March 14, 2010

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Fables Volume 10

Written by Bill Willingham
Illustrated by Mark Buckingham, Steve Lialoha, Aaron Alexovich, and Andrew Pepoy
Vertigo

This volume takes an unusual turn and focuses primarily on one Fable, the humble Flycatcher, as he stands revealed for who he truly was in all its tragic glory. Now he's on a quest to redeem what he's lost, going so far as to dare the powerful magic of the Witching Well. Can he take on the Adversary in a startling new way?

Old faces return to the book and dynamics change in ways that I cannot begin to imagine the effects of as Willingham uses this story to radically alter the world of the Fables and open up any number of new ideas, even as he closes the story (for now) of a few others.

This might be the best story arc of Fables in quite some time. While keeping the ongoing war plot running in the background, Willingham shines the spotlight on Flycatcher, now revealed as Price Ambrose. He works us into following him as the main story slowly, even giving us an offbeat, madcap breather issue in between. By the time we get to the second half of this trade, we're as compelled as everyone in Fabletown to watch the end of what they call "The Fly Show," a bit of magical reality television brought to them by the Magic Mirror.

What I liked best about Fly's story is that I had no idea where it was going. At first I expected a tragic death for Fly as he cannot handle the grief. It looks that way, too, until the next thing you know, Willingham has blended the Knights of Camelot into the Fables mythos, given Fly a quest, and sent him into the land of the dead.

Even then, the story remained perfectly plotted, giving a strong hint of failure for Fly and providing innovative ways for the story to play out. (Saying more would ruin the fun for a reading coming to this material fresh.) Even the ending gives several openings for the fate of Flycatcher and leaves room for him to return to Fabletown when needed.

This does not mean that Willingham brings the main narrative to a complete halt or alters the ensemble nature of the book. Even within Fly's story, there are subplots with other characters who follow along in his quest, particularly two of them. He's not even the only person given a shot at redemption. We may not get as much on them as usual, but the ongoing secrets of Snow White and Bigby, Frau Totenkinder, and others are slipped in here and there.

(As a matter of fact, a major development is dropped into the book so casually, I almost forgot about it until I started doing this review. Once we get back to Fabletown as the focal point of the book, I imagine it's going to explode.)

Back in the overarching plot, Prince Charming is working overtime to stop the war with the Adversary once and for all. He's gathering information and laying plans for a secret war, giving Willingham a chance to poke fun at his own political kind. Fables from all over are being gathered for a major move and all sorts of deals must be struck before the pretext of detente between the Fables and the Adversary crumbles. The cloak and dagger diplomacy may seem a bit out of place at first, but I think Willingham finds a way to make it work.

Part of the way he does it is to keep from taking it too seriously, at least here. Aaron Alexovich's cartoon interpretations of the characters and Willingham's breezy dialog in the interlude chapter diffuse a lot of the potential tension. It was a bit startling to see the Fables characters reflected through the lens of an indie comic, but I liked the idea as a change of pace. Interestingly enough, there was still enough of the originals in the design that you could still recognize everyone. As I've mentioned before, I greatly appreciate this, given Vertigo's sister company DC's habit of changing inkers faster than the inkers themselves change cartridges on a single story arc.

Speaking of the artwork, I think this might be some of Buckingham's best so far. You can tell that he really wanted this story to shine, and even took some of the inking chores on as well. The passages in Fly's new world have the feel of a Kirby epic, especially those parts when they face the Adversary's army. From Fly's armor to the goblins and trolls, there is a sense that Buckingham and Leialoha are invoking the King to set the mood. Ambrose's face even subtly morphs into a Jimmy Olsen-like figure, reminding me of the work Kirby did with the character.

When Fly is going off to do battle, you'd swear Kirby had a hand in the illustration. Intentional or not, the homage is striking. It gives this trip to the Homelands a very different feel from the one done by Boy Blue several trades back. I always like the art in Fables, but here it's even better than usual. I really hope that Buckingham stays on this title for as long as Willingham intends to create it.

An arc like this one is why I read Fables, even when certain aspects of the overall narrative bother me. Willingham's skills as a storyteller are top notch, which is fitting for a man working with a cast of characters that come from some of the first stories any of us hear growing up. Fables is unlike anything else I'm reading currently, and while I am happy to be reading it on a consistent basis, I'm going to be sad when I'm at the latest trade.

If you haven't started reading Fables yet, I urge you to give it a try. If you stopped at the Arabian arc, I'd pick it up again. A little bit of politics is a small price to pay for the wonder of the stories like the tale of Flycatcher. I'm glad I've stuck with this book; I think you will be, too.