Book Club / Some Dastardly Combination

FablesFables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by

 

 

 

 

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JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

Maybe I should let someone else start this because I don’t like this comic not one bit no sir not at all. At the Barbican Comic Forum it’s become a bit of running joke: but I’ve guess I’ve never really sat down and wrote a thing explaining all the reasons why but then I don’t want to do the same thing I did when the Book Club book was Love and Rockets and I shot it down so much right at the start that no one wanted to say anything about what they thought which is obviously suboptimal…

The phrase that keeps running through my head is “Kellogg’s Cinematic Universe.” Tony the Tiger, Coco the Monkey, Loopy the Bubblebee, The Cornflakes Cockerel and not forgetting Snap, Crackle and Pop all together in a super serial adventure fighting the evil forces of Dentists or something… That’s what Fables is to me. A boring thing that has no real to exist apart from some people want to make money and apparently people expect so little from their entertainment that it’s oh well you know whatever “it’s good.”

I mean yeah ok it’s obviously more complicated because hell – The Lego Movie. Which would seem to be the pinnacle of soulless corporate media tie-in: but (oops) as anyone who knows who’s actually seen it – is actually kinda good: you know – emotional and even has a point to make (and everything you watch or read should have somekind of point to make because otherwise: well – why are you even giving it your time?).

So yeah – it’s not like Fables is bad because of its concept or whatever. Everything deserves a chance – and there’s nothing out there that’s completely irredeemable. And hell – some of my most favourite things have the worst pitches or whatever you know (best film I’ve seen in the last year? Zombies on a Train).

But Fables man – I mean: there’s nothing there. There’s nothing to it. It’s just “oh what if all your favourite fairy tales got together?” and then… well… that’s it. There’s no insight. There’s no meaning. There’s no deeper understanding of anything. It’s just Little Boy Blue hanging out with Snow White or whatever in the most asinine and turgid way possible: with the sickening feeling that it’s nothing more than Bill Willingham having read Sandman and realising there was a gap in the market.

Can't help

Like I’m obviously not the world’s biggest Sandman fan: but hell – it least it was about something. At least it tried. At least it felt like it was made by human beings.

Fables feels like it was made by algorithms.

In fact the only bit that gets anywhere close to being heartfelt and real is that bit in – I think it’s Vol 7? – where Bigsby Wolf does a pro-Israel speech which I swear to god is one of the most clunkiest things I’ve ever read in a comic in my life… But hey maybe we’ll get to that later…

It’s funny – because my previous plan was for us to talk about Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross – but seeing how we’ve already done Kingdom Come this year I thought it might be a bit too much – I’m currently reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe and I thought it might be interesting to connect that up with Thor: Ragnarok and the way that mainstream is withering into something half brain-dead but I guess it’s all on the same spectrum as Fables… Terrible, poorly-made, completely lowest common-denominator stuff (hey! everyone remembers fairy tales right!) that none the less is held up as somehow being “good.”

And hey please don’t get me wrong: you’re welcome to like and join whatever you like. And if you enjoy Fables and think it’s cool then ok – it’s just that: well – there’s a whole world of comics and stuff out there that’s way more fun and interesting and well-made that you should go out and discover. And hell: if we keep on settling for the stuff that’s fourth-rate then well – that’s the kind of stuff they’re going to keep making.

Because there are 22 volumes of Fables and a whole bunch of spin-offs and god that makes me feel almost depressed.

In conclusion then: I’m not a fan.

But: what do you think?


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

When I talk to people about ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ I always start the same way: “Hey, I like it, but I can see why a lot of people don’t.” That’s not always possible. People that have spent years obsessing over a ‘westerns in space’ TV show that didn’t stay on telly for more than a few weeks a decade ago? Nope, I don’t get that. People that seem to genuinely like Torchwood? Nope, I don’t get that and suspect those people might be psychopaths. But people that disagree with me and don’t like ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. Yeah, I can see why they don’t want to jump on board the U.S.S. ‘Powered by ‘Shrooms’.

And yeah, Fables, hey, I like it, but I can see why a lot of people don’t. Bill Willingham’s terrible politics. The racism of the ‘Arabian Fables’. The ‘too pleased with itself’ smugness of the Literals, which almost destroys the book, the weird Snow White versus Rose Red finale which I suspect is a mess because Willingham just suddenly decided he’d had enough and didn’t want to sort things out properly.

The problem I have is that Joel’s reason for disliking the series boils down to him thinking the idea ‘what if all your favourite fairy tales got together’ is a bad idea, or an uninteresting and simple one. It’s not new, but how many new ideas have their been in history ever? It’s a war story, it’s a (dodgy as hell) love story, it’s a political story. No, it never really rises beyond the level of those old pictures where every sqaure centimetre is crammed full of visual information and you have to find the five cats and six chimneys, can you guess who character x is before Bill tells you? I’ve read it all, and all the spin-offs and it never got me edge of my seat excited, but it’s decent.

It’s also ideal for loan from your local library as there’s tons of it and costs a fortune if you aren’t invested in it whereas you can read it all from your library in a couple of weeks for free!

‘Jack of Fables’ is shit though, no argument there.


TAM
Islington Comic Forum

I borrowed the first fourteen volumes and blitzed through them over a few days. It’s not a particularly good comic and it’s hard to give a toss about any of the characters (who mostly reminded me of the 1%) but it’s always readable, occasionally interesting (I seem to remember thinking the big war was well handled though can’t remember anything at all about it now) and the art tells the story clearly. It’s been very commercially successful though and I think it’s culturally interesting because it cannily builds its story around the fact that one of the main appeals of popular culture these days seem to be shout outs and references to other stories.

There are obviously loads of precedents for this but given how must comic creators don’t tend to read much except other comics, it’s fairly safe to assume the main inspiration for Fables is Moore and O Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Part of the fun of reading that is getting various obscure references from the source material but that also limits its appeal to an extent, especially with the later books which reference stuff like Raffles or or Carnacki that even most readers of vintage pulps aren’t familiar with any more. So I do have a sneaking respect for how Bill Willingham has been able to reverse engineer the appeal of the League and the frisson of recognising the cast by using non copyright protected source material that pretty much everyone is going to be familiar with. It’s just a shame that the story doesn’t aim a bit higher.


RICH
Bleeding Cool

Once upon a time there was a comic book writer/artist who was having difficulty with his original work and realised there was plenty of stuff sitting on the shelf that he could repurpose and rewrite in an incredibly clever fashion, changing the names and presenting as a brand new story, that would echo across the industry. But we already did Watchmen.

Fables is a Zenescope comic book for people who want to pretend they wouldn’t like Zenescope comics.

Which means on one side, it’s so much less than some people build up in order to explain, enjoy and analyse Fables.

But also, Zenescope comics are a bit more than a series of really offensive covers that make you weep for humanity.

And, yes, ABC did rip Fables off for Once Upon A Time. But it’s only theft of a theft. Mind you, Topps are suing someone for parodying Garbage Pail Kids, their parody of Cabbage Patch Dolls – who once sued Topps – that I don’t know which way is up right now.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

It’s also that Moore wasn’t the first to do the ‘what if character x from genre y meets character b from genre c’ story, it was well worn when Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein. What he doesn’t do is show his working, whereas Willingham is often ‘Do you see, Hansel from Hansel and Gretel has become a witch-hunter because of his history, aren’t I a genius?’. At least when Warren Ellis did it he was using stuff which was a little bit more obscure.

Wow, and I’m supposed to be the one who likes Fables. I think Tam nails it, it’s efficient at what it does but it doesn’t aim at quality, just quantity. It’s a shame that it all wound up when Willingham got bored, there was good to decent stuff done by the few other authors that took part.


NIEROS
Twitter

I read the first 8 or so volumes of Fables with increasing incredulity. I’d been skeptical from the get go about the ‘fairy tales mash up’ premise – rightfully so, as it turned out. But a friend whose opinion I (once!) held in high regard (kidding – don’t take myself that seriously) harangued me for ages about reading it, and then forced his copies on me. So finally I figured, “What the hell…?”, and read Fables.

Ick.

The thing straight away that struck me, right from Vol 1, was a feeling that the entire enterprise had been crafted as a platform for commercialization, that the creator(s) set out before they ever wrote a single word or drew a single panel, to build a franchise out of one clever but simple idea (really, just the one), to spawn spin offs and origins stories and sequels and TV and film and merch merch merch till kingdom come. For me there was no there there. Even the few story lines that were decently executed and pleasantly distracting I thought a bit twee; overall I found nothing original or compelling enough to hook on to. And now it’s been too long for me to accurately recall whether my summary dismissal of Fables (at the time more an active hate) was based on my gut (unverified, couldn’t be arsed) judgment about the creators’ lack of creative integrity, the lackadaisical manner in which the all-too-familiar characters had been (under)developed, the flat writing, the out-of-control proportions of this rambling epic, or some dastardly combination of all of the above.

Ick.

Did LGNN review Civil War already? I was *insanely* into that for the longest time, and then one day standing in a comic book store in midtown Manhattan and faced with an entire floor-to-ceiling section of Civil War and affiliated books, I instantly developed the same kind of sickened feeling I felt with Fables. And I never read another Civil War anything ever again. At least it took a while, and the good was good while it lasted. With Fables I had that icky feeling right from the start, perhaps my subconscious had learned to just say no.


ALISTER
Weekend at Arnie’s

Hi all. First time caller…

I’m closer to the ‘it’s fine I guess’ side; I didn’t hate it. It’s exactly the sort of thing I would have breezed through at the library as a kid, and forgotten just as quickly. I liked the government-in-exile thing, which isn’t something I’ve seen done a lot. Loz sums up my main problem with Fables – it’s a good idea, stuck with a writer who can’t get out of his own way. It’s readable – even moreish – but never exciting. It fills but never satisfies. I can imagine it working much better as a TV show, actually, where the influence of other writers could balance out that authorial voice. I can see what people are getting at with the franchise stuff, but to be honest, I’m less bothered about franchising when they’re public domain characters. Anyone can go out and make their own version.

And actually, far from feeling procedurally generated, I got rather more than I would like of Bill Willingham. There’s the very Garth Marenghi intro to Vol 1 (‘We’re going into the woods. But not literal woods. Metaphorical woods. What I mean is…’); everything to do with Bigby Wolf; the explain-all dialogue that all tends toward the same voice; Bigby Wolf; the bizarre flashes of conservative moralising; the creaky relationship stuff; and, of course, Bigby Wolf. Let me explain: I did not care for Bigby Wolf.

Which is frustrating – because as I say, I did like Fables when it’s about a government-in-exile trying to keep an unruly diaspora together in a hostile land, and I don’t mind recycling old characters. It reminded me of Battlestar Galactica, except that BSG had better writing, and a pervasive sense of desperation and terror that is largely absent in the Fables books I’ve read so far. Do things change massively later in the series? Right now (around Vol 10) it’s hard to find the Evil Empire a credible threat when the fable-folk seem able to thwart him at every turn, largely without effort, often single-handed. Maybe that’s why I preferred the political storylines – they felt a bit more lively.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

Hi everybody!

Some stuffs:

1. I respectfully disagree with this what Loz said that I think “what if all your favourite fairy tales got together’ is a bad idea. Because well – honestly – in terms of what makes a good comic / a good story I’m not sure that there are any prima facie “bad ideas.” The example I tend to use a lot is one of my favourite films: Ping Pong. I won’t go into all the reasons here why I love it (but if you haven’t seen it – I would recommend it 100%): but when I tried to get a bunch of my friends round to mine to watch it a few years ago I didn’t get very far because when they asked me what it was about and I said “a bunch of kids playing ping pong” they all said: “nah – sounds rubbish. Count me out.” which made me realise that most of the time (for me at least) it’s not really what things are about it’s more how they’re about it. You know: how is the story told, how smart are they with how they tell it, what perspectives and what insights do they bring to it… basically: how interesting is it?

(Brief side note: was talking to a friend last night about the word “interesting.” It’s a word that i tend to use a lot (“That’s interesting” = means something is good. “That’s not interesting” = means that something is bad). And she asked me what does “interesting” actually mean? which I thought was a very good question – and my answer was: interesting is basically the opposite of a cliche. When something is interesting it’s new. It gives you an angle or a point of view that you haven’t seen before and makes you think about things in a different way. Interesting illuminates. And that’s why I like things to be interesting.)

And well yeah: “what if all your favourite fairy tales got together” could be a really cool comic because omg fairy tales are really fucked up and weird man! Just Little Red Riding Hood alone can be picked apart and understood with all of these strange and psychosexual readings – sex and death and food and eating and hunters cutting wolves open and putting rocks inside them and all the rest of it… And don’t even get me started on Sleeping Beauty…

And Fables is just – well… what? Thin fucking gruel that’s what. You have a creature like the Big Bad Wolf and you make him into what? A less interesting Wolverine.

2. Can I bitch a little bit about how completely disappointed I was with the reveal with The Adversary? I mean: maybe this is a big part of why I found it such a total let down… But omg all of these characters on the run from a big all-powerful monster that has usurped and destroyed their lives? Am I the only one that was expecting/hoping that the big reveal was that The Adversary was going to be this guy? But then – whoops – oh no. We can’t do that because then the story might actually have a frigging point (but hell – if it had done that then yeeees – best comic ever lol).

3. I wish to second and underline in red ink Nieros’ “increasing incredulity” in reading Failbles. Because honestly – if this is the sort of thing that is held-up as the gold standard then I basically feel like we’re not going to make it as a culture/species (too much? No). It’s like clicking on a profile on a dating site and someone puts that they just like “Films” and yeah ok I realise that they’re probably just being lazy and don’t want to fill out too much information or whatever: but the cold feeling in my heart is that oh my god – maybe they’re being accurate? Maybe they do just like Films? Like: it’s just the fact that there are pictures that move and there’s sound going on at the same time and a bunch of actors doing acting and that’s enough for them? And I’m sorry – but I find that absolutely and completely horrifying.

4. Fables is basically the io9 of comics. And I can think of a no less damning indictment. Oh look! Here’s Star Wars characters as Futurama characters! Here’s Batman as a ninja! Here’s Marvel characters as Star Trek characters! Here’s a light up Millennium Falcon on the roof of someone’s house! Here’s Simpsons characters as every Doctor Who! etc etc etc DEATH

5. Re: Civil War. We haven’t done it yet (maybe we should?) but oh my god yes that “sickening feeling” It’s like when you’re a kid and you hear that all of these comics and universes stretch out in all of these directions and it makes you excited and hungry to read them all but then – whoops – eventually you reach a point where you realise that there’s nothing really there. There’s no human life behind it. There’s no mind or point of view or anything – it’s just a company trying to make as much money as it can and you’re not reading stories you’re just reading product – you’re just reading #content.

6. Saying that I’m now very tempted to reread it and pretend that instead of Bill Willingham it’s written by Garth “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards” Marenghi. 😀

ever hear

*cough*


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

The Adversary was originally going to be Peter Pan. Can’t remember why it wasn’t, a rights issue perhaps?

Your having the Mouse as the Adversary also wouldn’t clear copyright, but then not only are you just saying that Willingham should rip off Planetary’s metatheme but you’re also putting fairy stories up against something that isn’t, like versus unlike.

And you seem to have ignored the fact that those of us who like Fables have had to admit we’re not entirely sure why, there’s certainly none of us who like it as much as you love your ping pong book.


ALISTER
Weekend at Arnie’s

Great Ormond St Hospital owns the UK rights, so they’d have to be paid royalties. I think that would’ve made a better villain, but I’m not sure it would be any more ‘meaningful’.


AMIR
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

….If ever there was an argument against health care, it would be Ormonds not letting us have Peter Pan as a master megalomaniacal villain.

When I write this, I write this with the caveat that Fables went to shit by the end of the series. It had descended into a chore. Whatever battle (Red and Snow?) there was to be had was labored, artificial and plodding. I could get along with Fables after Gepetto received the Hans Christian Anderson version of the Hitler in Argentina theory where they were fighting…like the vampire guy? I don’t even remember how that particular fight ended. It too was pointless.

Oh yeah – I wanted to mount a defense of Fables.

Well I reread the 1st volume and it all came back – the series that had descended into a dull library chore of a read when there wasn’t some cool weird ass Self Made Hero release kicking about came roaring back to life.

The dialogue – I think that’s why I stuck with Fables to the bitter (emphasis) end. The dialogue is just fucking gorgeous fun. It snaps along, fuelled by wit and fun little left turn character ideas. Are all of these left turns particularly bold and insightful? Nope. But they are fun, they hook you into Snow and Bigbie and the Prince and you want to see what happens next.

I mean the actual plots? MMnnnneh – the literal Animal Farm was fun but apart from that? Mmmmnneeehh – it’s pretty generic plottering. There’s a baddie, they prepare for war. It’s a standard issue way in to some really fun characters and some really witty, enjoyable, idea laden conversations.

(Bigbie is actually a pretty great character. Wolverine was always “well I was bad with a heart of gold now I’m good but i’m troubled by sins”, Bigbie’s “I was a fucking monster and now I’m not and well…deal with it because I’m the detective in charge of everyone else and I’ve got a Jack Bauer approach to detecting the fuck out of all of you”. And he even has a Garth Ennis-esque military flashback history in WW2.)

(Was Fables always a deeply commercial product? Well…by merit of it’s birth, yeah. It’s a Big 2 Comic that got published because “it’s fairy tales but like in exile and theres a wolf detective?!”. But just because something is made because a creator +editors thinks it’ll make money doesn’t make it bad it’s just analagous to saying it has a sizeable audience – that there’s something to this story that will make people want to keep reading. I don’t think it’s fair to put it in the Mark Millar “Hollywood will have to adapt THIS!” school, where you get a 4 issue arc of bombastic wide panel, sparse dialogue story telling with a mad premise. And this series started in like 1999? That’s pre Sam Raimi Spider-Man. Who on earth would be mad enough to think – that would get a decent adaptation when Snyder hadn’t even touched 300 yet?)

Fables worked, for me, because it was more than that. It used it’s characters and it’s situation to have an interesting, if deeply libertarian discussion about the core ideas of governance – through Snow White and The Big Bad Wolf. It eventually lost those and went up it’s own ass, but for a while between those two being a more grimdark yet charming Ron Swanson/Leslie Knope in an epic story, with great dialogue fun and fun takes on what happens to. Stuff like the recurring issue of lost wealth, of literal socio-economic exile, identity in a new world all viewed through the prism of the fairy tale characters is what made me stick to Fables for so long. It’s probably my political outlook but there was always a pragmatic bent to the ideas that it would go for – the whole “unfortunately, we got given “is” not “ought””, and putting that with all the fun dialogue, a Watchmen by way of Parks and Rec approach to deconstructing the fairy tale figures, made it great to me.

And while those big plots hobbled Fables, it was always really strong on it’s B-plots, in bringing it’s minor characters to vivid life with way more interesting side stories. The Monkey’s mad odyssey in the endless library, the rise to arms of the Janitor – all of this made it feel like a deep, endless world that didn’t always know how to go truly deeply into big ideas territory – beyond “hey I’m doing this with this character”, but it was really fun to watch.

Also, flying my usual banner – the art. The art is beautiful, the architecture of the dialogue masses, the NY/Fairytale mash up works wonderfully well and it’s a big part of why I fell for the series – the speeches were always good, but the accessible, clear ans classically stylish approach that Buckingham brought made it sing for me.

Fables was never the deepest smartest story – but for a long time it was a deeply fun one that made you fall for it’s characters with beautiful art, Sorkin speed dialogue and characters that were interesting because of how Buckingham used those myths.

I guess that’s a big part of whether or not you like the story – did you think they did enough with the myths to justify the series? I think they did – the haunted redemption of Bigby was great, Snow divorcing Charming was a great character base and Gepetto as the unrepentant maniac was brilliant to witness.

This is why Fables, to me, earned it’s keep with the character plays:

get laid

It’s simple, it’s an insightful take on life as a fairytale character and it makes me laugh = Fuck yeah Fables!


ALISTER
Weekend at Arnie’s

Oh boy minus the politics thing I had the opposite reaction on like… everything.

To get into Bigby Wolf a bit more and why I had such a strong dislike of the character: he is a ‘monster’ in name only. A dark and troubled past means absolutely nothing if it never actually troubles you. For Bigby Wolf, all it’s there for is to make him cool and dangerous because, hey, nothing’s cooler than a killer, right? This is why I found Snow White and Prince Charming more interesting (sorry): they have real flaws that cause real problems. On an emotional level, they act more like real people. Snow is often cold and inflexible, Charming is a selfish dilettante, and the political storylines are far more engaging because they focus on flawed people balancing different needs and priorities that can rarely be solved by brute force. Bigby Wolf is all brute force, but that is never treated as a problem or liability. He is always the strongest, always the the best, always on top.

The Parks and Rec comparison is useful, actually. Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope never dated. Their antagonism is founded on one having authority over the other. I found Bigby tolerable when he was with Snow White, because her ice queen thing was a good counterweight to his more-grizzled-than-thou schtick. But when they marry, she defrosts and fades into the background for a good few volumes. Bigby just gets tougher.


AMIR
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

I always felt that it did – it felt like a troubled subtext that he always knew. Kind of like a History of Violence situation.

Except – everyone else was in on the joke. Bigby was the authority, who was willing to play dirty and everyone knew that he’d been trying to eat them a few years back. But no one is allowed to call him on it.

Which is another part of why he and Fables engage me – amnesty.
Imagine London was ruled by a police commissioner that had spent half his life doing suicide bombings across the city and then there was an amnesty law for a new society that forgave him and barred us from ever holding it against him. Now imagine he’s a central hero of a story we’re reading. HOLEEE BALLS.

That is a fucking interesting idea, it’s almost, central government mandated forgiveness. And it’s when Fables used it’s alt history of the myths to give out ideas like that, that made it such a compelling thing in the first place. As well as all my other brilliant, indefatigable points – whatever they were.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

I preferred Snow White when she wasn’t the Ice Queen of the first few books but as she becomes somewhat the conservative ideal housewife (“sure, you’ve technically raped me while we were both unable to consent because love potion but I don’t believe in abortion so I will marry you and give birth to these seven children and raise them with you despite the fact that if we hadn’t been drugged with the love potion we wouldn’t have got married or had children” as Snow White never actually says) that’s not great either. I liked Prince Charming turning from the shallow gold-digging schemer to the genuine hero of the war.

And Bigby is just Wolverine anyway.

 

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