. She’s apparently the force keeping that piece from returning to the statue (which I’m gathering prevents Bigby’s return). Again we don’t recognize these characters for that to mean all that much, but it’s certainly intriguing (and the crash-course I just took on Leigh’s character certainly makes me want to dig into the back issues).
Patrick, I think you’re on to something with the way this series riffs on fiction — Indeed, this issue has some teeth as far as that goes. Check out Willingham’s explanation for why the Fates want this Chamelot has to mirror the original:
They don’t like to take chances, and are eternally suspicious of innovation. Nor do they have much in the way of imagination. Like children, they mostly want to hear the same comfortable stories over and over again.
It’s a reasonable, character-driven explanation for why this story might resemble others we’ve seen before, but it’s also a damning indictment of comic editors. Or the audience, I’m somewhat torn on this one. Maybe it doesn’t matter — the real point is clear: Rose Red is trying to create something wonderfully new that is inspired by (but not necessarily mirroring) old fables, and the world seems to be conspiring against those efforts. It’s hard not to see a bit of Willingham in Rose’s position right now.
I don’t mean to accuse Vertigo editorial of anything — like I said, this could just as easily be a comment on fans — but Willingham doesn’t seem particularly fond of the meddling. It’s hard not to see this as a hint about Willingham’s decision to wrap up Fables with issue 150 (especially so quickly on the heels of Karen Berger’s departure from Vertigo), but that may be a big pile of coincidences — no matter how hard it is to excuse coincidence in a universe where there are literal Fates pulling everyone’s strings.
Either way, I love that Willingham hangs a lantern on the fact that his story seems poised to repeat the fall of King Arthur. It acknowledges what might have felt lazy to those who know Chamelot well, it points out some intriguing parallels for those who don’t, and sets up expectations that would be very easy to upend. Moreover, I think all this talk of fiction and the rules that dictate it points back to the real world. That is, Willingham’s explanation for why history repeats itself reflects both fiction and reality, and his cannibalizing classic stories reminds us what was so alluring about them in the first place — their fundamental “truth.” By boiling down the mythology of Chamelot to a story of familial betrayal, Willingham makes them eternal, making them simultaneously more fictional and more relatable.
Suffice it to say, I enjoyed the heck out of this issue. Willingham’s writing is razor-sharp, and I’m increasingly enamored of the way Mark Buckingham frames each page with location-specific icons. It’s a non-intrusive way to cue us in to scene changes, and subtly establishes a mood without getting in the way of the action of the story. There’s clearly a rich world in Fables, both as a story, and as a well-crafted commentary on stories in general, and I’m very excited to be part of its conclusion.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?