The twelfth collected volume of Fables, The Dark Ages, contains issues #76-82. Those issues encompass two arcs and two shorts: “Around the Town,” the titular The Dark Ages, then “Waiting for the Blues,” and finally “Return to the Jungle Book.” This volume is all about consequences, and how short-lived victory can be, as the instability left behind after the defeat of the Adversary results in the release of a great and terrible evil that will threaten just about everything living.
All of The Dark Ages is written by Bill Willingham and lettered by Todd Klein, with covers by James Jean. “Around the Town” has art by Michael Allred and colors by Laura Allred. The titular arc is penciled by Mark Buckingham, inked by Andrew Pepoy, and colored by Lee Loughridge. “Waiting for the Blues” is illustrated by David Hahn and colored by Lee Loughridge. “Return to the Jungle Book” has art by Peter Gross and colors by Lee Loughridge.
The opening story, “Around the Town,” follows Geppetto out on his first tour of Fabletown with his son, where he’s denied service most places, spat at, screamed at, et cetera by the citizens as a whole. More or less, he’ll have to go out in the Mundy to eat and shop. He’s not too happy with the modern world, either; it’s noisy and rude and he can’t have people executed at random. The Fables have arranged for Kay to run into him, also, and what he sees is so massive and horrible that it drives him home to cut out his eyes again.
Then we start The Dark Ages, in the recently freed Homelands. Two mercenaries are looting in a kingdom and come upon a box, which they open, releasing a creature calling itself “Mister Dark.” In the meantime, Boy Blue is having more surgeries and his arm won’t heal, Rose Red is sleeping with (and eventually marrying) Sinbad, and Geppetto is under Frau Totenkinder’s thumb. Mister Dark devours the two men, reveals that his power has been used as a battery of sorts for the Witching Cloak and that he’s going to go take it back and punish the users. The Witching Cloak falls apart and a targeted earthquake frees Baba Yaga. Then Dr. Swineheart has to amputate Blue’s arm, having found a thread of the Witching Cloak in it, rotting his flesh. He’s not doing well while they have Prince Charming’s memorial.
Mister Dark, meanwhile, is eating the teeth of the men he kills in order to keep them with him. Oh, and his unraveling has taken apart the Woodland offices of Fabletown, freed the Blue Fairy, and reduced the Fables to a state of evacuation—going to the Farm, where Rose is dreaming of Colin this time. He warns her, tells her it’s her turn to be the leader, and then disappears as the folks of Fabletown arrive en masse. Including Blue, who’s on death’s doorstep, which disturbs the newly-married Rose deeply.
Mister Dark makes it to Fabletown, finds firemen investigating, and sends them off—then summons up the ghosts of the mercenaries to do his bidding. Kay is the only fable left in Fabletown, and Mister Dark devours him as well. At the same time, Ambrose is trying to heal Blue using the power of the Sacred Grove. He fails and tells people to say goodbye to Blue. Red is so depressed she divorces Sinbad from bed and refuses to get up and lead. When she finally goes to say goodbye to Blue, she proposes to him, only to have him shoot her down and delineate her bad relationship choices then tell her to leave and let him rest. Blue dies as Mister Dark builds his castle on the ruins of Fabletown.
“Waiting for the Blues” deals with the aftereffects of his funeral, with everyone trying to deal with his death, wondering if he’ll come back, wondering how the stories work, wondering about a lot of things. Sinbad decides to leave and explore the Homelands to see what’s out there, and Bigby and Beast have a fight about whether Bigby belongs on the Farm.
“Return to the Jungle Book” follows Mowgli’s return to his Homeworld with Bagheera to see if it’s rehabitable. He’s traveling with Bigby’s brothers as his guard. The story that comes out from a big mechanical tiger is that the white rulers of the west in the world of Indu (we’re going to talk about that in a minute) were defeated by the Adversary and they left him alive because they thought he was a toy. Mowgli has a plan to defeat the gob troops still on the world, and surrenders himself to be eaten but manipulates the gobs into waiting for their superiors from the other camps to arrive—but we don’t find out why, because no one asks him. In the end, he leaves Bigby’s brother and Bagheera to fight off and devour the gobs so that his homeworld can be retaken.
His final scenes and death in this volume are some of the hardest parts of Fables to read, for me, in a good way—I like to be wrenched about emotionally. Watching Blue try to explain to the nurse that he’s not feeling well while she brushes him off because Dr. Swineheart never makes mistakes is pretty awful; he’s too weak to communicate how much pain he’s in or what’s wrong until it’s much too late and he’s literally wasting away. It’s just, well, wrenching. That’s the best word. We’re finally starting to realize that, as Blue says, he did die in the war—it just took a little longer to kill him. The hero goes to his final rest in pain and lonely.
Then, there’s his final scene with Rose Red, and that’s pretty harsh. He’s got the honesty of the dying and he can afford to tell her exactly what’s fucked up about her relationship patterns. He’s not trying to be cruel, I don’t think, but trying to make her understand that she’ll never be happy as long as she keeps searching for the most exciting man and then discarding him when someone more exciting comes along. She makes bad choices. After all, despite how Rose has grown up over the past several volumes, it’s important to keep in mind where she was at the beginning: dating Jack and faking her own death to get rich with him. That’s… not exactly positive.
Those last lines Blue says as Rose is leaving are strong: “I don’t know the particular incident, but somehow you were broken when you were young, in a way that you never recovered. I’m terribly sorry about that, but I can’t fix it. I can’t fix you. I hope that someday, someone else can. I truly do.” She actually takes what he says to heart and proclaims that she’s going to become a better person so that when he comes back, she’ll be “worthy.” Now, I have some issues with this, but it is in character. She didn’t really listen to the part about always doing things for men, because she’s doing this for Blue, not for herself. It should be for herself and it isn’t. So that’s not a good start on the path to self-fulfillment. I also don’t agree with Blue’s idea that it’ll be someone else who “fixes” her—there’s a lot that’s patronizing about that statement, mainly that she’s incapable of looking deep into herself and making her own changes.
It’ll be interesting to see where Rose goes from here—after all, she grew up in a lot of ways after becoming head of the Farm, but her personal life is and has been in shambles. Everyone needs an emotional base, and hers is weakened by loss and infidelity and fickleness. So, we’ll see. (I think Sinbad has the right of it when he calls her a spoiled brat, effectively, before he goes off to scout the Homelands. I think she genuinely hurt him by dropping him like yesterday’s meat, but he never says, so who can know?)
Speaking of Sinbad, he’s come to the same conclusion that I did in the last volume: Prince Charming knew he was going to die with the bomb to end the war, and did it anyway.
The other thing in this volume regarding Blue’s death that stuck out is the discussion of the mechanics of Fables’ existence. Is it storytellers writing stories that make them exist, or are their deeds the precursor to their stories? Is Blue going to “come back?” Ambrose doesn’t think so; and he only had that one little rhyme, despite what a hero he was in his real life. No one’s quite sure how it all works. I like the fact that the Fables are as clueless about their own existence as we are.
As a whole, I’m not so sure about the Mister Dark storyline. He’s a big bad, and if a series is going to keep going, you have to have another villain to fill the place of the one just defeated. And, there are soooo many gothy shades of Sandman in him (the black speech bubble with white letters, the slim look with the black suits and blue-white skim, et cetera). I’m just not sure I’m convinced yet; after all, the story sets him up as more or less impossible to defeat, if he’s the actual source of power for the Witching Cloak and the Well. I’m also having a little trouble believing Frau Totenkinder doesn’t know about using creatures as batteries for magic objects. Okay, a lot of trouble, especially because Geppetto seems to know about it, and she was spying on him for a very, very long time. Oh, well.
The destruction of Fabletown is an interesting way to start a new arc, though; all the money is gone, all the magic is gone, and they’ve been laid out harder than even the war with the Adversary could have done—right after that war ended. They’re just not ready for another conflict yet, emotionally or physically, and they’ve lost two of their best men in battle, Prince Charming and Boy Blue. It’s going to be tough, certainly.
I was kind of upset that we lost Kay so quickly, too—but, as Mister Dark has his teeth, we’ll be seeing more of his shade, I suspect.
Finally, as for the last storyline, I had to think through my initial “what?” reaction. The world is the world of The Jungle Book, which was written by a white man during the colonization of India. So, I get why the world is based around a subjugated native leadership under a white, Western ruler, but. Hm. I have some issues with the representation afoot in the story, predominantly that the leftover native population is so feckless and drunk and silly that they can’t even start a rebellion after the Empire has fallen. They need help from six shapeshifters from the Northern kingdoms to get the job done. Issues, I tell you, which I probably would have less of if I hadn’t gotten kind of leery after Arabian Nights (and Days). I get the world having white Western rulers, if it’s grown out of The Jungle Book, but not that the native population is so useless. It’s supposed to be a humorous short, and everyone is a little ridiculous, so maybe I’m overthinking it, but it got my hackles up, and I’m still not comfortable with it.
This volume has one of my absolute favorite covers: the surreal, colorful, heartbreaking image of Blue, his war-horn dangling from his neck, with bandages being pulled out of his chest, more bandages wrapped around an arm holding a sword that is symbolically severed from him, and a gap of bright blue-white between his shoulder and his body. The scattered toys and flowers around his knees where he kneels are a perfect touch. The swaths of red, red as blood, and the black-and-red roses all around Blue and the woman holding him just add to the image as a whole. Absolutely gorgeous.
The Dark Ages introduces a new storyline, following on the heels of the Fabletown victory over the Empire and the capture of Geppetto, where the Fables crew has to face a whole new dangerous threat to their home, and the loss of friends.
Next week: Fables volume 13, The Great Fables Crossover.