Stories About Tales, Tales About Stories

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Something scratchy in my brain indicates that Vertigo won’t be all that annoyed if the wider pool of comics readers develops a psychological connection between Fables and The Sandman. I mean Christ, why not? Neil Gaiman’s enduring megahit loaned the Vertigo line an awful lot of identity, and sweet, sweet lucre continues to flow from both the core series (now in Absolute form) and its myriad spin-offs (Lucifer in particular just wrapped after 75 issues of its own). So who even really needs a literal connection to the Gaiman-struck mythos? Why not a separate book, an unattached book that could nonetheless nourish itself off thematic and aesthetic association?

That’s how it’s gone with the Bill Willingham-created Fables, at least to my mind, and that’s how it continues here. Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall probably could not seem any more inspired by the latter-day Sandman hardcover special The Sandman: Endless Nights, an original collection of new stories written by Gaiman with an eye toward both tantalizing new readers and pleasuring the old, visuals provided by a slew of highly capable talents. It did well in stores, and thus we have the Fables version, which is somewhat smaller in dimension, roughly five bucks less expensive (at $19.99), and in possession of a framing story that seeks to push the whole project a little bit closer to a ‘graphic novel’ then the Sandman book got, but let’s not fool ourselves as to the reminisces that Vertigo so plainly wants us to experience.

It’s all a bit unfortunate then, as sound as the market sense behind the project might be; at least in terms of this comparison, Fables is no Sandman, as 1001 Nights of Snowfall is no Endless Nights. And even if the making of that comparison wasn’t a foregone conclusion through Vertigo’s positioning of the book, I still couldn’t recommend it with much vigor to any but a few select groups of readers. This book simply errs too much on the side of servicing devoted readers, resulting in an often abridged, incomplete feel for its included stories; that’s fine for the hardcore, but I can’t imagine it tantalizing many beyond that number, especially those piqued by Sandman comparisons.

The story of Fables concerns a batch of familiar folk tale/fairy story characters, who’ve been run out of their homeland by a shadowy, malevolent entity called the Adversary and the expected hordes of atrocious goblins. The framing sequence of this particular tome involves Snow White, a driven, cunning woman who travels to the still-unmolested land of Arabian story characters in order to strike up an alliance with the local Sultan and possibly drive the Adversary out of the exiles’ territory. Unfortunately the Sultan is a diehard misogynist, having witnessed or experienced one too many personal infidelities at the hands of the fairer sex (and fortuitously ordered their heads lopped off before he could surmise any fault of his or any other man’s own in the various affairs), and now accepts women only for marriage, sex, and immediate execution, all in the space of one night, for every night. Snow isn’t about to accept this situation, so she distracts the Sultan with tales of her lost homeland. You know the drill, right?

This sequence occasionally recurs throughout the book; it’s illustrated prose, and lovely illustrations they are, by Charles Vess & Michael Wm. Kaluta. Certainly the narrative conceit of ‘telling tales’ is appropriate for something like Fables, and certainly most of said tales (all of which are told in full comics form) have technically fine art. And yet, one of the book’s problems is swiftly illustrated by merely a flip, since nearly all of these stories employ the same visual tact: lavish, painterly, eminently handsome and gently stylized high fantasy-style art, appropriate for storybooks or illustrated plates in contemporary epics. And it frankly begins to blend together after a while.

Nowhere is this more evident then with James Jean’s contribution; nobody can deny the intense acclaim he’s gathered as cover artist for the series, but seeing his visuals grace this book’s interiors in a completely straightforward (albeit strikingly hued) fashion merely throws into sharp relief how much of his impact depends on his skills as a playful designer. There’s remarkably little room for play outside the storybook/high fantasy illustrative style seen in nearly every piece here, and as such Jean’s work seems inert by virtue of sitting around so many other accomplished examples of the same straightforward drive. Not to denigrate the skills of Mark Buckingham, Mark Wheatley, and Jill Thompson, but they’re all so intend on pursuing the same burnished aesthetic that some of their pages become nearly indistinguishable. It becomes a relief when Tara McPherson shows up for some much-needed wryness and pep (her character work is excellent), or Brian Bolland turns in two pages of vivid pen & ink and sparkling pop color.

Which introduces another, more primal problem with the book: some of these stories are quite short, others are quite long, and few of them add up to much of anything on their own merits, or even the merits of the book as a whole. By way of example, one tale involves Snow White’s married life to Prince Charming. She asks him for fencing lessons as her wedding gift. Meanwhile, we learn that assorted personages from the kingdom of underground dwarfs have made their way to the surface and are engaging in acts of wanton rape and murder, unchallenged by the aboveground authorities out of concern for the kingdom’s political dependency on good relations with the dwarves. Soon, aboveground dwarves are found stabbed to death. Who done it?!

I really don’t think I need to go any further, and I’m not convinced that writer Willingham even intended any of this to be a mystery, so I’m at a loss as to why the story trudges on for 32 long pages, detailing the politics of men and dwarves and concluding by not ascribing any particular motive to the killer save for some possible incident in the past which we’re not privy to. Maybe it’s somewhere in the ongoing Fables series? Maybe it’ll be revealed later in the series? Regardless, it’s not satisfying here, and it’s not the only one.

The above mentioned Jean-illustrated tale involves the famous frog prince, kissed into humanity. He has such a funny way of becoming a frog again when he gets nervous! Then one day the hordes of the Adversary show up and murder his young children and rape his wife and daughter in front of him as he regresses to a lowly frog. The experience drives him insane. The end. Eight pages.

Sometimes, like in the McPherson story, there’s simply no ending at all; an adventure of Snow and sister Rose in which they team up with the old witch of Hansel & Gretel (who’s seemingly every old witch, in the way that recurring character Bigby Wolf is every big bad wolf), and even encounter a story-within-a-story, concludes with a one-page summary of important-sounding events that presumably happened in the ongoing series. And maybe the lives and losses of these and other characters would seem more affecting with the familiarity an ongoing series can bring, but this book only gives off the impression of being given an extensive preview of stories that the teller doesn’t want to part with prior to an additional payment by the listener.

There are some good bits: Bigby Wolf gets a nice, coherent origin story of sorts, and there’s some occasionally funny gags (Derek Kirk Kim has a solid three pages to that effect). However, this is mainly dark, downbeat material; I presume you’ve picked up on the running motif of sexual violence and exploitation (not without some precedent in the original tales themselves, mind you), and the constant theme of homelessness and ruin. This also does not mix well with the tales’ abridged-seeming nature, as some segments emerge as mere shock shows, emblematic of the grimy darkening of preexisting material that I believe I recall Vertigo trafficking in at an earlier time in superhero properties, grimness without a lot of purpose or message.

I presume they fill it out in the seven trades, eh? Available now for sale!

This is a handsomely produced book, yes, and the level of technical accomplishment is generally high. But I cannot recommend it for anyone beyond those ravenous for fantasy art or Fables devotees - and the latter group has probably already bought it. It's how these stories often end.