Continuing from Part 1, this week we’re re-reading the last half of Fables volume four, March of the Wooden Soldiers. The usual volume information, like the issue numbers and artists, is contained in the first post, for the curious. Part 2 of our March of the Wooden Soldiers read-along begins with “Our Second Amendment Issue (Chapter Four)” and finishes out the volume at issue #27, “The Battle of Fabletown (Chapter Seven).”
The first major conflict with the Adversary in Fabletown is underway, and everyone is fighting for their lives. This is not a drill.
The three wooden brothers arrive at “Big Ned’s Discount Guns” and demand to buy one of each kind. When the proprietor tells them they’re not allowed to just walk out with them, they kill him and leave a note on his body that the “meatheads” should show a little more respect. (Bigby and Snow, talking with Jack at the same time, don’t believe his story of new Fables beating the hell out of him.) Red comes up to Boy Blue where he’s playing his horn, sitting next to Pinocchio and Flycatcher, and whisks him off to “her place” so they can “talk.” Prince Charming is also up to his usual business—offering Snow and Bigby’s jobs to Beauty and Beast. Blue and Red, back in her secret warehouse bedroom, have sex, and then he confronts her: he knows she’s not the real thing. She zaps him and the three wooden soldiers come from the shadows.
The next issue opens at the farm, where Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut has begun running wild. Rose knows something’s up. Meanwhile, back in Fabletown, Flycatcher and Pinocchio report Blue missing—and Snow admits Bigby’s not available, so they’ll have to find him themselves. The next scene cuts to Blue, beaten within an inch of his life and tied to a chair with the fake Red Riding Hood torturing him for information.
Bigby wakes snow with a call from the garrison up north to let her know that all of the Fables posted there are dead, and the gate was opened from the other side—with lots of traffic coming through. Snow gathers up Fabletown’s leaders and announces an emergency lockdown. A shot brings them running downstairs, and they find that the wooden soldiers have shot the doorman. They’re carrying Blue and a letter from the Adversary (Emperor) offering to take Fabletown in without struggle if they’ll give up all of their magic and weapons. They also ask for Pinocchio, then they leave. Pinocchio begins packing his things, aware now that his father is alive and still in the Homelands.
Chapter six finds the Farm fables and Red on their way into town with all the weapons they could carry. Prince Charming sweet-talks the cops into letting them blockade off their street. Back in the warehouse, the wooden soldiers are building hundreds of their brothers from pieces. Boy Blue wakes in the hospital and finds his fingers likely ruined; he’s determined to join the fight and get revenge. Snow confronts the Thirteenth Floor (the witches) and presses them into service. On both sides, the forces gather and speeches are given. (Oh, and Jack with his pistol is watching Pinocchio: if it looks like he’s about to fall into enemy hands, them bam. No information given to the enemy.)
The battle joins and Snow’s plans all seem to be working, but the Fables are suffering losses while the wooden soldiers just put themselves back together. The final part of the plan is a bad miscalculation; lighting them on fire might seem reasonable, but it just turns them into giant walking torches. Pinocchio runs out to stop them but is beheaded by a wooden soldier who doesn’t recognize him. When it’s starting to look particularly bad, Bigby comes to the rescue, with his huff-and-puff routine.
On the roof, another battle joins, between the generally nameless Frau Totenkinder and Baba Yaga. In the Fabletown building proper, King Cole and Flycatcher ride the elevator up—and King Cole sees them. He has Fly take them back down again as fast as he can. In the end, Frau Totenkinder wins without much effort, as Bigby defeated the soldiers below. The local news, later, reports three different explanatory stories about what happened, and only one newsroom worker catches it.
The Fables consign their dead to the Wishing Well, including a fake Baba Yaga body, but in reality Bigby and Frau Totenkinder have her imprisoned deep in the bowels of the building. The final pages of the issue reveal that Mama Bear is pregnant again, Red and Weyland were in a relationship, Snow’s water has broken, and Pinocchio has returned to wood after his “death.”
It’s really hard for most writers to juggle so many things going on in so many different places at once. Willingham does it flawlessly. (I’d also say that they way this is done in Fables might be impossible in a regular text-only novel. The page-by-page scene changes don’t have to be introduced because the scenery introduces them without effort, whereas a novel that flipped every page to a different locale would be harder to follow. Comics can do interesting things with storytelling.) These chapters are in many places at once, weaving several stories at once, and yet they never lose any tension.
There’s a lot of humor amidst all of the chaos in the last half of this story, mostly thanks to the wooden soldiers. “It is my fondest desire to bust a host of caps into multitudes of fleshy personages,” for example. I think most readers would have a bit of a snort at that. Page 185, too: the conversation between the young man and his parents while they watch the wooden soldiers march into Fabletown that culminates in a joke about the Nazis and the Young Republicans, followed by the kid asking, “Does this mean we get Guiliani back?” It’s a nice touch to include moments of lightness in an otherwise dark and tense story where lives are on the line.
Willingham also writes in a good level of realism in the battle-planning: Snow’s not really qualified, but she does what she can, and they all try as hard as they can to work together. Her stature and power as the effective leader of Fabletown are in full evidence when she reminds the witches of the Thirteenth Floor what they owe, and exactly how hard she can make life for them—but she also shows moments of fear and uncertainty in relative privacy. She knows her friends and coworkers’ lives are at stake, and their way of life. The Adversary has come, and they’ve been run off of too many lands before. The Mundy world is the only one left, and all the Fables are ready to protect it at whatever cost.
I also like that this time, Bigby does get to come to the rescue. Sometimes, that’s the right choice for the narrative. Snow had done the best she could, but she’s one woman, and Bigby is the Big Bad Wolf, son of the North Wind. He can fuck some things up, to put it indelicately. I’m interested in the show of tenderness between her and Bigby in his wolf body—and the fact that, as Red also comments, Snow mellows out a little in his presence. She can trust him to take care of things and to do his job (which she had been doing in his absence). While he does shoo her off the battlefield, he respects what she’s already done. I didn’t see that scene as a “how could you endanger our child” moment, as so often pop up in stories with pregnant heroines, or even a “not your place” sort of argument—he’s too happy to see her and the work she’s already done. Bigby knows it’s Snow’s place to lead, but they can also compromise, I think. Rose Red is singularly surprised by the fact that her sister is willing to retreat, because it seems so outside of her character, but I’m not sure it is. She admits at the beginning of the lockdown that it’s Bigby’s job and he has the war experience, so when he returns (and she’s thrilled that he does), she gives it back to him. (Her “You always save me” is a bit cute, considering that she does plenty of saving throughout the story, too.)
And then there’s the part of the story I’ve been itching to talk about since we started March of the Wooden Soldiers—Frau Totenkinder and Baba Yaga’s showdown.
Quite a lot of important Fabletown secrets regarding the witches come out in this volume, especially Totenkinder, who appears as an old woman, usually knitting in her rocker. Don’t let appearances fool you, though: she’s the big bad. The scene where King Cole sees (and we see in the reflection of his glasses) two dragon-like figures in conflict, and the empty rocker, is striking. “Dear God above,” he says, and runs like hell. He knows what’s a good idea. When Totenkinder wins easily and begins speaking to Baba Yaga, we get a tender tidbit of worldbuilding that will become important to consider later. She says: “Personally, I never thought much of that ‘popularity equals power’ nonsense. It’s never been tested in controlled conditions. I’ve tried to stay out of the stories, myself. I prefer anonymity, and my own counsel.”
So. Maybe there are nuances in the way the fables “work.” Totenkinder’s only surviving story is as the nameless witch of the “Hansel and Gretel” tale. As she says, she was burned to ashes in her own oven, but she still came back to life, stories or no. There’s something else going on there, life-wise. It’s trickier than just “popularity=survival.”
That block of the volume is the most fascinating, I think. Also, the fact that she and Bigby in secret keep the real Baba Yaga imprisoned to torture information out of her, for however long it takes. Never let it be said that Fabletown isn’t ruthless, but I suspect Bigby is right to keep it a secret—though it will cause problems later.
Overall, March of the Wooden Soldiers was a fine showing of storytelling and character development. It was emotional, gripping and action-packed. Willingham shines in his tale of war and exiles. It’s the best volume yet, in my opinion, though the others were all great, too.
Last time we talked about the issue covers; this time I’d like to point out some of my favorite panels. While I talked about the story of the Totenkinder versus Baba Yaga conflict above, I’d also like to mention the art. It’s a striking set of panels. Totenkinder’s face is lined and severe. The way the rain slicks down her hair is perfect. It’s just gorgeous.
The battle scenes are also great; there’s so much kinetic motion, so much going on, but it’s all so clearly drawn. The colors are sharp and bright, the characters are all in motion, their expressions are intense. Mark Buckingham is a talented guy, make no mistake, and so are the inkers and colorists.
March of the Wooden Soldiers (Part 2) is a climactic and fascinating story of battle and bravery. It definitely deserved its Eisner award.
Next week: The Mean Seasons, the fifth volume of Fables.