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June 30th 2009

Jack of Fables – Turning Pages (Vertigo) “1883” 

Review written by Stephen Davis 
 
Spinoffs are dangerous territory. The risk of creative failure is huge; their creators have to walk a thin line between keeping the existing fanbase happy by staying true to the source material (without descending to fanservice) and allowing the new text room to find its own feet and identity. See the fear in the eyes of any Family Guy fan when you bring up The Cleveland Show, or the tremor in the voice of someone who sat through an episode of Stargate: Atlantis (although kudos to them for making it through to the end credits). It's a mark of quality when a film, comic, or TV show feels like it has other stories to tell, but what matters is if those stories are worth telling. For better or worse, Jack of Fables - Turning Pages is the fifth part of the first of many a planned spinoff series from Vertigo's Fable stable, recounting issues 22-27 of the ongoing adventures and sexual successes of roguish anti-hero Jack, a.k.a. Jack Candle, a.k.a. Jack Horner, a.k.a. Jack-be-nimble, a.k.a. Jack-of-Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-fame. Murderer, robber, dandy; his personality, his creators tell us, was so big and brash he deserved a title of his own.  

For those as unfamiliar with the source material as I was: an overview. All fairy and folk tale characters are reality. Goldilocks, Tin-Woodsman, Snow White, pigs, wolves and bears of pathetic fallacy and all. They are immortal, and refer to us mortals as 'Mundys', short for 'mundanes'. They reside, concealed from the mundane world, under supervision and semi-voluntary confinement in Fabletown, New York, and a hidden community called Golden Boughs (named after Sir George Frazer's 1890 book dissecting mythology). It is in the latter locale that the second half of this book takes place. The Golden Boughs is under threat from the Bookburner and his army of Forgotten Fables, who wish to eliminate all Fables from existence. Preparing to fight the good fight are the good-guy Fables, commanded by their overseer Mr. Revise and a collection of literary devices made flesh called Literals. Caught in the middle is the eponymous Jack, trying his best to avert disaster and get the girl. Or get her naked and in bed, at the very least.  

Our narrator for this portion of the book is a personable Literal named Wall, who at the end of the story admits to feeling 'a bit broken recently', a reference to a theatrical term of directly addressing the audience, 'breaking the 4th wall'. It's this sort of knowing and playful moments that set Jack of Fables aside from most other comic books. Writers Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges have trust in their reader’s intelligence, and delight in every post-modern twist and reinterpretation they use of their cavalcade of characters. And so the Mad Hatter is violently mad. The big bad wolf is very big, and very bad.

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz puts on a one-woman show based on the life of Judy Garland. When the protagonists are effortlessly rescued from the grip of certain doom by a Literal named Dex, whose name is short for deus ex machina, it should feel like a cop-out. But in Willingham and Sturges hands it is surprising, funny, and not at all disappointing. We know these are fictional characters, (hell, even the fictional characters know that they are fictional characters) and so they must follow the rules of the story. The bad guys lose. The hero gets the girl. And yet there is enough emotion and human drama to keep the characters interesting, from the sibling rivalry of the Page sisters to the Han-Solo rebelliousness of the titular Jack.  

The pencilwork and page layout by Russ Brown and Tony Akins is unobtrusive and to the point, reminicent of Pia Guerra's work on Y: The Last Man, and vibrantly coloured by Jose Marzan Jr, Andrew Pepoy and Steve Lialoha. The character designs, including a terrifying realisation of a reconstructed and reanimated Humpty-Dumpty, never feel out of place or ridiculous when combined alongside normal people, places or emotions, but can still have great effect when needed, such as the Forgotten Fables' march on the Golden Boughs, a long array of increasingly imaginative and bizarre creatures stretching across a two-page splash that provides one of the books' most memorable visual moments. But the emotional heart of the book lies elsewhere.  
 
The first story in Turning Pages is a three-issue arc called 1883; a wild west romp, with Jack escaped from Fabletown and the leader of a cut-throat band of gunslingers; each page is filled with hangings, barroom brawls and all the trimmings of cowboy mythology. At every scene change, the narration is scattered with factoids of the accomplishments of some more real characters and events from the year 1883. Tchaikovsky is shown composing operas, Krakatoa erupts, Alfred Packer is convicted of cannibalism. At the climax of the story, Jack is brought to heel by Fable sheriff Bigby Wolf after many a murderous rampage. Battered, bruised and broken on the desert ground, Jack looks up pleads with Bigby, "I didn't do nothing... they're just worthless Mundys! They don't count! They don't live long enough to count for nothing!" But we have been shown otherwise; we have seen the accomplishments, crimes, loves, hates, rises and falls of the 'Mundy' world. We have seen that the Mundys do count, even if Jack hasn't. In her introduction to a collection of HG Wells stories, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin writes: “To my mind, fable differs from fantasy chiefly from having a didactic aim. Aunt Fantasy tells her tales for their own sake; Uncle Aesop wants us to get the point… Fable is often funny or satirical, and uses a pretty broad brush”. One gets the idea that Willingham and Sturges have Uncle Aesop as their proofreader. Their Jack of Fables is very funny, and very satirical. But 1883 shows that it also does have a point, that stories are all around us, and every person through history has one to tell, but it must be chosen which are worth the telling. Jack Horner, brigand, murderer, seducer of women, and star of many stories before this one, has proven that he deserves many more.


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