March 9, 2010

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Jack of Fables Volume 1

Written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges
Illustrated by Tony Akins and Andrew Pepoy
Vertigo

Back when Jack of Fables first started, I was collecting it in single issues. For whatever reason, I don't remember liking the series very much.

To which I have to say, 2006 self, were you just cranky that day? Maybe it's better in collected form, but I really liked this spinoff title and can't for the life of me figure out why I didn't in the first place. Oh well. The important that is that I'm giving this series its due now.

Jack of Fables picks up the story of the conman Jack who had just finished up a pretty good scheme in Hollywood, only to be foiled by Beast, the new Sheriff of Fabletown. Jack ends up finding out that the Adversary is not the only danger to the Fables and is soon in a prison that promises no way out.

If you're Jack, one of the most remembered Fables of all time, that just won't do. Soon, with the help of a rogue Fable and some of the other prisoners, Jack is on his way to escape. However, nothing ever seems to go quite right for Jack, so why should this be any different?

Clearly inspired by Byrne's She-Hulk, Jack of Fables is narrated by the title character, who seems to understand that you're reading about him in a comic book. He asks the reader to re-read pages so he can wake up, tells us what will happen in the next issue (usually not quite as he describes, by the way), and has absolutely no problem inflating his self-worth.

It's a narrative trick that might have annoyed me once upon a time, but now I think it's brilliant. Jack would never be satisfied having someone else telling his story for him, so narrating the book makes sense for him as a character. Plus, it gives Willingham and Sturges a chance to tweak the nose of the industry, the reader, and the world Willingham built, all at the same time.

Willingham, along with Sturges, also manages to find more Fables to populate the world with, mining some more modern characters for their prison. Thus we see the Wizard of Oz and Paul Bunyon mixed in with Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty. I'm sure there are some other legends I wasn't able to place, in the crowd shots.

The story itself is a rather clever denunciation of the desire to water down fairy tales in order to make them inoffensive. Turns out that's not just something people do to satisfy their need to censor books--it's the crusade of a man whose more than he seems. The business structure they create for this prison is perfect for such a literary series. I also love the names Willingham and Sturges give to them.

Jack's story doesn't work out quite the way he wants it to, but it allows our co-authors to set him up as a roving Fable who can interact with the world in a way that the others cannot. That's a neat trick--they get to expand their world without doing anything to impact on the original series. It also makes for almost limitless story possibilities, which explains why this spinoff is still going four years later.

Tony Akins and Andrew Pepoy provide the art here, and while Jack is a bit rougher than I'd like, the overall feel meshes with Fables. Akins is very effective at taking the seriousness out of the drama with well placed comedic looks. Even a more dramatic moment like Humpty Dumpty's fate is infused with a tweak of comedy in the portrayal. It fits in well with the theme of the ongoing plot--Fables as seen through the lens of someone who can't ever take things seriously. The James Jean covers, including the brilliant first issue/trade dress you see above, help with the much more irreverent feel.

If you're a fan of Fables and like comics that do self-referencing jokes, then you owe it to yourself to start reading Jack of Fables, if you aren't already. My older self was completely wrong. This is a fun, irreverent series that builds on Fables and provides a way to laugh at an often grim (no pun intended) world. I can't wait to catch up with this series!