My stinginess often stops me from spending money on comics and other geeky paraphernalia, so it’s no surprise to me that it’s taken so long for me to follow up on my journey in the Fables-verse. Back in February I made a non-committal statement about continuing with the series, and despite my conflicted feelings on Fairest (In All the Land) I picked up another installment of the Fairest offshoots. From the summary, Fairest: The Return of the Maharaja promised an exciting adventure through the lands of Indus, a strong female lead, and… something something Prince Charming falls in love something. However, once again I find myself of two minds about this comic. Perhaps this is just how my relationship with this series is going to go.
Immediately, Return of the Maharaja follows through on their promise of a female lead with the introduction of Nalayani, a young woman who has taken it upon herself to protect her small village after all the men went off to war. She’s compassionate, deadly with a bow, and after her village is attacked and damaged by some thugs, she sets off to seek the aid of “Maharaja Shah Ah-Ming” (aka, Prince Charming). While unaware of how he can aid her, but driven by his desire to get into her pants, Charming sets off with a small army to help rebuild her village. Along the way, Charming’s encampment is attacked by a strange magical force and a pack of dholes (wild dogs native to Southeast Asia). Trying to keep hot on the assailant’s trail, Charming and Nalayani set off, hunting them down.
While unsuccessful in tracking their attacker, the two manage to share some bonding moments—none of them romantic—and learn more about the other, coming to respect their companion for their own achievements. When they return, they discover that Charming’s battle master went off and got killed and that a strange illness took the life of one of Charming’s harem girls. Charming too suffered from the illness, but it appeared to be cured once he admitted that he had legitimately fallen in love with Nalayani.
Arriving at Nalayani’s village, she is distraught to find out it’s been completely destroyed and all the villagers have been killed. Despite the comfort of Charming, she places the blame on herself and tries to get revenge as the familiar pack of dholes shows up once more. However, Charming discovers that the dholes are actually shapeshifters, and friends of his acquaintance Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf) back in Fabletown. They agree to help Charming and Nalayani find the assailant, but warn them that one of their siblings still is loyal to said assailant. Which wouldn’t be so much a problem if the assailant didn’t end up being the previous Maharaja, fueled by his hate towards Charming—who stole his throne for no reason—and enabled by owning a weapon gifted to him by the gods themselves. The Maharaja is, of course, defeated, but Charming loses an eye in the process. The tale ends with Charming leaving for other lands with Nalayani, both of them ready to explore the world in front of them with the new perspectives they’ve gained through their adventures.
Honestly, I don’t know much about Indian fables, but a quick Google search has me impressed with how the writers handled Nalayani’s character. According to the fable, Nalayani is subjected to live with her abusive husband, but she’s so in love with him that she caters to his every whim. Eventually, her devotion is rewarded via receiving a favor from her husband (who probably only did so because she saved his life). While Fairest‘s Nalayani keeps the more visceral parts of the fable—finding the broken off, diseased finger in her food, but then eating the food as though nothing is wrong—we’re spared from domestic abuse apologia. She does believe that the love she felt for one of the men in her village was true love, and though he was older and not exactly the nicest guy, he did show her kindness. He also presumably died in the war. Instead of wifely virtue, Nalayani shows her virtue by doing everything she can to protect her village from further hardship. In the end, for the medium and era, this is a much more effective and relatable portrayal of the old story.
I also appreciate that it’s Charming who is completely smitten with Nalayani. While at first he just wants to bone her, to mark her off as his greatest “conquest”, he becomes enamored with her selflessness and devotion to her cause: something he himself had never really had. What’s more, I like how the story itself never got romantic. Nalayani makes clear to Charming that she isn’t interested in him as a romantic partner at the point they’re at, and he’s fine with that. (There’s even a great line in there where she’s basically like “I’m in mourning and we’re fighting some weird mythological shit. Could you not right now??”) He doesn’t push her into a relationship, and is content with remaining friends, though he does let her know where his feelings lie. Charming is still kind of a gross womanizer, but it’s nice to see some character development.
One of my problems with the whole comic is Charming’s standing as Maharaja, though. There’s something really uncomfortable about reading the story of a white guy becoming the leader of a small village, then slowly building up an army of indigenous people due to his advanced technology (in this case, he has guns while everyone else has bows and arrows, spears, and the like), and eventually becoming the ruler. It’s made slightly better that his adviser, Nathoo, calls him out on this bullshit after killing the other Maharaja. However, the entire thing is kind of swept under the rug after Charming makes Nathoo Maharaja in his stead. I’m glad to see someone from the culture on the throne, but that doesn’t change the fact that Charming took the former Maharaja out of power for no reason outside of his own lust for power. In fact, it’s even revealed that the old Maharaja wasn’t even a bad guy. So the entire situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Speaking of Nathoo, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this installment of Fairest had two LGBTQ+ characters. Nathoo is gay, harbors a crush on Charming, and is one of the only friends the harem girls have. Nathoo’s orientation is a part of his character, but it doesn’t define him, and in fact he is treated no differently after coming out. While Charming doesn’t return his feelings, he still respects and trusts Nathoo immensely. Also, Charming himself is able to empathize with Nathoo’s fears about coming out because he is also not straight—Prince Charming is either bi or pansexual. While I can appreciate the representation, a part of me does kind of wish that the womanizing man with many ex-wives wasn’t the one who was bi/pan: I’m tired of the stereotype that bi/pan people are more sexually deviant or less likely to be monogamous than monosexual people.
Other than that, my complaints mostly stem from typical comic complains: the women all have the same “sexy” body type, the typeface used to distinguish Indus from English was racist, and the character growth happened way too quickly (like, Charming fell in love in what felt like a day). Comparing the two, Return of the Maharaja was much better than Fairest (In The Land) in terms of the narrative and the overall lesson of the story, though to be fair, Goldilocks was a much better villain than the Maharaja. I think, unfortunately, one of the reasons for that was the fact that Bill Willingham (the creator of the original series) wasn’t writing any of it. Of course, I don’t have anything to compare other than these two installments of Fairest, but that seems to be the case. Or maybe writer Sean Williams was just good at his job. No matter what it is, while I’m still wary about the series as a whole, I would like to see this team explore more fables from other countries—hopefully next time with fewer problematic elements.