The fourteenth volume of Fables, Witches, returns to the Mister Dark storyline. It collects issues #86-93, which form three arcs: “Boxing Days,” “Witches,” and “Out to the Ball Game.” The first and last are shorts, while “Witches” covers the majority of the volume and follows both Bufkin in the disappeared Business Office as he fights monstrous enemies and Frau Totenkinder as she resumes her youthful aspect and goes off to find a solution to the Mister Dark problem—plus machinations in Fabletown/the Farm, which are now one and the same.
The entire volume is written by Bill Willingham, colored by Lee Loughridge and lettered by Todd Klein. The covers this time are by Joao Ruas instead of James Jean. “Boxing Days” is penciled by Jim Fern and inked by Craig Hamilton. “Witches” is entirely penciled by Mark Buckingham, with inks by both Andrew Pepoy and Steve Leialoha, as well as one chapter inked by Daniel Green. The art for “Out to the Ball Game” is entirely by David Lapham.
The first story explains how the sorcerers of the empire had a small, secret, clandestine order designed to capture and siphon off of the most powerful monsters in all the realms—and how they caught Mr. Dark the first time, by overpowering him with sheer numbers and a magically baited box that made him want to climb into it “for safety.” (Apparently, they got Baba Yaga this way, too, and that’s how she became an ally; she bargained for her freedom.)
“Witches” is a story that alternates between the Business Office some time before the current timeline—presumably right after or close to right after the earthquake when it disappeared—and “today,” the current time of the story, down on the Farm. In the office, Bufkin and Frankie have been trying to figure out how to get out, and finally they ask the magic mirror, who tells them about Baba Yaga being freed by the unbinding along with a ton of minor and major spirits and monsters. On the Farm, the witches hold a meeting about leadership and Ozma challenges Totenkinder to give it over. A heavy rain washes Geppetto out of the earth where he was buried alive, and Totenkinder decides that she must gird herself for battle as Bigby tries to send over a bird as a spy to old Fabletown—and it gets disintegrated. King Cole confesses to Totenkinder that he’s almost out of the money needed to run the Farm, and she promises to take care of it, then turns herself back into her younger aspect with all her weapons and sorceries in their original forms. Meanwhile, Baba Yaga is eating and conquering all the other spirits and monsters in the Business Office, except the great djinn, who agrees not to mess with her if she doesn’t with him. Bufkin comes upon them and announces his intention to fight, wherein they laugh him off.
Beauty turns up pregnant as Totenkinder has just finished knitting the many-legged onesie for their future baby, which is kind of alarming for Beast. Totenkinder leaves through a portal after that, and her magic leads her to the treasure room where Mister Dark was imprisoned. She figures out the box, then magics the gold back to King Cole—while Baba Yaga is recreating her three knights, and the wooden soldiers’ heads are chatting with Bufkin about strategy. Bufkin then tricks the djinn back into its bottle and Baba Yaga consults the magic mirror, which tells her Bufkin’s going to be her end.
Ozma takes over the 13th floor cadre, Geppetto (after consulting the only magic tree in the mundy world and getting its dryad offspring as his protectors) tries to make a bid to be the leader of Fabletown, and the other witches shoot him down by showing that they have more magic—through turning Reynard into a man—but it’s magic with a price, not easily done. On the Farm, Colin the Pig is still trying to get Rose—emaciated now—out of bed while Geppetto and the witches argue in public, splitting the Farm into factions. In the offices, Bufkin uses strategy and the Barleycorn girls to set fire to Baba Yaga’s mortar and pestle, then finally takes her out with the Vorpal Blade, burning off his own wings in the process. Oh, and back at the Farm the Blue Fairy in full health pops back up to take some vengeance out of Geppetto’s hide.
In the final story, one of the goblins in Ambrose’s kingdom eats a squirrel citizen after their big ballgame, and there’s civil unrest because of the court case. Ambrose exiles him in the end to save his life, but it’s a trick he can only pull once or risk looking too soft and losing the safe harbor he’s created in Haven to bad behavior. He and Riding Hood also finally get together, as he conquers his curse and lets go of the memory of his dead wife.
Now this is more like it!
For all of my complaints about the last volume, “Witches” is a nice return to form. There’s intrigue, fell sorcery, unexpected developments from characters we thought we knew already, and consequences for decisions made with good intentions. It manages to be one of those volumes with a couple of discreet stories and also an arc that builds tension for the ongoing tale—so, there’s a lot going on at once, but it all adds up just right.
There’s one thing I want to give a thumbs-up to that may seem weird, but bear with me: I am delighted by the presence of nude men in this volume. Take a moment to consider how often you see naked men in comics compared to how often you see naked women, even in Fables. The buxom naked woman is sort of a staple—”cheesecake,” if you will—but rarely, if ever, is there a similar attention to male bodies. “Witches” give us some full-frontal nudity from the dryads and also Ambrose naked (and while he’s covering himself with his hands, we still see quite a bit). Upsetting the status quo! Wonderful. Now, I’m not nearly as grumpy about the naked-Cinderella jokes from a few volumes back. If sexuality and naked bodies are considered somewhat equally across the gender spectrum, to me, it makes scenes with naked women much less exploitive of women’s bodies and much more natural. The perceived intent behind the scenes seems to change for the better when we get naked men on the page, too.
As for the actual stories—I’m probably not alone in saying I thought the Bufkin tale was both hilarious and really eye-opening. He’s been comic relief for the entire series; a drunkard, goofy, constantly misunderstanding things and getting into mischief. But the mirror explains it to Baba Yaga when she asks who could be her doom: “He reads. He reads everything . He’s trained, experienced, and knows how to transform book learning into deadly practical applications. His wrath is slow to waken, but terrible to behold.” So, he might be a goof, but he’s also a genius—and he’s not willing to let a bunch of monsters threaten his life or the lives of his friends, especially not after they laughed at him. He talks the djinn back into its bottle by playing up its expectations about his stupidity, then makes several plans to catch Baba Yaga and finally executes her by sort of throwing the Vorpal Blade through her neck—in some ways, it’s high comedy, but in others it’s pretty startling. I would have never thought of Bufkin as a dangerous enemy, but that’s all different, now. Keep in mind, the last person to defeat Baba Yaga was Frau Totenkinder, and that’s no small feat.
Speaking of which, we all know how intrigued I am by Frau Totenkinder, and this volume spends a lot of time with her and the politics of the witches of the 13th floor. The politicking, as Ozma maneuvers to take over the 13th floor and uses Frau Totenkinder’s absence as an excuse, is pretty amazing, considering that these are the people we rarely see and even more rarely hear speak, let alone amongst themselves. The mechanics of their politics are pretty cool—each witch can petition to lead to do their “great work.” Ozma thinks Totenkinder’s was defeating the Empire, and now it’s time for her to give someone else a shot, but Totenkinder’s not done. She keeps her own counsel, though, and so as she transforms herself and her objects of power back into their original forms, she tells no one her plans and disappears from the mundane world. Ozma is ready to leap on this as a reason to depose her as leader, but I’m interested to see where it goes from there—will Ozma get in the way of Totenkinder’s plans, on purpose or by accident? Are two witches better than one, when neither knows what the other is doing? Hm.
And then there’s Geppetto, offering his services in leadership and experience, since he once defeated Mister Dark (through the lives of thousands of his elite Boxers), if only they’ll let him take over Fabletown. Wow, I’d like to see where that goes; especially with Ozma and the witches throwing around their power to make Geppetto look weak—is it worth the energy expenditure? We’ll see.
The Boxers are some interesting backstory, too, as is Totenkinder finding the original box for Mister Dark and then hunting down the man who made it.
The story in Ambrose’s kingdom is sobering and comical at turns, also, much like the Bufkin tale. On the one hand, he’s finally getting into a romance with Riding Hood after all this time, including comical bursts of nudity, but there’s also the issue of laws and justice. He can only exile a goblin once as a political maneuver; the next time he’ll have to actually execute the lawbreaker, and he’s worried about that. He wanted a kingdom with no bloodshed, but he’s realized that there’s no real way for that to happen, and it weighs on him. Once again: consequences of even the best decisions can come back to haunt.
So, with that the volume ends—several stories set up and some settled, with a lot of ground to cover from here.
The cover for issue #89 is my favorite of Ruas’s work so far; the shattered mirror refracting the face, the fabric scraps, and Bufkin with his oversized helmet somehow managing not to look silly in the least—all done in a blue-grey-white palate. Ruas’s covers are lovely but often static; I like them, but am not in love with them, not quite yet. There have been some really good ones, though, so I look forward to seeing more of his work.
As for the interior art, Baba Yaga is nice and horrifying in this volume as she takes on her more nasty aspect instead of her “Riding Hood” form—desiccated and grey-fleshed, with all sorts of skittering around like a spider. Oh, and having the wooden soldiers’ heads back in action, this time as good guys, is pretty great—their expressions are so clear and well-drawn.
“Witches” is a satisfying and fun read, packed full of intrigues and danger, where we see more of characters whom we never have before. I look forward to this trend continuing.
Next week: “Rose Red,” the fifteenth volume of Fables.