I said a couple of weeks ago that Y: THE LAST MAN was the most clever book on the market today. If it garners that title, then FABLES is the most imaginative book on the stands today. Bill Willingham spices up old fairy tales and fables by bringing their characters into a modern setting. In FABLES, he creates an alternative look at childhood favorites that leaves me grinning throughout every story. It's slightly subversive, wonderfully sly, but most importantly entertaining. His creative license with these characters is well granted, with a great amount of thought being put into every little aspect of this new universe and the colorful characters inside of it.
In FABLES, all the old and well-known characters are immortals, living in Manhattan in a secluded apartment building. They keep their secret from the "mundanes," as the rest of the world is known. Those that can't fit in with the mundies - such as the three little pigs -- are sent to a farm upstate. There's a larger plot going on with the mystery of why all of these characters are living in our world and not in their own kingdoms and lands. It's a recurring topic with clues planted throughout the series. It seems likely that the final storyline for this series will be the tale of the Fables taking back their own lands. Until then, we readers are in for a treat as Willingham reinvents characters we thought we once knew.
Fables were never meant to be children's tales. These were dark tales, and Willingham treats them accordingly. Goldilocks is now an activist, sleeping with one of the three bears in a grand gesture of political solidarity. Prince Charming is the ultimate rogue and scoundrel, living off the women he seduces. Snow White is the mayor of Fabletown. The Big Bad Wolf is her number one detective. And the three pigs are staging an uprising on an upstate farm. All of this allows for satire, grand drama, and humor at the same time.
The twelve issues of the series so far include two larger stories, a single issue story, and a two-parter that's halfway through right now.
The first story arc is available in trade paperback form as FABLES: LEGENDS IN EXILE. It's a murder mystery in which Snow White's sister has gone missing and large amounts of blood have been found in her apartment. Bigby Wolf (one time blower down of pigs' homes and current ace detective) unravels the tale across the first five issues, introducing us to Cinderella, Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue, Jack of Tales, and more. Along the way, Willingham sets up the series beautifully, sprinkling in bits of context and continuity as he goes along. The mystery isn't a cheat, either. It all makes sense when it comes together in the sixth issue.
Lan Medina is the artist for the first storyline. His art is thorough and consistent, creating characters who look real and act real. The story itself has some nice visual moments, but Medina is kept around because he has the patience and professionalism to draw all those talking heads scenes.
The second story arc is "Animal Farm." The allusion should be obvious. The non-human Fables are kept on a farm in upstate New York. But they're trapped there. They can't leave for fear of being discovered. What happens when they become sick of being sequestered like this, and begin to plan a rebellion? Things get messy in a hurry, from heads-on-sticks to a single piercing gun shot jolting the reader at the end of the ninth issue. It's one of the most shocking endings of an issue that I've read in the past couple of years. Mark Buckingham is the artist on this storyline, which lasts 5 issues. His style is a little different from Medina's, but it's easy to catch on to relatively quickly.
A trade compilation of this storyline will be available this summer under the title FABLES: ANIMAL FARM.
Issue #11 was a single-issue story drawn by Bryan Talbot. It told a story set in the past of Jack of the Tales, a supporting character that we didn't otherwise know much more about except in broad strokes. It's an excellent single-issue story with certain supernatural elements and a love affair fit for the mature readers.
Issue #12 came out just last week. It's the first of a two-part caper story featuring the return of Lan Medina as artist. This time, he's being inked by Craig Hamilton not Steve Leialoha, which gives his art a tighter feel, with a lot more thin lines. You can definitely read Hamilton's line on the art now, but it still works well. Willingham's story moves swiftly, but not without room for the FABLES' usual sense of ironic humor and witty characterization. If the second issue finishes off the story as strongly as this issue started it, I think I might have to choose this for my favorite story so far.
FABLES is the kind of smart comic book we all want to see more of. It maintains a great sense of humor and a brilliant imagination for adults. It's not going to be the splashiest comic on the stands, but it's definitely one of the best reads.
Bill Plympton's next animated feature is called HAIR HIGH. As he did with MUTANT ALIENS, Plympton prepared an original graphic novel that functions not unlike a storyboard for the feature. It's 211 pages of Plympton at his finest, with just his imagination and a pencil. The effect may look a little sloppy at first glance, but a reading of the material shows a madman's kinetic energy being thrown at the page. There is no time for fine line work or prettying up rough art. I doubt Plympton ever used a ruler or a straightedge in making this book. Even standard layouts get convoluted with virtual fish eye lenses or extreme perspectives.
Plympton throws all of his mad ideas up in the air, creating a surreal story of high school hell in the 1950s, where the popular jock and his equally popular cheerleader girlfriend are destined to be the king and queen of the prom. When a new kid at the school breaks social etiquette and incurs their wrath, his life is changed and his reputation at the school is set. Sounds almost normal, doesn't it? Wait, I haven't talked about the worms crawling inside a woman's skin, the Fighting Cocks mascot who lays eggs and flies, or the death and resurrection of a pair of the main characters at the end. Did I mention the fighting hair, the organs oozing out of a teacher's head, or the funny faces taken to the extreme in class? Nope? It's all classic Plympton, exploring more of the ugly side of life with craziness.
The craziness comes through in the art. Plympton is a very visual storyteller. Much of the story is told silently. There are no overbearing captions to explain everything neatly to the reader, as there's no need for them. The story is as plain as day, even when it's so insane that you think its author should be committed.
HAIR HIGH is definitely a mature readers book, for graphic (albeit cartoony) violence and some sexual humor. It's available now through NBM for only $11. If you've never read a Plymptoon story before, this is a fairly decent place to start. I think this book would be preferable over MUTANT ALIENS.
THE LAB 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
...is the second effort from Scott Christian Sava about his favorite pair of lab rats. It's an improvement on the first issue, both in story and in CGI. This one feels like a single six minute cartoon, done with all the goofiness of a Warner Bros. short, but with modern references. Yes, it's a silly and simple tale, but it's one that's all-ages appropriate and that should even appeal to a younger child: It's colorful. It's wacky. It's silly.
This time around, Livingston has created a potion which, when ingested, causes the victim to imitate music that he or she hears. When Esteban gets silly dancing to all sorts of radio tunes, Livingston takes full advantage. Of course, Esteban gets his revenge in the end, but that's all par for the course.
Sava is treading in relatively new territory with this book, producing it completely in the computer. As such, every new story brings with it new contributions to the medium. There are a few things in particular that Sava does with this issue that I wanted to point out.
First of all, he has small drop shadows behind the word balloons and their pointers. When you think about it, it's all wrong. It means that those balloons appear as if they're on top of a glass wall dividing the scene from the reader. However, it doesn't seem that way at all while reading it. It just adds to the dimensionality of the scene and has a slightly different look than what you're used to seeing in comics.
Second, Sava changes fonts constantly with each song that Esteban sings. It's a nice touch to match the era's letter styles with the songs. "Beat It" gets a graffiti font, while "Staying' Alive" keeps a groovy disco look.
Third, he's toned down the accents from the first issue. It was something many people disliked about that first issue. Esteban's accent, in particular, was a heavy non-specific dialect that many unfortunately took as some sort of stereotype. Sava drops it entirely in this issue. It doesn't affect the story at all, so I suppose it's a non-issue. It's just one less bullet to dodge from the critics, so I can't blame him at all for sidestepping the issue in this manner. Let the story be the star. Don't go looking for trouble.
The CGI art is effective. Sava had his share of critics for the Spider-Man mini-series he recently did with Greg Rucka. Creating CGI humans is never an easy task, and very few people have ever gotten it to look right. (FINAL FANTASY is about the closest that anyone's come yet, and even that had its shortcomings.) By creating anthropomorphic characters, Sava increases the amount of slack his readership will give him. Nobody minds a cartoon version of a mouse or a dog or any other animal. It's expected. Cartoon humans, for some reason, never click properly.
THE LAB #2 is a complete full-color 32-page story for $2.99. It's enjoyable for all ages, but is particularly noteworthy for being accessible at all ages. A mother wouldn't mind reading this goofy story to her eight-year-old child. That's all too rare a thing on the racks today.
A QUICK PREVIEW FOR THIS WEEK
The new CREEPER series begins from Vertigo this week. I had the chance to read it this past weekend and was impressed. Jason Hall creates an authentic feel to a period 1920s French mystery. We see the artists that crawled around Paris at the time, and their sometimes-complicated relationships with each other and the local constabulary. But it is Cliff Chiang who steals the show with his art. Steeped in ink, he creates twin lead characters who are easy to distinguish, with the help of Hall's sharp script that keeps characterization at the forefront. The book is topped off by Dave Stewart's rich colors and John Workman's energetic lettering, complete with one-sided tails.
Look out for that on Wednesday. The first issue is a big set-up issue. Keep in mind that the preview pages you may have seen here at CBR are the final pages of the first issue. Everything else in the issue leads up to those. While, yes, it may look like another "woman in danger" story from that, the series does look to be setting itself up as much more than that, including a complicated love triangle that's the most intriguing part of it.
Next week, Pipeline returns with a couple thousand words in a brand new formation. This new layout of letter clusters separated by white space will form new ideas, opinions, commentary, and/or reviews. You'll just have to click back here next week to see what that is.
Special thanks this week to librarian Justin over at Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ.
Various and Sundry has been updated all week with the mandatory look at the week's DVD releases, more Meat Loaf in the form of his new music videos in Europe, updates on SURVIVOR, more Nigerian Scam hilarity, Name That Font, thoughts on the new MATRIX: RELOADED trailer, and more.
Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.