Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fables: An unexpected journey

After 150 issues, 22 collections and half a dozen spin-off comics, Fables reached a natural conclusion in the past week, with the final volume released out into the world and left to fend for itself.

Fables was Vertigo's most successful property of the past decade, and has inspired innumerable imitators in comics, TV and film. It somehow survived for 13 years as a monthly comic in the modern media landscape, thanks to a large dose of charm, some sweet artwork and a whole lot of relentlessly entertaining yarns.

It is bitter-sweet to see Fables come to a conclusion, because its very premise left it open for a million more tales, but all stories have to come to an end sometimes. The ideas carry on, and are reborn over and over again, but this particular chapter is over.

Fables ends with the usual unpredictability, and the usual flagrant disregard for the accepted rules of epic storytelling. Creator Bill Willingham has been doing this for a while, most notably when the grand war the whole series revolved around suddenly and unexpectedly got resolved halfway through the series run.

This sudden shift in the story left many readers cold, but it's still arguable that this was the best thing that ever happened to the comic, getting all the stuff you expect to happen out of the way, and allowing events to travel down unexpected new paths.

And the plot behind Fables has been built around this kind of happy mystery right up until the end, when one last epic battle is coming, only for that story to collapse in anticlimax, because the real story is what is going on in two sisters' hearts. There is still some bloody big events going down – an apocalyptic mystical duel starts with social niceties and ends in suicidal destruction - but that's not really what this story was about.

In the end, the Fables that can change their own fates, and rewrite their own destinies, are the ones to survive, and move on to something new. After all, ancient curses and blood feuds are no match for modern lateral thinking.

Fables has been strong enough to handle a bunch of spin-off titles, including the beautifully free-wheeling Jack Of Fables, which lasted for 50 glorious issues. But it all had to reach some kind of natural end sometime, and when Willingham revealed that the end was nigh, it wasn't a great shock.

Besides, he had plenty of time to sort out all the loose ends that had built up over a decade of comics, and he has been wrapping up lot lines for the past couple of years. Death never really had much impact in the world – unless you were an unfortunate Munday who caught caught in some Fables crossfire – but with the story ending, there was no more room for improbable resurrections, and the blood shed over the comic's last year was permanently stained on the narrative, where dead finally means dead.

While many characters met their final fate as the story reached its climax, the comic had such a vast and sprawling cast, that there were plenty of characters to check in on towards the end.

These little epilogues were often humorous, occasionally touching and sweetly efficient – the last Flycatcher story is a single panel gag about who takes over his kingdom, (which is still much better than the cruel, terrible and all-powerful Emperor Flycatcher that is glimpsed in another possible future), and there are great little stories where you also get Pinocchio growing up to be the President of the USA, while Geppeto learns nothing at all and starts the whole cycle of pointless empire all over again.

Sometimes the ticking off of the boxes has gotten a bit blatant, such as when the cubs' predictions are all fully explained, and these epilogues overdose on a brand of metatextual mischief that is oddly unfashionable right now, but in keeping with the themes of the whole thing – any story about stories is always going to be a story about that story.

But when you've been following the same story, month in and month put, for 13 years, it's only right that you get to check in on favourite characters one last time. Fables could be infuriatingly glib, politically dodgy and downright mean sometimes, but it had some wonderful characterisation work that was some of the strongest in modern monthly comics.

Willingham and his artistic collaborators breathed new life into ancient archetypes, putting the world's oldest characters from the world’s oldest stories in a thoroughly modern setting, and made you care about the struggles they faced. They might be strange, magical creatures that aren't bound by things like logic or physics, but you still care about Bigby & Snow, and Rose Red, and the Three Blind Mice, and Old King Cole, and all the rest.

As inhuman as they could be, they still felt love and fear and regret and joy and all the human emotions we all share, and that made them so much more than simple characters in a story.

Of course, it also helped that the comic was also full of some brilliant art. Mark Buckingham has been the lead artistic voice on the comic for most of its life and has produced a dazzling amount of great artwork, given a free hand to design huge unwordly armies, while also nailing the quieter moments of contemplation and compassion.

Fables was also a wide enough concept to allow other artists to come in and do odd bits and pieces, even if they only had to show up to do two or three page stories, and this is another tradition that lastest to the end, with the final issue alone includes fine art from noted creators such as Neal Adams, Bryan Talbot, Mike Allred, Gene Ha, Teddy Kristiansen and others.

And so, Fables ends with the magical world crashing headlong into the real world, changing both worlds forever, but it doesn't end in blood. It ends with a huge family reunion, where everybody gets back together after a long time apart. It ends in a celebration of family and life and all the weird twists and turns they take. And boy, do they have some stories to share

In a book full of charming rogues and charming artwork, this was always Fables' most charming aspect, that there is always a place to meet up with loved ones and share your stories. It's what we all do, and it's almost comforting to know that the characters in those stories do the same, long after the final page is turned.

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