The tenth collected volume of Fables, The Good Prince, is another hefty one, and we’ll be reading it in two parts. It collects issues #60-69, which form one long arc (The Good Prince) with a small interlude in the middle, “The Birthday Secret.” Part 1 of the re-read will span roughly the first half, all the way to the end of that short interlude. Part 2 will finish the volume. The Good Prince tells Ambrose’s story as he becomes something more than anyone ever suspected he could: a hero, true and mighty. As the flap copy says, “The future of both Fabletown and the Homelands will turn on the outcome.”
The whole volume is written by Bill Willingham. The Good Prince is entirely penciled by Mark Buckingham, though the inkers vary from chapter to chapter between regulars Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, and Mark Buckingham himself (in various combinations). “Interlude: The Birthday Secret” is illustrated by Aaron Alexovich. The colorist for the volume was Lee Loughridge and the letterer was Todd Klein, with covers painted by James Jean as usual.
The Good Prince begins with the Mayor’s office in a state of chaos because Bufkin won’t shelve the books. Ambrose, in mourning in the chapel, refuses to eat, and the game of Empire/Fabletown negotiations is afoot between Hansel and Prince Charming. Riding Hood goes in to see Ambrose and slaps some sense into him about how a member of the gentry should act upon the death of his family—he should seek vengeance. So, he heads off to the Farm to speak with Boy Blue. Meanwhile, Kay and Frau Totenkinder are talking on the street, and make a bargain: he knows too many of her secrets, including the things she knows about the Homelands through her spies and how she’s actually getting her immense power (implying it’s something nasty to do with babies). He promises not to tattle about the babies if she tells the administration where she’s getting her info and what she’s found out about the plans against Fabletown. At the Farm, Ambrose tries to convince Boy Blue to teach him to use the Vorpal Blade and Witching Cloak so he can go kill goblins in the Homelands—but Boy Blue says no, because Ambrose is the lone Fable who came to Fabletown pure and innocent of any wrongdoing, and he wants to keep it that way.
Frau Totenkinder explains to the administration that she enchanted one of the paint brushes owned by the man who paints the eyes of the Empire’s wooden soldiers, so any eye painted with that brush, she can spy through. It’s limited, yes, but sometimes she gets lucky. In fact, she read the lips of the meeting in the grove between the Snow Queen and Geppetto, and she knows their war plans. This changes things significantly. In the Mayor’s office, Bufkin is dusting the Forsworn Knight and the armor falls apart, so they blockade off the office under the advice of Floor Thirteen. We quickly find out why: the ghost of Lancelot has been released from the armor to guide Ambrose to his destiny.
He tells the story of his tarnishing of the magic armor and the sword Excalibur, and his eventual suicide, as a lesson to Ambrose: never become corrupt. Ambrose is different, too—he begins speaking as if he’s seen where it’s all going, and now he knows what he must do. They clean him up physically and spiritually and he tells the Magic Mirror to keep a direct watch on him so the people in Fabletown can see what he’s doing at all times. Also, the witches are now using the zephyr-spirits’ eyes to spy on Hansel and co., and are reading several key documents that way. Totenkinder implies that she knows exactly what’s going on with Ambrose and Lancelot, saying the armor’s finally being cleaned. When Ambrose dons it, the armor turns gold. Lancelot officially knights him with Excalibur, then they jump into the Witching Well.
In Fabletown, plans are afoot: the assorted Fables outworld are called home, Prince Charming consults Bigby for executing a war, and Bigby & Beast begin reserving every private training camp they can find for professionally dangerous people—sniper camps, commando camps, you name it. Also, buying bombs. In the world of the Witching Well, Ambrose is calling the ghosts to him as his army—near him they’ll be solid, and will hunger and thirst, but won’t die because they’re already dead. He needs them to fight the war. The bad guys—Bluebeard and Shere Khan—join up, too, but Ambrose tells Lancelot not to worry because every story has its Judas and they have a role to play. Back at home, the Fables administrative crew are watching through the Magic Mirror.
The interlude shows the off-world Fables arriving to be trained at the military schools the Fables have bought out. It also relates the cubs’ fifth birthday, where Bigby and Snow introduce them to Ghost. They have some trouble playing with him because he doesn’t get being a kid quite the same way they do, having been trained by his father.
The first half of this volume is mostly about gathering the forces, literally and figuratively—it’s the rising action, while things begin to come together. As such, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to talk about in the re-read beyond “so now we move on to the climax!”, but there’s so much going on.
I’ll try to narrow my focus to a couple of particularly nifty and interesting things instead of blathering on. (The Good Prince is one of my absolute favorite arcs, as I think is true of many/most Fables fans.)
Mostly, I’d like to spin out a few thoughts about Ambrose/Flycatcher. I’ve said before that he seems to be the one genuinely good person in the story, aside from Boy Blue, but we find out something concrete in this first half: he’s literally the only genuinely “good” Fable. Boy Blue reveals that he’s seen the logs of everyone’s entrance interviews, and even he had some dark things to run from in the Homelands—but Flycatcher didn’t. “In point of fact, you were the only Fable I know who didn’t need to have anything forgiven, covered up, buried or absolved. You were the one who came to us clean and good and innocent,” Blue says. Ambrose isn’t just a nice guy because he’s had his memory wiped of what happened to his family so he can continue behaving as if he’s ignorant and silly—he’s genuinely, truly a decent person in the way that even the second-nicest Fable we know isn’t. (After all, Boy Blue is prone to viciousness and hate like anyone else.) We haven’t seen what happened to Ambrose’s family yet in the story, but that comes later, and it makes his decision to continue with his destiny even more remarkable. How could he manage not to die in a bloody act of revenge, how could he control himself and try to do the act of greater good? Yikes. We’ll get there when we get there, but wow.
The powers that he wakes to when Lancelot comes to him are pretty amazing, and it makes you wonder how “destiny” really works in the Fables universe. We know from Colin-the-Pig’s head that there are some folks who can see what’s going to unfold—but Colin was dead and hanging around to help out. Ambrose is still alive. Then again, some other Fables have massive powers, like Bigby. It’s not technically that bizarre that Ambrose, too, has a wide variety of things he can do once he’s got his head back together and is ready to undertake his mission. He can see the future, apparently, or at least enough parts of it to know what he needs to do next—it’s like he’s reading a story about himself and trying to stick to the path of the narrative.
He does this by rescuing the souls in the Witching Well, which has devoured all those dumped in it, alive or dead. (Turns out the folks in Fabletown didn’t know that was what happened, and it horrifies them that their good friends have been trapped in-between worlds as much as their worst enemies. Magic is a scary thing.) The history that is invested in his quest, too, is very cool—Arthurian legend, woo! Lancelot’s version of his story and the illustrations of it are a particularly catching part of this first half, too. His genuine smile as he knights Ambrose so the quest can continue properly is lovely. He’s trying to make up for what he’s done by guiding Ambrose to his own quest and serving him as well as he can. Trusty John enters the story again, too, and because death wiped out his previous oaths, he’s back to being the most trustworthy Fable in existence—and he makes an oath to serve Ambrose.
Bluebeard and Shere Khan are going to be the Judas(es) of the story, as we hear from Ambrose himself, which is interesting foreshadowing. His power to bring life (of a sort) to the ghosts is also interesting—they’ll suffer, and suffer terribly, but won’t die; it’s all for the greater good. And, at the end of the quest, they’ll be given their rest, which they never would have found in the world of the Witching Well. All intriguing and with the ring of the heroic fantasy; saving souls, saving worlds, doing good, et cetera.
Ambrose is a genuinely good guy, I’ll say it again. This arc begins to prove that he’s also a strong, capable, big-hearted hero.
Totenkinder, too, gets a little more development in this volume, through the usual venue of half-spoken secrets and hints. Kay and she have their own battle of wits while Prince Charming needles Hansel and company. Totenkinder has likely saved them all by telling them of her spies, but there’s the lingering question for the reader of what she would have done if Kay hadn’t blackmailed her. Would she have let them continue, without any clue that war had already been declared on part of the Emperor and his envoy was only there to kill them? Would she have let a few of them die first? Kind of scary to think about. She’s a piece of work, but she’s powerful, and they need her.
I’ll say one more time: how crafty is Prince Charming? Delicious scenes, him jerking Hansel around and playing the war-game with gusto. The moment of back-slapping between he and Bigby about his plans is kind of hilarious, too.
Fables has a tendency to play with the spaces between and around panels, but this volume has some of the most interesting sidebar illustrations of the lot. Each sidebar reflects a locale or a theme from a frog on a broomstick, to the rocky interior of the business office at Fabletown, to the charging horse of Lancelot. They’re very eye-catching. I like that Buckingham plays with the extra space that most comics leave empty or don’t use at all—after all, writing and illustrating comics is as much about panel placement and style as anything.
The Aaron Alexovich art is not my favorite—it’s a bit too oddly proportioned for me. The children look the same as the adults, which creates some strangeness, and not in a good way. It’s a bit too goofy for the subject matter, I think, considering the introduction of Ghost and his dangerous habits is a serious thing.
Also, James Jean’s covers for these issues are all pretty astounding, as usual. The one of Flycatcher standing with his mop, in particular, is a great image with a lot of emotion in it.
Part one of The Good Prince shows Ambrose gathering his forces and girding himself for a different kind of battle. We don’t know what sort it will be yet, but he says it’ll be harder than “great and mortal battles” and much more worth the effort.
Next week: The Good Prince, part two.