Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Fables, vol 16: Super Team

The princess of Oz, Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, the Frog Prince, an ogre, and Thumbelina all team up to form a superhero team. Go back and read that sentence again.

Now that I've got that eye-catching description out of the way, I'll just go on to explain my history with Fables, without any segues whatsoever, because I am a rebel unchained by your rules of logical flow. First, let me explain that I do read comics, I do not subscribe to them. My general strategy is to wait for the trade paperback collections to come out, and the only comic that I really do keep up with is Fables, written by Bill Willingham and published by Vertigo. Fables tells the story of a number of fairy tale, folkloric, and other public domain characters who have been exiled from their homelands and forced to live in a secret in New York. If that sounds familiar, then it's probably because you've seen the ABC show Once Upon a Time, which began its life as an adaptation of the comic, before losing the name, changing the setting to Maine, adding a few mundane characters, and trying to strike a strange balance between Disneyfied fairy tales and "adult" situations. Meanwhile, NBC's Grimm, another show that started life as a Fables adaptation, just decided that it wanted to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Anyway, my opinion of the comic itself is fairly high, but said opinion has been dwindling for some time. I'd like to point out that, while there is no question that Willingham has an obvious Conservative bias, it never bothered me. It never came across as preachy, and it always seemed in-character. Of course the Fables wouldn't approve of abortion-- they live in a setting where souls explicitly and unambiguously exist. Of course the Fables would approve and admire Israel's survival tactics-- they're in a very similar situation themselves.

And then there are the people who accuse Willingham of being a misogynist. They point to Goldilocks and claim that she's a strawman feminist, and, yeah, she's a strawman character, but I never got where the feminist thing came from. She always came across as a straw communist. I mean, hell, the story arc that introduced her was called "Animal Farm." Not exactly subtle. That being said, given the events of volume 15, wherein one of the most badass characters in the comic stops kicking ass because she wants to settle down with a nice man, and a nurse turns evil because people keep calling her ugly, I can definitely see where those people are coming from, and I even contemplated dropping the comic entirely, the ending of volume 15 left such a bad taste in my mouth.
Misogyny in comic books? Perish the thought!
So yeah. Fables has been on a downward path ever since they defeated the Adversary (i.e. the main villain of the goddamn story) and then the comic decided to keep going. Admittedly, Willingham has introduced a couple neat ideas, but the comic has been so unfocused. I had gotten to the point that I was mostly reading it to see if it would be able to regain a fragment of its former glory before ending (like Buffy) or if it would just keep getting worse and worse until it reached a horribly unsatisfying conclusion (like Gundam SEED Destiny).

So, all that being said, let's move on to the actual review of Fables, volume 16: Super Team.

This volume actually contains 3 different stories. First, there's a little story following Buffkin the (formerly) Flying Monkey, Frankie the disembodied Frankensteinian head, and the Magic Mirror, who are still trapped in a magical otherworldly dimension. This is a mostly comic-relief chapter, in which Bufkin the characters conclude that Bufkin must become a hero and perform 13 heroic labors. Then Bufkin climbs a magic tree and finds himself back in his homeland of Oz. Like I said, it's a comic relief chapter and incredibly silly, and for what it is, it's entertaining and at least furthers Bufkin's subplot.

The meat of the volume occurs in the middle chapters, which collect issues 102 through 106 (the entire volume contains 101-107). This is the Super Team arc, in which Pinocchio convinces Ozma that the best way to defeat the current Big Bad, Mr. Dark, is to form a superhero team, relying on specific comic book archetypes. So, it's a lighthearted story arc meant as breather after the grim ending of issue 100, right? You'd think so but no. To be honest, I'm not sure why Willingham even bothered with the superhero parody bits, since he never really does anything with them, and the whole superhero angle is pretty much swept under the rug halfway through. It feels like Willingham just decided, "hey, you know what might be funny? A parody of superhero comics!" But then he got bored while writing it, so we're left with an anticlimax.

Actually, let me emphasize that last bit: THIS ENDS ON A FUCKING HUGE ANTICLIMAX. After all spending the whole damn story emphasizing how dangerous this mission will be, and how hopeless it actually is, and how thoroughly screwed the Fables are, everything just sort of resolves itself. Not only did Willingham apparently get bored with the superhero thing, he seemed to have gotten bored of the whole damn comic.

Not that I can blame him: Mr. Dark is a really boring villain. Everything from his name to his personality to his appearance is just so damn generic. I admit, some of his abilities are pretty neat. Eating teeth and using said teeth to summon zombies is pretty creepy. I also like the fact that his mere presence can cause the very concepts of law and order to break down. But these abilities aren't really put to good use, and Mr. Dark just comes across of Generic Fantasy Villain No. 4786. I don't feel threatened or intimidated by him because I can't shake the feeling that I've already seen this villain defeated countless times before.
This is apparently what the Incarnation of Fear itself looks like.
Compare Fables's previous Big Bad, the Adversary. All we knew about him was that he controls an empire which has spread to the point that countless Fables, including many former enemies, have had to band together to survive. Everything about the Adversary is kept secret, and when he is finally revealed, it's pulled off very well and you really get the feeling that this is a dangerously insane individual. Mr. Dark, by contrast, puts himself out there for all to see, which makes absolutely no sense seeing as this guy is supposed to be fear and darkness incarnate.

Really, the anticlimax of Super Team is just another symptom of the comic's biggest problem, which it has been struggling with ever since the Adversary was defeated and Mr. Dark was released from his prison: Fables lacks focus. It used to be that Willingham had a clear idea of where he was headed with his story, but after he finished it he decided that he couldn't just end an extremely popular, award-winning comic, so he started meandering around with his story a bit, looking for something to do.

That being said, I think he may have found something. The way the anticlimax plays out (God, I am going to such lengths to avoid giving spoilers), a couple plot threads are abruptly resolved, and a single new, very important one gets introduced. I simply can't see any writer do what Willingham did in this volume unless he had some kind of plan, so hopefully Fables will be getting some actual focus soon and recover.

My favorite part of this volume, however, was the final chapter, "Waking Beauty," a quick little side story about some of the people trying to fill the power vacuum left by the Adversary's defeat. Not to give anything away, but it's a clever story that fully exploits fairy tale logic and conventions for all their worth, and it works marvelously. This is the kind of story that I want to see more of from Fables, and I hope that that issue was indicative of what is to come.

If you've never read Fables, I'd recommend at least to volume 11, War and Pieces, since that's the big finale of the Adversary Arc. Volume 12 is when Mr. Dark shows up and things start going downhill, so tread carefully when you get there. Fables isn't perfect, but it was once great, and this volume, while not quite up to standard, does give me hope that the comic will regain some of its former glory.

And now I'd like to close my review with a question directed not only at Willingham, but at most of the people at Vertigo: Flycatcher has been the ruler of one of the most powerful and prosperous magical kingdoms in the multiverse for six volumes now, so why is he still wearing his janitor uniform?
It's probably a Biblical allegory or something.

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