Vertigo Book Club: Finally Getting to Fables
By Tim Beedle
Welcome to the Vertigo Book Club, a recurring feature where readers share their thoughts on a Vertigo classic that they’ve just read for the first time…or the first time in a while.
When I started here at DC (back in 2012, for anyone keeping score), we had just relaunched the Vertigo website and were building out a section for FABLES. The series was still ongoing at that time and had become one of Vertigo’s flagship books. Only SANDMAN had as much name recognition and only HELLBLAZER had more longevity. As the content editor for Vertigo, I was responsible for creating material for this new section of the site.
The problem was, I’d never read it.
Not properly, at any rate. Not starting from the beginning. Yeah, I’d read an issue here and there and knew many of the big beats, and I had plenty of coworkers and collaborators who had been reading the series to lean on when I needed to write something about it. But it had always kind of bugged me that I’d never read it myself. Urban fantasy is a favorite genre of mine, and I studied folklore and fairy tales in college, for cryin’ out loud. Fables was tailor made for me.
I’d grab trade collections as they became available here at the office, always intending to collect the entire series and make my way through it as soon as I had a chance. But the problem was that there were other comics I needed to read through as well, and many of these were much shorter or had just gotten started and seemed like a more manageable undertaking than a series that was already one hundred issues into its story.
When Fables at last reached its end in 2015, any immediate need to get caught up went away. But that didn’t mean I lost interest. In fact, if anything my interest managed to grow. The prior year, I’d played my way through The Wolf Among Us, the Telltale game based on Fables, which made me intensely curious to discover more of the world. But still, schedule and life seemed to get in the way, and Fables continued to sit on my shelf.
Until the end of last year.
I’m not sure what it was about December, 2017 that made it feel like the right time to finally dive into Fables. I’m not sure you can really pin it to anything. But with a week off work and a house full of family members I needed a distraction from, I finally read FABLES VOL. 1.
I’m not sure what I expected after all that time, consideration and procrastination, but what I didn’t expect was a murder mystery.
Which, interestingly, is pretty fitting. Fables made its debut back in 2002, the same year TRANSMETROPOLITAN ended and Y: THE LAST MAN began. 100 BULLETS and LUCIFER were going strong. As an imprint, Vertigo was just shy of ten years old, and by that point had built up a reputation as a bold, surprising publisher with a slate of titles that promised the unexpected. This is the label where Buddy Baker broke the fourth wall, John Constantine damned the soul of a child and The Sandman took us to a serial killer convention. When it comes to a Vertigo comic, you’re not supposed to know what you’re in for.
But that’s pretty hard to accomplish when you’re talking about a series that ran for 150 issues and has been a part of the comics landscape for over twelve years. I knew many of the big twists. I was already aware of Snow White and Bigby Wolf’s future, the tragedy that awaited Boy Blue and the identity of the feared Adversary. I had discovered the truth about Cinderella, had written about Prince Charming’s return and knew that the series’ final storyline involved the growing rivalry between… Well, I’ll refrain from sharing that just in case any of you are brand new to the story.
Even with all of that, there is plenty I didn’t know about Fables, and still don’t. That’s why I’ve always intended on reading it. But I’ve helped promote these characters and written about this series for so long that the one thing I didn’t expect to be after reading this first volume was surprised.
And yet, surprised I was.
For those who haven’t read it (and if that’s you, I don’t suggest you follow my lead and wait a bunch of years until you do), Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile focuses on Snow White and Bigby Wolf, the deputy mayor and sheriff of Fabletown, a secret community of fairy tale characters who are living as refugees in New York City. Together, the unlikely duo are tasked with solving the mystery of Rose Red’s disappearance and possible murder—something complicated considerably by the fact that Rose is Snow’s estranged sister. And when I say there’s a mystery, it comes with all of the tropes of the genre. There are clues, suspect interrogations, a final reveal… Heck, Bigby even boasts about being able to hold a traditional “parlor room scene” where he shares whodunnit.
Sadly, knowing some of the things that come later in Fables kept me from being fully invested in the mystery, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone familiar with the series, but on its own, taken without knowledge of anything that comes after it, “Legends in Exile” is a quirky, solid little mystery that stands on its own and does an excellent job of introducing us to the world of the series. It’s paced perfectly, with each chapter drawing you deeper into the story.
What it may not be is very representative of all that comes later. (Though it did occur to me that if all I knew about Fables were the storylines from “Legends in Exile” and The Wolf Among Us, I might be surprised to discover that the entire thing isn’t a fantasy-tinged detective series.) I suppose I won’t know for certain how well this first storyline represents what comes next until I’ve finished the series. However, nothing I’ve heard about the next 145 issues would suggest that I should expect more traditional mysteries. I certainly didn’t expect this one.
If you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. A series I’d heard a lot about, and have had quite a bit of spoiled for me, that’s published from a publisher who has employed me for over five years. And the fact that it started with a mystery caught me completely off-guard. Even now, over 15 years later, the first five issues of Fables managed to defy my expectations.
If that’s not a sign of a strong Vertigo series, I’m not sure what is.