Drew: I know this cements me as a twenty-something white-boy nerd, but I love it when stories get meta. Fiction is full of characters and situations we can relate to, but few themes are as unifying as the love of storytelling itself. Fables has long been a celebration of the power of storytelling — the way it inspires us, challenges us, and teaches us — but in the wrong hands, that power can be dangerous. After all, what is a lie if not a story? It would be easy to ignore the dark side of fiction, but Fables 138 boldly turns away from Rose Red’s Camelot to detail the deceit Geppetto has hidden behind as he works in secret to rebuild his empire.
This issue is set some time after Geppetto’s fall from power (longtime Fables fans might be able to place this more precisely — all I know is that Snow and Bigby are together here), as he struggles with the fact that he is magic-blocked from entering the new Sacred Grove (where all of his former soldiers are now trees). Of course, that magic only prevents him from entering the grove, so he sends a tiny wooden soldier in his stead. The marching orders are to ask for the loyalty of Geppetto’s old soldiers, but they’re less than thrilled with the lot in life he carved out for them (HA). More importantly, the magic that turned them into trees is apparently still in effect, and starts to transform the tiny wooden soldier, as well. He rushes back to Geppetto, dejected, but this was apparently Geppetto’s plan all along: he just needed to get his hands on some of that sweet, sweet Sacred Grove magic. By the issue’s close, Geppetto has planted the soldier-tree near Grandfather Oak, as he plots their partnership in raising a new army.
I have to admit, I’m feeling my latecomer status here a bit more than I have in the Camelot arc. This issue relies heavily in our understanding of Geppetto’s history, knowledge of the politics surrounding his attack on Haven, and familiarity with the specific magics associated with the Sacred Grove, all of which I’m very acutely lacking. That’s not to say that this issue wasn’t enjoyable — I could actually see putting this issue in someone’s hand as an introduction to the world of Fables — just that I know there are subtleties here I’m missing. Most importantly, I had no associations with Geppetto before picking up this issue, but wikipedia is telling me that he’s the big bad of this series. Perhaps his deceit, then, comes as no surprise to longtime readers, but it surprised the hell out of me. I had no expectation that the wooden soldier would turn into a tree, let alone that that was exactly what Geppetto wanted to happen. Maybe my surprise means I’m overestimating just how manipulative it was for him to send the loyal-to-a-fault soldier in under false pretenses, but my heart absolutely breaks seeing how ashamed he is at what he thought was his own failure.
Artist Russ Braun puts the expressive in expressive anatomy here, overcoming the soldier’s bizarre physiology to make us feel his sorrow. It’s a testament to the strength of this image that my whole takeaway from this issue boils down to this single panel: Geppetto tricked the soldier into doing his bidding.
Of course, my sympathy for the soldier here lies in no small part in his own investment in reaching the Grove. Braun and writer Bill Willingham put the little guy through a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-inspired hero’s journey.
It’s a little heroic and a little adorable, but it’s definitely endearing. By the time he reaches the Grove, I’m pulling for him, which means I’m just as surprised and horrified as he is when he starts to transform. That also means I’m just as bummed as he is when he returns to Geppetto to report his failure, only FAKE OUT: this was never his hero’s journey in the first place. He was a total pawn (and really, as a tiny wooden soldier, he should have seen that coming) in Geppetto’s play for more power.
Again, my ignorance may keep me from appreciating the larger mythological aspects of this issue, but as a one-off story about a blindly loyal soldier, I thought this was incredibly effective. Maybe Geppetto’s plan is the important thing here, but I just feel bad for the soldier whose fealty was unnecessarily taken advantage of. Did that hit you as hard as it did me, Patrick, or are you more interested in the thought of Geppetto raising an army?
Patrick: I was actually quite surprised by how much of this issue was taken up with the little dude’s journey into the Sacred Grove. It’s such a compelling story, and I found myself fantasizing about a whole series of about the tiny-warrior battling shrews on the forest floor. Whatever we’re supposed to know about Geppetto (my Fables Encyclopedia confirms your wiki-summary), it’s almost impossible not to be taken in by his adventures. I mean, he fights a frog and calls it a dragon — how awesome is that! Braun so smartly draws all the animals as realistically as possible; any ounce of cartooniness would detract from plausibility of the threat they present. There’s no hint of anthropomorphism here — just look at the insipid look on his stupid frog-face.
It’s not a frog-monster that he vanquishes, but an honest-to-god frog. Naturally, my imagination jumps to all the other animals he’d have to fight, and Braun (and Drew) are happy to oblige us with examples. (Though, while most of those animals are appropriate in size, what’s the deal with that badger? Shouldn’t he be like five times that size?)
Actually, it’s interesting how much of a short term memory Willingham seems to be counting on in this issue. Geppetto comes off as downright victimized in this issue, and even his manipulative trick proves the valor of the tiny knight. You can make all kinds of easy comparisons between Geppetto and God — puppet makers and masters both. Even the way the Wooden Knight meekly asks of his creator “I didn’t fail?” screams of the unsure relationship between man and God. He may be a rat-bastard elsewhere in the series, but it takes the grisly recollection of an orc guard to properly dehumanize him.
I’m also pretty new to the Fables universe, so I appreciate the quick perspective on the old man. The most intriguing part about this little aside about Geppetto’s past misdeeds is that it serves as a tangible reminder of the story he was a part of before. While we’re taking a break from the New Camelot story this month, the themes of recursion in fiction are hard to ignore when we’re reading about Geppetto reclaiming his access to the wood of the Sacred Grove. If Willingham really is shuffling his pieces toward an ending at issue 150, it stands to reason that he would have to recognize his own stories as archetypal tales worthy of repeating.
Which is why this issue, rather than frustrating the relative-n00b with it’s inside-pool, should actually inspire people like me and Drew to pick up back-issues. It’s not enough that the issue serve as an impossibly good character-piece for both Geppetto and the Wood Knight (though it certainly is that), there’s the promise that what once was important will be important again. Amazingly, that promises intrigue and quality in two directions, forward in time and backward in time, with this beautiful issue as a pivot-point out of time.
Even the “next issue” teaser on the last page suggests that we’re in for a damn treat, if not exactly what we might be expecting. There’s nary a mention of Red’s Camelot, but it does read “Leialoha Illustrates: The Boys In The Band.” I don’t understand the significance of the title, but Steve Leialoha was the original main artist on this series. He drew like 60 issues, but hasn’t illustrated an issue since #96. If that’s not a guarantee that history is back in real way, I don’t know what is.
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?