The term ‘archetype’ is often misunderstood as meaning a certain definite mythological image or motif…On the contrary, [it is] an inherited tendency of the human mind to form representations of mythological motifs — representations that vary a great deal without losing their basic pattern…
Drew: I’ve spent a lot of time on this site maligning the over-reliance on tropes in comics, but I think I have a clear understanding of why they’re used — sure, we may have seen the loose-canon cop or bumbling working class husband a few too many times, but they’re only used because they’re effective springboards for drama (or comedy, as the case may be). However, I haven’t put very much thought into where the tropes actually come from. The Worf Effect gets its name from Star Trek: The Next Genneration, but it was already a well-established trope by that point — at least as old as Greek myths (where Ares often has his ass handed to him). Again, this makes sense given how effective these tropes can be — an interesting premise/situation/character is bound to be repeated as long as it can bear new narrative fruit. But what if the first attempt at a given premise isn’t particularly successful? As a series built on these very archetypes, Fables has always had an unusual relationship with tropes, which gives issue 145 a unique perspective on that very question.
As Snow White heads out to face a now huffing-and-puffing Bigby, she’s intercepted by Rose Red and Totenkinder, who insist on going instead, asserting that “the ritual for killing a wolf god has now been established.” That is, because a sorceress and golden knight went out last time, a similar pair must go it again. One could easily argue that the only thing that has been established is the ritual for a sorceress and golden knight getting thoroughly routed by a wolf god, but it’s probably best to trust Totenkinder on this one. They don’t succeed in killing Bigby, but they do survive their encounter, which Totenkinder deems “progress”. It still feels a bit straw-graspy, but clearly it’s set a trajectory in Snow’s mind, who we see in a flash-forward approaching Cinderella about assassinating Totenkinder.
As much fun as writer Bill Willingham is clearly having in establishing new “rituals”, this issue still finds him finding pre-existing ones to exploit (this series’ bread and butter). Totenkinder’s casual observation of a sword being embedded in a stone is an obvious reference, which works to reemphasize the Camelot parallels he’s been developing over the last dozen or so issues, but I’m actually thinking of a different scene entirely.
The “two powerful people meet for dinner to cryptically negotiate an assassination” doesn’t quite have the same mythological ring as Arthurian legend, but it is decidedly just as trope-y. If, as Totenkinder asserts, there is power in repetition, then this assassination attempt is almost certain to work. Artist Nimit Malavia helpfully affects some dramatic camera angles during that segment to drive the cinematic allusions home, but the real fun of the scene is the dramatic reveal of the target (and Cindy’s hilariously unenthusiastic reaction).
Willingham cleverly bridges the gap between European folklore and modern Gangster movies in a quick jaunt back to New Camelot, where Brandish reveals that he has killed Weyland and demands a trial by combat, knowingly alluding to Game of Thrones‘ favorite way to settle an argument. True, the tv show is about as modern as you can get, but the fantasy world of medieval knights and castles has a LONG history in fables. Moreover, because the fantasy world it occupies kind-of, sort-of resembles an older period of history, it feels much older than it is. The point being: old tropes, new tropes, new tropes that feel old, old tropes that feel new — they’re all tools in Willingham’s tool kit, and he’s clearly going to use them all right up to the end of this series.
Patrick! There were a lot of things to like in this issue, but it was also pretty slim on actual event. This series has always been a bit lumpy in that way, but I’m curious to hear if that bothered you at all here. Going through and looking at panel counts kind of surprised me — the page I included is the only six-panel page in the whole issue, with most of the feature story having four or fewer per page. That alone isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, but I think it did contribute to this issue feeling a bit padded. I’m sure at this point, Willingham has each issue pretty strictly regimented to lead up to the big finale, but I almost wish he had collapsed some of the fight scene down to make room for another back-up — this world is so big, I’d love to take some more time for the goodbyes.
Patrick: Oh, I’ll disagree with your last criticism right out the gate: Willingham has been playing around with ways to say goodbye to this massive cast of characters since Happily Ever After started four issues ago. We don’t get one of those self-contained flash-forwards to the peaceful resolution after all the dust has settled in this issue, but the last couple have let us check in with characters are charmingly ancillary as the Three Blind Mice or Babe the Miniature Blue Ox or Sinbad. At this point, the characters that we really need to have a heartfelt goodbye with are Rose Red and Snow White, and there’s obviously a lot they need to work out on the battlefield before we can get to any closure-ific moments with them. I guess you could also argue that the series needs a goodbye to Bigby, but I’m starting to suspect that Bigby’s most effective-possible farewell was in the first issue you and I read, the achingly beautiful issue 134. What he’s become at this point might not warrant a hero’s goodbye, but rather a villain’s vanquishing, and that’s supported by the language Rose and Snow are using to refer to the once great Wolf.
You guys remember the end of Breaking Bad? Going in to the last chunk of episodes, I remember thinking that the only thing I was certain of was that Walter White would die. The series is a story about his survival, and therefore can only end when he is no longer surviving. Beyond that, though, I had no idea what I wanted from a conclusion to that show: it pulls your heart in enough directions that any illusion of a “happily ever after” disappears before heading into the final act. That’s a lot of what we’re seeing in Fables right now — sisters pitted against each other; an unstoppable assassin pulled in to kill a witch god; and an Arthurian legend that’s solidifying a little more with each passing issue (oh, I get it: Totenkinder is Merlin).
What I find fascinating is how Willingham is able to completely subvert our expectations while embracing all those different kinds of tropes you mentioned Drew. I love the little nods to the modern myths. Last month it was cop shows, and this month has some strong connections Games of Thrones — not only is a Trial by Combat invoked, but Snow’s sword is named “Ice,” the name of Ned Stark’s sword which was melted down and made into Lannister blades. But even the flash-forward bears the marks of modern serialized storytelling. TV shows have backed off this sort of thing in the blowback against LOST, but there was a period where every-other show started with a car chase or shootout the storytelling would catch up to at some point. It’s not a particularly good modern trope, but it is sorta pervasive, coincidentally enough: that’s how the first episode of Breaking Bad starts.
But that scene between Snow and Cindy is all the more effective because it’s there in place of the “Happily Ever After” one-offs we’ve come to expect. Willingham is knowingly putting us at odds with what we expect of the final issues of his series, and then takes it even further, starting the scene on the cover page itself. It’s not just the conventions of storytelling he’s bending to his will, it’s the conventions of the very medium he’s working in. By the time we reach Cinderella’s nonplussed “fuck me,” we start to understand what we’ve just read: it’s the “Last Story of Cinderella.” That’s the same naming convention for all those other one-off stories (i.e., “The Last Story of the Three Blind Mice,” “The Last Story of Sinbad,” etc.). When page four finally reveals that the rest of the issue is filled with characteristically stunning Mark Buckingham art, we’re allowed to relax back into the format.
Buckingham is locked in combat for most of the issue, and while that doesn’t exactly play to his strong suits, I do admire his choice to take the battle out of the streets of Manhattan and into a wispy gray arena where we can really only see the three combatants. It means it’s not the most dynamic brawl I’ve read in comics, but it does force the reader to pay attention the things we’ve already established as important: the sorcerer, the gold knight and the wolf god.
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