Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Comic Books

Before I begin, I'd like to note that this article is fairly long, but only looks obscenely long because of how narrow the column is, and because of some dialogue portions in the middle. Please don't be daunted, I beg you. I will also remind those of you who may have forgotten that all images in this article can be made much larger by clicking on them.


The comic book medium is one that is, I think, unfairly ignored - and even disdained - by a great many people. Theirs is a prejudice I can understand, of course; the garish examples of things like the X-Men and Spiderman and really just about everything the Marvel publishing company produces can be highly off-putting to more adult readers out there, particularly those hesitant about the artistic and moral value of such media. The superhero genre really does often obscure the non-superhero genres when people think of comic books in general, and this is a real shame. There are comic books out there that are more literate than some literature; more beautiful than some art. There are comics winning Pulitzers.

Chesterton himself, though not a producer of comics in the manner in which we see them today, would hardly have objected to them, I think. We have seen in his materials from The Coloured Lands that colourful, simple, illustrated stories are right up his alley, particularly if they have fantastic elements to them.

This post is the first in an open-ended series outlining comic book titles that you, as a literate, God-fearing Chestertonian type, could read and enjoy, no matter your age or maturity (which are, after all, two very different things). Like the films listed on the highly useful Vatican Film List, not all of these comics will deal with expressly religious subjects, or contain expressly "good" material. There will be comics rife with syncretism and secularism and irreverance and downfall, but they will be, for all that, utterly worthy art. We'll be looking at the Lord of Dreams, and a man made of concrete, and mice under Hitler and a vampire priest, among many others. What a look it will be.

However, for now, we will begin with the best comic currently being published, whether by its particular company (Vertigo, an imprint of the venerable DC company) or by anyone else. It's also making progress towards being one of the best comics ever published, not just presently, but in the history of man. The series in question is Bill Willingham's Fables, about which so very much can be said.


The premise of the series is simple, though the possibilities are endless. All of the characters of our folklore and legends are real, though they naturally live in a world of their own. They're all there. Snow White. The Big Bad Wolf. Pinocchio. Red Riding Hood. And so on, and so on. Everyone from the popular to the arcane; from Goldilocks to Baba Yaga. These characters have been displaced from their home by the armies of the Adversary, the true identity of whom is something I will not spoil. The Adversary, in true Tolkien-like fashion, has drawn together a vast horde of goblins, orcs and so forth, as well as some of the nastier villains of our collective storyline, and launched a campaign of annihilation and subjugation. The Fables who escape find their way to the mundane world (ours), and found a secret community in New York City. They attempt to hold together as a community even as they make plans to retake the homelands. That's the set up. The series is an ensemble book, of course, so they're essentially no end to the stories that can be told.

The series debutted in 2003 to mixed reviews, and the reaction is understandable. The first efforts were difficult and, in some cases, a trifle awkward, and not enough information about the actual rationale of the series was revealed to have it make any kind of sense. This was quickly remedied, of course, and the conclusion of the first story arc, Legends in Exile, was well-received. Part of the problem might have been the art of Lan Medina, whose work was certainly good, but not particularly whimsical enough for the premise. With the introduction of Mark Buckingham on pencils, the series found its stride and things have been wonderful ever since. The covers, by James Jean, have always been fantastic, and samples of them are littered across this post.

Now, apart from simply being a well-written, well-illustrated ongoing series with a novel premise and brilliant execution, there are some other things that may recommend Fables to this blog's readership. There are three particular examples that I'm going to provide, though unfortunately I am unable at this time to accompany them with scans of the pages in question. The dialogue will have to do for now. There are three hot-button topics or issues that I do not often seen treated in such a favourable light by any popular media, let alone one that has a target audience of essentially liberal twenty-somethings.

The first example is to be found in the circumstance of Snow White finding herself pregnant by the Big Bad Wolf (lest ye worry about the propriety of such a liason on the level of species, some useful magic has transformed him into a human named Bigby Wolf; he is the sheriff of the Fable community, and she is the deputy mayor). During a check-up with Dr. Swineheart (one of the three army surgeons from the Grimm story), the following exchange takes place:
Dr. Swineheart: You can get dressed now. The pregnancy is coming along fine.
Snow White: No it isn't. Nothing is "fine" about it. It's going to ruin my life, my standing in the community and what's left of my reputation.
DrS: If that's the way you feel about it, you do have options. This is the twenty-first century, after all.
SW: Stop right there, Dr. Swineheart. Don't you dare finish that thought.
DrS: But I only--
SW: Have you forgotten how to tell your Mundy and Fable patients apart, or do you imagine I've gone native?
DrS: I brought it up because it's obvious you're not happy about--
SW: Since when is our happiness of primary consideration? Some of us are still governed by duty and responsibility. Don't bring it up again, Doctor, if you want to remain a part of Fabletown.
Whereafter she storms out. This is the only time that abortion has been mentioned in the series, that I've noticed, and to see it treated thus is heartening indeed.

The second example (edited to obscure the true identity of the Adversary, which is of some importance to the series but is not worth spoiling) is of a more dire nature, being as it is concerned with politics and warfare. Bigby Wolf delivers a warning to the Adversary, and it's hard to miss where the sympathies of the series lie:
Adversary: You won't be able to kill me.
Bigby: Relax. I'm hear to deliver a message from Fabletown.
A: Then say what you came to say and get out.
B: Sure. How familiar are you with the Mundy world? Ever hear of a country called Israel?
A: Who knows? Maybe.
B: Here's what you need to know about it. Israel is a tiny country surrounded by much larger countries dedicated to its eventual destruction.
A: And why should that concern me?
B: Because they stay alive by being a bunch of tough little bastards who make the other guys pay dearly every time they do something against Israel. Some in the wider world constantly wail and moan about the endless cycle of violence and reprisal. But since the alternative is non-existence, the Israelis seem determined to keep at it. They have a lot of grit and iron. I'm a big fan of them.
A: Are you near to being done? I'd like to go back to sleep.
B: Here's the part that concerns you. Fabletown has decided to adopt the Israel template in whole. You've no doubt guessed that you guys play the part of the vast powers arrayed against us. Every time you hurt us we're going to damage you much worse in return. It will always happen. Always. You're the only one who can end the cycle.
And then a fairly incendiary demonstration is provided, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that, given the target audience and the general state of the world, these are words that are refreshingly blunt.

Our final example is perhaps the most potent, containing words and sentiments that you might not even hear on television these days for fear of offense being given. They are spoken by Old King Cole as he officiates at the wedding of two main characters whose names will not be mentioned, though you'd probably be able to guess who they are having reading this piece so far.
King Cole: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together, in the sight of God, to join this man and this woman together in holy matrimony, which is an honourable estate, instituted by God in Heaven, into which these two present come now to be joined. Therefore, if any Fable can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him speak now or else hereafter hold his peace. [There is a pause] Wilt thou, MAN, have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy state of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, and keep thee only unto her, so long as you both shall live?
MAN: Yes-- I mean, I will.
KC: Wilt thou, WOMAN, have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy state of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, and keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?
WOMAN: I will.
MAN: I take thee, WOMAN, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, and thereunto I plight thee my troth.
WOMAN: I take thee, MAN, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, and thereunto I plight thee my troth.
KC: Forasmuch as MAN and WOMAN have consented together in holy wedlock and have witnessed the same before God and this company, I pronounce therefore that they be man and wife together. You may kiss the bride.
Now, this rightly sounds to us to be nothing out of the ordinary, as far as the marriage ceremony is concerned, even if it has been truncated somewhat. The real marvel of it is that it is essentially orthodox, wholeheartedly theistic, and appears at this not inconsiderable length in a wildly popular comic book. Willingham could easily have glossed over it, or secularized it, or done any number of other slovenly things, but he didn't. Note that the wife even vows to obey and serve, inasmuch as she will be loved and comforted by the husband, in the old high way. No punches pulled, no excuses made. That's what we like to see.

These are the things you can expect from Fables, though they are not the only things. As it is an ensemble book, and a basically post-modern one at that, there are also less reputable characters, like the terminally infidelious Prince Charming or the libertine Rose Red. They are the exception rather than the rule, however, and the stories remain very much examples of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and heroes versus villains.

The greatest example of this will be the last thing I mention, for the moment. A standalone, super-sized issue was released detailing the last stand of the Fables in the homelands. Entitled The Last Castle, it draws upon a truly astonishing number of literary sources, weaving characters as diverse as Robin Hood, St. George, and the cow that jumped over the moon into what is essentially the battle of Helm's Deep from The Lord of the Rings, but without the happy ending. A vast array of military-type Fables give their lives to cover the retreat of the last boat out of the Homelands as the Adversary's hordes batter against the walls. This story has everything you could hope for. Faerie Kings and Questing Knights fight side by side with the Merry Men. Robin Hood dies alongside the lady knight Britomart. Little Boy Blue enages in a doomed romance with Red Riding Hood that will have enormous consequences in the future.

This is what you're getting into with this series. The idea of it is not its merit, though the idea is quite excellent; its merit is that it's carried off so well, and so logically. These are the sort of stories I wish I could have read as a child, and I'm glad to be able to read them now. You should try them yourself.

Warning: Fables, though it is essentially morally suitable for anyone, does contain (frequent) scenes of violence, (highly infrequent) scenes of sexuality, and some coarse language. Your discretion is advised.


Anonymous said...

A few spoilers in there.

Including stuff I haven't read yet (following it in trades). Moh well, least you concealed the adversary.

In any case I look forward with great anticipation to the rest of the series. It should be great, looking at the titles you have lined up (that vampire priest one took me a while to get, even though it's one of my favorite comics.) Can't wait for you to finish it!

Anonymous said...

Online wanderings indicate that the first issue of Fable is available for free online here :

You'll need adobe acrobat.

Source is this compendium:

Anonymous said...

I missed where these comics may be purchased. Any tips?
And, Furor, would you consider them appropiate for a 16 year old boy?
Thanks, Lily

Nick Milne said...

First Anon: Well, there are some, I suppose, but nothing earth-shattering. If you mean the Last Castle stuff, then it's worth noting that it's a one-shot that happened before the series timeline even began, making it not exactly timely. I described it merely for the sake of interest. However, it is hard sometimes to keep everything from slipping out. I don't know that I could really describe the series' merits, particularly with the examples provided, without at least a few specifics.

Anyhow, thanks for the praise, and be sure to check back frequently. I may do another for Monday, or perhaps sooner.

Second Anon: Thanks for the tip.

Lily: These comics can be purchased at most any local comic shop (consult the Internet or your yellow pages), and the "trade paperbacks" - that is, multiple-issue story arcs bound together under one cover - can be purchased online from Amazon and the like.

As to whether they'd be appropriate for a 16 year-old boy, I'd have to say mostly yes, but with caution. As I mentioned at the end of the post, there is certainly some objectionable material, but it is slight when compared to the bulk of material that is not. Thinking back on it, for example, I can only recall three "love scenes" in the entire series, all of them occurring within the first year of publication. Willingham seems to have ironed it out after that, for whatever reason.

It's hard to say. I would recommend you read them yourself first before making the call, as you know more about the young gentleman's maturity than I do. You may sample them and feel they are inappropriate even for you, though I hope this is not the case.

Anonymous said...

Fables does indeed rock to high heaven. I also like the fact that conservative views get a hearing, as it's a welcome change to all those fantasy comics and stories where... well, the Historical Fiction Rules say it best:

4. No matter what the time or place of your novel, your hero/heroine must have the views of a right-on politically-correct person in a Western country circa 2000 A.D.

It's such a relief to read a series which throws that completely out the window, where the characters don't automatically spout post-modern platitudes all the damn time. It's not (just) that some of the characters think in a moral way, but that they actually think like people who are several hundred years old. Which means "traditional" morality in some cases, and good old-fashioned immorality in others (Prince Charming being exhibit A), and not a one of them dealing with bereavement by talking about someone always being with you, in your heart (did anyone anywhere ever say that before the 20th century?).

I also note that Willingham isn't offering the sentiments about Israel uncritically. There's a serious downside to that approach, which looks like being explored in coming issues. (I'm currently on #52, eagerly awaiting the next.)

- James A.

Nick Milne said...

Precisely, James. It's particularly true of the gender work in the book. When Snow White is wielding the Vorpal Blade or firing a gun, she's not in any way competent or happy or gutsy at all. It's appropriately awkward for the simple reason that she is not some empowered warrior woman. None of them are, and they aren't treated as such. However, there's a reason that Snow White is the deputy mayor, Cinderella the secret agent, and Rose Red the farm manager.

Now, some liberties have been taken with, say, Goldilocks, but the consequences of those liberties were frequently and clearly depicted.

And yes, the Israel Analogy is going to bear some astonishing fruit in the next few installments, I think. Hopefully some cooler heads will prevail. But if they don't... well, our Mundane world is basically done for, I guess.