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Reconstruction of the Fables

  Fables: Legends in Exile

 

Bill Willingham (writer); Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton (artists)

Vertigo/DC, 2003

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: January 5, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Veteran fringe comics writer/artist Bill Willingham is making something of a career out of the fusion of classic fantasy and contemporary sensibilities. This trend began with the "adult" fantasy title Ironwood, for Fantagraphics' porn line Eros, which was basically eleven issues of graphic sex in a standard fantasy-world setting. That approach was inverted a bit for Frantagraphics' short-lived Coventry, which posited a modern-day world occasionally beset by fantasy-tinged problems such as monsters and curses. With the dissolution of Coventry due to financial difficulties, Willingham has more or less taken the skeletal structure of that series -- a world of folklore and legend superimposed over our own -- to the better-paying Vertigo line. Fables, the resulting comic, crystallizes the core elements of his earlier fusions to the conceit's logical conclusion: classic fantasy characters stranded in our modern world.

The premise is disarmingly simple. As the result of a relentless invasion by a mysterious figure referred to only as The Adversary, characters from many of our most enduring childhood myths, fables and nursery rhymes -- Snow White, Prince Charming, etc., -- were driven from their various homelands, and have banded together in exile in the present, waiting for the day when they can confront The Adversary and return to their homes. Fabletown, as this makeshift community is known, resides in a luxury apartment building in New York City, where the exiles do their best to fit in and bide their time.

Unfortunately for Legends in Exile, which collects the first five-issue arc of the ongoing series, that's about where the "fantasy" quotient ends. The storyline that drives Legends in Exile is ground almost entirely not just in the modern world, but in modern-day storytelling conventions, concerning as it does the murder of Rose Red, sister of Snow White (Fabletown's "Director of Operations," deputy mayor to Old King Cole and the real power behind the throne, and portrayed here as a stern, all-business martinet). The investigation falls to Fabletown's lone resident "sheriff," Bigby Wolf -- formerly the Big Bad Wolf, whose offenses against mythic citizens like Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs were forgiven as part of a general amnesty agreement among the exiled fables. Bigby's surprising skill at his new job proves Willingham's most intriguing twist, and one that -- in this storyline, at least -- is given disappointingly short shrift.

Bigby's primary suspects are Rose's boyfriend Jack (of beanstalk and Giant-Killer fame) and notorious wife killer Bluebeard, who dated Rose during a temporary split with Jack and reveals that they were secretly engaged. To his credit, Willingham concocts a surprisingly cohesive and credible murder mystery from these ingredients; Bigby's "parlor room scene" deconstruction of the crime clicks with all of the assurance and surprises of a first-rate mystery. Willingham also capably employs Bigby's investigation as a means of introducing us to various characters, with others popping up on the sidelines. But by virtue of the tale's finite length, many of these characters remain only intriguing glimpses -- especially Prince Charming, whom readers meet early on as a manipulative ladies' man slumming in New York after having "burned...bridges with every royal in Europe," but who's reduced to a mere plot device as the drama unfolds. But that's the inherent nature of whodunits, even those as skillfully executed as this one: characters run the risk of serving as little more than ways for advancing the plot from point A to point B.

And that's the main problem with Legends in Exile. While its plot-driven story does allow the reader some glimpses into the day-to-day workings of Willingham's intriguing tableau, the murder mystery proves an ill fit with Fables' rich premise. With a few modifications, his whodunit could easily work on its own without any backstory involving fairy tale heroes and villains. And that fact does Fables a disservice, as its central conceit serves as little more than fancy window dressing for a by-the-numbers, if sturdy and well-crafted, mystery. Even the (admittedly competent) artwork of penciler Lan Medina and inkers Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton emphasizes the modern at the expense of the fantastic.

As a means of introducing readers to Willingham's characters and history, Legends in Exile can be regarded as a workmanlike success. But as a true melding of the legendary and the contemporary, it falls flat. One is willing to cut Willingham some slack, allowing for the fact that there's plenty of time for Fables to grow into its fantastical potential. But the lack of any heroic quests, epic battles or even star-crossed love stories renders Legends in Exile merely a clever conceit, a hollow echo of Fables' inherent promise.

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