Fables, Book One, by Bill Willingham

After playing “The Wolf Among Us”, I gained the opportunity to read the first book of Bill Willingham’s Fables series.

The basic conceit is that the former inhabitants of the fairy tale Homelands have been forced to migrate to our ‘real’ world. Most of them are living in either New York, or out on an isolated reservation called the Farm. The stories cover the issues faced by the Fables as they try to carve out some place for themselves inside Mundane society. The roles the Fables find themselves playing can be quite different from what their previous lives have conditioned them to expect…

Book One collects two story arcs. In the first one, Bigby Wolf finds himself investigating the murder of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red. This story has a similar feel to the game, although it’s notable that Snow White here is a lot more like the ‘darker, harsher’ Snow from the end of the game. (In fact, her characterisation in the game makes more sense now – it seems the events of the game started off a process by which she’s become harder and more cynical.)

The murder plotline drags Bigby through the dark side of Fabletown’s society. It also shines a light on the post-exodus situation that many Fables have found themselves in. Prince Charming has decayed into a penniless grifter who scrimps other peoples’ money. Beauty and the Beast’s marriage is in trouble. Bluebeard is an extremely wealthy manipulator who made a huge profit during the escape from the Homelands, and who is regarded with some suspicion.

For me, probably the most interesting aspects of this story was what it told us about what happened in the Homelands. In the game, the subject of the exile wasn’t really developed. Here, we find out that the Homelands were overrun by a sort of Sauron-wannabe called the Adversary. (In fact, given that the Fables are apparently basically Mundy archetypes made flesh, thinking about it’s possible that the Adversary literally is a Sauron variant.) For some reason, the Adversary is apparently uninterested in the supposed real world, and thus the surviving Fables were forced to flee here. (This also has an interesting resonance with American foundational mythology, c.f. the whole notion of escaping oppression by crossing the ocean to new lands. While this aspect isn’t stressed, it’s definite enough that I think it must be deliberate.)

Also, we get a clearer sense of how the Fabletown government works. Apparently King Cole is Mayor-for-Life, so it’s clearly not very democratic. Perhaps because of this, the government apparently has no power to tax. It is instead entirely reliant on public donations to fund its operations. And apparently 90% of what money it can raise goes on supporting the Farm. This explains a lot about how the Fabletown administration functions in practise. The Business Office is basically just an extraction machine to prop up the Farm.

The second story examines some of the defects of Fable life.

Non-human Fables, those who can’t afford a shape-disguising glamour, or who just literally cannot look human, have to live on the Farm. Whilst their condition appears materially-comfortable, the fact remains that the Farm is effectively a prison. And the people kept there are not very happy with it.

During the second arc, the Farm explodes in an attempted revolution. This is overseen by Goldilocks, who has apparently found a second new career as a sniper-rifle-wielding leftist agitator. However, her main interest appears to be more in causing trouble than in actually accomplishing anything – for starters, she doesn’t appear to have a clear understanding of the concept of the ‘proletariat’. (Given that none of them appear to be required to work for a living, it’s hard to interpret the inhabitants of the Farm as a classical proletariat. Rather they appear to be more in the manner of a generic repressed underclass, or perhaps a tribe on a colonial reservation.)

However, it is a canonical point that the rebels’ planning was bad. As Snow White and Weyland Smith note, the rebels made the classic mistake of all revolutions and focussed on stockpiling guns, not on communications or logistics. This proves key to the revolution’s rapid defeat, which is essentially accomplished using little more than a walkie-talkie. (And a well-placed dragon, of course.)

However, one has the feeling that the revolution arc isn’t finished. Fabletown’s response is savage – mass executions – and Snow White decides to keep the stockpile of guns. No action appears to have been taken about the basic grievances of the Farm.

So, time for my summaries. What I found interesting about ‘Fables’ was seeing how the various story-characters try to adapt to living in a non-fictional world. Many of them fail quite comprehensively. In addition the stories don’t shy away from the unfortunate implications of the Fables’ own incomplete adaptations. There is a raw-edged honesty here, and that is part of the attraction of the series.

That said, of course, Fabletown doesn’t seem to be a gentle place to live. There’s plenty of violence and nasty things happen. Readers who are less keen on this sort of thing should probably beware.

But, I can definitely say that I enjoyed the series so far, and I hope to read more in the future.

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