I have never been much of a fan of Western comics, much to the disappointment of Ace, who keeps trying to get me into Thor. Sure I’ve dabbled—a Killing Joke here, a Transformers comic there—but I find myself floundering in the problem faced by many people who’re late comers to certain comic series: there’s just too much to catch up on. This is almost always an instant deal breaker. Almost. My dirty little secret is that I’ve been teetering on the edge of starting a series for what feels like, and may actually be, the past decade of my life. And at long last, I’ve finally taken the plunge.
It was the fairy tales that got me.
To be more exact, it was Fables that got me; this brainchild of Bill Willingham takes familiar and beloved fairy tale characters and places them in a more modern setting with some film noir/detective story elements. The series, which started in 2002, tends to focus on Bigby (more commonly known as the Big Bad Wolf) who is the sheriff of Fabletown, where a majority of the fairy tale characters live.
While I had been romancing the graphic novels from afar in bookstores since I was young, I was finally lured into purchasing a volume after watching a playthrough of the 2013 Telltale episodic game, The Wolf Among Us, which, while not written by Willingham, still had much of the charm of its source material, the Fable comics. However, no matter how interested I had become, I still faced the same exact problem: I had no idea where to start. So, I did what any intelligent person capable of rational thought would do. By which I mean I chose at random. Luckily for me, I chose a one-off that had its own self-contained story: the story of the self-proclaimed “worst week in Cinderella’s life”, otherwise known as Fairest (In All The Land).
Spoilers beneath the cut.
The week is incredibly shitty, as things tend to be when you have a murderer running around and the sheriff—the aforementioned Big Bad Wolf—is presumed dead. The sudden brutal murders of Morgan Le Fey and Mrs. Ford (an oracle of death) prompt the mayor of Fabletown to recruit a spy, Cinderella, in order to not only find their murderer, but also find the reasoning behind the list of names left behind at the murder scene. Quickly,
she decides that the list of names—comprised of the “fairest in the land”—is a hit list, and it’s easy enough to follow and protect the victims listed. Or at least that’s what Cinderella thinks. Yet the murderer seems to always be one step ahead of her, leaving a slew of bodies in their wake—always two at every crime scene.
The merciless trend stops when Cinderella reaches the home of fellow spy, Bo Peep. While Cinderella ends up incapacitated by her compatriot, she discovers that Bo Peep was attacked by someone who looked like Cinderella; thus the reason she attacked her. Cinderella, knowing that she only just arrived at Bo Peep’s house, takes this as a chance to gather Bo Peep and the rest of the soon-to-be victims in one place to keep an eye on them. Not exactly the best idea when the killer remains an unknown.
Throughout this, there are two helping the case along: Ozma, who is helping Cinderella via her psychic powers, and the Magic Mirror, who is helping the audience by revealing certain plot points as they become available to him. Ozma’s attempts at seeking out a potential missing magical relic (kept in the same building as the Magic Mirror) are continuously blocked by a disturbance in the form of a song, soon discovered to be an old hit song written by Briar Rose. In talking to her, Cinderella is able to piece together who the murderer is. Back in the relic storehouse, the Magic Mirror and his tiny magical companions the Barleycorn Women manage to gather enough power to break through the disturbance blocking Ozma to let her know about the murder weapon, which is an old sword named Regret. This sword has the power to bring people back to life after they’re killed with its blade (within a week’s time); however, the sword has decided its price for potential resurrection is taking the life of someone else. The keyword being “potential”. While the wielder doesn’t have to bring back a life, the sword always seeks out a second target; consider it a payment in advance. Thus the reason why there are always two bodies at every crime scene.
With the targeted women back home and several days passed, Cinderella knows she only has a little time before the deaths are permanent. Using Bo Peep as bait, she draws out the killer: Goldilocks. Goldilocks wants nothing more than to kill all the fairest ladies after being snubbed for all of her life, and she almost does it, too. But Cinderella manages to use the sword against her, killing Goldilocks as the sword’s second sacrifice and ending the chain of terror.
Though the murderer is now murdered, Cinderella is left with the decision of who to bring back to life. Out of every two bodies killed, she can only bring back one, and in the end, she can’t really be satisfied with the choices she made. Good people still died, and the people she brought back aren’t exactly keen on thanking her for it. At least she gets the thanks of Snow White… and a break, at long last.
For my first foray into Fables, I have to say I really enjoyed it. I really liked all the different artists Willingham was able to bring on for the project, as each of them added something different to the story. I also really liked how only three of the important characters—the mayor, the Magic Mirror, and a badger named Brock Blueheart—were dudes. As the name implies, Fairest really is a woman-centered, women-driven comic, and in the best way possible. Everyone is capable, everyone is dangerous, and despite only knowing some of the women for a few moments, the reader can tell right away that they all have a personality of their own. I was most surprised with Cinderella, honestly. The beginning chapter of the comic comes dangerously close to painting her as sort of incompetent and, as a first-time reader, gave very little reason why I should believe she could pull off a murder mystery. Luckily every other chapter showed that, while Cinderella has little experience in conducting by-the-book investigations, she is perfectly capable of putting the pieces together while kicking some major ass.
Additionally, Fairest brings up an excellent point at the end concerning who is brought back to life and who isn’t. While Cinderella’s choices
come from her opinion on what would be the greater good where Fabletown is concerned, it is true she ends up reviving all of the “fairest” ladies, while leaving their friends and loved ones in the grave. In the Fable universe, it seems to be the case that the “fairest” are the ones with a lot of pull and influence in the Fable community. But did that responsibility fall on them because of the kind of people they are, or in part because of how they looked? How much does meeting the societal standards for beautiful protect you from danger and let you get away with things? I’m glad that Fairest touched on this issue, but unfortunately, since it was brought up in the last chapter, it wasn’t really discussed to its full extent.
Of course, the comic wasn’t without its flaws, one of the most glaring being that everyone was white. Or, if the character wasn’t white, they were either an animal or some fantastical color like blue or purple. It’s true that we’re used to seeing an extremely white line-up of fairy tale characters, but especially as this series started in 2002, there is no reason why there couldn’t be more characters of color. In a re-imagining of these stories, who’s stopping anyone from making Cinderella Black? Or Briar Rose Asian? It comes off as incredibly lazy, as does all the body designs. Listen, okay, I know they’re fables, but not every lady fable has to be super skinny and a little bit curvy. “Fairest” doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, mean carbon copies of each other.
Which leads me into my biggest problem with Fairest: the main conflict. Though ultimately Goldilocks wasn’t the mastermind (it was a magic car who was tired of her imprisonment), she’s still the villain for a good eighty-five percent of the comic, so we see the conflict through her eyes. And why is Goldilocks killing people? Because they’re pretty. That’s it. This is some misogynistic bullshit right here, and it’s unacceptable given that Goldilocks could have easily had another motivation for murder. In her youth, Goldilocks was a radical—she wanted to protest against “oppression” and had a lot of anger over certain issues; however, she couldn’t because she was one voice in a sea of millions. Yes, of course, looks can play an important part in being heard if you’re not already influential in society, but I don’t see why the conflict had to rely solely on the looks part while forgetting the radical part entirely.
Goldilocks even states that her motive is “Revenge, mostly. I really do hate all of you pretty ones. Every one of you gets pushed right to the top of the food chain entirely due to your looks.” And there is a point to be made there, but it becomes misogynistic in that Goldilocks is only viewing the women as the problem, not the society that places the importance on these looks, nor the society that decides which looks create a person who is quote-unquote pretty. The audience is obviously supposed to see her as wrong—given that all of Goldilocks’s victims are hard workers—but that’s also problematic because the comic ends up never even addressing how beauty affects how people are perceived and treated in society. Additionally, Goldilocks is not unattractive by the standards of society. She is as curvy, white, and blonde as Cinderella and probably would have never faced the kind of discrimination she is killing for. Which might be part of the point—to make Goldilocks seem even more delusional—but it does end up coming off like we’re supposed to sympathize with Goldilocks for not being a “fairest”.
Now that I’ve finally taken the plunge, I think I may actually give Fables a shot as a series. There’s a lot here, and the Fairest series takes an interesting look at an otherwise seemingly male-driven universe. I would definitely recommend picking this up if you’re interested in this kind of story or setting. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking in terms of representation unless you’re a conventionally pretty white lady.