Monday, November 20, 2006

Graphic Lit: The Fables phenomenon

Snow White. The Frog Prince. The Big Bad Wolf.

Just about everyone who’s ever cracked open a collection of fairy tales is familiar with these characters. Most of us have grown up reading their tales numerous times, to the point where they’ve become part of our shared heritage.

But what happens after “happily ever after?” Did Snow White get along with her Prince Charming?

What if they didn’t? What if they — and hundreds of other characters from folklore — somehow found themselves stuck in our own, considerably less magical world?

Such is the concept behind “Fables,” an ongoing monthly series courtesy of writer and creator Bill Willingham. Working with a rotating stable of artists, most notably Mark Buckingham, Willingham images the famous characters of folklore and mythology living an exiled life in a small pocket of New York City, having been driven out of their homeland by a nefarious, marauding force known only as “The Adversary.”

Here, Prince Charming is a bit of a philanderer, hence his marriages not only to Snow White, but also Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Here, Goldilocks is a dangerous revolutionary, a reformed Big Bad Wolf becomes the sheriff and Jack, of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame is a ne’er-do-well who goes Hollywood.

The series has proven to be one of Vertigo’s most popular, mainly due to Willingham’s ability to create interesting, fully-dimensional characters. His stories might involve the fantastic, but they’re grounded in real human emotions.

“I’ve always been interested in these types of stories and characters,” Willingham said during a recent interview from his home in Las Vegas. “ 'Fables’ was really just admitting to myself that this is what I was interested in doing and dropping that other shoe.”

The series is so popular in fact, that it’s even launched its own spin-off series (“Jack of Fables”) and now has its own stand-alone graphic novel — “1,001 Nights of Snowfall,” a hardbound collection of short stories that offer some insight in the past of its more popular personalities.

The central plot of “Nights” involves Snow White, who comes to Arabia as an ambassador seeking aid but quickly finds herself in the Scherazade role, spinning tales in order to stave off her execution by a misogynist ruler.

Acclaimed artists like Charles Vess, John Bolton, Jill Thompson and Derek Kirk Kim take turns illustrating the various stories, which delve into the early histories of The Frog Prince and the Wolf and suggests what exactly happened with those seven dwarfs (hint: it’s not pretty).

According to Willingham, a good part of the fun in doing this book was getting to work with a variety of well-known artists to illustrate the individual tales.

“For the first time I’m feeling like a grown-up because my list of artists I would love to work with someday is getting smaller and smaller now that I’m actually getting to cross them off,” he said.

Though it’s designed for new readers and longtime fans, it’s probably the latter who will most appreciate the new book. The stop and start nature of the various stories rob the book of any real narrative flow. These tales would best be served on an individual basis. They don’t really compliment each other being jammed shoulder to shoulder.

Still, while newbies might be better served picking up one of the ongoing collections (I recommend starting with volume number three or four), longtime fans will get a kick out of discovering some of the oft-hinted secrets that have surrounded the cast.

For his part, Willingham is in no hurry to end the series, as there are plenty of classic characters he still hasn’t incorporated into the series.

“Most are in a lock box waiting to be used,” he said. “Lots of them are politely screaming for their chance to get on stage.”

“Absolute Sandman”

DC has been repackaging a number of its better-known works (“Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight Returns”) in a rather ornate manner with its high-end “Absolute” volumes.

Now, Neil Gaiman’s seminal fantasy series gets a kick upstairs with the lavish, slipcased “The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1” (Vertigo, 612 pages, $99). The immense book reprints the first 20 issues, with remastered coloring and script notes from Gaiman. Think of it as the comics equivalent of a special edition DVD.

When “Sandman” debuted in 1988, it helped launch Gaiman’s writing career as well as help give comics in general a certain literary cachet.

Many of the early issues see Gaiman trying on different genres, trying to get a feel for the series, and it’s not until about halfway through that it really starts to take off.

Still, for your hardcore Sandman fan, this would make a pretty nice Christmas present.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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