(**NOTE: This is a review of the previous edition of this volume. There is now a new edition available with a new cover, extra material, and a $12.99 cover price.**)
Prince Charming saved Snow White with a kiss. The Big, Bad Wolf terrorized the Three Little Pigs. Pinocchio was granted his wish to become a real boy. Beauty saw through the Beast’s monstrous exterior to find the noble heart within. These characters and their stories are familiar to all of us. We’ve heard them hundreds of times in dozens of different forms. But what if our favorite fairy tale characters were living among us? What if there was far more to the stories than what we’ve been told? This is the premise of Fables, the long-running comic book series published by Vertigo/DC Comics.
“Once upon a time, in a fictional land called New York City.” With this clever opening line, writer Bill Willingham begins to set the scene for his tale. The first volume in the ongoing Fables saga, titled “Legends In Exile,” introduces the reader to the book’s cast and shows just how different these characters are from the versions we remember.
Hundreds of years ago, sometime after the events of the tales we know, an unknown adversary rampaged through the kingdoms of the Fable homelands. One by one, the Fables, a nickname adopted by the main characters, were driven from their homes and forced to flee to the Mundane world, our world. To ensure their continued survival, the remaining Fables banded together to form a community. Land was purchased in what would eventually become New York City, and Fabletown was born.
In this new environment, these familiar characters are thrust into unfamiliar roles. Old King Cole presides over Fabletown as its Mayor, but everyone knows that Snow White, Cole’s deputy, is really running the show. Snow is a no-nonsense leader, dealing with each day’s trials with efficiency and professionalism. Boy Blue is her right-hand man. The Big, Bad Wolf, now called “Bigby,” has reformed, and, after being pardoned for his past crimes, serves Fabletown’s sheriff. Fables that can’t pass for human and can’t afford magical disguises (talking animals, giants, trolls, and the like) are forced to live on The Farm, an vast stretch of land in upstate New York. This restriction doesn’t stop one of the Three Little Pigs from sneaking to the city to crash on Bigby’s couch, however.
As Willingham sets the scene and introduces the cast, the plot of “Legends In Exile” takes shape. Rose Red, Snow White’s lesser-known sister, is missing. Her apartment appears as though a massacre has taken place within. The ominous words “No More Happily Ever After” are found scrawled in blood upon the living room walls. Jack Horner, Rose’s deadbeat boyfriend is the prime suspect, but Bigby’s instincts lead him to believe that all is not as it seems.
In the pages of “Legends In Exile,” Willingham delivers an interesting murder mystery in the midst of what is an already fascinating tale. The story of the Fables’ journey to the world of the “Mundys,” the examination of these time-worn characters in this unique situation, this would have made the book compelling enough to recommend. Instead, Willingham builds his take on the cast within the frame of an irresistible “whodunit.”
As the mystery progresses, Willingham offers hints that these characters’ stories may not be as familiar as we think. Prince Charming, the handsome nobleman that rescued Snow White, is revealed to be the same Prince that played a part in the lives of other famous damsels in distress; Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. In the world of Fables, the consummate hero is recast as a sleazy womanizer with a string of disgruntled exes. Snow White’s famous adventure with the Seven Dwarves is best forgotten. “NEVER mention the dwarves,” warns Boy Blue as Beauty and Beast are quickly ejected from Snow’s office .
Though the principal cast of the mystery plot is relatively small, Fables is filled with dozens of background characters both familiar and less so. The Frog Prince, lovingly called “Flycatcher,” serves as a janitor. Cinderella takes fencing lessons from Bluebeard. The witch that tempted Hansel and Gretel appears as an elderly woman that passes the time by knitting in her rocking chair.
Willingham’s scripts are beautifully rendered by the art of Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, and Craig Hamilton. Each character’s design is unique, yet instantly recognizable. Snow White’s jet-black hair and good looks remind us of the images burned into our memories by Walt Disney. Bigby Wolf, though he appears human, retains his hairy, animalistic nature. Prince Charming is almost impossibly handsome. And Old King Cole indeed looks like a “merry old soul.”
This volume of Fables, the first of many, is affordably priced at $9.99, a less expensive price point than other graphic novels of comparable length. It reprints the first five issues of the monthly series in a convenient format. In addition to the main story, this volume features an eight page prose story written, and illustrated by Willingham himself, called “A Wolf In the Fold.” This short story presents the tale of Bigby’s first meeting with Snow White, and his decision to leave behind his predatory ways. At 128 pages of story and art for less than ten dollars, “Legends In Exile” provides an excellent value.
No, Fables isn’t for everyone. Though it may appear so at first glance, with its colorful cast of fairy tale characters, this book is most definitely not for children. It features mature themes (Pinocchio’s decidedly adult concerns about being stuck as a child, for example), harsh language, and some violence, which make it the equivalent of an R-rated movie. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to any grownup interested in a new spin on the tales of their youth.
Fables: Legends In Exile offers an excellent mystery yarn, complete with a twist ending, and introduces a vast world that promises so much more. With a compelling plot, well-developed characters, and low introductory price point, the first volume of Fables is a book that every adult, comic book fan or not, should add to their library.
Joe Patrick is one of the hosts of the Two-Headed Nerd Comicast and Editor-in-Chief of http://twoheadednerd.wpengine.com. If he could have built a career out of correcting Matt Baum’s mistakes, he would have left you all behind years ago.