Monday, 1 December 2008

Far too many words (and too few eloquent ones) about War & Pieces

((warning: spoilers ahead for Fables: War and Pieces))*

Something occured to me while I was reading The Good Prince, Fables' tenth volume. I realised that, for a series supposedly entirely based around the concept of some kind of Israel parable, wherein a tiny nation is surrounded by larger, hostile nations (and indeed, this is a reading supported by interviews with series creator Bill Willingham), the "Fabletown" that is the focus of the series really is a place populated by people who could probably each take out all of their opponents single-handedly, so why the hell is there supposedly an ongoing war between the people of Fabletown and the much-feared "Adversary?" I mean, as excellent a read as it was, with shadows of some exciting and suitably epic Arthurian tales (helped of course by some actual appearances by Arthurian knights), The Good Prince was a story in which Fabletown's resident janitor strikes up some kind of incredible magical powers that basically grant him an invincible army of ghosts and the ability to seemingly do whatever the hell he wants, all because his cause is deemed "just." Hence, he takes a sizeable bite out of the series' key antagonist.

Now, this "simple but honest young man makes good as a swashbuckling hero" formula (here also given the classic fairytale twist of the royal prince disguised as a mere unsupposing serf) is the stuff that makes for great fairy tales, and therefore I suppose should be Fables' bread & butter, and it was genuinely impressive the first time Willingham handled it, back in Homelands, but by the time it was repeated, with the scale greatly increased, in The Good Prince, it only served to raise one big question: if one man can be so powerful can do so much against the Adversary, why on Earth haven't the combined forces of Fabletown completely overcome him yet?

Clearly, Willingham either did not want this question hanging over the remainder of his series, or else The Good Prince was designed from the very beginning to lead into a conclusion for the series; a final, fateful battle between good and evil and the conclusion to over six years' worth of this multi-award-winning comic book franchise, because Fables' eleventh volume - War & Pieces - is precisely the one that wraps up this long-running arc with a bang.

That's not to say that further volumes aren't coming. This is simply the end of this particular chapter in Fables' history. Whether the series can continue without its primary antagonist and main plot device or whether this will become regarded as the moment when the series "jumped the shark" remains to be seen.

To be honest, I'm reasonably optimistic about the series' future, whilst at the same time cautiously keeping a couple of reservations about me, and really, the reasons for both my positive and negative thoughts about the series can be found within War & Pieces, for it really is a rather messy beast of good and bad ("Pieces" indeed, it seems) that perhaps represents a little of what is right and a lot of what is wrong about Fables.

First, let's examine what Fables even is at the generic level. First presenting itself as an anachronistic fish-out-of-water tale and perhaps immigrant parable about a collection of fairy tale characters living in modern day New York, Fables soon revealed itself to in fact be a war story of truly epic proportions. 'Epic' gets bandied around an awful lot, but considering the scale of the story at hand, I feel it is more than justified in this instance. With an ensemble cast of both considerable size - constructed as they are from the massive tapestry of all of Western (and later, middle-Eastern, too) storytelling - and also such strength that each could likely support a series all to themselves (although the not-quite-as-good Fables spin-off series Jack hints that that may not be such a good idea), Fables really is a grand project.

This war narrative though is equal parts Ian Flemming Cold War spy thriller and Lord of the Rings-style fantasy adventure. The first part is well represented in the story that makes up much of the first third of War & Pieces: a tale that sees Cinderella, having honed the skills of the spy trade over several lifetimes (the fairytale characters in Fables are, of course, as old as the classic stories that feature them), jetting around the globe and taking out nameless henchmen in a story that borrows as much visually as it does plot-wise from a Sean Connery Bond thriller. The bulk of this volume though tends towards the latter part of this equation, and perhaps suffer for it. After all, magical or fantasy writing can, in the wrong hands, easily descend to the playground antics level of "my magic is more powerful than your magic," "no, my magic is more powerful than your magic," with no clear rules other than those of poor plotting deciding which way any battle or confrontation should fall; sometimes magic just works and sometimes it doesn't, it's magical that way. Considering how much of Fables is entirely predicated on characters with magical abilities squaring off against one another, it's honestly surprising that Fables isn't a much weaker series for it, with Willingham revealed as some kind of master illusionist who's somehow tricked us all into not noticing just how bare some of his plots are. Again, I stress that for the most part that's because his plots are not so thin at all, but in fact fleshed out by fascinating takes on familiar characters as well as labyrinthine plots based around Cold War-era paranoia and counter-counter-espionage.

However, that trust really is stretched to its limits in this latest volume, which features scenes in which we are presented with magical arrows that, so we are told, always kill their intended targets (after all, they're magical), only to see said arrows limply fail to kill their intended targets, seemingly because their target was in this instance a popular character. Or perhaps, like I said, it really was magic. "Magic," of course, being some sort of code-word for convenient but inexplicable plot developments or catches.

Far too much of War & Pieces continues in this vein, with our multiple heroes apparently beyond any fear of death or retribution thanks to their "powerful magic" and general incredible popularity (which actually, in the Fables mythos, really does amount to the same thing, as characters cannot die so long as their tales keep on being told en masse). Perhaps this is the real reason the series cannot go on as a war tale and is instead attempting to reinvent itself. When your heroes are, rather miraculously, armed with the entire arsenal of all of Western and Middle Eastern literature, from magic carpets to Vorpal blades, any army that stands against them seems to do so in the face of truly ludicrous odds, making the series' main arc of the Adversary threat seem increasingly redundant as the series continued and revealed more and more about our heroes' hidden powers and abilities.

Fittingly then, in an era that seems to spell the end of Fables as we have known it, the series does give us one prominent character death, apparently standing as a metaphor for the end of the series as it has run up until that point. Indeed, none other than Prince Charming himself meets his end in this volume, perhaps implying that a certain classical, fairytale, "magical" type of Fables story really is over. There'll be no more Pince ex machina coming to save the day. No more simple love stories. Of course, in Fables true love never has been simple, or else the late Prince would not leave a veritable gaggle of widows behind.

War & Pieces is at once a suitably large in scale story of love and war, yet at the same time a wonderful display of the kind of ridiculous storytelling that has largely up until this point been hidden behind spy tricks and plot twists, and yet stands a little barer than usual in this volume. I'm still very much looking forward to the next chapter, though.

*I tend to loathe spoiler warnings, but happen to know that one of my readers may well appreciate this particular one.

1 comment:

supersexy said...

This is an excellent post. I really have to agree with you on all points. I always felt that "Fables" was strongest when dealing with internal affairs instead of Adversary ones. Perhaps later volumes will pick this up (I imagine the upcoming TV series will make this its main focus, certainly) and return to form.

One caveat: Jack of Fables rocks. It doesn't contain the adventuring drama of Fables but it is a comedy of grand proportions that deserves a lot of praise. It also has Jack. He can get women pregnant just by looking at them, you know.