Review: Fables — Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al.


I have a weird relationship with Fables. My brother went to the Air Force Academy, and, despite my atrocious memory, I distinctly recall sitting in a Borders (back in the day, obviously) in Colorado Springs, seeing how far I could read into Fables before my parents were done with their errands. I got to Volume 5—which is less a comment on my parents’ time management skills, but how quickly I read, especially graphic novels. Of course, that was before this book blog and during the wombat years, so it’s essentially as if I did not read it. However, the first volume has been on my shelf forever, so I figured it was time to revisit it as an adult…

Every fairy tale character you’ve ever known is not only real, but living in twenty-first century New York. When the fairy tale worlds were threatened by the vicious and seemingly omnipotent Adversary, the survivors managed to flee to Earth, the only world the Adversary seemed to have no interest in—and the only one without magic. Still functionally immortal, the fables have settled into an underground society. Fables: Legends in Exile collects the first five issues, which finds Director Snow White and Detective Bigby Wolf investigating the extremely suspicious death of Rose Red, Snow White’s sister.

I think we pick up books—or texts in general—when we do for a reason. While I’ve obviously picked up Fables before, it didn’t stick until this visit, and I think that’s because of Once Upon a Time. Obviously, the two are similar in concept—a premise difficult to make concise, but that makes total sense. They both focus a great deal on characterization over story arcs, despite their mythic characters. Blissfully, the murder mystery conceit of the first five issues (which makes this a delightfully self-contained volume, a side-effect I don’t think I’ve seen in other collections) is not about how inventive or timely the crime is, a la many a procedural these days, but how people react to Rose Red’s murder. It’s quite brilliant, actually, to start off with a story like this, because it orients you in the world organically, as Snow and Bigby have to interact with other characters.

And what characters they are. Once Upon a Time’s Snow White is my Snow White, now and forever, amen, but Fables’ Snow gives her a run for her money. She can run a little more towards “frowning ‘90s businesswoman!” than I prefer, but she usually runs snarky, emotional, and efficient, which I enjoyed. Bigby Wolf reminded me of nothing so much as Wolverine crossed with a film noir detective (when some underlings complain about the undue amount of work he’s tricked them into, he growls, “The only easy day was yesterday”). He does have his moments of levity, especially when it comes to his awkward affection for Snow, which she doesn’t return. (Sidebar: can we stop the thing where a woman tells a man that she is not romantically interested in him, and the narrative winks at the viewer as if to say that it’s only a matter of time, she can be persuaded/she doesn’t know her mind/insert stupid reason here? Because I’d be totally down for that.) But as enjoyable to follow as they are (as opposed to inherently likable), it’s the side characters I loved best. Jack, Rose Red’s intermittent boyfriend, is a born schemer burdened with his own stupidity, Snow’s Prince Charming is a slick, penniless, and womanizing conman, and Bluebeard is a particular favorite of mine, with his grandiosity, his posturing, and his clearly delighted attention to detail. (So Rumpelstiltskin? Rumpelstiltskin.) I look forward to seeing more female characters rounded out as the series continues, since we really only deal with Snow here.

Lan Medina’s pencils feel a little dated to me—something about the use of shadow and flatness of color reads very late nineties/early aughts to me. (The word demi-decade is leaping out at me, but that’s just silly.) The clothes, especially Snow’s, read that way as well. Remember sleeveless turtlenecks? Compounding that are the disgustingly gorgeous covers; this volume boasts a piece by James Jean that still feels fresh and vital ten years later. I’m sure this will improve as time goes on—after all, this series is still running, ten years on—but I haven’t seen a recent issue of Fables to compare it with. Still, it’s got a nice grit to it. Also included in this volume is a short story about Bigby and Snow meeting, which I quite enjoyed. I think that’s due to being a bit ‘eh’ on New York as a fantastical setting these days; seeing them in Europe in the 1600s was a delight. I know they do more with this as the series progresses, so I’m happy.

Bottom line: While the art is a little dated now, Fables’ first five issues is both an organic crash course in the world of the series and a self-contained murder mystery that illuminates character instead of inventive methods to off someone. A must for fairy tale retelling fans, especially the fandom of Once Upon a Time.

I bought this book online.

6 thoughts on “Review: Fables — Legends in Exile

  1. I came at it the other way–I gave Once Upon a Time a chance because I love Fables so much. And the funny thing is, I didn’t love the first two volumes–I thought the ending of each of those two stories was sudden and too easy. But I agree with you about all the strengths, and it only gets better and better as the war with the Adversary heats up. I love watching someone read my favorites for the first time!

  2. Talk about dated, there’s a quote from Wizard magazine on the cover!

    FABLES is a good series. I like what I’ve read, though not as much as a lot of people I know. It’s a novel concept in a lot of ways, one Willingham manages to explore in new and interesting ways over the course of the entire series.

  3. Ugh, sleeveless turtlenecks. I tend to hate all turtlenecks and I only wear them under duress. Sleeveless turtlenecks doesn’t make any sense! It’s like that line from New Girl — What, your arms are hot but your neck’s freezing?

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