Sons of Empire is the ninth volume of Fables. It’s one of the bigger collections: it contains issues #52-59, as well several shorts including a Christmas special, a Rapunzel short, and many others. The main story arcs, “Sons of Empire” and “Father and Son,” both build from the explosions (in one case, literal) in “Homelands” and “Wolves.” It’s all about consequences in “Sons of Empire,” while “Father and Son” delves into a bit of Bigby’s relationship—or lack of one—with his father.
Okay, wow, this is a big credits list. It will go beneath the cut.
The whole thing is written by Bill Willingham, as per usual. By arc: Sons of Empire is illustrated by Mark Buckingham, inked by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy, colored by Lee Loughridge. “Father and Son” has art by Michael Allred and coloring by Laura Allred. The short “Hair” has art by Gene Ha, colors by Lee Loughridge. “Porky Pine Pie” has art by Joshua Middleton. “A Thorn in Their Side” has art by Michael Allred and colors by Laura Allred. “The Road to Paradise” has art by Inaki Miranda and colors by Eva de la Cruz. “Jiminy Christmas” is illustrated by Mark Buckingham, with inks by Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, and Mark Buckingham, and colors by Lee Loughridge. (Whew!) And that’s leaving aside “Burning Questions,” where each one to two page short-answer illustration has a different artist, including Jill Thompson.
For the sake of space, I’m going to skip the “Burning Questions” section. Otherwise, I’ll organize the arcs one at a time, with the shorts at the end. (Just so it makes the most coherent sense in a summary; it works just fine as an actual comic.)
Sons of Empire follows the scribe Muddlecock in the Homelands while he attends a meeting of the heads of the Empire—and this ol’ woodcarver, Geppetto!—to record the minutes. Present are folks like the Snow Queen and Hansel, the Nome King, Rodney the soldier/spy, and Pinocchio. (In Fabletown, Riding Hood gets her hair cut and buys modern clothes, and when Ambrose sees her, he wigs out, runs to the magic mirror, cries he’s not a cheater, then remembers something—and turns back into a frog.) The Snow Queen reveals her plan: concentric attacks. First plague, then fire, then winter, then famine, to wreck the entire Mundy world. They elect to send Hansel as the envoy Fabletown invited, and the next chapter opens with him arriving, to the rage of the other Fables. Apparently, he’s a serial killer, and he was the only Fable ever kicked out of the Fabletown compact and exiled, because he murdered his own sister. So, he joined the Emperor, as it provides an opportunity for him to keep murdering “witches.”
There’s one short that fits in, here: “A Thorn in Their Side?” As it so happens, the place Hansel and his group rent is being sublet by one other tenant, writer Kevin Thorne. This short reveals that he’s actually researching Fabletown, and believes that when they say “sent to the Farm” they mean killed. He knows the last reporter to find out was murdered. So he researches, and he writes.
The next part returns to the Empire, where Pinocchio explains what would actually happen if the Snow Queen’s plan was instituted: the Fables would reveal themselves to the Mundies and organize a strike force. All the Mundy governments would come together and wipe the Empire off the faces of the earth(s). So, Geppetto and the Snow Queen revise the plan by themselves: kill the Fables first, so there’s no one to alert the Mundies. (Oh, and Muddlecock is executed as soon as he finishes recording the minutes.)
“Father and Son” explores the relationship between Bigby and his father while he and Snow take the children to visit. He does it because he agrees that the children deserve to see their grandfather, not because he wants to see his father—they have it out a little about him leaving Bigby’s mother to die, and never understanding being a wolf. The kids almost get eaten by Bigby’s older brothers, but he beats them in combat, and then has them turned into goldfish as their punishment. The kids take them home as pets.
As for the shorts: “Hair” is about Rapunzel, whose hair has to be cut three times a day and who can’t go out in public for more than 45 minutes in one place because of how fast it grows. “Porky Pine Pie” is about a speaking porcupine Fable tricking a girl into kissing him. “The Road to Paradise” is about the three blind mice trying to find the mouse-lands where they will have all the lady mice. “Jiminy Christmas” is about Santa the Fable, how he’s everywhere at once, and how Jack once tried to steal the Naughty-and-Nice lists—which it turns out Bigby keeps safe every year. Also, there are hints about Ambrose.
This is one of the more disjointed volumes in the series; there are several things developing, yes, but there are also a ridiculous amount of shorts and asides crammed in there. The Christmas story, in particular, is a weird thing to have in between Sons of Empire and “Father and Son,” which are both more serious arcs. It’s bound to happen sometimes, with a series as sprawling as this one is. (On the other hand, the Christmas story has a very important part, which we’ll get to in a minute.)
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy where the main arc is going in this volume, because I did. I really, really did. The back-and-forth between the Snow Queen and Pinocchio is illustrative of exactly what devastating forces are arrayed on either side of the conflict. The introductory line is a good touch, too: “This is how the world ends.” It echoes to some T. S. Eliot, “This is the way the world ends,” quite obviously. (I’m actually curious as to why it isn’t a direct quote; copyright/trademark issues…?) Then possibly there’s a bit of Robert Frost in that the Snow Queen’s second and third waves of attack are fire and ice. I might be making a bit of a stretch there, though.
And then, there’s Hansel.
He is perhaps the first honest-to-god disturbing Fable introduced in the story so far. Sure, we’re aware that everyone has a dark side, and some—like Bigby—made a hobby of murder and torment in the Homelands. But Hansel is the first serial killer, and he’s just walking around free. He murdered his own sister on Fabletown land and his punishment was simply exile, because they couldn’t quite prove it—but they did already know that he’d spent the tail end of the Burning Times cutting a swath through the Mundy population in Europe, burning and drowning and hanging as many people as he chose.
Hansel is an interesting serial killer, in a way—he has a type, but it’s not necessarily gendered, though he seems to prefer women. He doesn’t even have a specific preferred method for the murders: for him, it’s about the trial, the torture, and the power. He calls them witches because it’s what he needs, to hunt “witches.” It’s a delusion, the kind that most serial killers have. It was just his lucky break that the Empire was happy to have him, fresh from exile, and give him a job as head of the Inquisition, where he can murder and torture to his heart’s content.
He’s a piece of work, and Geppetto’s having quite a laugh by sending him as the Fabletown envoy. Pinocchio is the obvious choice: forced to loyalty by the magic that renewed his physical form, he wouldn’t be able to mislead or betray his father. But, Geppetto can’t resist the opportunity to rub Fabletown’s faces in Hansel’s crimes while they can’t do anything about it. He’s the legal envoy, after all; they can’t harm him. It’s like the world’s worst case of diplomatic immunity.
Especially since we know that he’s setting up the force to murder the Fables and destroy the Mundy world.
Oh, and then there’s also Kevin Thorne, who doesn’t seem so important at the moment—a writer researching Fabletown, which is obviously bad, but nowhere near a hint of what comes along later. His assumptions about “the Farm” are kind of hilarious, since the reader knows better, but it’s important to consider that he’s using that as mental motivation for what he eventually plans on doing with all of this information. He thinks the Fables are evil. That’s never going to lead to anything good.
The part of “Father and Son” that strikes me as most interesting is how we’re seeing young!Ambrose’s view of his own father coming into their family. It’s touching and a little heart-breaking that the children couldn’t quite accept him after so long, and that he proved his loyalty by rescuing them from being devoured—by his own brothers. The view into Snow and Bigby’s personal relationship, too, is realistic: they compromise. It’s not all about Bigby’s dislike of his father, because there are the children to think about, and he’s willing to do what it takes for them. It’s good development of their family as a cohesive unit, with rough patches and smooth, through tough decisions and tougher emotions.
The one bit of the Santa story that is terribly important is about Ambrose: it seems minor, because it’s all happening in the background of the other stories, but this is where the plot starts ramping up again—with Flycatcher, recovering some awful memories.
Santa brings him one thing. It’s a vision of his wife, to kiss him and turn him back human again. But, then he remembers she’s dead, and we learn that Santa once made him forget and never can again. All this time, he’s been asking the mirror to hunt for his wife, and the mirror has kept the secret even from him that she died, long ago.
Oh, poor Ambrose. However, it’s necessary that he remember and be returned to himself.
As Santa says, with Colin-the-Pig’s head in the background:
“A great war is coming, and when it does many full worlds will die, perhaps including this one. Unless you alone have the strength and will to do the hard and terrible things that need to be done. You can save them all. Or most. Or some. Maybe….Goodbye, Ambrose. I wish this could have been a better holiday for you.”
And that’s the most important thing in this damn volume, but it seems so small in comparison to the pages spent on everything else.
While my favorite covers for Sons of Empire are ridiculously morbid, they’re also painfully goddamn gorgeous. I know I always say this about James Jean, but Sons of Empire has some of the best covers since March of the Wooden Soldiers.
The volume’s cover art, for example: the corpses, the heads, the dangling ornaments that range from dolly-heads to grenades, Geppetto with his hand on Pinocchio’s shoulder as he plays with a tank and a plane, all done in greys, blacks and red. The blood is so vivid against the grey background.
Then, there’s the Hansel cover. It’s genuinely spine-chilling. He’s submerged to the thighs in the water, drowning two young women whose mouths are open, hair bedraggled and twisted in his hands. Yikes. I hesitate to use the word “beautiful” for an image of such violence, but it’s effective. It’s astoundingly awful, and yet that is what makes it so striking. He’s a nasty piece of work.
Sons of Empire is another builder arc, moving us toward one of the great parts of the Fables story, Ambrose/Flycatcher’s time to shine.
Next week: The Good Prince, volume 10 of Fables.