The seventh collected volume of Fables, Arabian Nights (and Days) contains issues 42-47. Those issues cover the main Arabian Nights (and Days) arc as well as a short aside, “The Ballad of Rodney and June.” There are many things that go into waging a successful war, like forging alliances where there had never been alliances before—the enemy of my enemy is my friend, be they strangers or not. Mowgli has made connections among the Arabian fables and they’ve come to see Fabletown, but Mowgli’s not there to help, and things are strained to say the least.
The volume is entirely written by Bill Willingham. The pencils of Arabian Nights (and Days) are done by Mark Buckingham while the inks are done by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy. “The Ballad of Rodney and June” is penciled by Jim Fern and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. The usual trio of Daniel Vozzo (colorist), Todd Klein (letterer) and James Jean (covers) round out the volume’s artwork and technical concerns.
The story begins with a limousine waiting out front of the Fabletown offices/apartments and no one quite sure why it’s there, while the people inside are grumbling about getting no reception committee. Turns out it’s the Arabian Fables delegation come to meet the leader of Fabletown, which Mowgli had arranged, but Prince Charming forgot about. (In the last volume he sent Mowgli off to find Bigby instead.) Since no one speaks Arabic, there are Issues of Communication regarding the slaves the Arabian Fables have brought with them, and some serious hospitality problems. The leaders of the delegation are Sinbad and his sorcerous advisor Yusuf. The day is saved, though, because King Cole speaks fluent Arabic. Prince Charming has him translate and set up a meeting. (Oh, and Prince Charming lays a kiss on Beauty, who does kiss back but then tells him to screw off because she genuinely loves her husband. And Bufkin sees the whole thing.)
Luckily for Prince Charming, King Cole is a genius at the hospitality-and-negotiations thing. They settle the issue of slavery being illegal in Fabletown and Sinbad offers to play chess with Cole, whom he’s taking a liking to. Meanwhile, Frau Totenkinder explains to Beast that the Arabian delegation have brought along a djinn, a malevolent and extremely destructive spirit, which is the equivalent of bringing a nuke in a suitcase to the U.N. So, problems. At the Farm, Mister North admits that he could defeat the djinn but it would wreck the whole world. And, because this is how these situations always turn out, when Sinbad’s back is turned Yusuf frees the djinn and gives it three wishes—murder, mayhem and his rise to power, effectively. (The third wish is always supposed to be used to put it back in the bottle to prevent mass devastation.)
In the offices, Prince Charming is running on no sleep and trying to fend off protestors and complainants, while Boy Blue digs books, maps, and valuable info out of the Witching Cloak for him. Then Charming has to break the news that the tribunal for Blue’s “crimes” has sentenced him to two years of hard labor on the Farm. At the same time, the djinn is in modern-day Baghdad, which is a portal to the Fable Baghdad, murdering the men who are loyal to Yusuf. Which seems strange, because didn’t Yusuf wish to kill the men loyal to Sinbad? Hmm. In Fabletown, Prince Charming and Beast load up on guns to arrest the Arabian delegation for their act of war (releasing the djinn) and use Kay to find out who was guilty of what. The djinn whisks back into the cell Yusuf is in to kill him—and Frau Totenkinder reveals that she wove a spell as soon as she discovered the djinn to rewrite the words of the sorcerer summoning the monster. Instead of what he thought he wished for, he asked for the destruction of his own forces, his own death by prolonged torture, and the djinn to return to the bottle. Oops. They also verify that Yusuf sent the djinn on his own without approval from Sinbad, who explains that he is keeper of the djinn and only brought it because it could not be left behind safely.
Boy Blue arrives at the farm around the same time, and Rose says that she has her own ideas about “hard labor.” He’s going to be helping her run the Farm, not working in the fields, unless people from Fabletown are up visiting, in which case they’ll have to put on a show of it. Snow’s kids are all running around like mad, as wolves and naked children alike. Rose does not approve of the naked bit.
The problem with Sinbad is solved by making the Baghdad encampment “Fabletown East” and sending Cole as the adjunct from “Fabletown West.” When they arrive, it is through a tunnel in modern-day Baghdad, which leads to the Fable-world of Baghdad—still unconquered, still rich, and ready for war. It’s a dream come true
“The Ballad of Rodney and June” is about a wooden soldier who falls in love with a wooden girl, travels to meet Geppetto, and asks to be turned to flesh with her. So, Geppetto does, but for a price: they’re sent to the mundy world as spies and assassins, and they can hardly deal with it. They watch Fabletown from afar like normal people, with nefarious deeds at night. June is pregnant, and wonders what she will tell their child about them, if anything.
I’m thrilled with the introduction of non-Western “fable trees,” so to speak, and the proof that all stories in all times exist in their own worlds in the greater universe. While many of them have been conquered, of course, it’s nice to see some diversity enter the story. The figures from the Fables of the Middle East are alive and well in this universe. We meet more, later, but for this round it’s Sinbad and his retinue. Fable!Baghdad, the short flash we see of it, is colorful and vibrantly bustling with people.
It’s a nice touch, too, that the Western Fables’ greatest potential allies are the Fables of the Middle East—while the bit of modern-day Baghdad we see is forcefully occupied by Western soldiers. Willingham is saying something, there, about understanding and human equality, I think. The portrayal isn’t necessarily perfect—there’s a lot of stereotypical behavior on the part of Yusuf, and there’s the harem, and the slaves, and the fact that Sinbad never seems to think twice about all the slavery until he meets the Western Fables and they tell him how bad it is, hrrrm, or that there’s not a single powerful woman Fable mentioned in any of the scenes or discussions of Fable!Baghdad—but it’s something, and it broadens the ethnic/cultural world of the comic. (On the other hand, if these worlds are entirely inspired by stories and created by the existence of stories, some of the otherwise problematic things get tricky, because they are in the stories. Like the harem.) I find it an odd slip that Willingham fails to bring in or even mention any of the strong women available in the folklore of the region, instead populating his Arabian Fables with men and silent, scantily-dressed slave women.
This arc also brings my attention to the fact that Fables up to this point has been extremely short on people of color. Suddenly we have panels full of people of various colors interacting with each other, and I realized—well, shit. I should have noticed about six volumes ago how few people of color were in this story. Sure, it’s about European fables almost exclusively—there are very few American fables in this universe—but I don’t know if I find that a truly accurate excuse. After all, we’ve got more species diversity than racial diversity, and I’m not really okay with that. With the introduction of the Arabian Fables delegation and their alliance with Fabletown West, that disparity begins to change for the better.
I also love that Prince Charming finally realizes that he fucked up, getting rid of King Cole the way he did after he won the mayor’s office. He should have kept him on and treated him respectfully, and now he knows it, because Cole is a master at the arts of diplomacy. He’s a born diplomat with centuries of practice at soothing ruffled feathers, forming alliances and managing affairs so that everyone comes out satisfied. I like that Prince Charming recognizes how good King Cole actually was at his job, and how good Bigby and Snow were. He’s not such an ass that he can’t admit his own mistakes, own up to them, and try to grow better—as evidenced by the fact that he gives Cole the job of interpreting and then of representative diplomat. In effect, he apologizes via giving Cole his honor back. It’s a good thing to do.
“The Ballad of Rodney and June” is one of the really killer short stories in Fables, in my opinion. It’s got an emotional punch to it and a level of realism that I don’t think we’ve yet encountered elsewhere regarding the wooden soldiers. The ones who invade Fabletown in The March of the Wooden Soldiers are all goofy and hilariously awful, not human in the slightest. This story, however, shows us the lives of two all-wood people who manage to fall in love. The scene where they try to kiss with their wooden lips, can’t figure it out, and get all awkward is both sweet and heartbreaking. Their wish to be human and to be able to physically love each other, to have children and marry, is granted—but for a price. It’s always for a price. Geppetto isn’t just some kindly old man who does good things out of compassion. He makes them human not because he cares, but because he sees an opportunity.
In the Mundy world, their relationship is falling apart and June can hardly deal with their lives. She doesn’t know what she’ll tell their child about her parents—that they’re murderers? Spies? They also don’t have the Fable community to speak with about their experiences in the Empire, so unlike many of the Fables we see, they have no safety net. There is no one they can bond with, because they aren’t like other people in the Mundy world.
It’s a very sharp little story, a dark finish to the volume. If all of the short-stories in Fables were like this, I’d be the happiest woman on earth.
There are some very good covers involved in Arabian Nights (and Days) the best of which is the wraparound cover of the volume itself. It’s mystical and whimsical while also having a core of toughness in the forms of the Fables with their guns in hand, lit up in orange and red as opposed to the lighter blue hues of the birds and the djinn on the rest of the cover. Lovely stuff. The modern-day Baghdad cover, too, is so striking: the tanks and soldiers, interspersed with running, screaming children and a mother grabbing her child. You wouldn’t guess it’s from a comic about mythological people, I’ll tell you that; it’s a very strong piece.
Minor criticism: the script-fonts in “The Ballad of Rodney and June” are almost prohibitively difficult to read. This is the first time I’ve encountered such a problem with the lettering in Fables, but ouch, my eyes.
Arabian Nights (and Days) is a middle-volume, not the strongest in story but providing a good set-up for what comes later, as well as showing how the alliance between the Arabian and Western fables came about.
Next week: Wolves, volume eight of Fables.