Overview

1001 Fabled Stories

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Recently released by DC Comics/Vertigo, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is the highly anticipated original graphic novel from Bill Willingham.  A prequel to the ongoing Fables comic book (as well as its sister book, Jack of Fables), 1001 Nights is an anthology of sorts. Set within a framing story, Willingham and an impressive stable of artists flesh out the hitherto untold back-stories of several cast members. 

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Fables tells the modern day adventures of a strange community consisting of characters from hundreds of fairy tales and fables.  Based on the earlier European interpretations of the characters (meaning very few “happily-ever afters”), Fables has quickly become one of the flagship titles for DC Comics’ mature readers imprint, Vertigo.

The framing story, “A Most Troublesome Woman,” sends one of the series’ protagonists, Snow White, to Arabia.  Acting as an envoy for the New York based Fabletown, Snow hopes to strike an alliance between her community and the Arabian Fables (against the Adversary, who has already driven the European Fables from their homes).  Unfortunately, the local sultan takes a new wife each night, only to send her to the headsman’s block the next morning – an honor he reserves for Snow.  Using her charm and wit, Snow distracts the sultan for 1001 nights by relating the tales of her fellow Fables. 

Illustrated by Charles Vess and Michael Wm. Kaluta, “A Most Troublesome Woman” is the most unusual of these short tales in format, but probably the best example of how Willingham manipulates fairy tales for his comic.  Presented as a lavishly illustrated text, this tale’s clever presentation would be interesting to see on a larger scale (an actual Fables storybook, perhaps?).  In addition to introducing new readers to the primary conflict from the ongoing series, Willingham also links this story to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.  Although not an unsurprising connection, links like this are what make Fables a consistently fun read.

A full-comic length tale, Willingham and John Bolton’s “The Fencing Lessons” answers one of the most persistent mysteries in the Fables universe – whatever happened to the Seven Dwarves?  Ostensibly a murder-mystery, this story will quickly remind new readers that these characters are not the Disney-fied versions from pop culture.  Although the conclusion isn’t particularly surprising, it does fill in a large missing piece in the history of Snow White and Prince Charming, as well as foreshadowing their marriage’s eventual dissolution.  Also interesting are the contrasts Willingham offers between the personalities of Snow and Charming at both this point and in 2006.  Artistically, Bolton’s painting creates a lush, old world feel, as well as imbuing the dwarves with a disturbingly dark interpretation.  Despite this, his version of Snow White seems inconsistent – both from page to page, as well as in comparison to the way she appears in the monthly title.

The next two shorter tales - “The Christmas Pies” and “A Frog’s Eye View” - are illustrated by regular series artist Mark Buckingham and Fables cover artist James Jean, respectively.  Buckingham, who usually only does penciling, paints his own work here, resulting in a soft yet colorfully vibrant story.  “The Christmas Pies” relates how the popular supporting character, the trickster fox Reynard, helped many of the anthromorphic Fables escape the Adversary’s goblin armies.  Of all the tales in this collection, this is the most lighthearted and fun.  Jean, who offers up his first interior sequential work, uses muted tones, adding a sense of age and history to his work.  “A Frog’s Eye View,” which is considerably darker, uses subtlety to tell the tragic back-story of Flycatcher, another popular supporting cast member.  Not surprisingly, these contributions by the regular Fables creators are the strongest and most moving of all the tales in this collection.

   

Even though (by my humble opinion) “The Runt” by Mark Wheatley is one of the weaker entries in the anthology, the artwork has a suitable simplicity that makes it feel as though Bigby Wolf’s origin is truly from another time.  “What You Wish For,” featuring Brian Bolland’s art also has the unfortunate distinction of being a rather simplistic parable.  While the artist’s work is more than capable, Bolland’s traditional comic art seems somewhat out of place compared to the other contributors.  A final short tale, “A Mother’s Love,” highlights the work of Derek Kirk Kim.  Short and insignificant to the larger Fables saga, this story is one of the more darkly amusing tales of the graphic novel. 

“Diaspora,” as well as its story-within-a-story, “The Witch’s Tale,” expands on the histories of Snow White, Rose Red and, most importantly, Frau Totenkinder.  “Diaspora”, a straightforward narrative is entertaining, primarily for the otherworldly art of Tara McPherson and the inclusion of the embedded origin of Totenkinder.  Her actual tale, illustrated by Esao Andrews’ eerily grotesque paints serves as a nice counterpoint to the recently released Fables #54.  

The final piece of Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is “Fair Division.”  Illustrated by perennial Vertigo contributor, Jill Thompson, this story not only follows Old King Cole’s escape from the Fablelands, but also provides a brief glimpse at the formative years of Fabletown.  For readers familiar with Cole’s story in Fables, this offers an interesting view of what he was like in his element.

The interesting challenge I kept coming across in reading Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, was that I couldn’t help but compare it to Willingham’s earlier Fables Prestige Format special, Fables: The Last Castle.  While The Last Castle was a book length tale, Willingham created a solid story with strong emotional resonance (that also proved to foreshadow a significant detail in the regular series).  1001 Nights of Snowfall is, at least as of this writing, a different animal.  From the fortunate vantage point of a regular Fables reader, the hardcover felt more of an addendum to the series – filling in moderately interesting, albeit not necessarily essential pieces.  With all the tales by nature focusing on the darker aspects of the Fables universe, 1001 Nights is a difficult read reminding fans that even the upstanding characters have their flaws. 

Despite a slightly pessimistic tinge, the hardcover is an excellent overview and sampling of Fables for new or casual readers.  Touching on almost all of the key players, readers are also exposed to many of the themes and views Willingham so successfully offers up in the monthly book.  Visually, almost any of the 1001 Nights of Snowfall artists would be welcome guests for the monthly title.  Their powerful and diverse contributions lend a storybook atmosphere to Willingham’s rich universe. 

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