The fourth collected volume of Fables, March of the Wooden Soldiers, is the first to play with the publication order of issues by rearranging things a bit to make more sense. It contains both the single-issue magazine of “The Last Castle,” a longer story not in the numbered-issues continuity, and issues 19-21 & 23-27. (Issue 22 appears in the fifth volume; it’s a Cinderella sidestory.) If that sounds confusing: it’s not. I actually didn’t realize until doing research to write up this post how the issues had been arranged; the story flows perfectly the way the trade is put together. It’s a big story, with quite a bit going on. In fact—
March of the Wooden Soldiers is one of the volumes that will be split over two posts due to sheer size and content. It’s roughly twice the length of the first volume, and there are a lot of things happening in it. It’s also the collection that garnered Fables its next Eisner (the first several went to Legends in Exile, but there hadn’t been a win since then), and in my opinion, the best volume of the series so far. This first post will deal with roughly the first half of the book, up to “Our Second Amendment Issue (Chapter 4 of March of the Wooden Soldiers),” where the next post will begin.
So, as for the credits for both parts: it’s all still written by Willingham. “The Last Castle” is penciled by Craig Hamilton and P. Craig Russel, inks also by Russel. March of the Wooden Soldiers is penciled by Mark Buckingham, inked by both he and Steve Leialoha, colored by Daniel Vozzo and Lovern Kindzierski, and lettered by Todd Klein. The covers are all by James Jean.
March of the Wooden Soldiers opens with the story “The Last Castle.” In Fabletown, Boy Blue is playing his blues. Snow asks him about the story of the last folks out of the Homelands and the experience that they come together once a year to remember. The story itself is actually rather simple: some of the Fables at the end of the world have to stay behind and fight to their deaths to allow the others to escape. It’s a wholesale slaughter. Boy Blue is given the witching cloak and told to watch until the last moment, when he must use it to teleport onto the escape boat. It’s his job to remember. So he stays, and watches his friends die one by one, messily—and when he witches himself onto the boat, he finds that his new lady-love Red Riding Hood has stayed behind for him, because she didn’t know he would escape.
Which leads us to the actual March of the Wooden Soldiers arc. A new Fable has escaped into our world and is being escorted to Fabletown. Meanwhile, Snow has a dream in which Colin the Pig’s severed head warns her about danger to come. She’s pregnant and hasn’t spoken to Bigby, who is still angry about the Mayor’s decision to let Prince Charming off the hook for killing Bluebeard. Meanwhile, the Prince is running his own mayoral campaign, as Bigby and Snow realize. Then the new Fable shows up: and it’s Red Riding Hood, who was left behind.
She tells an extravagant story of being kept alive as a sex slave and scrub-woman by the Adversary’s forces after the fall of the castle (despite the fact that they killed everyone else down to a man). Bigby is immediately suspicious. When she sees Blue, she says he used her and left her, then runs away—which Bigby knows is the perfect move for a fake or a spy who had thought Blue was dead to make. Meanwhile, in the city, three strange-speaking and identical men have arrived looking for guns, and they don’t seem to grasp mundy humans very well.
Bigby explains through his war experience that he knows how these spies work, and he’s going to go see what happened at the gate she came through, because it was sealed from the Adversary’s side, not Fabletown’s. When King Cole tells Red she’ll have to be interviewed by Bigby, she wigs out again, thanks to her experiences with him as a wolf (and it’s also convenient).
The next chapter opens with Jack trying to sell his fake magic beans in a bar and Bigby heading up to see a Fable living among the mundy who can see all the evils a person has done. He’s gouged his eyes out for the time being, though, so he can’t be of use. The three strange men overhear Jack in the bar and think he was being serious about the magic beans, so they demand them of him—of course he refuses, and they kick the hell out of him. He does manage to fight them and drive them away, and breaks one’s wooden leg off. He bursts into Bigby’s office with the leg in hand, interrupting his planning session with Snow, and claims he’s got a mugging to report. (And that’s where we stop part 1.)
“The Last Castle” has a tendency to bring me to tears; I’ll just put that out there for starters.
Boy Blue is one of the characters that strikes me as having a certain aura of “goodness” that many (or most) of the other characters lack. He is a genuinely honorable and well-intentioned person, with hidden depths—and this story is his. It adds a dimension to him to learn that he watched his closest friends, his brothers and sisters in battle, die one by one in front of him while he hid and lived. Survivor’s guilt to the max, for one thing. And, as he says, the O. Henry twist to it all is that the woman who he was sent to be with in the new land had stayed behind for him, to fight and die. (Nice literary shout-out in there; as we saw back in Animal Farm, Fables tends to be rife with allusions and references.)
Some of the final lines of the story are so good, I’d rather just quote them: “This is the day I have to take these memories out and look at them,” Blue says to Snow when she apologizes for asking. He’s a survivor, all right, and he’s got the weight of what he survived on him. But, it’s not just guilt or emotional masochism. Instead, it is honor through memory, and it is his responsibility as the one who made it home to keep strong the memories of the people who died so that others might live. He says on the final page in his toast, “To those who stayed behind, and the debt that can never be paid.”
“The Last Castle” is the perfect opening to the volume, also: it tells us straight away that what is coming is not going to be pretty, and it is going to hurt. Snow’s sleeping conversation with the ghost of Colin, which she doesn’t remember, is appropriately ominous and disturbing. It’s foreshadowing with a hammer, on more than one point, but it’s also really effective storytelling—frustrating in that good way when Snow doesn’t remember the warning upon waking, but the reader knows. The scene between her and Dr. Swineheart, where he tries to mention options to her, is a strong one. She’s fierce and determined, but the next shot is her walking alone with her cane, her expression weary and upset. She’s put a good face on all of it, but she’s not okay. Bigby intercepts her as she’s returning to have The Conversation that he wants to be part of the baby’s life and her decisions, and ironically, the thing that brings them together again is Prince Charming’s scheming. Whe Bigby mentions the signatures, Snow realizes what’s up, and they’re off together—awkwardness erased, for the time.
How many times am I allowed to mention that I think Willingham does an excellent job of building their tenuous, realistic relationship? Each of these scenes is so human and so real. Not only is it good reading, but it further expands his narrative goal of making these fables fully developed and nuanced, not like their storybook cousins.
Bigby, by the way, is the smartest of the bunch sometimes, though Snow catches on rather fast also: Red is not what she seems, and every dramatic ploy she makes is straight out of a spy handbook. (The hint at Bigby’s time in the World Wars is tantalizing, and I can’t wait until we get there in the narrative.)
Prince Charming’s campaign speeches are also scattered throughout the chapters, in-between Red’s machinations and the investigation of her. It’s relatively obvious that he’s giving too many promises away and trying too hard, but people are listening. That’s probably not the best sign for King Cole, Snow, or Bigby, but it’s pretty interesting on its own. Prince Charming is a hard character to map. Sometimes an idiot, sometimes a genius, sometimes a play-actor on a bit stage—he’s a lot of things at once, and it’s hard to decide where he stands with anything or anyone but himself.
Kay is introduced in this volume, also—the man with the magic mirror shard in his eye that allows him to see all the evils anyone has ever done. He gouges his eyes out on a regular basis, and so can’t be of help at the time, because he’s blind again, but the conversation he has with Bigby is fascinating. “I got quite a good look at you in the old days, didn’t I?” he says. “Imagine so,” Bigby responds. And his reply is rather intriguing: “True—you never served the Adversary, but if your fellow Fables ever suspected the whole truth—the full enormity of what you’d really done—they’d still tremble in their beds every night.”
Those reminders that Bigby, who is more or less one of the main three/four leads (though this series has plenty of main characters, really)—and a sympathetic, smart, hard-working one at that—was the Big Bad Wolf of all those tales, and many more. He was a nasty bastard and a mass murderer. Good thing to remember, when he starts to seem too nice. Ah, Willingham, I love your complexity.
The last panel of this first section is striking, too: Jack, all bloodied and bruised, slamming into the office to report what’s happened with a wooden leg in his fist. Just a nice bit of art; very effective.
This first section is the majority of the plot-building for the climax of the volume, which comes next week. That said, it’s still excellent on its own for the way Willingham weaves backstory seamlessly into spy intrigue and relationship drama. It’s a far cry from the As You Know Bob moments of the first volume, and much more subtle. It’s obvious that he’s growing as a writer and learning how to tell more complicated stories while using fewer words. I can’t wait to dive into the rest of the volume, and the finale—it’s a doozy.
I want to give special attention to the ridiculously, impossibly, beautifully fabulous James Jean covers for this story arc. They’re collected at the end of the volume. The one with Kay in the bar is a stunner. The shadows, the no-smoking sign half hidden in the back, the bright snowflake design juxtaposed over the dim glass—wow. Jean’s subtle and shadowy paintings are unbelievably gorgeous. That shows, to even greater extents, in my favorite covers: the last two. In one, the fire lashing out of the buildings is strange and luminous, lighting up the faces of the characters who are staring in shock, or who are watching their homes burn around them, or who are poised with mouths half-open in a yell. The red and white are eye-catching in the most intense way. (Snow perhaps looks a bit too helpless, if I had to nitpick.) The cover for volume 27 is also an eye-catcher, but in a completely different way. On it, Jack stands front and center, his weapons lowered, a cigarette half-smoked between his lips, and bodies of his comrades at his feet. The slouch, the hat, the droop of the cigarette—they’re perfect. I have never seen a better illustration of Jack, one that captured as much of him as this one seems to. The inherent sorrow of the bodies as they’re covered with sheets adds contrast to his standing, unharmed self, with pistol and saber.
Just—wow. James Jean is so damned talented.
March of the Wooden Soldiers (Part 1) is a gripping, tangled story of intrigue, danger and the cost of freedom. It is also a tale of loss and of sacrifice.
Next week: March of the Wooden Soldiers Part 2, the second half of the fourth volume of Fables.