Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fables: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham

Thank you, Fables, for taking my money and my life for the past few days.

Reading these comics is like catapulting back to old, familiar, recognizable stories and then watching them orgami themselves in something all creased and folded and layered. Not that The Jungle Book was all benign and happy, but Shere Khan gets his makeover as a Big Bad in modern times in Animal Farm and Goldilocks is not all “Oh, my mistake, sorry Bears” here. She’s kind of a revolutionary warrior.

Like Legends in Exile, Animal Farm sets up a situation that reveals the desires, fears, history, and present of several key players in the fables universe. Legends in Exile did this by using a traditional mystery story; Animal Farm skews a few choice canonical texts, borrowing their structures and tropes and twisting them to their own devices.

Animal Farm begins with Snow White dragging her sister Rose Red out of the city to upstate New York, where a farm exists for all of the fables creatures that are too animal to pass as human in New York City. They’re bringing back Colin, the pig who made a few choice appearances in Legends of Exile, hanging out with Bigby even though he’s Bigby Wolf, the wolf who blew down the three little pigs’ (which includes Colin) house. Snow White is also doubling up on the journey by making it a chance for reconciliation with her sister after Rose Red pretended to kill herself in Legends in Exile. She’d attempting to give them another chance at the sister relationship that used to be a lot more rosy and happy than it is now.

But when they arrive at the farm – “sort of like Old MacDonald meets Walt Disney meets Munchkinland” – things are not the way that Snow White left them. Weyland Smith, the man who runs the farm (opposite to Snow White, who runs the city) has disappeared, and the three little pigs seem to have three different answers to explain where he has gone. And with Weyland Smith,* Willingham starts making Fables reach back to its folkloric roots, testing out reader connections across stories and texts. Weyland Smith was the first real thread in this story that reminded me of Sandman, with all of the hidden references to stories and mythologies that enter into the narrative brief as a wink. There are others that come just as fast and furiously: Jack Ketch, an executioner (and Sandman has a great story about Jack Ketch, if I’m remembering right!), and the gees, an enchantment placed on Weyland Smith (and, if you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, you’ll know that this comes up a lot with the Nac Mac Feegle). But these references are not the only ones that hold the story together, as it delves into literary reference and structure in this volume. Fables does rest on the structure of other stories, but Willingham goes back to more recent and contemporary canonical novels to create a sort of geometric shape to fit these stories and others into.

The Farm quickly mirrors George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the most overt reference in this story. Snow White and Rose Red walk into a barn where the pigs are leading the other animals in a meeting about overthrowing Fabletown in order to break out of the prison that is the farm they’ve been exiled to. When one of the three little pigs, Colin, is found in the morning, decapitated and with his head on a stick,** the Farm quickly becomes the devolving, destructive island of Lord of the Flies, where individuals rise and fall to the circumstances of revolution, order, and governance. Rose Red defers to the revolutionaries, while Snow White is left to find a way out on her own, with the help of the fox Reynard (I really get so excited by the different characters that pop up, but this was one of my favorites!).

It’s not that Snow White and Rose Red weren’t strong characters in Legends in Exile (although, Rose Red was mostly absent), but they are growing into fully fleshed out, dynamic, interesting, smart female characters. Both are developing story arcs and histories, strength and vulnerabilities, and I’m really excited about where this series is going to take them both. They’re rounded out by Bigby, who has so much depth of his own, Snow White’s ex-husband Prince Charming, Bluebeard, and the Little Boy Blue. Willingham has taken the stock characters of fairy tales and fables and made them into flawed, accessible, and overwhelmingly human characters.

I picked up Fables: Storybook Love today…so look for that next!

* A smith in Norse mythology – I think references to Norse mythology are by far my favorite to find in books and comic books.
** Lord of the Flies is all over the place here, especially with the whole pig’s-head-on-a-stick.

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