Earlier this week, news broke that the production company behind the Harry Potter films had acquired the film rights to Bill Willingham's well-loved Fables series, and was moving forward on a big-screen adaptation of the property.
The premise of Fables is that all mythological characters exist alongside one another, and become the basis of legends and folk tales as they move in the background of the real world. This style of fairytale mash-up has become increasingly popular in recent years: Shrek, Hoodwinked, and other similar movies have seen huge box office success; Grimm and Once Upon A Time are gearing up for their third seasons on NBC and ABC; and the grandfather of them all, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's seminal 1987 Broadway musical Into The Woods is finally headed for a big-screen adaptation after nearly two decades of development.
But what makes Fables special is the depth of characterization, the scale of the narrative (with more than thirty-five different books currently in print), and the variety of threads that it weaves into a cohesive whole – including elements of Mother Goose, The Arabian Nights, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Brothers Grimm stories, and many, many other fantasy creations.
In this telling, the various storybook personalities have settled in two different communities: those who can pass as normal humans live in 'Fabletown', a settlement in the Upper West Side of Manhattan; the more unusual characters (the Three Little Pigs, the Three Bears, etc) live on "The Farm", a gated community in upstate New York. When the series began, it primarily focused on characters from nursery rhymes and European folk tales: Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the 'Big Bad Wolf'), Snow White, Rose Red, Jack Horner, Prince Charming, and many others. Bigby has mended his formerly evil ways, taken human form, and begun a career as a private detective; Snow White has become a central figure in the Fabletown/Farm governments; Prince Charming is a penniless skirt-chaser; and Jack, a perennial trickster and con man, is trying to make a quick buck. Within a few issues, the narrative expanded to include legendary figures from many other cultures, and before long, it became evident that Willingham had created a forum where any kind of tale can be told – romance, murder mystery, conspiracy, heist, farce, and historical fiction are just a few of the styles that appear over the course of the series, and entwine to form a single rich tapestry of storytelling.
This richness and imagination has made Fables one of DC/Vertigo's major success stories over the past decade. The series launched in 2002 to great critical acclaim, and has built a loyal and passionate following among readers in the years since, spinning off into two separate ongoing tie-in series (Jack Of Fables and Fairest), as well as numerous mini-series, graphic novels, and prose novels.
It can seem daunting to jump onboard a saga that's been running for more than a decade, but Fables nimbly sidesteps the most common pitfalls of continuing series. Unlike many comics, where creators take a few issues to determine their direction, Willingham and his collaborators fired on all cylinders from the start – the initial arc didn't just introduce characters and concepts, it created an entire world and built a compelling mystery.
And the storytelling is strong enough that each volume can be enjoyed without knowing all the set-up – despite plenty of internal history and building on prior events, it's never impenetrable for anyone late to the party. If you can, start with the first book and become acquainted to the characters; if not, grab one that looks good, and dive in.