Graphic Goodness: Bill Willingham’s Fables


March 20, 2013 by Heidi

Fables by Bill Willingham I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been on a bit of a fairy tale kick lately.  So it seems like HIGH TIME that I sit down and talk about one of my all-time favorite (and ongoing) bookish things: Fables.  Sure, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen me mention it before.  A lot.  But a lot of you probably don’t really know what I’m talking about, let alone why you should be marching down to your library this instant to demand that you be allowed to borrow a copy.

I realize a few of you are thinking, fairy tale graphic novels?  So what?  Zzzzzzzz. If this is you, I am afraid that I’m going to have to go ahead and tell you you are wrong (and refer you to the gun-toting image above).  This isn’t any Grimm’s Brother tale retold.  Oh no friends, Bill Willingham is much much more imaginative, fun, and yes–disturbing–than any old fairy tale you’ve ever read.

The Premise

There are many worlds beyond our own, and each of these worlds are where the stories we grow up with take place.  Several hundred years ago, the Adversary began conquering the lands of fairy tales and legends with his armies, murdering thousands without a thought and replacing governmental structures with his own harsh rule.  Seeking refuge, Fables (that’s what we call these peeps, they call us mundies) escaped to our world, praying that the Adversary wouldn’t find them.  They set up residence in NYC (and upstate for the non-human Fables), and closed all the gates between those worlds and this behind them.

Fables Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham
This is where you begin with Fables: Legends in Exile, and where you’ll be for the first dozen or so installments–at war with the Adversary.  Of course, we also get to see them in their every day life and squabbles amongst themselves.  Okay–so the first one isn’t the best, you get to meet some of the characters and there’s a mystery, but THEN it really gets going, so stick with it!

The Players

Here’s a run-down of some of (but by no means all) our characters and their positions as of the beginning of the series:

Bigby Wolf by Mark BuckinghamBigby Wolf, the cantankerous sheriff of Fable Town–you’d know him as the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs.  Everyone’s pretty much terrified of the guy (or they think he’s an ass, but he’s too scary to tell), but he keeps Fabletown strait and safe.

Snow White by Mark Buckingham

Snow White works as the Deputy Mayor of Fabletown wherein she gets all of the work and none of the glory of the actual mayoral office.  She’s been at odds with her sister, Rose Red, ever since she caught Rose in bed with her husband, Prince Charming.  Of course, since she shares her now-ex husband with his other ex-wives, Cinderella and Briar Rose, one could say the broken marriage wasn’t a total surprise.

Pinocchio by Mark Buckingham

Pinocchio isn’t your average eight year old.  He’s (justifiably) pissed off about being eternally stuck as a little boy–it’s pretty much killed all chances for sex.  Ever.  He’s foul mouthed and conniving, but he also enjoys hanging out with his buddies, Boy Blue and Flycatcher (The Frog Prince) and is a huge comic book fan.Bluebeard by Mark Buckingham

Bluebeard has a closet full of skeletons (literally–hyuk hyuk), but the handy-dandy Fabletown amnesty agreement has set him free to wheel and deal as much as he likes…as long as he doesn’t go around getting married or making deals that could expose the Fables to the mundy world.

Frau Totenkinder by Mark Buckingham

Frau Totenkinder (that’s Mrs. Deadchildren for those of you who didn’t study German in high school) is leader of the notable 13th Floor–the level of the Woodlands building where all the witches and wizards reside. You might know her best as the witch from Hansel and Gretel, though we come to find out that she’s had her hands in a lot of cookie-jars (and curses) over the years.

Beauty and the Beast by Mark Buckingham

Beauty and the Beast are a pretty stand-out couple as far as Fables goes–largely because they’re the only ‘classic’ couple I can think of that’s managed to stay together for hundreds of years.  Beast still has anger issues, but he’s handy in a fight, and Beauty has a level head on her shoulders.

Obviously, this barely scrapes the surface, and you’ll meet many many more characters along the way.  One of the great things about Bill Willingham’s Fables is that nothing is off-limits or sacred.  He’ll take on any tale, and turn the characters you know upside down and back again.

Advanced Reading

So, you’ve sped through 18 trade issues of Fables and want to know where to go next, or, you’re just starting and want to make the series last as long as possible.  Good news!  You have a lot of options to keep you busy.

1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill WillinghamWerewolves of the Heartland by Bill Willingham

1001 Nights of Snowfall and Werewolves of the Heartland are each stand-alone graphic novels that work as sort of companion off-shoots of the main plot.  The former focuses on Snow White, and can be read anytime in your exploration of Fables as the action of this story takes place prior to Vol. 1.  The later focuses on Bigby Wolf, but due to references to the main plot, I recommend holding off on this one till you’ve read Fables: Super Team (Vol. 16).

Peter and Max by Bill WillinghamFables Covers by James Jean

Peter and Max is a stand alone Fables novel about (you guessed it) the Pied Piper.  You can read this one without any prior knowledge of the graphic novel series, but I *gasp* have not actually picked it up yet (saving it for a Fables emergency).

If you’re as in love with the cover art of James Jean throughout your reading of Fables as I am, I really recommend picking up Fables: Coverswhich holds preliminary sketches and annotated drawings, not to mention gorgeous two-page spreads of the wraparound cover work for the first chunk of the series.  I was lucky enough to get this one for Christmas several years ago and I take it out just to look at pretties.

Jack of Fables The Grat Escape by Bill WillinghamCinderella From Fabletown With Love by Chris RobersonFairest Wide Awake by Bill Willingham

There are three spin-off series for Fables that feature the characters we know and love from the main series.  They can all be read separately, though they will hearken back to the main story line on occasion, so it’s good to try to line up timelines if possible (or just read these after).

Page Sisters from Jack of Fables

Jack of Fables chronicles the escapades of Jack, THE Jack–the one that’s in pretty much any ambiguous Jack tale as Prince Charming or Bigby Wolf are for Prince and Wolf tales.  It begins with The (Nearly) Great Escape, meets back up with the main plot in The Great Fables Crossover (Fables Vol. 13), and ends at The End in its 9th volume.   I honestly haven’t read this series as Jack was one of the only Fables characters I never really liked, but it does contain the Page Sisters–the most badass librarians on the block.

Now that Jack’s tale is all finished up, Bill Willingham’s gone on to writing a new spin off featuring the lovely ladies of Fabletown: Fairest.  Volume 1, Wide Awake released last fall, starts up after some big events go down in the main series, so I wouldn’t pick this spin-off up until you’ve at least finished War and Pieces (Fables Vol. 11).  It is fantastic though, my friends!  My favorite by far of all the selections listed in this advanced reading section, and I cannot wait for Hidden Kingdom to come out this summer.

The Cinderella series is the only one to be taken on by another primary author, Chris Roberson.  I’ve reviewed both volumes that have been released, From Fabletown With Love and Fables are Forever.  I really liked the first volume, but was pretty disappointed in the second.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the awesomeness of Cindy, but the titles should be a good hint.  Still recommended, but with more reservations than the rest of the series.

Obviously there is are a huge number of people besides Bill Willingham working on the series, and the illustrators and inkers deserve every bit as much credit for making this series as amazing as it is.  Over the years there have been tons of artists working on the project, but the most steady is Mark Buckingham, whose work I have most come to identify with the characters I love.  Honestly, the art in this series is so stellar that it has become the staple by which I judge all other graphic series.

This series is epic, but it’s also unbelievably creative and fun.  It’s often unexpected, has tons of fun little one issue plots, and packs on some impressive depth.  Quite frankly, when it comes to graphic novels, my love for Fables is unparalleled.  Even if you don’t like graphic novels, or are unsure about trying them, I recommend giving Fables a go–you just might be surprised by how much you love it.


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  1. Wahhhhhh. I want to read these SO MUCH, but they’re so expensive. What can I do? Also, who in their right mind would be bored by the idea of fairy tale graphic novels? That is just winning. Someday, I will find a way!

    • Heidi says:

      I know, Christina! I feel bad continually dangling these in front of you when they’re not available at your library (really a shame). It would add up ridiculously fast considering how many there are/the price. I’ve really only bought a few myself, or asked for some as gifts–still haven’t read the most recent volume because I’m on the waitlist at the library.

  2. Ahhhh go and read Peter and Max!! I really liked it! It seemed darker to me than the graphic novels which is weird…I still have yet to read the Jack or Cinderella novels but I definitely want to pick them up! I am SO very glad that you told me to read these 😀

    • Heidi says:

      Oh I plan on reading Peter and Max at some point, just waiting for the mood to strike. :)

      I’m not planning on reading the Jack series, pretty much every Fables he was in were the ones I rated 3 stars, and The Great Fables Crossover was easily my least favorite of the series. I really liked the first Cinderella, and you might like where it’s going because it’s getting very Oz!

      I’m so glad you listened and read these. 😀

  3. VeganYANerds says:

    The images in this post are fantastic, some of the covers would look awesome as wall art!

  4. HOLY CRAP. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I first saw you and Alyssa gushing about it. It sounds completely enthralling and wonderful. I totally bookmarked this post so that I can refer back to it while I’m reading–which will hopefully be soon! This is one of the graphic novels my library actually has! Unfortunately, I’m on my own after Legends in Exile Book 1. But at least I can get started!

    • Heidi says:

      YES–you must! Hehe, I hope you do read this soon, and that I can help you keep everything strait since there’s so much now. It’s hugely popular, so thankfully a lot of libraries carry it. Too bad they don’t have more than book 1!

  5. Oh my gosh, I am cackling over the character descriptions. Pinocchio just wants to have sex! Hahaha. And I love that Snow White is dressed more like Mercy Thompson than a princess. I just got into graphic novels and I love fairy tales already so I will definitely be marching down to the library to demand this series. Politely, I mean. :)

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! I’ve NEVER been a Snow White fan, but she’s certainly the #1 female in this series, and I love her. I really can see you getting into this series, Maggie! I hope you do. It’s awesome.

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.