I have six or seven trades of Fables, Bill Willingham's long-running Vertigo flagship series about fairytale characters living in contemporary America. But the gap between my trades and the storyline starting with issue #125 is so huge that I may as well have been a new reader. I recognize several of the characters, but things have happened and changed radically over the years. At the same time, several aspects of the book haven't changed at all. It was an interesting homecoming.
After what was by all accounts a horrifying and harrowing story about lead character Snow White's children, this issue sees Willingham start setting up the stand for a new arc, putting everything efficiently into place for the next storyline. A superb storyteller, he manages to thematically link the central storyline with several subplots, all of which tie in to the main narrative thread here. While Snow White stays at home and hopes her missing children will return, the kid's father Bigby goes off on a hunt to try and track them down. And as Bigby travels the world, so does the narrative.
Cleverly, the issue takes the time to set up the world once more for newer readers like me, but in such a way that doesn't feel much like exposition. Snow White stays at home, and as such her section of the storyline here is dedicated to summing up her situation and hopelessness — and to do so, Willingham gets to recap the series so far. As she recounts all the problems and changes in her life, new readers can catch up on them and grasp her character — and the world of Fables — very quickly.
The other side is Bigby Wolf's travels, which rapidly scatter from location to location. And as he travels, so Willingham skips around between different subplots. While Bigby explores his world, so Willingham does the same, touching in on various characters and establishing their narratives for the next arc. It's all very cleverly written, and goes to show just why Fables has lasted for so long. No page is wasted, and the subplots do not slacken the pace of the central narrative. As a means of ramping up tension, it's very effective.
A few issues with parts of the story, however. The sense of location is rather confused in this issue. Bigby's travels take him through fairly unremarkable locations — Willingham is more concerned with character-driven dialogue than setting up an epic sweep in tone — while the new castle the Fables live in isn't established particularly well. There's some sense of it, but it's very hard to tell which characters are located in the castle, and which are living elsewhere. As a new reader, that was confusing.
As this is the first arc of a new status quo, Willingham does have to spent a lot of time setting up ideas and characters, which likely means that longterm fans could be a little frustrated by the lack of forward movement here. There's enough character and development, but the fuse is still a long way away from the dynamite, so to speak. It'll be quite some time before any of the developments here start to ignite and deliver some action, meaning the issue does suffer slightly from being all build-up with no release. But that's a minor quibble, which I am duty-bound to quibble about.
Overall, Fables #125 is another example of Bill Willingham's immense skill at telling a story. It feels simple, but only because he's constructed such a wonderful, sweeping world to play around in, with distinctive characters who feel comfortable in their own skin. Fables has a confident, earned voice as a series, and issue #125 continues to take the characters towards new goals and stories. It's an excellent piece — complemented, I should absolutely point out, by a stellar artistic team who by this point have merged into a single entity, so symbiotic and instinctive their work feels. It's an excellent issue of a series which surely has no right to still be excellent after so many years of storytelling. Magic must be involved somehow.
Steve Morris writes for Comics Bulletin and The Beat. He has a webcomic called Stardark City which is well lush, he's on Twitter @stevewmorris, and now he has a blog too — so you can spend every waking second thinking his thoughts and reading his words. Whew!