We begin the Fables reread with the first volume, “Legends in Exile,” which collects issues #1-5 and also includes a short prose story called “A Wolf in the Fold.” It is one of the shortest collections of the entire series and also the cheapest at only $10, which makes it a good starting place for a curious reader.
“Legends in Exile” is written by Bill Willingham, penciled by Lan Medina, inked by Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton, colored by Sherilyn van Valkenburgh, and lettered by Todd Klein. (Fables, like another familiar Vertigo title, Sandman, tends to have many artists working on it at a given time.) The series covers are done by artists James Jean and Alex Maleev.
The format for these posts, which will be much the same throughout, is simple: a bit of summary, then my thoughts on the volume, then your comments on the same. Whether you’ve read Fables before or are reading it for the first time, I hope you enjoy!
Jack comes running to Bigby’s office to report that his girlfriend, Rose Red, is missing. Bigby tells her sister Snow White, coincidentally also the person running Fabletown, and they go to investigate. The apartment has been trashed and is covered in blood but Bigby immediately notices something is off, as will the reader, judging by the clues that the art hints at. They toss Jack in the lockup, where he reveals that Rose Red had also been sleeping with Bluebeard, who had an old habit of murdering women. Meanwhile, Fabletown is about to have its annual rememberance party, where the wealthy remaining Fables donate the governmental budget. The official mayor, King Cole, wants things fixed by that time.
Bigby flat out accuses Bluebeard of murdering Rose Red, but he counters by revealing that she had contracted to marry him after a year of silence and a huge payment. Later, Bluebeard attacks Jack and Bigby has to separate them—which means that he’s got everybody for something illegal. Further investigation reveals that Jack was trying to run a dotcom startup but failed, leaving Bigby to wonder where Jack got the seed money for a start-up in the first place.
After investigation and speech-giving, and the revelation of another important plot point about Prince Charming raffling off his lands and various money changing hands (I am glossing over plenty), Bigby decides to reveal all at the big party like a detective from a book. He actually makes a point that every cop always dreams of getting to do “the parlor-room scene.” As it so happens, Rose Red and Jack faked her death to get her out of her contract to Bluebeard while keeping Bluebeard’s money for Jack’s dotcom start-up.
It all works out for Jack anyway, though, as he wins the raffle of Prince Charming’s lands. Turns out Prince Charming only earned a small amount of money from the raffle, so he offers Jack a trade, money for his returned titles. Jack agrees and pays Bluebeard back and he and Rose Red are punished with community service. Nobody has to die… but no one is happy, least of all Bluebeard, when the story is over.
I was surprised by how much less interested I was in this first volume upon rereading it. Possibly, this is because I am not a “prologue” kind of person—and Legends in Exile is a prologue. It introduces a world and a set of characters without immediately engaging in what is to be the main plot. Instead, it tells a quick, self-contained mystery story. While there are definitely things that become important later on, like Bluebeard’s anger, the funding situation for Fabletown, the power structures, Jack-as-the-trickster, Rose Red being sent to the Farm, etc., the purpose of Legends in Exile is to welcome the reader inside and give them the basic tour.
However! I don’t blame it for being a prologue, because a new comic has to prove itself very quickly: grab readers and give them something to look at first, then build its story next. I’ve certainly noticed a trend in comics to open with a prologue-esque, self-contained story (usually about 5 or 6 issues long) to snag the curious newsstand readers who pick up new single issues without knowing much about them.
From that angle, Legends in Exile absolutely works. The first time I read it, I eagerly moved on to the second volume because of all those hints at something bigger—the world was fascinating and the characters showed early signs of real complexity. The mystery-story gives Willingham room to introduce a large cast and a strange universe where, it seems, all stories are true and come from worlds adjacent to ours. Oh, and they’re at war. That’s a fascinating idea.
As for Willingham’s worldbuilding itself, I was surprised to see some “As You Know, Bob” moments I hadn’t originally noticed—there are a few spots of dialogue that are shockingly clunky and expository compared to how slick and polished his writing has become. It’s still good, make no mistake, but it’s interesting to see him stretching his narrative wings with the Fables story and trying to explain just what it is he’s trying to create. Paying attention to his growth as a writer throughout the rereads is going to be fun, I think.
As for the things I loved, this time around: Snow White is an awesome leading woman. She’s got the power, she’s got the skill, and she’s not afraid to use it. At the same time, she’s sympathetic. Despite her tense relations with her sister she cares deeply for her and her well-being. She has moments of weakness and moments of rage to go with her level-headed running of Fabletown. In short, she’s a very human character with obvious depth. (It is, by the way, also very cool that a woman is in practice the head of the government.)
In the short story at the end of the volume, we find out how she originally met Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf) and faced him down in chains with only a sword she didn’t know how to use. Then, once they had fled to the mundane world, she’s the one who comes to find him and bring him to Fabletown, knowing that he might choose to try to eat her. Snow White isn’t fearless, perse, because she certainly feels fear—but she’s courageous and tough. (She’s not the only strong woman in Fabletown. We also get a peek at Cinderella in this volume, though we don’t get to see her significance for some while.)
Fables has some of the best art around. Legends in Exile, like the rest of the series, has breathtaking issue covers by James Jean that are included in the collection. Lan Medina illustrates the volume with his evocative, flexible style while the colorists, inkers and letterers fill it out to create a beautiful piece of work. The colors and shading are consistently gorgeous and the lineart manages to capture an astounding amount of detail. Bigby’s wolfishness, the animal Fables, any and all facial expressions… No one can dispute that this comic is almost impossibly pretty.
Legends in Exile plays with its panel layouts in a cool way, too, using scrollwork and tricks of background to create a different visual experience than most comics that just lay out panels without really thinking about it.
Legends in Exile is a tantalizing first taste of Fables, giving just a nibble of the great, complex characters and story ahead. It only gets better from here.
Next week: Volume two, Animal Farm.