Welcome to the weekly Fables reread! The second collected volume of Fables, “Animal Farm,” covers issues #6-#10 and also contains bonus production sketches and art. The literary references fall fast and frequent in this volume, which deals with an attempted revolution on The Farm, the upstate community where all non-human Fables must live to protect the community’s secrecy.
“Animal Farm” is written by Bill Willingham, penciled by Mark Buckingham, inked by Steve Leialoha, colored by Daniel Vozzo, and lettered by Todd Klein. The single-issue covers are painted by James Jean.
As “Animal Farm” opens, Rose Red, Snow White and Colin the Pig are headed up to the Farm in an old (classic, even) truck. Rose Red has been sentenced to community service for her schemes in the first volume, Snow is determined to try to patch the feud with her sister after all that’s happened, and Colin the Pig just doesn’t want to be shipped back to the farm. When they arrive, though, things aren’t looking good: there are bullet shell casings scattered about on the Farm’s land, Snow bursts in on a revolutionary meeting and the official head of the Farm, Weyland Smith, is missing. As it turns out, the other two of the three little pigs are “return activists” who advocate returning to the homelands and trying to take them back from the Adversary—though that wasn’t quite what the meeting in the barn was about, that’s how they pass it off. Snow doesn’t quite buy it, but Rose knows what’s up; she’s smarter than her sister has given her credit for. The trouble becomes clearer when Colin’s severed head shows up on a stake.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears are revealed burying Colin’s body, and are spied by Reynard the Fox, who runs like hell before Goldilocks (who is gun-crazy and psychopathic) shoots him. He’s on Snow’s side. Rose, meanwhile, turns herself over to the revolutionaries as a sympathizer and finds out that they’ve been stockpiling human weapons for their plan: overturn Fabletown and then return to the homelands. Snow goes on the run with Reynard’s help and has to find a way to take care of this revolution before they kill her. Back in Fabletown, Boy Blue starts guessing that something’s amiss, and he gets together a rescue party.
Snow happens upon a cave where Weyland Smith has been imprisoned and is caught there—by Rose, who puts her under arrest (and won’t let Goldilocks execute her). Weyland’s trapped by charmed shackles, but he makes a key for hers and she frees him in turn. To stop the “revolution,” Snow wakes the three sleeping giants and a dragon. It’s a pretty decisive victory. However, as she stands among the farm Fables, she’s shot in the head. Happily, she survives because of the strength of her myth. The original two of the Three Little Pigs are executed and Rose solves the giants-problem by having them turned into replacement pigs so they can stay awake. She also has the dragon turned into a fire-breathing crow. Oh—and she’s been elected head of the Farm, to match her sister, head of Fabletown.
“Animal Farm” is where Fables starts to show what kind of comic it’s going to be and begins to engage with a larger storyline. While it, too, has a self-contained tale of revolution on the farm, the plot is increasingly tied to a greater arc—the Homelands, the Adversary and the tensions between Fables in their exile. Several themes that will become central to the series also pop up for the first time here.
Part of what readers love about Fables is its engagement with literature—considering that it’s about living characters from stories, this isn’t a surprise, but beginning in “Animal Farm” that engagement goes far past simply drawing in characters by name. There are continual references to contemporary classics: Animal Farm, most obviously, but also Lord of the Flies (Colin’s severed head). The Lord of the Flies reference is actually self-aware within the comic: Goldilocks points it out, saying, “If you’d drag your hairy ass into a library once in a whole, you’d know that the message I sent—the way I sent it—was particularly apt. We’ve been marooned on this island long enough. Any savagery that occurred as a result is a consequence of our unfair imprisonment.” So… a literary reference is making a literary reference.
Nice job, Willingham. Bonus points for that one.
The politics of the Farm and the complex rules of citizenship for Fabletown are a great construction. Willingham makes sure to think through the implications of the structures he’s set up for these exiled people, chased from their homelands and reduced in station. Their relationships, rivalries, frustrations and traumas are well developed. The introduction of an important part of Fables mythology, that a Fable can’t die so long as their story lives, comes in “Animal Farm” in two ways: the first is that Snow survives a bullet to the brain from a high powered rifle, the second is that the Three Little Pigs must exist but can be replaced by a different three pigs just as easily. It’s not always a reliable system, and not all Fables are popular enough in mundy stories to survive. It’s one of the things that Rose Red admits to being deeply jealous of: her sister’s story outshining her own.
While I commented last time on Snow’s strength as a character, this volume revolves entirely around Snow and Rose—two tough women, who are generally at odds—and the decisions they make to save the people they care about. Snow is the one who stops the revolution, but Rose is the one who originally saves her life so she has a chance. When Boy Blue and his notably all-male rescue crew arrive, they find that everything is already taken care of. Willingham’s intentional creation of strong, genius women in Fables deserves double thumbs up. Not only that, but they are women with relationships to each other that aren’t just about men. (Fables passes the Bechdel test.) Rose especially is growing as a person and coming into her own; she’s willing to take control of her life and try to accomplish something with it by running the Farm. Her relationship with her sister is combative, but it’s more than that—it’s complex and emotional. Willingham, in this storyline and many others, makes sure that Fables is guided as much by characters and emotions as it is action. That focus is what makes it the award-winning, engrossing story that it is.
I found it a little unbelievable that Snow wasn’t aware of what was going on in the beginning, but I suppose I’m looking back on her from her position currently in the comic. She’s smart and capable, but she’s not omnipotent, and running Fabletown before the Farm incident had never involved any revolutions or real violence. I can understand, possibly, that she had trouble accepting that the Farm Fables were actually going to commit acts of murder—they were fellow exiles, after all. The last page of the volume seems to point to this as well. The final panel is Snow, on her own, crying over the death of Colin the Pig and so many others.
One other thing happens at the end of the volume that’s important: the decision to continue adapting mundane weapons for Fable use. It’s the first step toward the main plot arc, the war against the Adversary to reclaim the Homelands. It leads us strongly into the continuing plot.
The art in “Animal Farm” deserves praise for its amazing renditions of all the non-human Fables. Each face, be it pig or fox or bear, is expressive and understandable. The falcons and humans are drawn with equal attention, which lends an air of realism to the concerns of the Farm Fables. They’re just as real as everyone else, just as fully “people.” In addition, the colors are vibrant and eye-catching.
The James Jean covers collected in the end of the volume are worth long, long study, also. (PS—He’s eligible for a Hugo for Best Professional Artist, you know.)
Animal Farm is an improvement over the first volume and leads us into the next, continuing the Fables storyline.
Next week: “Storybook Love,” the third volume of Fables.