Bill Willingham’s Fables is one of the most critically-acclaimed comics ever produced, and awards keep getting added to the pile. There are lots of reasons for this. First, there’s the “Why didn’t I think of that?” concept: what if all the characters from folklore and fairy tales were real, and they lived in exile in New York City because some dark foe has kicked them out of their homes. Then, there’s great art, great writing, the kind of stories to keep you reading late into the night, and something more: a kind of wish fulfillment that surpasses even the flight dreams Superman sates in its readers. Fables is the ultimate fairy tale, and that makes it instantly intriguing. The fact that it’s also the most consistently good ongoing series in comics makes it highly addictive.
“Legends in Exile” is the story told in the first five issues of Fables. The “Fables,” folklore characters living in exile in a NYC community called “Fabletown” have been in the mundane world for a long time when we meet them, but they’re not giving up hope that someday they’ll be able to defeat “The Adversary” and return home.
For now, though, they have other problems. Snow White’s fiery sister, Rose Red, is missing, and her apartment is covered in a ridiculous amount of blood. The Sheriff of Fabletown, Bigby Wolf (…think about it), is called in to investigate her disappearance and apparent death, and the resulting investigation casts suspicion on a number of figures from Rose’s past and present, including ex and possibly current boyfriends like Bluebeard and Jack (he of beanstalks and giants).
Like several of Willingham’s early Fables stories, “Legends in Exile” is an exploration of the Fabletown world and characters wrapped in a juicy genre story. It’s a murder mystery populated by princesses and princes, wolves, monkeys, witches and other creatures of legend, which is immediately appealing. Adding to the appeal is Willingham’s choice to ditch the lofty fairy tale poise of his characters. Apart from their occasional unique abilities and seeming immortality, the Fables live and act like regular people with big responsibilities. At times it feels like “The West Wing” or “Law and Order” with magic thrown in, as Snow and Bigby juggle the dual tasks of finding a killer and keeping abreast of the many powers and factions within Fabletown (more on that in later issues).
This deft merging of the mundane and the magical is thanks to Willingham’s immense skill for dialogue. Almost nowhere else in comics do characters speak so realistically or so amusingly even when something exciting isn’t happening (the work of Brian K. Vaughan is another example of this, but they are rare).
Fables is a series that opens with a bang, and just continues to climb in quality (most of the time, anyway). If you read “Legends in Exile” and enjoy it, you will be possessed by a demented hunger to immediately go out and find the second volume, “Animal Farm” and then the volume after that, and then the next, until your shelf is filled with every incarnation of the Fables stories (I know; it’s happened to me).