Drew: Long before I ever read a page of Fables, I remember thinking that populating a story with only folktale characters would be incredibly limiting. I had dismissed it as a total gimmick, doomed to occupy a very closed-off little world. Turns out, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Indeed, the massive world-building that Bill Willingham seems to toss off in every single issue has quickly become my favorite aspect of the series. Every detail can support its own myth, creating a nested, telescoping world that seems virtually infinite. Those myths-within-myths can lend even the more mundane “putting the pieces in place” issues a great deal of action — though with Willingham crafting the dialogue, even the talking heads sequences in this issue are thrilling.
The issue kicks off with a bit of a history lesson: back during Geppetto’s reign, monsters were captured and interred in boxes hidden around the world, left to slowly die. But, being fables, that takes an insanely long time, and many are still alive today. All around the world, all of the monsters were suddenly let out of their boxes, only to be pulled directly into Rose Red, fortifying her magical abilities. It’s a four-page explanation of Rose Red’s growing power, but it’s exactly the kind of detail that makes this series so fantastic. Mark Buckingham discovers a clever new use for his location borders, using them sequentially to show us what happens within the boxes while the narrative carries on.
I’ve always loved the way Buckingham uses those borders to set both the location and the mood for each scene (he uses a picture of Snow White and Bigby together to set the scenes at their home), but this takes it a step further, giving the border a narrative as well. It’s remarkably clever, but it’s also fucking gorgeous. I’m particularly impressed with Lee Loughridge’s color work here.
Anyway, Rose’s growing power is garnering the attention of the 13th Floor Group, who helpfully gives us a bit of an overhead view of some recent Fabletown events, including the possible resurrection of Bigby. Medea leaves that particular detail out when she visits Snow White, instead putting a but in Snow’s ear about the coming war between her and Rose. Snow is utterly unaware of any brewing conflict, but Medea has already thrown her support behind Snow.
That scene is particularly impressive to me for its clarity. For all of the magical characters and events, this series is still one of the best at totally straight-faced conversations. Willingham lays all of the narrative cards on the table, rapidly accelerating the sense of looming dread that started when we first learned that Rose was repeating the story of King Arthur. The result is a very effective beginning of the end feeling, pumping us up for a world-changing battle without showing us a single soldier.
Oh, and this issue also confirms that Bigby (in some form or another) is, in fact, back. That’s another world-changing moment that Willingham allows to happen completely off-screen. I was expecting a buildup to a resurrection scene, so that reveal that it’s already happened was incredibly effective. When did that happen? How? Why is he eating innocent people? It’s another unexpected move that accelerates us into this final arc.
It’s remarkable how easy it is for a series based on the most well-known stories to totally subvert our expectations. Surprise off-camera resurrections and frank conversations about politics are decidedly not fairy tale tropes, but they lend the series a complexity — and level of excitement — that exceeds its origins. Far from limited by the fables he uses for inspiration, Willingham is able to turn them into something exciting and new simply by tweaking the narrative toolbox. The result is something both comfortingly familiar and alluringly alien, all at the same time.
In short, I absolutely loved this issue, even if it left me gasping for more. Patrick! I totally failed to mention anything about Grimble’s weird teaser with Cinderella, or that odd one page flash-forward backup. Willingham is as enthusiastic about skinning his cat all ways simultaneously, so while it’s not entirely clear to me how all of these approaches fit into his endgame, I’m super pumped to find out. It’s going to be awesome!
Patrick: It’s going to amazing, for sure. I am always worried when I’m reading this series that there are finer details that I’m missing due to my relative-n00b status in the Fables universe. There certainly are beats from the mythology that fly past me, but Willingham is careful only to bring up moments that are relevant to the story that’s unfolding on these pages. That excellent conversation between Medea and Snow is the perfect example — in it, Maddy casually lists Snow’s impressive leadership credentials, making mention of all the great initiatives she’s spearheaded over the last… 140 issues.
I don’t have all of those heroics in my bag of references, but these single-panel excerpts are the perfect way to illustrate how Snow White proved her mettle in each one. Even a concept like Remembrance Day gets a backdoor explanation as the 13th Floor Group decides whether or not its still worth celebrating. Willingham is an absolute genius when it goes to dramatizing exposition.
I’m intrigued by the way the omniscient narrator boxes are addressing the reader directly, and acknowledging that what we are reading are stories. The first time it happens, the narrator is explaining how a few of the monster-boxes were opened when Ghepetto’s empire fell. Willingham seems to be addressing us directly when he says “Then the empire fell. You know why. You’ve already heard that story.” Interestingly, I haven’t, but my familiarity with the story is assumed regardless. And then there’s that business between Grimble and Cindy that Drew mentioned, which begins with the phrase “anyone remember Grimble?” Grimble’s an OG Fable, dating back to the second page of the whole series, so the question of who remembers him is totally valid. Cindy certainly doesn’t remember him — or at least, doesn’t recognize him as this bird — and even goes so far as to identify him as a mystery she’s eager to solve. Without a wink and a nudge from Willingham, we’d be in the same boat as our high-heeled princess, but the text makes a special point of letting us know what’s going on… to a point. What Grimble wants, and how that all plays into the end of the series, remains quite the mystery indeed.
One last thing I wanted to point out. I also love Buckingham’s page borders, and the set that accompanies both the scene at Snow’s house and the NYPD scene are an absolutely stunning reminder of Snow and Bigby’s love for each other. It’s a tender embrace that casts Bigby as a cuddle-happy dog, and not as a monster. That pretty cleanly inverted in the final page, which does away with that blissful border and just let’s the horrible griminess of the moment take up the entire page.
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?