At root, the high concept behind Bill Willingham's witty DC/Vertigo series, Fables, is one that could quickly be described to a not-particularly-bright TV producer: modern-day adventures of the characters who populate the fairy tales of our youth (with an occasional ringer like the critters from Orwell's Animal Farm tossed in for spice) told from a slightly more grown-up PoV.
Not much different in tone from a tele-series like Charmed, in part, with good-looking characters and fantastic creatures intermingling, playing off and betraying each other in slightly soap-ish ways. The new Vertigo hardback graphic novel, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, gives us the back details of many of the series' regulars – the stories inbetween the original Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm (much, er, Grimmer fare than the bowdlerized fairy tales that most of us know) and modern-day New York where Willingham's living fables reside.
The means by which the writer has chosen to present these bits of Fable history is pretty simple: in a prose opening designed to look like an early twentieth century's children book (wonderful color illos by Charles Vess and Michael J. Kaluta), no-nonsense political envoy Snow White travels to an Arabian kingdom to enlist the alliance of a sultan in a Fabletown war for survival. The primary reason that these figures of folklore have fled to the New World is to escape a monstrous unseen Adversary, who has enlisted the eviler figures in the land of myth — trolls, sorcerers, witches — to brutally subjugate all the other fables.
Unfortunately for Snow, the sultan who she is visiting has iss-yues of his own: believing all women to be perfidious beasts good for one night of marital bliss than a quick beheading, he holds our heroine a prisoner. To save her lily-white skin, Snow goes Scheherazade, telling the sultan nightly stories, each of which is illustrated in comics form by an A-Level comics illustrator.
White's opening story works to establish the rules of Willingham's world: "The Fencing Lesson" follows newlywed Snow and her husband Prince Charming in the early days of their marriage. Readers of the comic know that Charming's philandering will eventually destroy this union, a character detail that's not essential to understanding this story, though it adds a certain piquancy to the proceedings.
In "Lesson," we learn that the dwarves of Snow White's story are not Disney-esque naives but rather thuggish reprobates. As painted by John Bolton, they're gnarly and unpleasant. In short, this is not the Grimms' – or even Donald Barthelme's – Snow White (though perhaps it's closer to the latter). The dwarves, we learn, are more tolerated than accepted aboveground, primarily for the riches that they procure digdigdigging in the mines.
When several of the more disreputable little men are murdered, it threatens the profitable economic alliance between Charming's kingdom and the underground civilization of the dwarves. The identity of the dwarf slayer is never in doubt, though newcomers with the old fairy tale in their heads may be taken aback by the motive behind 'em.
Snowfall presents ten of the stories that Snow purportedly told over her 1001 nights of captivity, and, in general, the stronger entries are the longer ones that we can imagine being told into a long night. A few of the shorter tales, while beautifully illustrated (an animal yarn wonderfully colored by the comic mag's regular artist Marc Buckingham; a second animal fable illoed by Derek Kirk Kim which had me thinking of Watership Down; a two-page throwaway vignette by an artist I wish was doing more graphic storytelling, Brian Bolland) read so sketchily that you can't help wondering how discerning an audience that sultan was, anyway.
The better, longer tales take folk-tale figures who were previously largely one-note and complicate them in enjoyable ways. Even the villains – Big Bad "Bigby" Wolf, seen in childhood as the runt of the litter; Stulla, the witch from a dozen different tales, shown as a young girl in the mountain tribe of her birth – get their own stories. The art is lavish, with a variety of styles that range from faux primitive (Esao Andrews, nicely used on Stulla’s tale) to more traditional "realistic" comic stylings (Bolland being the most beautifully conservative in this front, followed by Derek Kirk Kim).
To my eyes, the stand-out piece is Jill Thompson's tale of King Cole in hiding with a large company of animals for the way she manages to most successfully blend classic children's book art with graphic storytelling. It's the books' 1001st story (aside from a prose epilog that frees Snow from the sultan’s clutches), and it sends Snowfall out on a suitable grace note. True to the series, Cole is depicted as more than a Merry Old Soul. Despite his joviality, the character is forced to make some hard decisions and even, in the end, betray the same creatures he owes his life to. That Cole has a good reason to do so is a detail that Willingham keeps upfront. Even Wicked Old Witches have their reasons, after all…