guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2009

Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, et al.,
Fables 11: War and Pieces (Vertigo, 2008). $17.99, paperback.

By Karin Kukkonen

“So this is it,” I think to myself. 75 issues of daring adventures, genre-inspired fun and delightful romantic complications and the major story arc of the Fables series has come to an end. The Adversary is defeated, the Homelands regained and a new balance of power has been established. Fables tells the story of popular fairy tale characters and their exile in our present day New York. Throughout the series, they have been hunted by the Adversary and his subordinates. They have only barely averted a full-scale invasion of their new home in Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers. They have uncovered the Adversary’s identity in Fables 6: Homelands (and he is not Peter Pan, even though Willingham’s sketches on his blog look intriguing). And as the Adversary was plotting to annihilate them in Fables 9: Sons of Empire, our heroes decided to strike the first blow of an all-out war, which comes to its conclusion in Fables 11: War and Pieces.

The volume opens with issue 70 “Kingdom Come”, drawn by Niko Henrichon, in which the last preparations for the war are chronicled. Henrichon’s gig is the latest in a series of guest illustrators, which have added variety to Fables’ visual style. The contrast to Mark Buckingham, the main illustrator, could not be more marked. Buckingham’s art is both neat and gorgeous; Henrichon’s is overly detailed, but animated. Which style you prefer is certainly a question of temperament, but as Buckingham takes over as illustrator with issue 71 “Skulduggery Part 1” his superior skill in page layout, panelling and rendering character perspective is obvious.

“Skulduggery” tells of a mission of Cinderella, special agent extraordinaire in Fabletown’s secret service. Cinderella has had several lifetimes to perfect her espionage skills and her proficiency in martial arts. But also when it comes to style—another basic requirement of the spy as the likes of James Bond and Emma Peel taught us—Cinderella is second to none. Mark Buckingham includes her trademark slipper in details of her clothing and the panel layout of her tale. The black and white design of the slipper reminds both of Cinderella’s tale and the chique of the 1960s, which is the basic backdrop for the espionage genre. With the “Skulduggery” series both Willingham and Buckingham display their mastery in bringing together fairy tale tradition and popular genres of storytelling once more. It is a pleasure to read and leaves me with high hopes for the Cinderella mini series “From Fabletown with Love”, which has been announced for the next year.

With issue 73 “War and Pieces” proper begins. The remaining issues of the volume tell of the war between fairy tale characters and Adversary. Willingham has us follow Little Boy Blue who is the main communications line between the different sites of the war effort due to his teleporting cloak. With this conceit, Willingham ties together the events onboard the flying ship “Glory”, in the imperial capital, at Fort Bravo (site of the fairy tale characters’ last stand), in Fabletown and on The Farm. Buckingham’s page layout then provides information on setting and the characters involved through the framing panels on the left and right of every page. When Little Boy Blue is on the farm, we see the roofs of the farm; when he is in the imperial capital, we see the steeples and Italianesque columns; when he is aboard the “Glory”, we see the figurehead of the ship. As Fables is an ensemble piece with many different settings and characters, each with their own agenda, Willingham and Buckingham needed to provide a means of orientation for readers between these perspectives and venues. The framing panels have been developed into such a means of orientation by Buckingham since
Fables 7: Arabian Nights (and Days). Now, in Fables 11: War and Pieces, they are again employed to manage all the different settings and perspectives involved in a story reminiscent in scope of Tolstoy’s ensemble novel War and Peace.

But Buckingham goes further in his use of the framing panels in Fables 11: War and Pieces. He starts to introduce variation. The framing panels become the first of a series of elongated vertical panels which continually depict both the story space and the events across the page. As the action of battle begins to unfold, Buckingham not only produces exquisite splashpanel compositions of the engaging armies, but uses these elongated panels to render the intense moments of battle, provide a sense of progress in the development and coherence in the parallel actions. Through their keen understanding of dramatic storytelling, these pages of Fables are easily on a par with the best of the superhero genre.

Fables 11: War and Pieces provides a sense of closure, a feeling of “so this is it”, the series achieves this not only because writer Bill Willingham brings the strands of the narrative arc to a denouement, because the balance which has been disturbed when the Adversary conquered the Homelands has been restored, but also because the main illustrator Mark Buckingham achieves a peak of his visual storytelling in these last issues.

Fables 11: War and Pieces is a meet ending to a story of epic proportions. Different from all earlier trade paperbacks, it lacks a special cover design by Fables’ cover artist James Jean, which is the only major letdown of the volume. For new readers, it is the worst place to start reading Fables. For followers of the series, it is a splendid way to end the first story arc. Fables continues to be published.