Best Graphic Story Nominee #5: Fables—The Dark Ages

The fifth and final nominee this year is Fables: The Dark Ages by Bill Willingham and a bevy of artists. (Mark Buckingham, Peter Gross, Andrew Pepoy, Michael Allred and David Hahn, for the curious.) The Dark Ages is the twelfth trade collection of Fables. I take back what I said about Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State having the highest entry bar—that goes to Fables. There’s more or less no way at all to start reading the series here and know what’s going on. In fact, I think it would be some kind of travesty to start here, like skipping to page three hundred or, hell, the last chapter of a book before you read the rest. The good news is, Fables is easy to find in bookstores around the country, not just comic shops, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough, so there’s still time to catch up before the voting.

Fables and its creator(s) have a fantastic awards record so far. It’s won a total of twelve Eisner Awards, some for story and some for art. The Eisners are the big-deal award for comics, sort of like the Hugos and/or Nebulas are for SFF. It was also a Best Graphic Story nominee last year for the eleventh volume, War and Pieces.

Many series would have ended where War and Pieces left off: the Adversary conquered, the realms freed, the battle won. That’s where you end, right? Wrong. The Dark Ages continues the Fables story beyond the easy-fix ending, revealing the serious consequences of unseating the Emperor of billions, ruler of so many worlds, whether he was a “bad guy” or not. The Fables crew in our world were not prepared for what they did, or for what was released during the looting going on in the other worlds: Mister Dark. (We’ll talk about him in a minute.) This volume also contains the death of Boy Blue, the assimilation of Geppetto into Fabletown under the Compact, and Mowgli’s newest mission.

The thing about Fables that I love the most is how seriously it takes the ideas of moral ambiguity and unintended consequences—I’d go so far as to say those are themes of the series as a whole. Nothing is simple and nothing comes easily, not family, or war, or love. The webs we weave between the people we have in our lives and how those webs intersect—like with Geppetto and Pinocchio, and the rest of the fables—influence everything. Fables may have its moments of humor and lightness, but overall it’s concerned with telling a twisty and complex tale about people who might not be so good, after all. (And some who really are as good as good can be, like King Ambrose/Flycatcher, despite the things they’ve seen and suffered.)

I suppose I could try to make an argument similar to the one I made with Girl Genius—that this isn’t a big plot-solver volume—but I think what it does do is much more important than that. Fables is all about retelling and reinventing stories, tales, and tropes. That’s what it does. So, for it to continue and in fact gain momentum after the point in the story where most fairytales end… That’s significant. It’s doing its thematic work with strong hands, right there, reinventing the idea of the fairytale again and again by showing what happens behind the scenes. It’s the difference between happily-ever-after (which never really happens), and having to face the consequences of every action.

Not to mention, aside from the sweeping themes and complexities, the emotional pull in this volume is wrenching. Boy Blue’s death, Rose Red’s depression and illness, the loss of Fabletown: all of these things are blows, especially after eleven volumes with these people. (Of course, it’s possible the dead won’t stay dead. The way Fables deals with that is one of my favorites, because it’s so unreliable, and deals so much with how belief fuels power.) The Dark Ages is strong story-wise and theme-wise. It’s a hefty volume that’s doing a lot with itself.

I’m not the first person to say it, but Mister Dark is a fascinating character—not in the least because of what seems like the most obvious Sandman reference ever, by another successful comic about mythology and storytelling published by Vertigo. Mister Dark is many other things, as well, like the monster in the dark under the bed and the stately villain. The resemblance to Morpheus/Dream, as well as some lines (the one about having many names, for example), point fingers in the direction of Gaiman’s masterpiece comic. (Examples: released from a lengthy prison and goes to reclaim his items of power from those using them, his shifting but always dark and morose look, the white text in a black dialogue box, the many names.) This may seem like the usual comic-book thing to do, but I’d like to stress that it’s hardly a crossover; it’s simply another re-interpretation, another homage, like the rest of the characters scattered throughout Fables. After all: Sandman is definitely part of our cultural mythology, now.

I absolutely cannot wait to see where Willingham goes with this story and how it will weave into the rest of the universe, as it seems clear at this point that Mister Dark has the right to be pissed off, since they’d been using him as a magical battery for god knows how long. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s, well, literally evil in flesh from what we’ve seen so far. I’d be pretty mad, too.

I adore this series for everything that it’s trying to do and everything that it does. It’s slick, it’s engaging, and it’s always questioning itself. And the art! Holy crap, the art. The James Jean covers are breathtaking. The interior art, no matter who is doing it, is equally startling and beautiful. (Another thing that makes me compare it to Sandman—the multiple artists alternating what stories they illustrate, etc.) If the Best Graphic Story Award was for art, Fables would win hands-down, I think. I know I said I’d give it to Andy Kubert, but dammit, they’re all so good.

This was a hard choice, because I’m big fans of the other nominees, but in the end, I give it to Fables. Man, I really hope it wins this year, but I’ll be happy for anyone who does. All of these writers and artists are talented, cool people. I wish them the best of luck!

Seriously, can’t wait to see.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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