There’s a lot of takes on the Urban Fantasy genre, but one of the best and longest running is undoubtedly Bill Willingham’s Fables. Created and based on the enduring legends of Europe and the Middle East (and possibly even farther, more exotic places), Fables asks a simple question: What if all the characters we once knew and loved from the storybooks of our youth had to leave their simple, low tech, magical worlds and move to New York City?
I know it’s a question that has kept many of you awake at nights.
Well apparently Bill Willingahm has struggled with it too, because on a fairly unremarkable day over a decade ago the first volume of Fables was published, and a new benchmark for quality in the comics industry was set. In Fables, the story takes first place, as you might expect from a series that takes its name from a form of narrative. Further, while the story introduces many new elements to what happened after familiar stories ended, Willingham never changes the familiar narratives and, when dealing with the less familiar stories gives the reader enough to understand the story without causing clutter.
In this way Willingham sidesteps two of the most frustrating barriers to entry in modern American comic books, their tendency to stretch franchises out ad naseum, with no regard for where they ultimately intend to go with their characters, and their tendency to rely heavily on backstory established three to five decades ago which can be difficult if not impossible for new readers to find. There are other ways Fables is a nice change from the norm. No one character is constantly at the center of the story, and so they can’t become tiresome or require constant reinvention to keep them interesting. Neither is there constant narration to expound on the things that should be told to us by the artwork or dialog. While many comics forget they are visual media, Fables never does.
However, Fables also remembers that it’s there to tell a story. Willingham keeps things moving with drive and zest, moving quickly from establishing his setting to showing the dynamics of the Fable community, to exploring the threat from the Adversary, all while also managing to make stories very personal and character driven. While the bulk of the story takes place in New York in the modern day, he also gives us glimpses into the histories of his characters and the worlds they came from, as well as the extraordinary circumstances that brought them all to the world of refuge they now call home.
One of the most charming points of Fables is Willingham’s clear love for the forgotten stories. No Fable is sure why, but their life stories somehow became known to the people of the world they live in, passed from person to person until the details became blurred. And curiously enough fame translates to increased vitality and strength, making some Fables very difficult to kill. But it’s often the Fables without any fame, who you might not even have thought of when writing a story about storybooks, who step forward and surprise you. Little Boy Blue, the Frog Prince and even Snow’s mostly forgotten sister, Rose Red step forward and show us what their made of and, frequently, prove to be more personable, likeable and relatable than their better known costars.
If you like magic in the modern world, if you like clever writing and great characters, or if you just love a good story that’s written for the sake of good story, I suggest giving Fables a go.