Welcome to the weekly Fables reread! Fable’s third volume, “Storybook Love,” collects issues #11-18. Fabletown is having problems, from outside and from within. Snow and Bigby have to deal with the fallout of the Farm’s attempted revolution, as well as their own personal issues. Aside from the main arc, there are two short side-stories; one illustrated by Bryan Talbot called “Bag of Bones” (issue #11) and one illustrated by Linda Medley called “Barleycorn Bridges” (issue #18).
All of Storybook Love is written by Bill Willingham, but it’s the first trade to have multiple artists: Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Lan Medina and Linda Medley. It was inked by regular Steve Leialoha but also by Craig Hamilton. (Talbot and Medley inked their own illustrations.) Colorist Daniel Vozzo remains the same, as does letterer Todd Klein. The covers were done by James Jean as well as Aron Wiesenfeld.
The volume opens with “Bag of Bones,” a tale about how, during the Civil War, Jack beat the devil at a card game and won his magic bag, which can store anything. He uses the bag to capture Death, saving a pretty young belle who was paralyzed and about to die, and has his way with her. However, it turns out that while Death is in the bag, nothing can die; obviously a problem. Jack releases Death, who thanks him for the vacation and agrees to give the new couple a year together if Jack will give him one day in the bag every once in a while. (It doesn’t work out, of course, and the bag is lost somewhere.)
Next, a two-issue story about the reporter Tommy Sharp, who’s become convinced that he knows the Fabletown secret—they seem to be immortal, they never age, they own all this property—they must be vampires! It might be crap, but it could be dangerous for the Fables, so Bigby develops a plan involving Sleeping Beauty (whose curse kicks in whenever she pricks her finger), Bluebeard, Jack, Boy Blue and Flycatcher. The curse will put the whole building to sleep, including Tommy, but when they trash his place it turns out he’s backed up his files online. Bluebeard wants to outright kill him, accuses Bigby of softness for refusing, and Bigby backs him down easily but humiliates him in the process. Bigby carts Tommy off to the Fabletown prison cell, fakes vampire bites, and shows him a series of pictures and videos he “made” with Pinocchio—who might be very very old, but looks very very young. Tommy agrees that he won’t reveal the story, not even after his death, or risk them revealing the “evidence.” It’s a nasty trick, certainly, but it works.
Until Bluebeard calls Tommy out, later, and shoots him in the head.
The titular story arc in the volume, “Storybook Love,” comes next. One of the mounted police (small people on mouseback) is spying on Bluebeard and finds that he’s not only hiding Goldilocks but sleeping with her, and helping her with her assassination plans. She kills the policeman’s mouse, but he escapes. Bluebeard puts his plans into action, then, because they can’t wait any longer: he uses an artifact to rewrite Snow and Bigby’s consciousness so they run off together into the woods, and Bigby will only suspect Jack. Goldilocks is supposed to kill them once they’ve gone sufficiently into the wilderness. After a few days, Bigby and Snow come back to themselves at a campsite in the woods. As they try to leave, someone shoots out their tire, and they survive a car crash down a ravine. Meanwhile, the small police have been captured in bulk back in Fabletown, and Prince Charming insists on questioning them though Bluebeard tries to win the honor—and we find out he’s the one who sent them in the first place. Because he has plans.
In the woods, Snow and Bigby discuss his attraction to her and the reasons why, though he says they haven’t been having sex despite their shared accommodations. Neither of them can remember. Meanwhile, Prince Charming confronts Bluebeard, challenges him to a swordfight, and wins—while Snow and Bigby try to take out Goldilocks. She survives an axe to the head, several blows with a tire iron, etc., and then falls down a hill, is hit by a truck, and falls into a river. They assume she’s dead.
Back in Fabletown, Prince Charming tells the Mayor, King Cole, what he did and why—Bluebeard’s betrayal, working with Goldilocks, etc.,—and gets away with it easily because, without a will, all of Bluebeard’s mass of property goes to Fabletown. Financial woes solved.
But at the end of the arc, we find out two more important facts: Prince Charming’s planning on running for mayor… and Snow White is pregnant. She confronts Bigby, who morosely tells her that he told her what he thought she needed to hear when they were in the woods. It’s especially painful, as she’d just told him that she would be willing to take things very slow and date him the mundy way before.
The final section is “Barleycorn Bridges,” a story of how the Lilliputans in Fabletown repopulated their town with their-size women. One went on a long quest to find the barleycorns that Thumbelina was born from, back in the Homelands, and brought them back, so now every young man tries to steal a barleycorn from the jar as a rite to manhood.
This is the first volume of Fables that reminds me of other Vertigo series, like Sandman or Preacher, where the overarching story is spread out with several short stories, asides and world-building tales. I’m a fan of that story format, in novels as well as comics, because it stitches together a strange and fascinating tapestry of tales. It also allows the writer to explore various story formats from the short to the long, as well as how to frame those together. (Coincidentally, it’s also the first with various artists illustrating it, centered on the different stories.)
The two short stories in this issue don’t do much for me personally, but they’re interesting world-building romps. The Jack story is a character-study, of sorts, that gives readers a view into just what a problematic person Jack really is. He’s a manipulative liar, as we’ve already seen, but he also fails to think through consequences in an astounding way. This contrasts with the Jack we see in the Tommy Sharp story, listening to Bigby’s lead but willing to listen to Bluebeard also, weighing his odds. He’s trying to think about what he does before he does it. He’s lost Rose Red and all of his schemes have amounted to nothing, so he’s got to do something now, and he’s not sure what, yet. Jack is one of the more interesting Fables character precisely because he’s such a mess and is so problematic, which explains why there’s a spinoff series all about him, Jack of Fables.
The rest of this volume is concerned with the main arc. What I find particularly engaging is the growing relationship between Snow and Bigby, and the consequences of his decision to try and “protect” her. Bigby has problems of his own: his interactions with Snow often have a sheltering tone, as if he’s never quite forgotten being the one to rescue her long ago in the Homelands, and he can’t help thinking of her as someone who needs his protection. That attitude (and he seems to know it’s a wrong attitude) comes into direct conflict with Snow’s conception of herself and her capabilities. She can’t stand being coddled or treated like she can’t do what others can—watching her during her convalescence is testament to that. She’s strong and independent at all times, and not being so infuriates and upsets her.
The worst decision Bigby could have made about their time in the woods was to lie to her, especially to “protect” her, and yet that is what he does.
As an authorial choice, I think it’s perfect. Relationships aren’t easy. It would have been trite to have them fall magically in love, or to have Bigby act other than he has for the rest of the story. It’s all a tangled mess, the way it should be. He’s happy to be a father but knows lying to her was the worst thing he could have done, because she feels understandably betrayed. Bigby, too, is uncomfortable that he doesn’t remember what happened and had no choice in it. It’s all about where they can go from here, and if Snow will forgive him for the betrayal or if he deserves to be forgiven. What happened to them is fairly horrific—their will and choices stolen, their memory of what they did together missing—and both he and Snow have to deal with that. His decisions afterwards, and hers, make sense with their particular personalities, but the repercussions are going to be intense for both of them. It’s hard to parse right or wrong in such a difficult situation, when Bluebeard’s curse stole from both of them the chance they had at developing a relationship the normal way.
The messiness of the interpersonal relationships in Fables adds a layer of realness to the fantastical story that is absolutely necessary. It’s what makes Fables heart-wrenching and breath-stealing. Willingham doesn’t pull his punches. The poignant moment between Snow, using her cane to walk, and Bigby as they got off the plane back in New York—where she confesses that, if he wasn’t trying to trick her into a date like he did back in the first volume, she might be willing to go—is balanced by the fact that he did trick her, about something considerably more important. Would he have ever told her about what happened in the woods, if she wasn’t pregnant and they’d begun to date? It’s an interesting thing to think about. Bigby is a good person, in his way, and he tries to do what he thinks is best, but it’s not always what’s right. Watching him and Snow develop as characters, together, within Fabletown and without, is one of my favorite parts of this series.
On the other hand, there’s more going on in Storybook Love. Namely, Prince Charming being someone other than the rogue and rake he’s seemed to be so far. Watching his mask drop, briefly, to reveal a clever, cunning man who is perhaps less of a bastard than he appears… That’s pretty damn cool. This volume gives the first hints at who Prince Charming might really be. Before, he was a leech and an awful, manipulative, emotionally abusive cad. The first two volumes make you really hate him, watching him treat women like trash with careless ease. But here, there’s something else. It doesn’t mean he isn’t those other things, because he is, but there’s more to his character.
Willingham isn’t content to develop a flat character. No one is simply good, simply bad, simply this or that. Bigby tries to be good and is often a bit nasty, Bluebeard was a bad man but we see him cry, Prince Charming seems shallow and vapid but he’s actually damned smart, Snow is tough but she’s also prickly and (as Prince Charming says), so afraid of being hurt that she pushes everyone away.
In their original storybook incarnations, all of these characters were flat archetypes, but in Fables they are something infinitely more. They’re real people. Magical people, to be sure, but real people.
Bryan Talbot’s illustrations in “Bag of Bones” are eye-catching and well done, from Jack’s awkward sex-face to the still-clucking beheaded chickens. He catches odd moments, humorous moments, all over the place and makes us see them. For this particular story, he was a perfect choice.
Lan Medina and Mark Buckingham both are fantastic artists who have a touch for facial expressions and movement. Buckingham’s illustrations of the forest scenes in Storybook Love and Goldilocks’s assault and death are excellent, especially his way of treating Bigby’s wolfish features and facial expressions, where he sometimes seems to be lacking some human features entirely.
I was not particularly a fan of the Linda Medley illustrations, though I could see where they fit the silly, fun aspects of the story itself. They seem a bit clunky and flat at times, to me.
Storybook Love is an emotionally complex story with a tangle of personal and public conflicts that draws the reader ever deeper into the dramatic world of Fables.
Next week: The first part of March of the Wooden Soldiers, the fourth volume of Fables.