The fifth collected volume of Fables: The Mean Seasons, collects issue #22—the short “Cinderella Libertine”—and issues #28-33, which form two arcs called, respectively, “War Stories” and “The Mean Seasons.” As the cover-copy says
With the Battle of Fabletown won, and the surrounding city of New York none the wiser, the Fables have gained a little time for rebuilding and reflection—in between the interrogation of the Adversary’s agent and the anticipation of Snow White’s impending motherhood.
The volume is written entirely by Bill Willingham. “Cinderella Libertine” and “War Stories” are both penciled by Tony Atkins and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, while The Mean Seasons is penciled by regular Mark Buckingham and inked by regular Steve Leialoha. The colorist overall was Daniel Vozzo and the work on lettering was done by Todd Klein. Covers, once again, by the ever-amazing James Jean.
The volume opens with the first espionage story about Cinderella. As it begins, Cinderella tricks Briar Rose and Snow White into thinking she’s run her shoeshop into the ground and is gallivanting off to Paris—in reality, when she gets there she meets Ichabod Crane. She’s obviously playing an act, dressed skimpily, et cetera. She’s apparently been carrying on a relationship with him while promising him that she works for the Adversary and will make him a ruler and her husband if he just agrees to turn sides. He does. Unfortunately for him, Cinderella’s not a spy for the Emperor: she’s a spy for Bigby, his only one off the books, as we find out. Bigby doesn’t care to try and have a trial, because it would reveal her job, so he kills Ichabod and they leave Paris.
“War Stories” takes us through a chunk of Bigby’s time in World War II, behind enemy lines, through the eyes of the last man surviving from their unit. He handwrote an account of what happened, and as he’s been diagnosed with cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, he calls Bigby over and gives him the book so his secrets won’t be revealed. (There’s lots of intrigue and adventure and fighting Nazis.) In the end, Bigby has the book shelved in the Fabletown library.
The Mean Seasons returns the story to Fabletown, where Snow is giving birth to her children and Prince Charming is taking over as Mayor. The complications start right away, though: the six babies Snow has are all varying levels of human-looking, and they can fly, so they must be sent to the Farm—where Bigby is forbidden to step foot. He’s naturally not okay with this. Prince Charming finds out right away that his campaign promise to buy glamours for all the nonhuman Fables isn’t going to work out; he really should have asked the witches, first. Beast finds out some of the shadier things he need to do as Sherriff from Bigby, and about the spies. On the Farm, Rose and Snow have a talk, where Rose makes Snow really think about her attitude toward Bigby and the fact that she’s still holding out for a prince. Oh, and Boy Blue has stolen the Vorpal Blade, the Witching Cloak and Pinocchio’s body to return to the Homelands and hunt down the real Red Riding Hood.
Next, in “A Winter Kingdom,” a bunch of sprites are scurrying around a big bearded man—and they tell him they’ve found his grandkids, if not his son. In Fabletown, Beauty and Beast are overwhelmed by protesting Fables who are extremely displeased with Prince Charming’s failure to come through on any of his promises. There are mysterious deaths occurring, too, and a note from Frau Totenkinder about Snow’s seven children. Mister North arrives on the Farm just after Beast “frees” Flycatcher from his community service—which was the only thing keeping him settled down and sane.
In the final issue, Mister North says the deaths are being caused by a zephyr, a kind of “birth-defect” spirit common in his realm that devours air from people’s lungs. He sends his sprites off to hunt and kill it, but Snow knows the truth. She calls it to her that night, crying. It’s her seventh child, and she sends it away to find Bigby before they can kill it for what it’s done. At the children’s first birthday party, she puts out seven cupcakes, and says she’ll explain when they’re older. (Meanwhile, Prince Charming is trying to recall all the spies from the field, and Beast is having it explained to him why he’s supposed to keep Flycatcher on staff.)
The Cinderella story is intriguing. She does get her own spinoff comic down the road written by Chris Roberson, but this is the first issue we spend with her during her espionage acts. She’s extremely competent at playing parts, as we see; not just to her clueless paramour Ichabod but to the women who have known her for a very long time. She wears a true face with no one, it seems, but Bigby—and only because he’s her handler and her boss. (And what’s to say that’s her real self?) She’s a fascinatingly hard-edged character with a taste for violence and adventure. I do appreciate that, out of the Fabletown spies (who we meet more of in the next volume), there is a woman. A part of me balks that the first assignment of hers we see is her pretending to be a sexpot and seducing the secrets out of a man, but then I consider the actual missions given to women spies quite a lot of the time. I can’t say it’s not realistic.
I am rather fond of “War Stories” as a short arc; probably because it retains a level of emotional serious while also catering to some serious B-Movie sensibilities—Frankenstein’s Monster versus the Wolfman, and the caricature Nazi Nurse and Scientist? It’s hilarious. But, underneath that goofiness is a story of men dying in war and suffering untold amounts. It is a story of mortality and memory, too; the scenes between Bigby (still young as ever) and his dying war buddy are touching. It’s difficult to balance campy humor with serious impact, but Willingham does manage it in this short tale.
The Mean Seasons is a part of the story that’s beginning to feel familiar. It’s like a roller-coaster, climbing and climbing toward its peak then plunging down—and then it does it all over again. If, in that metaphor, the coaster went higher every time, it might work better, because Fables doesn’t dip back down to low levels after each climactic story point. It keeps a slow boil and then builds on the previous happenings, never losing tension but only gaining it. Each time we think there will be peace of a happy ending or some resolution, more black clouds roll in on the horizon, worse and uglier than the last. The web Willingham is spinning in the titular arc of this volume is intricate and tight as can be. There are so many things happening at once: where is Bigby, for example? What will happen with Mister North? What about the spies, and Prince Charming’s plans for the Homelands? What about Boy Blue? And that’s just a few off the top of my head.
This volume is half short stories, to let off a little steam and explore some background, a formula that works remarkably well in long-running comic series with worlds as massive as the one in Fables. I like that. I also like that, as soon as we return to the business at hand, the tension begins to coil and wind and creak like a spring about to break.
The business of Rose and Snow’s conversation about Snow’s expectations, and about Bigby, is a particularly interesting and tender moment between the previously estranged sisters. Rose has really come into her own while heading the Farm, enough to see when she needs to give her sister some advice she earned the hard way. (After all, Rose made enough bad relationship decisions in her life to fill several books.) I enjoy seeing their sisterhood develop and grow over the smallest and yet most important things. Willingham doesn’t make the mistake of thinking all relationships in a story have to be romances between pairs: he knows there are families, and friends, and alliances. He builds those interwoven relationships with just as much care as his romances. It’s a nice touch that lends quite a lot of verisimilitude to his work.
Snow’s face as she sits in her room, waiting for her zephyr-child to come to her, is just heartbreaking. It’s a beautiful scene and the art lends so much emotion and tension. The hardness of her face, streaked with tears, when she says that “they still wouldn’t understand,” for example. She is fierce in her sorrow and her guilt. Gorgeous few pages, really; blows away the rest of the illustrations, for me. (More scandalously beautiful covers in this volume thanks to the ever-wonderful James Jean, though.)
“The Mean Seasons” is a small breather in between catastrophes: as Colin the Pig’s severed head says when Snow asks him if it’s over and if things will get better—“Oh dear, oh dear. I wish I could say it did, Snow. I truly wish I could.”
Next week: Homelands, the sixth volume of Fables.